Subscription decline is an opportunity—not a threat.
Director, JCA Arts Marketing
The day we’ve been waiting for has come: we can no-longer rely on subscription packages.
For more than two decades we’ve been watching the slow decline of our subscriber base. Throughout that time, conversations have bounced back and forth between “subscriptions are dead” and “not dead yet!” Of course, there have been tireless attempts to “reinvent” subscriptions: flex packages, choose-your-own, monthly memberships, you name it. Results have been moderate, at best, but rarely have they “cracked the code” and gotten us back to the 90’s level of subscriptions we all still crave.
And now, we find ourselves in a post-pandemic situation where subscribers are at an unsustainable level across the US. Our research from January of this year showed that subscriptions were down 27% for the 21/22 season, relative to pre-pandemic, and the top questions we get from clients today are:
1) How can we revive the subscription base?
2) How can we make up for lost revenue from fewer subscriptions?
3) How can we fill houses that used to be full of subscribers?
Is Subscription Really What It’s Cracked Up to Be?
Let’s face the facts—many of our attempts to revive subscription have been to benefit us, not the audience. It’s an attempt to do business the way WE want to do business—get the money up front, front-load houses, have a guaranteed audience. But increasingly, our audiences are showing us that this is not a way that THEY want to do business. Competition for arts, entertainment, and night life are way up, and, on top of that, subscription doesn’t have the social cache that it once had.
Subscription presents certain equity problems as well. By catering to individuals who can afford to spend larger chunks of money and plan far in advance, you are limiting inventory available to others (see Radical Pricing). We also tend to gratify our subscribers by producing/presenting the type and volume of work to keep them happy, which often prevents us from breaking out of the mold.
Not to mention all those top-priced tickets that are often snatched up early by subscribers. There could be a bigger income opportunity through single ticket sales!
The Golden Opportunity: Give the Audiences What They Want
All this considered, you now have a great opportunity to reinvent how you package the experience of your art. Make it cater to the lifestyles and desires of your current and potential audiences—and enhance your organization’s sustainability. We’re not saying, necessarily, that you need to give up all hope on your subscription programs—for many companies, subscription demand generates enough attendance and income to be valuable. But we are saying that you should take advantage of the opportunity (and the need) to reinvent, and possibly engage more people in the process.
It all starts with research. In order to build and package an experience that engages the audiences you want within your walls, you need to understand what they want. You do this in two ways:
1) Deep investigative behavioral research leveraging your patron data to understand trends.
2) Advanced primary research that helps you predict consumer behavior given a variety of programming, modes of attendance, packaging, and pricing.
The results of this research will light the path to an audience engagement model that generates and sustains audiences. Maybe you put your focus on a completely different membership model? Maybe you reinvent your subscription or membership marketing campaigns? Maybe you adjust the way you sell single tickets? Or maybe you craft VIP, specialized experiences? Whatever the case, doing the proper research upfront will give you the information you need to minimize risk as you roll out new initiatives, and make sure you package your experience in a way that motivates audience engagement.
You Don’t Have to Go It Alone: Engage Your Peers
If similar organizations in your market are facing the same subscription problem, why not tackle the issue together? Approaching the issue collaboratively and embarking on shared research on the lifestyles, behaviors, and desires of your arts consumers will save time and costs.
Remember: there is no one-size fits all answer to the subscription problem. How you interpret the data and design experiences (based on the research) may be specific to your organization, but coming together to understand the overall behavior of arts consumers in your market has mutual value.
Also, make sure you engage your producing and artistic staff in any research project you embark on regarding this topic! The subscription model, and anything aimed to replace it, is deeply integrated with the producing model and the art itself—divorcing the two is misguided.
Take Your Time, Do Your Research, Create the Audience Engagement Flywheel
Using consumer research paired with the expertise of your artists, staff, and peer organizations can go a long way in creating experiences that will engage your target audiences and move your organization toward achieving your mission.
Take your time, do your research, and come with up with a solution that benefits your organization AND your audience. Create an audience engagement flywheel that engages not just those who can participate in a subscription model, but all who want to engage with your art.
We Can Help You Put It All Together
We at JCA Arts Marketing are here to be your research partners and help you develop and implement new ways to package the experience of your organization. We offer behavior analysis, based on audience data, and advanced primary research to develop predictive models on customer behavior. From there, we help you interpret the insights and put them into action through marketing campaigns.
Contact us to find the opportunity in the subscription decline.