Three years later, I have come to realize that healthy arts organizations have equally robust campaigns focused on new acquisition and retention, and increasingly we are focusing on improving the overall lifetime value of our customers.
For those with retention problems, I would still advise spending a majority of your resources reducing attrition before launching costly acquisition campaigns. There is nothing worse than spending a significant amount of resources enticing new patrons in the front door while your current customer base runs out the back door. And from a financial perspective, that is one of the easiest ways to sink the ship.
That said, if attrition and renewal rates are within the range of industry standards, more than likely it is time to concentrate on acquisition. Here are a couple of thoughts…
Programming. If you are looking to acquire new audiences, either you can dig a little deeper in your current well, or you can dig a new well altogether. If untapped audiences remain within your core programming, then continuing to dig deeper in your current well probably makes the most sense. If however, you find that your current programming has tapped out its audience base, digging a new well with expanded programming might be the key to acquiring new audiences. Digging a new well requires developing mission driven programming focused on an unmet need within your community. New programming initiatives are usually costly, and often times are prematurely abandoned when they don’t hit a desired net revenue goal in a short period of time. Arts organizations need to view new programming initiatives as an investment in future audiences which will pay out over years instead of months. While digging new wells, it is important to maintain and cultivate your current well. Don’t abandon the old for the new–let the returns from the old provide the investment capital for the new. Often times marketers are afraid of new programming because they don’t want to risk offending current subscription audiences, but if you maintain a base level of traditional programming while offering an opportunity or two to test drive new programming, you will mitigate your risk of subscriber attrition. And for those who have highly subscribed houses, new programming might be the only opportunity that you have to get new audiences into your theaters which would otherwise be mostly sold out on subscription. During my final week at Arena Stage, I had to chuckle when a reporter asked me if we increased our number of musicals in the upcoming season because they were “cash cows.” If only he knew that most musicals we produced actually lost money. Aside from artistic reasons, from a marketing perspective, we increased the number of musicals to attract more first time audiences, which we will then try to convert into lifetime patrons.
Direct Marketing. During the last year, I have heard of several companies eliminating acquisition efforts entirely due to budget cuts, thinking that investing exclusively in retention campaigns would result in higher returns over time because the ROI was better than comparable acquisition campaigns. Unless you are in desperate shape, please do not kill your acquisition efforts entirely. And here’s why–if you currently have a healthy 80% renewal rate for your members/subscribers, it means every year you will lose 20% of your base. Statistics show that even if you have a flawless renewal campaign, you will still lose 10% due to changes in lifestyle or death. To replace those lost, you must invest in acquisition or budget for a reduced base each year that you don’t. If you cut acquisition entirely, with an 80% renewal rate, you will lose half of your entire base in three years. And getting them back is going to be incredibly expensive! When looking at acquisition costs, often times it will take two to three years for a new member/subscriber to produce a net positive result, but over a lifetime, these new acquisitions will be responsible for years of renewal revenue.
Robbing Peter to Pay Paul. When the economy took a nosedive in 2008, marketers responded by looking for places to cut by thoroughly monitoring the cost of sale for individual campaigns. Normally, I would encourage such behavior. But I believe it has resulted in a zero sum game of gains and losses among the various theaters in the Washington, DC area. Studies show that even as venues have dramatically increased their capacities, theater audiences in our nation’s capital have not grown. And as we all looked for opportunities to reduce our marketing expenses, we refocused our acquisition campaigns to aggressively target the list segments that performed the best, which frequently were qualified leads of theatergoers from other companies. The most cost effective means of acquiring “new” audiences was soliciting patrons from other theaters. Acquiring “new” audiences didn’t actually mean developing new theatergoers as much as it meant marketing to previous theatergoers who had never visited your theater before. This wasn’t dirty pool. It is standard operating procedure in any highly competitive marketplace. But as I left Arena Stage, being incredibly proud that we had almost doubled our subscriber base in three years, I found myself being more interested in the number of none theatergoers we were able to convert into theater patrons. And the truth is I don’t know because we never tracked it. As a community, the greatest challenge we have is developing truly “new” audiences in Washington, DC. If we are using each other as a primary source for our “new” audiences, then we aren’t creating a healthier community as our individual successes come at the expense of others. Therefore I encourage marketers to look at acquisition in terms of developing completely new audiences for the community as well as acquiring new audiences for your organization. The latter will improve your individual health, while the former the health of the artistic ecosystem.