What I’ve learned: Patron loyalty sustains arts organizations
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TRG Blog: Analysis from TRG Arts

What I’ve learned: Patron loyalty sustains arts organizations

Jill Robinson | August 20, 2015 3:11 PM

This article was originally published in UK Theatre Magazine.

 Jill Robinson, 
President & CEO, TRG Arts

The world is changing. Whether your theatre operates in the U.K., U.S., Australia, or on the moon, the last decade has demanded that we transform the way we do business.

Public policy, economic and demographic changes are causing the entire sector to recognize the importance of our relationships with patrons and how we manage them.

Today, your patrons can be doing more. They can be cultivated to support your organization in ways that they currently aren’t. As you contemplate your organization’s future sustainability and how patrons can be a part of it, consider making their loyalty a priority.

1. Why loyalty? Sustainable revenue.

Patrons are a sustainable source of income for theatres. And in the face of possible public policy changes in the arts, sustainable income must be a priority. We often don’t think about patrons in this way—we market always-changing events with annual marketing budgets, and yearly ticket income fluctuates. But ticket sales don’t measure loyalty; they measure revenue.

Patrons can be cultivated to grow their investment and activity, which delivers “stickier,” more sustainable revenue that grows more consistently, year-over-year. That sticky revenue can come in the form of multi-ticket buying, subscription, membership, philanthropy and more. Of course, we’ll always want and need new ticket buyers. However, TRG patron analysis tells the story over and over: loyal, engaged patrons make sustaining revenue possible.

2. Invest in loyalty

Making investments in loyalty goes beyond just talking about the importance of audiences. Leaders must invest in and manage expenses and staff to that end, thinking not just about how new audiences are enticed to attend, but also how on-going, existing relationships are cultivated.

As a rule, theatres over-prospect for new audiences, but under-retain them once they’ve attended. An alarming number of new arts and cultural patrons attend once and never come again. We see the constant quest for new audiences depleting the field’s resources for retention. Imagine your patron base as a leaky bucket that you are constantly filling and re-filling. If your organization invests in loyalty, you can begin repairing the leaks instead of constantly re-filling the bucket.

3. Mind the department gap

When asked, most organizations say that they work together to cultivate patrons. We find not many do. In fact, in most theatres there are incentives for departments to actually avoid working together.

Take, for instance, a standard budget. Budgets are organized by departments: philanthropic income is reported separately from ticket income. Special events and classes may be in yet another section of the budget, managed by another group of people. This complicates the relationship between these departments and, as a result, the transition from ticket buyer to donor and more.

We don’t think it means we need to meddle with titles and org charts and who reports to whom. Titles don’t matter. How you organizationally work together is what matters. Organizations that want to grow earned and contributed revenue must work in a different, collaborative way in order to develop loyalty.

Create work structures and incentives for departments to work together to develop patron loyalty. Some of the work will be in marketing, some in philanthropy, and some is cooperative. Prioritize metrics and goals that are loyalty oriented, like churn rate, same-season booking, and percentage of subscriber-donors. Mind the gap, and measure the change.

Top Ten Tips for growing audience loyalty

1. Look to the data for clues about whom to cultivate and related behavior patterns.

2. Collect contact information and opt-ins for patrons so that you can cultivate them.

3. Loyalty takes time. Loyal patrons are made, not born, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

4. There’s a right next step for every patron. Group patrons by their next step and cultivate them together.

5. Get a second date with first-time patrons by asking them to come back.

6. Don’t propose on the first date. Wait to ask a patron to subscribe or donate until they’ve attended multiple times.

7. Loyalty and spending correlate. The data tells the story over and over: the more you spend, the stickier you are. 

8. Subscription + philanthropy: The most loyal theatre patrons are ticket buyers AND donors.  It’s not enough to spend big—our most loyal patrons are invested in every way. 

9. Reward your loyalists. Ensure that clear incentives and benefits exist to reward your current loyalists and that they incentivize others to do the same. 

10. Mind the gap. Marketing AND development should share responsibility for cultivating subscribers and donors and more.


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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.”

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