Patron Courtship: Just In Time for Valentine’s Day

Turns Out Wooing Patrons Along the Audience Development Ladder Is A Lot of Work (Just Like Every Successful Romantic Relationship)

Over the last three seasons, the California Symphony has nearly quadrupled its number of donor households, increased the total dollars raised from individuals by 51%, increased subscriber households by 21%, and increased single ticket buyers by 33%. This love affair isn’t a one-night stand.

We love our patrons. Seriously. Patrons are the lifeblood of any arts organization. Without them, our art has no audience, and yet so often arts organizations don’t keep the patron at the center. Or we focus on always getting new patrons at the expense of developing deep, meaningful, long-lasting relationships with the ones we have. And that might be because relationships are a lot of work. That’s true in romance, and it’s true for orchestras. We already wrote a post about why chasing new audiences is not the right answer where we shared why we don’t focus on new patrons despite that being the war cry of virtually all arts organizations, and there we shared why and how we focus on wooing first time attendees to come back again and again. On the audience development spectrum, that post covered first-time buyers, multi-buyers (i.e. repeat attendees over the course of a year), and getting those repeat buyers to become season subscribers — and how we’ve made thousands of dollars of incremental revenue through a very targeted retention plan. Now, in time for the month of love, the patron courtship continues here, where we share our approach to loving forever and ever our first time subscribers, renewing subscribers, and first time donors.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: no matter who you are, from a first timer just checking us out, to a season ticket holder, to a long time donor, the California Symphony has a thoughtful and strategic plan for you. In an industry that often compares patron cultivation with romance/dating/courtship, some of these tactics are things other orchestras are doing. Some are not, and even at the nation’s largest performing arts institutions, rarely are the marketing and development departments working together and taking all of these steps.

Definition: People who bought season tickets for the first time, no matter what size package.

Some research shows that new subscribers make the decision on whether or not to renew next season within something like the first 30 minutes of their time with you. This means they’ve been fighting traffic to get to the venue, searching for parking, trying to find their seat, and maybe waiting in line at the bar — all before a single note is ever played. We try to mitigate these factors that we have very little control over by greeting our new subscribers with a welcome gift: in our case a CD recording of the orchestra that’s not commercially available. It’s an exclusive gift only available to donors at a certain level and these brand new season ticket holders. “I want to thank you,” wrote one new subscriber this year, “for an enriching concert and for the CD you prepared which I was not expecting and was thoroughly pleased by your gracious gift.” Another said, “OH! By the way, I was SO SURPRISED by the CD that was on my seat at my first concert — that was my first real orchestra concert ever!”

Welcome gift for first-time subscribers one their seats at the first concert in their package. First year renewal rates jumped by 10% last year.

Next year, we’re going to take this one step further and also include an insert of all the subscriber benefits (such as free ticket exchanges, discounts off extra tickets, first right of refusal to keep their seat next year for full season subscribers, etc.). In theory, these patrons have seen all those benefits before and hopefully they were part of the reason they chose to subscribe in the first place, but it’s an opportunity for us to remind that subscribing is awesome, and that we try very hard to make it worth their while. Also, it’s worth mentioning that we’re lucky that a CD format is still preferred by most of our subscribers in a world that’s increasingly moving to digital downloads and streaming, but that’s not going to last much longer, so we are also looking into ways we can include a note with instructions to “Download or stream this recording at…” There are certain orchestra union rules around this, so we have a few things to work out here.

Lastly, just as important as what we do for new season ticket holders is what we don’t do. Arts administrators, get ready for this: we do not solicit first year subscribers for a donation. Ever. The only next step we want this group to take is to renew their subscription as that is so critical to the lifetime value of those patrons, and data upon data shows that this group is the most difficult to renew. So why muddy the waters? Why try to move too fast? Well, the reason for most of us is that we’re desperate suitors — we all have big fundraising goals that only get bigger every year — so we ask what seems like a great prospect, a subscriber. And then it works, kind of, because some first year subscribers do donate in response to those solicitations, but we’ve gained that short-term revenue at the cost of the long-term game. It doesn’t help the subscription renewal rates for this very important segment, so stop doing it. We will agree that the first time you pull a mailing list and specifically suppress/exclude this group, it feels unintuitive, wrong even, because we’d done it the other way for so long, but it worked, and our first year renewal rates skyrocketed because of it.

“We do not solicit first year subscribers for a donation. Ever.”

The final thing we don’t do for our first year season ticket holders is try to renew them info a full season package, even if they came in as a full season package. We definitely offer plenty of incentives to renew into the larger package, but we don’t make it the only option. Renewing into any number of concerts > not renewing at all.

Definition: People who have subscribed for two consecutive years or more.

Once our dearly beloveds are a renewing season ticket holder, the romance is heating up, and it’s time for a DTR. This group has a lot of sub-segments: full season subscribers, small package subscribers, subscribers who also donate, and subscribers who have not yet donated. Everything we do with this group is targeted to each of those sub-segments just described, with the one exception being Subscriber Appreciation Day mid-season, which is for all season ticket holders. On that concert series, every subscriber (including the first years) gets a thank you love note signed by members of the orchestra on their seat waiting for them when they arrive. We make a big deal of Subscriber Appreciation on stage in our pre-concert curtain remarks, there’s a full page dedicated to it in the program book, and patrons love it. This definitely falls into the category of “a lot of orchestras already do this,” but here’s a fun tip if you are not already doing this: make sure you have the musicians sign their name AND instrument on the cards; we had so many super zealous subscribers approaching staff the first year we tried this, excitedly proclaiming, “WHO IS ALAN?!” among other musician names, “I LOVE ALAN BECAUSE HE SIGNED MY CARD, AND I NEED TO KNOW WHERE TO LOOK FOR HIM IN THE ORCHESTRA!!” We had to tell a lot of people that first time that Alan plays timpani. We love that patrons cared about these notes and the players that signed them that much; we’d say that’s the home run equivalent of a dozen roses from tú amor on Valentine’s Day. Finally, it is no coincidence that Subscriber Appreciation Day takes place right before we announce next season and start the renewal campaign. Also not a coincidence that we program that concert to be a blockbuster.

Example of subscriber appreciation cards, signed by members of the orchestra and placed on every season ticket holder’s seat. The message is always, “You are our favorite. You get special treatment, the best seats, the best price, the whole enchilada because you are our bread and butter.”

Back to the DTR. This renewing subscriber group is now in various fundraising appeals throughout the year with tailored asks based on their individual donor history, and their subscription renewal forms are just as customized. At this point in the relationship, we want to tell this group that we know them; we’ve been taking the time and care to know what to offer them. No one-size-fits-all promise ring here (and yes, that’s definitely where we want the relationship to be headed). In every case, we want to renew the subscription with an upgrade offer, whether that’s upgrading to a larger package or upgrading their donation. Here’s a little chart we follow for who gets what offer:

Yes, this is a lot of work. Yes, this means marketing and development staff spend a lot of time together to make every patron’s renewal form specifically customized to them. Yes, it’s working. Last year our subscription renewal rate was 80%, and we increased our subscription donation campaign revenue by an outstanding 50% over the year prior.

Definition: People who are brand new donors.

Once a week, we prepare gift acknowledgements, the thank you letter and tax receipt each donor receives for making a contribution, for all donations received during the last seven days. Simultaneously, we run a report for who in this group of donors is a first-time donor, and we specifically call this out in their acknowledgement, saying how we noticed they are new to the family and we are so happy to welcome them.

Example of new donor thank you letter, sent along with a new donor welcome brochure detailing all the ways in which their gift supports the Symphony. The message is that we noticed they are new, are incredibly grateful, and that we’ve wasted no time putting their gift to work.

Then, a musician in the orchestra writes a personal thank you note to the new donor (we also do this for renewing donors at a certain level, and we decided it was worth including the new donor love birds in with this benefit/stewardship activity). As an aside on how this musician note process works, at the beginning of each season we put the call out to musicians who would be willing to help us with this task throughout the year. We tell them up front we’d love their help thanking donors and that we’ll provide everything they need: California Symphony stationery, a few donor names and addresses, talking points and examples of what they can say, and stamps. We try to make this as easy as possible for the musicians to help with this activity, and they are incredible — each year we have several players offering to help out, and they are generally more than happy to do so because they know much of those donations are going to support the work they’re doing. Before each concert set, we give the orchestra members who have volunteered to help with the thank you love notes a packet of all the materials and names and addresses assigned to them. It usually amounts to about 3–4 notes per musician. On the receiving end, donors go crazy for this. Almost every time a round of notes gets mailed, we get calls a few days later from donors thanking us for the wonderful notes they received from the musicians. Donors calling to thank us for thanking them…what a big love fest we’ve developed, or should we say, requited love!

First time donors also receive a New Donor Welcome Brochure that contains information about the organization, our programs, maestro, and upcoming events. We explicitly say we want them to know what their gift is supporting. This group also gets invited to donor events throughout the year according to their giving level. If they’ve given $1,000 or more, they also get a thank you call from a board member (all donors who give this amount or more receive the call, regardless of if they are new or not), because a study showed that a board member thank you call to a donor within 24 hours of making the gift resulted in a 39% increase in giving the next time they were solicited compared to a control group that did not receive a call, and another study showed that a thank you call from a board member led to 25% increase in donor retention versus 10% when the call came from a staff person (Source: Penelope Burk, Cygnus Applied Research). If any board members at any arts organizations are reading this, please make those thank you calls!

If you’re thinking all of this is a lot of work, it is. Few organizations coordinate marketing and development efforts in this way, and we get why. There are easier, less thorough/customized/high-touch ways to manage our subscribers and donors. For almost all of us, we take the easier routes not because we don’t care, but because we are overworked and underpaid and have a million other things to do, AND because it used to work to a certain degree. That is, when every subscriber gets a generic renewal invoice, or every direct mail appeal looks the same for each patron, or there’s no welcome gift or appreciation days or love notes or phone calls, we still make money. But the days of low hanging fruit, or loyal subscribers and donors who care about the arts because its intrinsic value, or people who renew and give and increase those gifts every year because of a sense of civic duty are over. We know all this as administrators, and if we want to be good at our jobs, we need to accept that the work is harder than ever. Just like every successful relationship, right? And like those successful relationships, so worth it:

  • In the last 18 months, the California Symphony grew active accounts (i.e. accounts with any ticket purchase or donation activity) by 35%.
  • Over the last year alone, we increased new subscriber households by 29% and increased first year renewal rates by 10%, all in addition to an overall renewal rate of 80%.
  • Our number of donor households has nearly quadrupled in the last two seasons; individual giving revenue has increased by 51%.
  • Concert hall paid capacity now averages 90% this season, up from 78% three seasons ago. Plus, this increase is while adding more concerts (i.e. more sales inventory).
  • In the first year of implementing these patron loyalty steps, we have increased first time attendee retention to 22%, meaning that 22% of new attendees who came in the 2014–15 season returned within 12 months of their first purchase. More on this here.
  • The subscription donation campaign (i.e. for all those segments that do receive a donation ask during the season ticket renewal period) resulted in a 50% increase in total money raised this season over last season.

We repeat: the work is worth it. So use this Valentine’s Day month to start thinking about the ways you can love, court, woo, and wow your patrons. We hope this post helps you do just that.

Later this year we’ll conclude our audience development series with a post on the less fun segments of lapsed donors, unrenewed subscribers, and lapsed ticket buyers. In other words, what’s plan B when plan A doesn’t work.

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when most arts organizations are scaling back programs, tightening budgets, and seeing declines in tickets and subscriptions, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (young patrons group for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to quadruple the size of its donor base. From growing audiences, increasing concerts, and expanding programs to instilling and achieving common goals across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, Bergauer is someone you want to follow — on the nationally-recognized blog she created to discuss what actually works in a changing arts landscape, and in real life, too.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through ground-breaking marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of technology, and through taking strategically calculated risks in a risk-adverse field. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of impact and execution at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around.” (Mercury News) Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization’s mission and vision is creating a transformational change in the office, on the stage, in the audience, in the community, and going well beyond the industry of classical music.

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.