It often seems one of the hardest things to do in the performing arts is to correctly anticipate audience interest in a show. Related to that is gauging the best way to market and position an individual show to a specific audience segment.
I recently faced a situation where anticipating audience interest wasn’t difficult, but an opportunity to fumble the marketing and interaction with the target audience segment presented itself. This seemed like a good illustration of what is meant when we talk about understanding and treating audience segments differently.
Every year my department and a community arts organization partner on a nine show presenting season. This year there are a few shows that I wanted to do outside the season. Since our season brochure is one of our best tools for promoting the shows, I decided to list those two events as extras that could be purchased in addition to a season subscription.
There is a whole separate potential issue we may face with people thinking those shows were part of their season subscription. We used an entirely different color scheme and separated the events on the order form with explanatory text. We won’t know if that is sufficient until those events come up in the Spring.
The community organization’s board of directors asked if I was including those two shows, why wasn’t also including our annual concert by the Oak Ridge Boys as well. I explained that the audience for our subscription season was different from our Oak Ridge Boys audience. The board member noted that she attended the Oak Ridge Boys and the subscription series. I replied that the concert audience had different expectations and needs, trying to avoid saying that the Oak Ridge Boys audience was a lot more enthusiastic than our subscription audience.
I wrote her an email later explaining that it was better to keep the Oak Ridge Boys concert listed separately for a number of reasons. The first is the enthusiasm of the Oak Ridge Boys audience. The day we open sales, they flood the phone lines and line up out the door. They are used to hitting redial over and over until they get through. A subscriber would likely become angry if they were trying to resubscribe on the same day as Oak Ridge Boys tickets go on sale and the phone rang busy for an hour.
On the other hand, because we mail the brochure out at non-profit bulk rate which has a variable delivery rate, the Oak Ridge Boys fans would become angry if they received the brochure after the on sale date. Since we hold a subscriber’s seats from the previous year for 6-8 weeks after the re-subscription campaign begins, the brochure arrival date is not problematic.
What we do for the Oak Ridge Boys fans is mail a postcard to everyone who purchased the year before announcing a special pre-sale date that falls before the date announced on our website and in the newspapers.
Today was that special presale date and we were swamped. We sold more tickets in one day than we have sold in 4 weeks to the most popular Broadway show in our series, a show I expect will sell out.
Even though the subscription campaign started a month ago and the box office staff had been calling the last 25 people reminding them to resubscribe for two weeks, someone showed up this morning to renew their subscription and got caught in the horde. She was fine with having to wait awhile and a little incredulous at the crowd and the ever present din of the telephones.
As I stood watching over the activity in the box office today, I was reminded about that meeting where it was suggested I put Oak Ridge Boys in the brochure. In truth, it had occurred to me before anyone even suggested it. But I realized it would have been a mistake to treat the Oak Ridge fans like our season subscribers. While subscribers are generally content to keep the same seats year after year, the Oak Ridge Boys fans largely strive to get better seats than those they had last year.
I suspect there are expectations characteristic to people who only subscribe or buy single tickets to our classics, broadway or variety series that I could be doing a better job of fulfilling. Those might be difficult to identify because they have been wrapped up so closely with other subscribers for so long that they may not really think about needing to be treated differently.
However, one of the two additional shows I am doing this year is targeted at high school and college students with the intent of developing an additional series tailored to them. They definitely have different expectations of their experience that I will need to learn to meet.
And even people who fall into one segment may exhibit entirely different behaviors as members of a another audience segment. That board member who mentioned they were both subscribers and Oak Ridge Boys attendees– her husband was 4th out of around 75 waiting when we opened the ticket office this morning.