TRG blog: Romancing the Audience
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TRG Blog: Analysis from TRG Arts

Romancing the Audience: The Evolution of a Patron

Amelia Northrup-Simpson | February 13, 2015 5:19 AM

 “Art cannot meaningfully exist without an audience. Loyal audiences build sustainable organizations.” That was one of the main takeaways in a blog post Jill wrote last month about the somewhat puzzling fact that subscriptions still exist in the arts. Jill contended that subscriptions still sustain the arts because they encourage patrons to attend and invest more, deepening audience loyalty.

Loyalty and its role in strengthening arts organizations is an idea we talk about often at TRG. Why? Sustainable organizations require sustained engagement and investment from patrons. That engagement and investment begins with the audiences who already—right now—support your art. Unless your organization is just launching, you already have a variety of patrons who lie somewhere on the spectrum of audience development, shown here:

Evolution of patron loyalty

At one end of that spectrum are single ticket buyers, and at the other end are advocates and investors, who are your major donors, board members, and other high-value supporters. In between is a range of patrons who are invested in your organization at a variety of levels.

Any of these patrons have the potential to move up or down in their investment in your organization, stay the same, or lapse altogether.  Once they lapse, it’s much harder to get them back. Similarly, it’s much harder to get a brand new patron to invest for the first time than it is to retain a patron at their current level—or even move them up, in some cases. If you want to move a patron from single ticket buyer to advocate/investor, you need to be ready to invest in the relationship with that patron.

At TRG, we often compare that process to courtship, or romantic love. Why? Because it IS a passion-based connection.  It’s about a patron’s love for the art, and for the organization that presents the art or art form they love. Like any good relationship, its strength depends on loyalty. A relationship, whether romantic or with an arts organization, is hard work and requires both parties to continually choose to commit to it.  Let’s look at each step of the evolution of a patron relationship in-depth:

The First Encounter

Almost every patron in your database begins as a new single ticket buyer or visitor having his or her “first date” with your arts organization. What happens from there can be either a one-night stand or the beginning of a long-term relationship. Of course, you’ll want to be sure that they enjoy their first date with you, but more important is to be sure they know you’re interested. In the dating world, you might signal this by getting their digits and asking to see them again. There’s no difference in the arts marketing world; be sure you collect their contact information (ideas here) and invite them back.

The Magic Same-Season Ticket

Buying a single ticket during the next season or two is the next step in the evolution of a patron, but when a patron takes your arts organization up on more than one date in the same season, things start to get serious. That patron is now a “multi ticket buyer.” Using our courtship analogy, these patrons are ready to introduce you to their parents.

Popping the Question: Subscription

If things go well with the family, it’s time to go shopping for a ring. When your patron romance advances from multi ticket buyer to subscriber or member, it’s akin to getting engaged. The patron is committed, and is looking ahead, perhaps starry-eyed, to a future that has your arts organization in it. Your work isn’t finished yet, though: your arts organization still needs to romance your subscriber or member until the wedding bells have chimed. Renewal rates for first-time subscribers are typically much lower than an organization’s overall renewal rate. Once a subscriber or member has renewed at least twice, you can consider yourself hitched!

Married Life

If an organization continues to cultivate and develop that subscriber or member relationship and the patron decides to donate — you’ve got each other for life. Subscriber-donors are extremely valuable to arts organizations. They renew at higher rates and have higher lifetime values than patrons who just subscribe. And, they cost much less for organizations to retain. Of course, donors have higher expectations of you than single ticket buyers do and expect special access and benefits. This isn’t just a first date; it’s a partnership that could be sustained indefinitely. Donor relationships require two-way communication and respect to succeed, just like marriages do.

Happily Ever After

A tried and true donor relationship matures over time. In that time, your donor may become an advocate or investor in your arts organization. I think of arts organizations and their advocates and investors as couples that are celebrating their golden anniversaries. Not many couples make it this far, but when they do, their relationships are pretty incredible.

Are there patrons that go straight from single ticket buyer to donor? Sure! Couples elope to Vegas all the time. Realize that if you come on too strong, or with too many different offers, your patrons may disengage. Instead, focus on the one next step that’s right for each patron at this time.

This analogy may seem corny, but the message that I hope you’ll take away from it is this: Arts organizations must treat their audience development programs with the same kind of care and increased intimacy that couples treat their courtships with.

The evolution of a patron is a series of incremental “next steps” that won’t happen overnight. Cumulatively, those transactions represent longer, greater, patron relationships and investments.

If your marketing and development teams hope to engage patrons in an ongoing upgrade program, are you providing the romance they need to remain passionate about your arts organization? 


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Case Study: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma

Annual operating budget up 32% in 5 seasons

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma 
 Photo: Joseph Mills

After a poor year for earned revenue in 2012, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma (LTO) had rebounded and was experiencing a growth spurt. In 2013, Director of Marketing Danyel Siler had turned her attention to single tickets.

Her hard work had paid off, but season tickets were still a challenge. “Season tickets were steadily declining,” she said. “The season ticket campaign had been done the same way for years, maybe even decades. And we blamed the fall on the trend that subs were declining everywhere. Our executive director, artistic director, and I all knew something needed to change, but we didn’t know what.”

Read More>>


Jill Robinson
Adam Scurto
Amelia Northrup-
J.L.Nave Vincent VanVleet Keri Mesropov

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