Ask Me Anything: Shopping in Your Own Closet

January 10, 2017

We have lots of loyal subscribers that renew season after season, but we still can’t seem to grow our subscription base. What’s the best way to find new subscribers to make up for natural attrition?


Let me start with a little analogy.

It’s a new retail season and time for a new wardrobe. You’ve looked online and at the mall but the options are overwhelming and the price tags make you second guess everything. You start to wonder if you already have enough to work with, and venture into your closet. Lo and behold, that shirt from a few seasons ago looks great with those pants from last year. You’ve saved money and found a new outfit you didn’t even know you had.

So many of us, arts marketers included, go through this fashion process season after season. Here’s how to improve subscription marketing effectiveness for performing arts organizations by taking this same process and applying it to our artistic seasons. There are three primary strategies:

  • Renewal – Getting last year’s subscribers to re-up. This is a no-brainer. You are talking with people you know. To keep with the retail analogy, this is shopping at a store or site you are familiar with and have had success at. You know what sizes fit you and what’s comfortable—they’re your old reliable standbys.
  • Acquisition – Often the backup strategy, which is often like going shopping but at a store or site you are not familiar with. For a subscription acquisition campaign, you spend time and money renting a list of “look-alike” prospects, crafting a message, creating a direct mail piece and/or email, and hoping to get an acceptable return on investment (ROI).
  • Reactivation – This is the shopping-in-your-closet strategy. You mine your own database to find likely reactivation or “upgrade” prospects: lapsed subscribers, subscribers who have “downgraded” to a smaller package, multi-ticket buyers who have purchased productions similar to those you are offering this season, subscribers who were new last year but have not yet renewed, and patrons who have interacted with you via social media. These are what marketing guru Seth Godin calls “hand raisers”—patrons who have indicted by their behavior in the not-too-distant past that they are interested in what you have to offer. This is someone you have a relationship with, and you therefore have permission to engage. Some of these relationships are more distant than others, but all are easier to manage than trying to connect with a perfect stranger.

Unfortunately, we see many arts organizations whose subscription marketing priorities are:

  1. Renewal
  2. Acquisition
  3. Reactivation

The simple fact is that costs of acquisition are very high and the odds of success are very low. Why? Because, to again quote Seth Godin, you don’t have “permission” to contact these people. At best, these people don’t know who you are. At worst, your behavior can cause them to dislike you and become annoyed that you’ve reached out. The most likely actions from your prospects are: hit delete, mark as spam, or ask to be removed from future communications. Marketing to a stranger does work occasionally but take a look at our data to see the surprising difference between acquisition and reactivation strategies.

The simple fact is that costs of acquisition are very high and the odds of success are very low.

The chart below shows four performing arts organizations from different genres with subscription renewal rates ranging from 91% to 82%, leaving them to “fill the leaky bucket” of somewhere between 9% and 18% with patrons who were not subscribers this past season. The data shows that these organizations found those new subscribers from a roughly equal mix of brand new and reactivated patrons, a balance that many organizations may find surprising.

Plus, while those “fill rates” from acquisitions and reactivations can be about equal, the cost of those fill rates can be drastically different. The ROI on reactivating a patron with whom you already have a relationship is far greater than the ROI of a prospect with whom you have to start from scratch, because the response rates are substantially different.

Organization Renewal Rate Acquisition Rate Reactivation Rate
A 91% 4% 5%
B 88% 7% 5%
C 87% 5% 8%
D 82% 12% 6%
Average 87% 7% 6%

Our suggested approach is as follows: after you get a handle on what your expected renewal rates will be and how many non-returning subscribers you need, we recommend you look in your closet before hitting the mall.

JCA Arts Marketing collaborates with cultural organizations to increase revenue, boost attendance and membership, and grow patron loyalty. We provide consulting and software services to hundreds of cultural institutions across multiple genres, including dance, museums, opera, performing arts centers, symphony, and theatre. We can help you achieve your marketing goals.