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What En Vogue Taught Me About Subscription Marketing in 5 Easy Tips


Subscription/membership marketing is SOOOO boring. And it takes grit--real shoe-leather sales like packaging and repackaging inventory--to meet ever changing demand. You need only step into an arts telemarketing room to feel the tedium.

The work is so simultaneously boring and important, in fact, that many arts organizations farm it out! They hire people such as myself or large consulting firms that specialize in this mostly spreadsheet work around loyalty, retention, and new acquisition. This work is made even less interesting and narrow-minded by the fact that frequently those contracts are to address too specific an issue--probably some buzz word, such as "retention" or "lifetime value," a board member overheard at a conference--instead of thinking creatively and three-dimensionally about subscription/membership and loyalty overall.

I have yet to encounter an arts organization that did not have solutions to their loyalty problems native among its staff and other stakeholders. So I hope this post inspires those working in these boring and important trenches. To make this article more interesting from here on out, I will enlist the help of En Vogue:

1. You're Never Gonna Get It: As an arts marketer, you are unlikely to have any direct control over the plays or exhibits presented in a given year. You should, however, have nearly complete control over the packaging. You face the responsibility and challenge of knowing your audience's limitations (artistic, financial, temporal, geographic, etc.) and tailoring subscription, membership, and other loyalty-based products to those dimensions. I found this most notably at Pasadena Playhouse where I created that theater's (and maybe first in LORT history--can someone fact check this?) first cross-season subscription--something nearly all theaters with a large traditional subscription revenue should be doing BTW. Not only was that cross-season package extraordinarily popular, it also lead to a wave of secondary renewal income that improved cash flow for the organization.

2. Hold On: Marketing--in large part--controls the calendar. Yes, you will have to wait for play titles or exhibit content to come from an artistic director or curator. But it is the responsibility of arts marketers to inform those officers of the lost organizational revenue with every day that passes beyond deadlines that you mutually set. And marketers should--upon input from other departments and lots of patron data--determine performance/exhibition times, "slots" (order within a season), renewal and new acquisition campaign dates, upgrade and fulfillment schedules, etc. So it is up to you to "hold on" to the calendar.

3. Give 'em Something They Can Feel: I am paraphrasing a bit, but this may be the most important of these tips; I encourage marketers to do the real spreadsheet cost/benefit, ROI analysis on large subscription/membership expenses and revenue sources. Basically, there is a general idea of how much any given campaign asset--telemarketing, a brochure, digital effort, renewal invoice mailing, etc.--"should" cost and "should" return. Sometimes savings or added revenues in these arenas will be the only things about which your boss or board will inquire... the only thing they "can feel," if you will stretch this En Vogue lyric with me. Take tremendous joy--just how independent consultants and large consulting firms charge tremendous amounts--in making even small changes to what you spend or what you earn in these efforts.

Savings amounts are typically easy to identify: print fewer brochures and better target the mailing, run a scalable programmatic digital campaign ahead of more expensive direct mail, etc. Increasing revenue can be trickier though a smart independent marketer can probably get 80% there with a modest amount of effort (no need to hire an expensive consultant)--see my post on the Pareto Principle. Ways to increase revenues would be to increase prices, decrease discounts, and/or increase the number of products/benefits in a package and thus increasing the gross price. Pay close attention to the profit margin and overall value of additional products you offer: parking, added plays, etc. I found this strategy particularly useful during my time marketing Geffen Playhouse subscriptions--launching that theater's first ever renewal subscription to its second space--moving a full season subscriber from five plays to eight plays each year and increasing the patrons share of wallet spend--and in offering complimentary parking to subscribers as well.

4. Free Your Mind: If you know your retention rate is 75% and it has been for the last 20 years, yes, do what you can to maintain or increase that number up to 80%. But don't be afraid to think bigger; if you have 10,000 subscribers and you work to get up to 80% retention, you'll have 8,000 subscribers the following year. Weigh the opportunity cost of those efforts with a new acquisition one which might increase your subscriber base to 12,000. I'll take 75% of 12,000 over 80% of 10,000. I describe this as thinking about your subscriber/membership base "three dimensionally." Note this is a gross distillation of how to think about retention and new acquisition. If you aren't looking at your cost-of-acquisition and first-year retention rates/costs separate from your longer-term retention rates and costs, please consider doing so. This tip is mostly to convince you to think about loyalty in very broad terms; too often this complex subject is distilled into a single success metric such as "renewal rate" or "cost per acquisition" and it is far more nuanced than any single data point. In my experience, generally uninformed or unqualified boards and/or executive/managing directors are to blame for taking this single-metric approach--made worse by the fact they tend not to account for any single-year variations in what is a multi-year process.

5. Don't Let Go: In addition to crossing years/seasons, these efforts should be broadly defined, openly discussed, and cross departments--this is "big tent" stuff. When working well, the results can be extraordinary: Boston Court's subscription numbers have already reached goal with three-quarters of their calendar season remaining and their PUBlic Discourse program was a success (see below). And while well after my time, Pasadena Playhouse just last year launched a membership program that I think is doing a good job expanding the idea of what subscription "looks like"--providing a new way to monetize loyalty in what I imagine is a mix of earned and raised revenues. Talk-backs and other added-value events (even ones as simple as giving away free coffee or a drink), if generally available to subscribers, can be the reason to buy initially or return; typically "promotions" don't get discussed in a subscription context. So just because you're starting a new marketing initiative that isn't tied directly to returning/loyalty dollars, don't let go of it completely. Chances are it has some value in terms of acquisition, retention, defraying costs, adding value, or some other subscription/membership leverage.

Related to the paragraph above and as an explainer, that wooden nickel pictured at the top of this post is from Boston Court's recently launched PUBlic Discourse program. This offers all ticket holders a complimentary post-performance drink at a local bar. The predecessor to this program had attempted to build loyalty among a younger and more theater-industry driven crowd. It required significant staff time and food/alcohol costs to produce the event on-site and the program had grown stale--an example where retention had outweighed new acquisition for years. By partnering with a bar within walking distance, not only was Boston Court being a good neighbor, but they also created a promotional partner, added experience for their patrons, and, quite frankly, got better drinks. While ticket revenues for this program are not currently counted as subscription dollars, this is a repeatable loyalty program that can be expanded to that organizations music offerings in addition to theater--further increasing the likelihood of "new acquisitions" to this program. And in terms of "big tent" benefits, the manager of the prior program, who used to have to scramble to produce one of these events (get the beer, order the pizza, etc.) now can close up shop and enjoy a drink with the actors, audience members, or staff who also want to enjoy the program. How's that for a loyalty program?

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