Turn to cultural, political and religious studies to organize your communications around data.
LaPlaca Cohen recently published their 2017 Culture Track report and just a couple days ago I read this fascinating Washington Post article summarizing findings from a Pew study of political constituencies across the progressive and conservative spectrum.
Both are excellent reads for those interested in our cultural or political landscapes. I reference both of them in this blog post, however, as they reflect an important lesson in the field of arts marketing--and, more broadly, development/fundraising and overall communications. Those participating in the arts do so for a variety of reasons both individually and across different cohorts or perceived constituent groups. LaPlaca Cohen refers to this as "omnivorous" arts consumption and the recent Pew political spectrum study essentially quantifies the reasons why people act/vote certain ways--fascinating stuff.
I hold a degree in religion--not marketing or communications or, God-forbid, theatre or the fine arts--and this is one of the few instances in which I can reference something useful from my studies! There is a Buddhist concept of pratityasamutpada, or "dependent co-arising," which basically argues that all events in our universe are caused by a variety of networked factors taking place over time and space. So while there are proximate or more direct causes for a decision to be made, those events most take place in an environment where those decisions can be made. Get it? It's Buddhist, so it's supposed to sound a bit round-about.
All this is to say, patrons don't attend your event or donate to your organization for one reason; they do so for a variety of reasons that are often out of your control. This is especially true if you think about your patrons on a individual basis but that is all housed in your database/CRM.
Here are some ways you might consider taking greater control of your arts consumer's decisions that are under your control:
A. Look at your customer data: run audience/attendee surveys, do wealth screenings, map out address and overlaying demographic data, etc. Please reach out to me for free or low-cost resources to do this. There are some listed in my earlier blog post about resources.
B. Your box office, house staff, docents and perhaps you (for the individual artists or veteran arts admins reading this) intuitively know the five or six "types" of customers you have. Outline them quickly in an unpublished way: wealthy older White women attending out of habit and organizational loyalty; younger middle-aged mixed race men "testing" out an experience (I'd put me in this category lots of times!); local middle-aged women with college educations and older kids in the house seeking relevant cultural experiences in their community; etc.
C. Begin to hone these groups into cohorts that you can track in your database based on their behavior (not just their demographics or psychographics). Don't go segmenting crazy... start out with a few VERY basic groups: first-time testers, annual attendees (for perhaps your holiday offering or timed events around birthdays/anniversaries), the churned-out (first-time testers that did not return within a year or two), members/subscribers, donors, etc.
Then start communicating with these large segment groups differently. You don't have to start five different weekly or monthly newsletters to do this; just know that they audience cohorts are there and easily pullable in your database so you can send them more relevant communication from time to time. You already may do this for fundraising campaigns and subscription/membership renewals--this just adds another layer of effective communication on top of those efforts.
Lastly, some tips based on questions I receive when discussing this with clients and colleagues:
1. Consider a two-year lapsed single ticket buyer essentially a new-to-file patron. An exception to this would be if you run a rather abbreviated annual festival and don't provide offerings regularly throughout the year... or, I suppose, if your organization entirely changed the direction of its programming over the course of a couple years.
2. Chances are your subscribers/members don't really know when they lapsed and for how long they did. So don't remind them too much of it. Sending "dummy" renewal notices to one-year lapsed subscribers/members can help them pick up where they left off.
3. Typical churn rate is about 4/5--meaning out of every five patrons that start an account in your database, you won't see four of them ever again. (This is a number I have heard reported by friend at TRG and Blackbaud... and they match most orgs at which I've worked) Try your best to drop that number down to three, but don't get discouraged at that high and common rate. And adjust your marketing spends accordingly: while going after the low-hanging fruit in your database or that like you on Facebook can generate high ROI, it does little to generate the volume of sales typically required to sustain an organization or individual artist. So new acquisition campaigns always should play a major role in any serious advertising budget.
4. Please love your subscribers/members/donors. I really mean it. LOVE THEM. They love you and it is rude (and financially short-sighted) of you to not express that love regularly. You don't have to spend a lot of money to do so: curtain/exhibit speeches, easily fulfilled benefits, ongoing gratitude expressed in your planned communications, etc.
5. There are lots of resources and studies on loyalty, arts patron buying behavior, etc. I frequently refer to Blackbaud's published work as they tend to offer specific numbers for as benchmarks (at least for development/fundraising) but your own CRM solution should have much of this material available (though perhaps not published) in aggregate. If you use one of the major CRMs and they don't have some basic information along these lines, please let me know... I'd like to give them a call and give 'em a piece of my mind.
10/27/17 publishers note: I rushed to publish this article before the weekend. Please pardon any typos! I hope to clean it up a bit over the next week.