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Timmy Metzner
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Grow arts and culture revenue

Why Arts Administrators Need to Break Up with the "Relationship" Metaphor


If you’ve worked in arts marketing or fundraising for any period of time, you’ve no doubt heard the metaphor of patron loyalty being like a relationship: the first performance a person attends at your organization is like a first date and as someone is cultivated up the path to Subscriber + Donor it’s akin to courtship and marriage. There are various warnings about not moving too fast, and taking the right steps along the way. This mindset has been pervasive in our industry’s approach to audience development but we’ve reached a point where the metaphor no longer applies—its’ more harmful than helpful. Divorce is more than common, and polyamory is on the rise in our culture and in our patrons’ loyalty behavior. We have to begin reconciling and accepting that.

This “dating” framework creates a problematic caste system of arts patrons. Single ticket buyers are at the bottom of the proverbial rung and there is a mindset that an organization must do everything possible to bring them closer into the fold. This ignores key factors of their value—the first of which is economical. There have to be people paying full price for tickets at your organization, correct? Especially if you’re doing dynamic pricing. This is critical to the bottom line. Organizations also benefit immensely from these “oncers” or “rarely’s” in that they alter the demography of your audience in ways that are exciting to your long-term patrons. Feeling that shift in fresh people reminds your loyal base that your organization is relevant and is continually bringing in new and diverse patrons.  

Hierarchical preference exists at micro-levels too. Flexible subscribers often aren’t given access to the same benefits as “full season” subscribers simply because their behavior is different. In most cases they are paying more and sometimes seeing just as much. When we start valuing our patrons based on what we want them to be like, rather than who they are, we start becoming a manipulative partner.

This metaphor also falls into the patriarchal trap of “traditional” relationships by assuming that this is the one correct path to loyalty. It absolutely ignores the omnivores in your community who attend everything everywhere and will never subscribe.

This metaphor also falls into the patriarchal trap of “traditional” relationships by assuming that this is the one correct path to loyalty. It absolutely ignores the omnivores in your community who attend everything everywhere and will never subscribe. It alienates the people for whom subscription is too expensive but will still buy cheap tickets regularly and contribute small amounts each year. It disregards infrequent patrons as claiming they are fickle, when in reality they may only attend when the work you’re doing is deserving of their attendance. This rigid ladder toward a monogamous lifetime partnership disrespects patrons who, themselves, would identify as loyal lovers of your art and instead labels them as promiscuous or unreliable. There are many different paths to loyalty and many different ways arts patrons show it. By sticking to only one, you’re robbing yourself of deep, multi-faceted relationships that can exist on a variety of terms.

We also have seen that full season subscription is slowly declining in a majority of organizations. We see organizations struggle to retain the ones who supposedly love them most and love them best, yet a card on your anniversary date (renewal period) doesn’t cut it. Cultivation exists and, often, is being ignored at the expense of the people we worked so hard to get there. How do we keep the romance alive with these patrons so that they don’t feel like a neglected partner?

I’m not saying this metaphor wasn’t helpful initially. It did wonders to bring together siloed marketing and development departments to view their patrons holistically. But we’ve sacrificed the celebration of the diversity of behavior among our audiences. If someone doesn’t want to go on date 2, or breaks up with us after a few months, or wants to keep things casual, we have to be able to respond in ways that still make them feel valued and, more importantly, still allow us to view them as valuable and loyal. Any couples’ therapist will tell you no two relationships are alike. So let’s stop trying to force our patrons into one inflexible path of devotion. Instead, let’s create new metaphors that take into account the differing needs and values of our audiences.