That Sounds Nice: Retaining Your Audience Members by Listening to Their Needs

Today’s guest blog post is written by Zack Einstein, Implementation Specialist, PatronManager. 

If you are like many arts organizations, you struggle with dwindling audiences. It makes sense, in a way: I can sit at home and binge-watch all ten seasons of Friends on Netflix while wearing sweatpants and eating ice cream. You want me to get dressed up and leave the house? Make me!

The key to motivating your audience to become repeat visitors lies in your ability to listen to their needs and act accordingly.

Prior to joining the PatronManager team, I was the Box Office Manager and Volunteer Coordinator at Civic Theatre of Allentown. One of my tasks in recent years was to plan a bus trip to see a Broadway show in New York City. I narrowed the choices down to Wicked, Anastasia, and School of Rock. I’d already seen Wicked, and it’s been open for so long, that I was leaning towards Anastasia. I asked the rest of the staff what show we should choose, and then it hit me: why don’t I ask the people who will be buying the tickets?

I ran a report to find people who had gone on past bus trips, parents of our theatre school students, and anyone who had ever attended a children’s show. I sent them a one-question survey asking them to rate the likelihood they would purchase a ticket to each of the shows. And to my surprise, the results of the survey were overwhelmingly in favor of seeing Wicked, with Anastasia pulling in enough votes to not be ignored. So I ended up giving the option of either show. In the end, we had one bus go to Anastasia, and three buses go to Wicked. It was by far the most successful bus trip our theatre had organized; for an event that was expected to break even, we ended up with a profit of almost $2,000.

In this case, a short survey was the perfect way for me to uncover the needs of my potential audience. But you can even take this a step further with focus groups. Find audience members who have engaged with your organization in a meaningful way, and then find audience members who have only engaged once (PatronManager users: look at the bottom half of the Tickets section in the CRM Snapshots tab). Invite a few people from each of these groups and have real discussions with them. This often-ignored opportunity is an interactive way to find out what people really want. Suddenly, the comment made on Facebook saying “I love your concerts!” can turn into a back-and-forth about what specifically they love about your concerts (and what they don’t), allowing you insight into what is and isn’t working for your organization.

Another great (and simple) way to gather your patrons’ honest feedback quickly is with physical comment cards, made of paper. I know in our ever-technologically-evolving world, it can sound archaic, but hear me out. Civic Theatre is currently in the midst of a $5.5 million Capital Campaign to renovate its main venue, the Historic 19th Street Theatre. Perhaps the most customer-facing portion of this renovation is new seating. Smartly, they have placed a prototype of the seat in their lobby with comment cards, so patrons can literally try it out and give immediate feedback. This tactic of simply asking for their patron’s opinions has proven wildly successful in not only increasing the buzz surrounding the renovation, but also in increasing financial support.

Sometimes, however, you don’t need to use these tools to hear what your patrons want. Their behavior can say it all. Civic’s 90-year history has seen many people join its family both on stage and off as a theatre with roots in its community. After closing night of a show, people who had volunteered their time for months working on it still had a sense of longing to continually be engaged. So last month, Civic hosted an exclusive reception where they not only announced next season’s shows, but also revealed a new membership level: “The Civic Theatre Company,” open to anyone who has ever been a part of any production in any capacity. This inexpensive membership grants, among other benefits, discounts on tickets and invitations to special events and get-togethers, possibly including the first table read, the sitzprobe (first rehearsal where the orchestra and singers rehearse together), or the final dress rehearsal of future shows.

After the exciting season was announced, credit cards started coming out. The majority of those in attendance joined that night, including me and my wife (we met at Civic). And it’s not hard to see why. Everyone likes discounts; everyone likes being part of an exclusive group; and everyone wants to see a theatre with which they have an intimate relationship succeed. And though this group only accounts for about 6% of the entire membership, these members are more likely to stay involved year after year.

Patrons are at the center of everything you do at your arts organization. Engaging them by listening not only to their words but also their actions in these ways can give them a sense of belonging and ownership. You can be sure that this will keep them off their couch watching Netflix, and coming back to you time and time again.

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