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Should Pay-What-You-Can Performances No-Longer-Exist?

If your pay-what-you-can initiative is mission-driven, isn’t that all the more reason to optimize it?

This may sound familiar: your organization offers a pay-what-you-can performance as part of its mission to provide art to the community it serves. While this initiative may receive some foundation/grant support, it is likely maintained more out of principle than due to any associated ticket or fundraising revenue.

The goal of such mission-aligned programs is laudable. So when is the last time your organization optimized such an important initiative to make it even better? Compare your Pay-What-You-Can (PWYC) offering audience with the median average of your regular offerings: what percentage is new? Assuming your PWYC audiences provide their contact info, see how their addresses match up with underserved and/or socioeconomically depressed areas you hoped to reach. What percentage of those buyers return under that or a different program?

You may sense some frustration in the title of this as I recently went on a bit of a wild Google chase looking for real data on the topic. The best I could find was an article in The Guardian about the UK’s Stockton ARC. It indicated some early, strong success of a rather atypical and laudable initiative in that markedly different (compared to the U.S.) arts market. This UK program essentially follows-up with patrons after attending an event to determine the paid value of their experience. If anyone can send me a published follow-up article or report on this particular program, I would greatly appreciate it. As I am not aware of any U.S. PWYC programs such as this, I won’t include it in my summary of typical programs below.

In further researching the topic, I learned last November, the National Arts Marketing Project held a gathering on this topic. But it was in the days following the 2016 presidential election and the session, predictably, veered off-topic and apparently not much relevant data were shared.

So first, do you have information on your specific PWYC metrics for success, failures or mediocrities? If so, please share them, anonymously or otherwise, so we might develop some benchmarks around this. I suspect most nonprofit arts organizations in the United States who offer such programs measure basic information: number of discount-ticket buyers into the program served each year. Perhaps some of the more sophisticated marketing and development departments have developed some light-touch engagement strategies as well. That is probably where the very large majority of such PWYC program end.


From what my web research shows, there are a few “types” of PWYC offerings (ordered, in my opinion, from worst to best below):

  1. De-Facto: You may have some performance(s) for which a deeply-discounted offer or comp code/policy is broadly communicated. This is the least-defensible type of PWYC offering as it likely discounts to your internal or otherwise more engaged patrons as well as fails to reach out to a new audience who would not “hear” of the discount code or policy.

  2. Walk-Up: Event attendees must book tickets in-person (perhaps the day-of an event or in some other limited schedule). Receipt of the patron’s name and contact info is probably limited and thus data (other than aggregated ticket counts) are limited. Participation in this program may also be limited by a perceived shame or guilt the patron feels for asking about the program in a public setting.

  3. Advance: Similar to the offering above, but the event’s ticketing software allows for advanced booking through a price override or multi-tiered price selection option. This does avoid any perceived or real “shame” associated with a public ticket purchase. This advance offering may be limited by performance date or booking date schedules but likely gathers significant patron data as it is tied to billing info. This does, however, preclude community members who lack credit/debit cards as a payment option.

  4. Organizational: The PWYC philosophy may be so integrated into your organization’s mission that it may be explicitly stated in the mission statement or offered to the large majority of its performances. Los Angeles’ Coeurage Theatre Company, The Actors’ Gang and several other companies in California come to mind. This is the “best” kind of PWYC offering, but also has some shortcomings.

So what offering is best for you? NONE!

Pardon my rather facetious answer. I don’t really mean that organizations offering Pay-What-You-Can performances should stop. I do want many of them to be far more disciplined in how they encourage attendance and future patron engagement though. Let’s take each example:

  1. De-Facto: Just stop it. Find another way to fill your house. Such offerings are not to be part of a broader strategic plan or mission-orientation… they are only useful in a limited, tactical, reactionary and temporary way.

  2. Walk-Up: Treat this sale as you would any other. This individual wants to see your work and is willing to pay for it with his or her time and at least small amount of money. Take the time to ask for full contact information so you might inform them of future engagement opportunities: volunteer, other PWYC performances, etc. Consider other creative and site-specific ways to gather customer data: Facebook prompts before accessing wifi, concession benefits to checking-in or providing contact info, contests, surveys, usher requests, etc. Also, find ways to promote the PWYC offering at the window so walk-up patrons won't feel shame in paying less than the typical full price: "We're proud to offer tonight's performance as a pay-what-you-can. Thanks for dedicating your valuable time to join us this evening and any amount in addition to that is appreciated." And see below for tips on changing this model to the “advance” one below.

  3. Advance: Stop offering a dozen price points for the same seat and performance! If you’re offering a PWYC performance, calculate some lower-level access price given prior PWYC sales data; I recommend something around the 25 percentile range and an easily sellable number (preferably one that alliterates): Five Dollar Fridays; Three Dollar Thursdays, etc. Then advertise that price to a relevant audience and target new audiences with that price-point. See below for more information on what to do with this customer data after they book.

  4. Organizational: Keep doing what you do! But please experiment with the “advance” offering price point above. Buyers are attracted to certainty and familiarity. Set aside any perceived (self-imposed or otherwise) that may come with publicly buying a low-cost ticket a pay-what-you-can performance. The simple idea of it leads the user to uncomfortably question one’s financial capacity and pre-judge the value of the work prior to their seeing it. This is one of the reason’s why the Stockton, UK program is of particular interest. In lieu of launching such a broad initiative, just try offering a really low-dollar but specific cost ticket.


So what to do with this data?

Much of the recommendations above are geared towards gathering more customer information: get the patron to book in advance, to book privately, etc. so that he/she will also be more willing or actually be required to offer contact info such as an email and billing address.

Once you’ve captured as much patron data as you can (and I am curious as to what benchmark percentage of customer data is captured using these recommendations), then segment that audience. While I don’t want to predetermine the outcome, I suspect PYWC audiences might be divided into a few cohorts:

  1. First-Time Climbers: Participating with your organization/event for the first time and have given at least one indicator they can purchase tickets at a higher price or donate. Signs they can offer further financial support might include the median income in their zip code or, in the words of an anonymous marketing director I once met: “Look at their shoes. If they are designer, they can buy full price or make a donation.”

  2. First-Time Networkers: Participating with your organization/event for the first time and while they may not show any indications of offering further monetary value for your company, they may be willing/able to network you with others in the community in which they live. Without a doubt, this is the most important type of audience member you can have at a PWYC event as they can broaden your reach. While they may not get an “ask” for money, you should ask them to tell their friends about the event and the date/logistics of the next PWYC offering.

  3. Repeat Climbers: Just keep making the ask. You will undoubtedly encounter a small percentage of free-loaders, but it’s well worth continuing the program for the new acquisition benefits you receive. It also helps if you can remind the patron as to how many times they have taken advantage of the PWYC offering and what monetary value that saves them. You may consider “shifting” the offer from a true PWYC offering to an internally-kept list of discount buyers so you can direct purchases to specific performances and at a rate you determine on an ad-hoc basis.

  4. Repeat Networkers: Ditto. Keep making an ask, but not a fundraising one.

  5. One-And-Doners: If your organization matches a national trend, you probably won’t see 80% of your event attendees again. If you’re seeing a rather high repeat attendance, consider a kind of membership/donation package that would “upsell” the climbers. And consider promotions or other opportunities to encourage networkers to bring friends: offer them additional comps, etc.

Am I way off base here? Let me know and please send some data my way!

Lastly, I’d be remiss in not to mentioning programs such as this one related to SNAP participants. I’m a fan of these programs in principle but am worried they are languishing due to a lack of robust management, optimizations, and common-sense: I’m not sure an over-worked and under-paid SNAP participant who needs assistance buying basic foods is going to pay for the transport and time costs plus $5 to see a show about which they’ve received little or no marketing.

I would like to see government stakeholders and aligned nonprofits take these programs a step further: SNAP participants should receive art at a predetermined and no-out-of-pocket rate for them just as they receive eggs, cheese, milk, and other quality-of-life and health staples. Plus, I would very much like to see government put tax-payer “skin” in the game of performing arts programming as it might prompt organizations to offer a standard and variety of programming to ensure such funding. I might be wrong here too--so prove it please and send me some data!

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