The Case of the “Phantom Subscriber”

This post is by Allison Klein, Client Services Manager here at Patron Technology.

If you asked a handful of New York City’s non-profit theatre companies, “Is Allison Klein an active theatre patron?” their answer would probably be “not really.”

They might say, “Sure, she’s on our e-mail list, and we send her postcards and brochures because she gave us her address, but she doesn’t always open the e-mails, rarely clicks our links, and she never seems to buy single tickets, either. I guess she’s just not that into us!”

But they would be mistaken. I’ve actually been a subscriber of at least one or two theatre companies for the past five seasons. I attend every show — but they don’t know that!

They’ve developed this inaccurate picture of me because I’ve always subscribed with a couple of friends, and someone else has always made the actual purchase… leaving me as a phantom subscriber.  

I became a museum member for the first time this year, and I think performing arts organizations can learn something from the museum I joined in this regard. Just like with my theater subscriptions, I signed up as part of a group — my friend purchased a dual membership on behalf of both of us. But the museum did something very simple that many theatres do not: they asked my friend to also provide my contact information!

So, back to the performing arts world. If someone is buying more than one subscription package (and we know that most people buy two), why not ask who else is coming?  Even if your ticketing system only lets you associate one name with the order, simply send a follow-up e-mail to the purchaser that includes a brief survey to find out more information. Not only can you ask for the name and e-mail address of the otherwise phantom patrons, you can also find out a lot in a few short questions: the age group, the relationship of the subscribers to each other, and maybe even why they subscribed in the first place!

Why is it so valuable to have this information? Well, having phantom subscribers can easily backfire.  Here’s an example: the week of Thanksgiving I received two e-mails, one from the theatre I subscribe to and one from the museum.

The theatre’s e-mail had a clear call to action: become a subscriber today at a pro-rated, mid-season price, and we’ll also give you a free ticket to the current production. Awesome! However, there’s a problem. I’m already a subscriber, and I’m already going to the current production in a couple of weeks. And I paid more for the tickets during renewal time than the price of this current offer.

The e-mail from the museum was quite different. It took the form of a signed letter from the Director of Membership, who thanked me for being a member, informed me that the museum is closed on Thanksgiving, and also wished me a happy holiday season. It was clear to me that the people of that organization know who I am and that they appreciate my involvement.

The stark contrast in the e-mails was not a one-time thing. The e-mails and print communications I receive from the theatres I’ve subscribed to always seem to be directed at potential ticket buyers who are not yet committed to that theater. Theatres typically offer discounts that I can’t take advantage of anymore.

The obvious lack of knowledge about who I am turns me off. I usually don’t open these e-mails at all, potentially missing out on some other interesting information that they might contain. I think I deserve better, and I bet my fellow, loyal (albeit phantom) patrons would feel the same way! That simple note from the museum about its holiday hours showed me that its organization knows me and cares about making each visit and potential visit a good one, which is the kind of communication I should be getting from the theatre as well.

You can’t target people and communicate with them on a personal level if you don’t know who they are. If you have phantom subscribers, chances are they’ve had an experience like mine, and I would bet that these patrons would happily give you their contact information. I know I would.

All you need to do is ask!

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