The next arts industry buzzword should be “integrated patron loyalty”
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TRG Blog: Analysis from TRG Arts

The next arts industry buzzword should be “integrated patron loyalty”

Amelia Northrup-Simpson | March 31, 2016 10:05 AM
 Trisha Kirk
Director of Marketing,
Guthrie Theater
Danielle St.Germain-Gordon
Director of Development,
Guthrie Theater

Creative placemaking. Community engagement. Mobile beaconing. Customer relationship management.

If there’s one thing the arts industry has no shortage of, it’s buzzwords. What makes buzzwords so enticing? Behind each is the promise of the next best practices for the arts, the next strategy or tactic that could help organizations succeed sustainably.

We submit, for your consideration, this one: “integrated loyalty development.”

Like most buzzwords, the words somewhat obscure the meaning. Put simply, it’s aligning all departments in an organization around the cultivation of loyal patron relationships. It describes the magic that happens when organizations move beyond transactions and “just trying to make goal” for event after event. Instead, integration means investing in and being accountable to fostering their patrons’ passion for the arts, in all areas of their business.

It goes beyond the concept of teamwork. It’s an organization-wide change in strategy. And, we’d argue, it’s one of the hardest and most important directional shifts an arts organization can make in 2016.

Many organizations are moving in this direction. One of those is the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With a charge from their board, Guthrie Theater sought out TRG to help them understand best practices in building – and making more sustainable – their audiences and revenues. During the course of the study, their beloved artistic director of 20 years announced his retirement, and other key staff positions began turning over in his wake. Yet the staff, in partnership with the departing Joe Dowling, began to develop a more collaborative internal culture.

TRG ran a Patron Potential Assessment analysis, which revealed a culture focused on prospecting and engaging new audiences. That’s not a bad thing; however Director of Marketing and Audience Development Trisha Kirk saw opportunity in shifting their practices. She and the relatively new Director of Development Danielle St.Germain-Gordon formed a partnership that has become the fulcrum for integrated loyalty development at the Guthrie.

I met up with Trisha and Danielle from the Guthrie Theater to discuss the changes that they’ve made as a marketing-development team over the past two and a half years.

Amelia: When we did the Patron Potential Assessment, the Guthrie was heavily invested in cultivating new audiences. So, the data was telling you that the Guthrie needed to shift focus from exclusively prospecting for new audiences to retention of the audiences you had attracted. At the same time, Danielle had just started as the new director of development. How did you work together to bring your teams into alignment?
Back in the day when we did not have a lot of money, we did retention extraordinarily well, but as we moved into our new building, added capacity and broadened our artistic ambitions, our focus strayed. When TRG told us that we should spend more time and focus and energy on retention, it felt great. It was an area I felt really comfortable with and I think it served our patrons well. We don’t invite them in and forget them, but stay in contact and be patient with them. At the same time, we didn’t give up on prospecting, so we get to have the best of both worlds and just find a better balance.
Danielle’s approach was, from the beginning, more geared towards the approach to deepening patron relationships that I was already taking and that the theatre needed. We’re wired in the same way and that helped the change go more quickly and smoothly.

Our interactions were about coming together to figure out how best to implement, rather than fighting about approach.

Coming from Arena Stage under Chad Bauman’s leadership, I had a good grounding in loyalty principles and I was hard-wired to make change in that area. When I arrived at the Guthrie, I found that the approach in the development department had been more transactional and less data-focused.
For example, before I arrived I’d asked them to wealth screen the database. I was cautioned that it was probably not necessary as they already knew all the wealthiest patrons. So, we got the results back and nobody knew the top 100 names on the list. Immediately, my strategy was to focus on the people already active in the database and ask them to increase their giving or make a first-time gift.  Focusing on the already active helped us make some really easy, quick decisions.

I hired one of the most important positions on our team, the donor stewardship associate, within my first year. That was one of the most important changes to my team. That person’s job was only to make people who like us like us more. They are also responsible for identifying people who are demonstrating loyal behaviors on the lower level of giving who could give at a major donor level.

Amelia: What has been the result of the development effort so far?
We’ve had huge success. Today, we have 36% more Guthrie Circle members ($2,500+ donors) than when I started. It’s magic—and I’d like to think that it’s fundraising prowess, but the fact is, it’s math. We have 375,000 audience members. We have legendary wealth in this community. It’s simply deploying your resources to track it down and cultivate it.
I told my staff on my first opening night: “My vision is for our check-in to be like the Four Seasons. When someone walks through the front door, we not only know who they are, we know if they prefer red wine or white wine. We need to be leaders in hospitality for our events.” And we’ve achieved that.

Amelia: Sometimes the relationship between marketing and development is—how should I put it—prickly. How have you been able to navigate what’s sometimes an uneasy relationship?
Trish’s memory and historical reference here at the Guthrie spans decades. I really respect that. Coming in as an out-of-towner and an east-coaster, I was told by several people that I might have to dial it back for this community. But Trisha always had my back.  
She shares the opinion of “whatever’s best for the organization is what we need to do,” rather than “whatever’s best for my budget line is what we need do.”
Trisha: We can just look at each other and say “what’s really best for the organization?” Whatever we agree on, we’ll both follow it. An enormously large percentage of the time, we agree on what’s best for the organization and our patrons. It’s as amicable as I can imagine any marketing and development department being. I’ve been in the industry a long time and I hear about marketing and development departments that just fight and fight over campaign leads. That just doesn’t happen.
We have those conversations about who gets to contact which patrons, and when, but with over 250,000 active accounts, it’ll be years before we come to blows. (both laugh)
I don’t even think it will be years. It’s a question of getting the right division where marketing can give certain patrons what they need and development can give certain patrons what they need.

Amelia: You’ve said to TRG before that changing the internal culture to one of respecting loyalty was fairly easy and quick for you. You’ve described how polite you both are around campaign timing, almost to the point of hilarity—“You go. No, you go.” Tell me more about that.
It speaks to a cultural shift of all of us appreciating the needs of the other person and department. If the timing isn’t critical, we can be flexible. It can’t be a turf war but we also can’t take campaigns off track.
Danielle: Part of it is who you work with. Shannon and Katie in our fundraising department are both tough as nails but they’re nice. The people that you hire matter. It’s so important that I have people who I’m fully confident can represent the organization externally, but that would do me no good if they’re not respectful internally.
Let me be clear—there are times when we will be demanding. Of course there are things that development does that absolutely drive marketing crazy. And there are things that marketing does that I guarantee drive development crazy. But you also learn to take things with a grain of salt.  At the end of the day, you’re getting the job done. And it’s meant to be fulfilling—you’re not meant to cry at work. We have a belief in what we do here and that culture permeates.

Amelia: While you’ve been focused on developing loyalty together, Guthrie has had its artistic director and senior management team structure transition. Talk about your approach to loyalty during the transition and the impact of the changes so far.
Danielle: In development, the vast majority of long-term donors hold Joe Dowling in exceptionally high regard. On the senior management team, we’ve lost both artistic and admin staff. The good news is that we love Joe, but there’s lot of opportunity that comes with change, both internally and externally. We’re the chatter at every cocktail party in town. At the same time, we’re also able to test programs for which we would have been required to get permission before--we’re able to be creative.
Trisha: I was happy to be able to report to our new artistic director Joe Haj at our last all staff meeting that so for this season we’ve sold more tickets, at a higher capacity and for greater revenue, than we had during the same timeframe in any of the past six years. Now, already, there have been big and exciting changes in the way that Joe Haj wants to advance plan seasons and make more speedy the budgeting process. We’re announcing our season this year 6-8 weeks before we did last year and at least 4 weeks earlier than we have any time in the last 12 years. The impact is huge. For example, take subscribing donors—our campaign historically was “one and done” because the renewal window was so small. Now we have a longer window, which I believe will help both renewal and the creation of Super Subscribers.
We’re still early into the transition with Joseph Haj, but he has a commitment to developing audiences differently. There’s a healthy tension and balance between prospecting new and different audiences while still developing deeper commitment with existing audiences.

The story of integrating loyalty development efforts at the Guthrie is ongoing, but early indicators are positive. Already, Guthrie has seen growth of several key loyalty indicators, including:

  • Nearly $600,000 of incremental revenue from retention and reactivation campaigns
  • 16% revenue growth for A Christmas Carol, with the highest paid capacity in five years
  • A whopping 148% growth in the number of subscribers who donate

Trisha and Danielle are looking forward to continuing this good work as Joseph Haj settles in and new Managing Director Jennifer Bielstein begins her tenure.

Discover your audience.


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