When recession hit during the 2008–09 season, sales at Seattle Repertory Theatre (SRT) were already in a state of decline. Revenue losses had prompted across-the-board budget cuts by 30% for the following season. Enter Katie Jackman, who had just been hired and now is SRT’s Director of External Relations. She and new colleagues Jeremy Scott, Patron Development Manager, and Ashley Coates, Marketing Manager, rallied around the challenges ahead.
“We had declining sales in all categories. At the same time, there weren’t specific strategies around what to do, especially when patrons came in for the first time.”
Acting on counsel from TRG Arts, Jackman and her team set aside budget and staff and moved with model resolve toward a singular goal: securing a same-season “second date” with single ticket buyers who had attended for the first time in 2009–10.
“As TRG says about patron loyalty, you need to date before you get married,” says Jackman. “We ‘dated’ these people for a while—just focusing on getting them back in the building.”
SRT’s initiative focused on inviting all new-to-file buyers to come back that season—and occasionally suggested a “round-up” donation at the box office. New buyers were offered nothing else—no subscription pitch, no annual fund telemarketing, just a same-season single ticket.
Out of all 2009–10 new buyers, 11% came back at least one more time during the season. With that, SRT’s “cultivation group” was born and became patron households that SRT purposefully nurtured step-by-step in subsequent seasons.
SRT grew the cultivation group into longer stronger relationships over four seasons. 30% of the cultivation group returned in Year 2 (2011)—triple the retention rate of other first timers. Already, the cultivation group defied the forces of first-year churn and attrition that plague most arts organizations’ growth efforts.
SRT’s retention program continued to pay off in higher retention rates over four years among its cultivation group, despite limited budget and staff furloughs that packed their workweek into four days.
Results, Year 1 (2010):
Upgrade: “Come back this season”
In the first year, the SRT’s cultivation group was established after coming back in the same season. They had identified themselves as good prospects for further cultivation because they:
• Bought more tickets,
• Attended more frequently,
• Spent more, and
• Were more likely to voluntarily give a donation.
SRT’s achieved these same season “second dates” at a cost-of-sale of 8%.
Results, Year 2 (2011):
Upgrade: “Come (back) to 3 plays for $99”
SRT got 30% of its cultivation group to return in the second year with specially targeted communication and disciplined “do not contact” agreement by other departments. Members of the cultivation group were offered three shows for $99 and received a follow-up courtesy call. As a result, cultivation group households bought an average of five tickets the second year:
• 23% with the 3-for-$99 series
• 77% with single ticket purchases.
And, they increased their average annual household spending modestly in year two, beginning an escalation of household spending that ultimately became a 75% increase over the four-year period.
SRT achieved these second year cultivation group gains at a 30% cost-of-sale.
Results, Year 3 (2012):
By 2012, cultivation group members had been “dating” SRT for two years; it was time to “propose.” SRT made a formal offer of a traditional subscription with a cultivation campaign. The ask was more customer service-oriented than sales-focused. As a result, the cultivation group’s:
• Overall spending in packages (multi-tickets or series) jumped 26%
• Overall average annual spending increased 33% above the previous year, from $126 to $168.
• Average number of tickets purchased increased from five to six per household.
A sharp increase in cultivation group spending during this year, while SRT invested less to simply upgrade their package, made this escalating engagement possible at a cost-of-sale of just 1%.
Results Year 4, (2013):
In the fourth year of focused cultivation, the season that ended in June 2013, SRT’s cultivation subscriber households were due for their first renewal. Using specifically tailored renewal materials, SRT achieved a first-time renewal rate of 81% among cultivation group subscriber households.
Lifetime value of SRT’s cultivation group is double that of other 2010 new-to-file single ticket buyers. TRG’s examination of lifetime value measured total cumulative average household revenue generated by each of SRT’s original 2010 new-to-file households:
• Over the four-year period, investments by both groups grew. Cultivation paid off in ongoing relationships among both the cultivation group and other 2010 new buyers.
• Each household of the 2010 cultivation group generated $257, more than double the amount ($124) of other 2010 SRT first-time buyers.
How They Did It
In SRT’s own Words:
Katie Jackman: With the reduced budget, we had to move forward in some purposeful manner. We felt that focusing on cultivation during acquisition was the best place to focus our attention. We then worked with TRG to define this strategy. Being new, we didn’t feel like we had a good strategy in using direct mail, identifying patrons to cultivate, or any of that. TRG recommended that we look at retention for new patrons.
The key? Focus.
It was difficult to not lose focus and make other offers to the cultivation group, especially with the financial pressures on the organization. Other projects and campaigns had to be cut.
Katie: This plan was time-consuming—and it was hard to stay focused on it. Along with the 2009–10 budget cuts, we had also reduced our work week to a 4-day work week. In order to do this right, we had to cut other activities, so we stopped doing mass media advertising—outdoor, even less broadcast than we had been doing. Retention became our focus.
Ashley Coates: [When we got started,] we had identified a lot of different prospect segments. It was a lot to keep track of because we sent many different versions of similar pieces with different inserts, dropping at different times. At one point we were segmented to the gills, to the point where we couldn’t sustain it. We got real about which messages should and could go to each group and streamlined the segmentation.
Jeremy Scott: At that time I was in the phone room and very much involved in subscription sales and strategy. Katie and I had a conversation probably monthly about whether this was REALLY the right thing to do. For example, we had held people out of donation asks, because we moved them along slowly. But we made up that income, because the asks we DID make were more focused and appropriate.
Katie: Both Ashley and Jeremy would occasionally ask how important this [retention effort] was. Or, they would let me know that we were leaving money on the table. I would say that this focus was more important. That first year, it was an entirely new program with an entirely new team. It wasn’t perfectly executed. We had to adjust. There were definitely some mailings that didn’t go out on time or there were a few that were combined. But the focus never wavered.
Initial results fuel perseverance
Katie: Seeing results helped us stay focused around individual household cultivation. When we saw the new-to-season (cultivation group) results in Year 1 and the “move to multi-buyer” results in Year 2, we were SO energized. We knew that getting 11% of first-timers to come back in the same season was a significant return on our investment.
Even though the number of patrons wasn’t huge, the change in behavior was. People in the organization and in the arts community were totally impressed. We got that initial validation that this was a good program.
You need perseverance because arts patrons are not made overnight. That’s the hard thing; it really is a five-year process, minimum. We had to just say “We’re going to put and keep these programs in place now, because we see that it has a benefit.”
In the four years since launching, our sales outside of the program have stabilized and increased. We’ve been on an upward trend that has given this program momentum. And since 2010, we’ve continued the program every year with our new-to-season buyers.
Retention efforts and learning continue
Katie: We’ll definitely continue this program. Now we’ve set the benchmark for looking at a group for five years. We want to dive into the data on each year’s cultivation group to see if there’s a standard for retention.
The study of 2010 first timers revealed that after four years 9% of the households that did not come back twice or more in the same season are still active. This group of retained “other” first timers are less likely to subscribe and renew but still have a significant pattern of frequency of engagement with SRT. They now are subject of further SRT exploration.
Katie: When you have limited time and limited money, where are you going to put your priorities? It’s different for every organization. At SRT, audience development is a priority. To us, a big part of that is cultivation of new-to-file and new-to-season patrons.
Read more about Seattle Repertory Theatre at www.seattlerep.org.