TRG blog: The subscription solution: tweak, jump start, or burn to the ground?
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TRG Blog: Analysis from TRG Arts

The subscription solution: tweak, jump start, or burn to the ground?

Adam Scurto | December 5, 2016 5:59 AM
Photo by Corey Balazowich (CC BY-ND 2.0)

In 2015, the consulting firm Oliver Wyman released a research study in partnership with the League of American Orchestras that grabbed my attention and hasn’t let go. The central question of their work: is the existing subscription model for symphony orchestras still viable? In the age of Netflix, Amazon, and Uber, does it need a small tweak, a substantial jump start, or a complete-and-total-tear-down-and-rebuild to remain a worthwhile offering?

The study illuminated a few key findings for the orchestra sector:

  • Subscription audiences are declining, not due to dissatisfaction with their experience, or to competitive forces in entertainment. Instead, they’re losing interest in programming (both how seasons are structured, and with classical music overall), and most of all patrons are dissatisfied with subscription products as they currently exist.
  • As such, the study recommends orchestras incorporate the following approaches into their strategy:
  • “De-couple curation from package size.” According to market simulations conducted by Oliver Wyman, there is demand both for smaller curated subscriptions, and larger customized packages (referred to as “flex” packages).
  • “Offer new types of membership.” The study discusses adding membership programs that both “create a sense of belonging”, and “confer a sense of exclusivity”.
  • “Attract more millennials.” As a self-absorbed millennial myself, this interested me perhaps most of all Oliver Wyman’s recommendations.

On their face, all three of these points make sense. To provide more context on the implications and opportunities around each of the recommendations, I tapped into TRG’s national data set to learn more about orchestra customer trends for more than 40 North American symphonies over the last four complete seasons.

Let subscribers “flex” their muscles

In TRG’s national data set, there are two ways to classify subscribers: fixed, where the artistic and administrative staff select what’s included in the package (regardless of whether it’s full season or not) and flex, where patrons are able to build their own package based on their artistic preference.* Within our flex category, many orchestras have both “Choose-Your-Own” (CYO) and “Voucher” subscriptions. Because this differs so much by organization, we chose to perform an analysis that reflects the dynamics between only fixed and flex. (Certainly, there are foundational loyalty differences to explore between CYO vouchers at the organizational level.) Expanding both fixed and flex subscription offerings allows patrons to choose both small and large packages under each one of those buckets. While TRG supports this approach, it needs to be done carefully, as our national data indicates that orchestra flex package buyers are much more fickle than their fixed package counterparts. When compared to curated subscribers, flex buyers nationwide have a 9% higher attrition rate on average over the past four seasons.

The data says that smaller package buyers tend to be less loyal, regardless of curation vs. flexibility. 


This is likely at least partially due to a long-standing conflation between package size and flexibility – in today’s orchestra world, flex packages tend to be smaller, and fixed packages tend to include more concerts. The data says that smaller package buyers tend to be less loyal, regardless of curation vs. flexibility. But: it would be irresponsible to assume causation here. Expanding flex packages to make them larger while curating smaller packages to create a larger suite of offerings could be a key component to reversing the downward trends in subscription audiences. The orchestra field will need to focus on a few key factors in order to make this strategy work:

  • Manage No-Shows: TRG’s client data shows that flex buyers are much more likely not to show up to a ticketed event. There’s almost always a direct relationship between a subscriber no-show and a non-renewal. Plan to proactively manage exchanges and ensure flex buyers are actually attending. Surprise and delight no-show flex subscribers with a personalized offer to attend a later performance (think “rain-check”).

  • Renew and upgrade aggressively: As mentioned before, flex buyers have a higher propensity to lapse out of a database. This can be mitigated by keeping a laser focus on best practice, multi-touch, multi-channel renewal campaigns. Many organizations take a more lackadaisical approach to renewing flex buyers, when compared to fixed packages. If we are to increase our reliance on flex packages for both immediate attendance and revenue, and for the long-term sustainability of the field, renewal rates for flex buyers must be managed.

Consider yourself part of the family

Membership can create a sense of belonging between patrons and orchestras, but can also cannibalize other loyalty options (namely, subscription and annual fund) with the flexibility and openness they provide. These programs may be the way forward, but a focus on the data and a strategic loyalty mindset must be our guide.

One positive story the classical music field has to tell is a multi-tiered membership approach developed by The Cleveland Orchestra. Instead of building a one-size fits all membership program, the Cleveland Orchestra team identified distinct audience segments that fell through the cracks of their existing loyalty programs. Then, they went about crafting a targeted membership initiative for each of those groups: college students, young professionals, and “gap audiences” that hadn’t responded to traditional subscription offerings. Despite the challenges of implementing a brand new initiative, sales were strong for all three membership programs. Most importantly, each offering boosted both retention and annual event attendance within the segment it was designed to attract. All the while, Cleveland Orchestra has grown their traditional subscriptions over the past two seasons.

It’s critical to remember that loyalty is the end game and identifying the key success factors for any new program should come first and foremost, namely: revenue, retention, and increased engagement. 

As orchestras think about adding membership to their arsenal of loyalty offerings, it’s important to consider the flexibility and innovation. But, it’s critical to remember that loyalty is the end game and identifying the key success factors for any new program should come first and foremost. Namely: revenue, retention, and increased engagement are the most prominent, but each organization will find specific goals in addition to these.

If you build it, they will come. But will they stay?

The Oliver Wyman study is right that orchestras (and all arts organizations) need to build both loyalty programs and campaigns that will attract younger audiences. Millennials represent opportunity. Gen Y is now the largest age cohort in the country, the best educated generation in history, and their tendency to delay home ownership and having kids means that, in the short term, they have more disposable income and are less price sensitive than those that came before them. All of these are positive signs for orchestras looking to court them. But TRG’s national data indicates that the field should move forward cautiously.

Our data set points most immediately to the decline in millennial orchestral audiences, both in overall numbers and in proportion:

A stable 3-4% proportion of fixed package orchestra subscribers nationwide are Gen Y. But in recent seasons, the millennial proportion of single ticket and flex buyers has dwindled. In TRG’s experience, this means there will be an “echo” effect as fewer millennial single ticket buyers will be in the pool of future subscribers. Organizations will need to focus first on attracting millennials as single ticket buyers, creating a multi-year, multi-buying history, and then begin inviting them to deepen their loyalty via new programs.

One factor that may have an effect on the declining proportion of millennials engaging with symphonies may be this: across all engagement types, millennials are much less “sticky.” 

Across the board, millennials have a higher attrition rate (in some cases almost double) compared to overall audiences. So symphonies need to be sure to devote resources not just to attraction of these new and vital audiences, but campaign infrastructure that encourages retention as well.

Despite this, there are bright spots for the field to follow: Accenture, a consulting firm, has found that “millennials can be exceptionally loyal customers—provided they feel they’ve been treated right. Many seek personalized, targeted promotions and discounts as the price for their loyalty.” TRG finds that providing a premium customer experience is typically a strong point for orchestras nationwide. All that’s left to do is to actively attract and hold on to Gen Y audiences with strategic, targeted campaigns. Accenture also notes that millennials are looking for “brands to court them actively,” and that those relationships developed via direct channels (mail, email, and phone) will be the most successful.

Across the board, millennials have a higher attrition rate (in some cases almost double) compared to overall audiences.

Our approach has always been to increment and measure new initiatives, and expanding outreach to younger audiences is no different. Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is patron loyalty. Before creating subscription, membership, and ticket buying programs specifically to attract millennials, we first should court them as single ticket buyers.

How do you solve a problem like subscriptions?

Here at TRG, we’re on the record saying the subscription isn’t dead. In other industries, especially sports, there is similar (and likely overwrought) hand-wringing about the future of multi-buying loyalty programs. The organizations that are most successful are the ones that continue to innovate on both sides of the equation: changing the nature of the product offerings to provide deeper value to customers, and focusing on preserving the renewability and revenue sustainability that subscription provides. Orchestras that that continue to make incremental strides in these two categories together will be the ones to successfully determine the direction and future of subscriptions.

Interested in learning today’s evolving best practices in subscriptions for yourself? Let TRG create a customized plan for your next subscription campaign with a subscription campaign planning sprint. Learn more here>>

*Clients defined “fixed” and “flex” based upon their own offerings. Generally, Choose-Your-Own (CYO), flex, and voucher offers are defined in client data as “Flex” in our national data set, and curated packages are classified as “Subscription”. As business circumstances are different for every organization, there isn’t 100% agreement on these categories, but generally TRG finds alignment as described here.


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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-
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