Audience Building Innovation on Display at the Alliance Theatre

By Gevin Reynolds, Fellow, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation

 At the Audience Building Roundtable workshop on July 27, 2018, the Alliance Theatre presented the results of their Audience Building Innovation Grant, awarded by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to fund innovative audience building initiatives in their 48th, 49th, and 50thseasons. Below is a summary of their presentation.

In the 2018-2019 season, the Alliance Theatre will celebrate their 50th anniversary. A few years ago, the leadership of the theatre started to think about what the Alliance could mean to the community at 50 and beyond. After three years of planning, and over two years of additional fundraising, the Alliance Theatre began construction for their brand-new Coca Cola Stage. A year and a half and 30 million dollars later, the stage will open in January 2019.

Since the construction of the new stage rendered the Alliance unable to perform at the Woodruff Arts Center, they had to come up with a creative solution. They named their 2017-2018 season “Alliance Theatre on the Road,” and they ended up performing their 12 shows in 13 unique venues. As they prepared for the season, the leadership team wondered how they should re-shape their organization for new venues, an ever-changing city, and a new half-century of patron development. They specifically were eager to find out if they could take advantage of their offsite season to attract new patrons.

To answer such questions, the Alliance partnered with TRG Arts (courtesy of the Blank Foundation’s Innovation Grant) and relied heavily on the Alliance Board and the Woodruff Arts Center to provide strategic vision and tactical advice. With the grant-funded partnership, the Alliance Theatre sought to improve both patron acquisition and retention, boost brand awareness, simplify the patron development model, and streamline their organizational structure. So that they could stay on track, they rolled out a five-season timeline, with seasons 48, 49, and 50 being specifically funded by the grant:

  • 47th Season: Initial Planning & Staffing  
  • 48th Season: TRG Arts Data Analysis & Business Model Reconstruction
  • 49th Season: On the Road- Brand Building and Patron Experience  
  • 50th Season: Acquisition, Retention, Anniversary Celebration
  • 51st Season: New normal- positioning for future growth

The Alliance Theatre began by investigating the drivers of effective audience building practices, the contributing factors to success in audience building, and an analysis of the results. Previous studies had found that churn, which can be thought of as patron attrition rate, is inversely correlated with both the number of performances attended and tenure as a patron. Especially after the Alliance learned from an Alexander Babbage study that their primary competitor is Netflix and that the primary barriers standing in the way of people attending a show are lack of time, ticket costs, and lack of interest, they wondered how they could truly change their organization to reduce churn.

To build on their findings, the Alliance next sought to implement data-driven marketing strategies focused on catalyzing audience growth, maximizing revenue per seat, and optimizing resource allocation. To grow their audience, they began to see each patron’s first visit as the start of a long relationship by promoting engagement events and education programs with the hopes of converting multi-ticket buyers and partial subscribers to full subscribers, reactivating lapsed subscribers, and increasing first-year renewal rates. During their offsite season in particular, the Alliance launched cross-promotions by collaborating with their venue partners, and they founded an Alliance Theatre Institute in each off-site community. To maximize their revenue per seat, they studied their ticket sales patterns and re-scaled the house accordingly, began releasing seats in waves, and began to use comping and discounts more strategically. TRG Arts even helped them simplify their pricing by moving from fifty to twelve pricing options. Finally, focusing on their marketing budget and overall organizational structure were the two ways in which they were able to optimize their resource allocation. 

TRG also helped the Alliance roll out a retention strategy specifically focused on securing the “second date” with first-time patrons. The strategy involves sending out an email after the show, a reminder postcard one week after the end of the show’s run, an email the week after that, and finally a postcard ten days later. Specifically, all first-time attendees received a 50% discount for another show in the season, and all patrons who had attended their first show of the season received a 30% discount for another show in the season. The 50% discounts were sent to 6,546 households and yielded a 2% response rate, resulting in 347 tickets sold. These ticket sales resulted in $8,204 in revenue. The 30% discounts were sent to 4,296 households and yielded a 1.9% response rate, resulting in 192 tickets sold. These ticket sales resulted in $6,345 in revenue. As result of their efforts, new subscribers and renewal rate are both up over the past three seasons.

As result of their offsite season, the Alliance experienced impressive growth. During the season, more than 25,000 people visited the Alliance for the first time, and a record-breaking 35% of Christmas Carolaudience members were first-time attendees. They actually experienced their highest revenue ever for Christmas Carol, bringing in $845,544. To their delight, the Alliance found that those new audience members are also coming back. Through a retention campaign aimed at first-time attendees during the offsite season, 455 tickets were sold to patrons who came back for another show during the season. Going into the 2018-2019 season, the Alliance has twice as many new subscribers as they did going into the 2017-2018 season, and the offsite season generated $199,300 in new sponsorships. 

The Alliance Theatre has also experienced great success with digital and social media, thanks to the Innovation Grant. This year, the Alliance’s Content Team made 42 original videos, including ten production trailers. In all, their videos reached 210,000 people and resulted in 91,000 views. Facebook followers increased by 22% since 2017.  The Alliance also had a 37% increase in Instagram followers since 2017, thanks in large part to the fifteen “Instagram takeovers” they’ve had this year. 

The leadership team at the Alliance offered several key takeaways from the study:

  • What’s not measured is not managed
  • Change only gets harder with age and size (so don’t wait)
  • Lasting, effective change is a long-game (with some short-term gains)
  • Our board is our very best asset
  • Patrons notice and appreciate responsive, dynamic products
  • There are no substitutes for vision or engagement

The staff at the Alliance is excited to open their Coca Cola stage in January 2019. After the success that they experienced with the Audience Building Innovation Grant, they anticipate rolling out new membership model(s), therapy and adult beverage offerings, a new data consultancy, and merged vertical(s) within Marketing and Development.

To review the presentation from the July 27, 2018 ABR workshop, visit — Member Resources, then Past Meetings. You’ll find the workshop material under the July 27 date. 

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