By Gevin Reynolds
From November 2016 through March 2017, the Atlanta Ballet participated in the Audience Building Roundtable’s first Patron Retention Study, funded by The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and conducted by TRG Arts, a national arts and culture consulting firm. The purpose of the study was to benchmark the relative health of patron retention for five Audience Building Roundtable member organizations against TRG's nationwide industry analysis group and to compare the five organizations’ results with one another.
The patron retention analysis included:
- Buyer type trend analysis
- Analysis of patron behavior within each individual organization and comparing the 5 organizations
- Analysis of age cohorts both at the individual organization level as well as in the aggregate for the 5 organizations
- A survey administered to lapsed patrons in each organization to provide qualitative contour to the quantitative study
- Marketing expense analysis
Specifically, TRG Arts investigated Atlanta Ballet’s household growth, their rate of attracting new patrons (entrances), the attrition of both new and existing patrons (exits) and the impact of same-year multi-support on patron retention (escalators). Each of these metrics was studied by buyer type (ticket buyers, members, donors, etc.) and was compared in each category to TRG's Analysis Group.
Before the study, the marketing team at Atlanta Ballet knew that they had been doing well with acquiring buyers, but not so well with keeping them. They weren’t seeing their donor base grow in ways that they thought they should have. Furthermore, they had experienced a change of leadership in the Artistic Director position, which translated to a shift in artistic direction and a change in buyer base. As result, the Atlanta Ballet felt that the time was right to participate in this study so that they could quantify what they thought they knew about their patrons and obtain a baseline as their new Artistic Director implemented a fresh vision.
Among other things, TRG found that although Atlanta Ballet has experienced growth in total patron households since 2011, their subscriptions had been in a persistent decline since 2011. In total, the results confirmed the Ballet’s expectations that they were excelling at acquiring new buyers, especially for the Nutcracker (their main revenue generator) but were failing to retain those buyers. The results of the study also indicated that they were retaining subscribers at a rate less than the national average, which confirmed what they believed. The Ballet was surprised to find that their patron age demographics were slightly younger than they previously thought, with higher than expected generation X/early baby boomer market penetration.
Following participation in the patron retention study, which was completed in April 2017, the Atlanta Ballet created an implementation plan to build on their patron retention study results. They focused on the subscriber experience by implementing tactics to increase their touch points with subscribers throughout the year. Ultimately, they hoped that this would accelerate the transition from subscriber to donor. They segmented their subscriber list somewhat by grouping subscribers based on whether or not they were “new to file,” and by what kind of package they had (premier package of four ballets, or a “Choose Your Own (CYO)” package of three ballets), with the goal of encouraging CYO buyers to upgrade topremierbecause of certain perks they would receive. With the support of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the Ballet rolled out their plan, which focused on industry best practices for subscriber renewals, during the 2016-2017 season and continued it into the 2017-2018 season.
For the 2016-2017 season, all subscribers received a season welcome letter from the artistic director and a thank-you with chocolates on their seats at the final performance. Premier and New to File subscribers received an invitation to a January in-studio preview. Additionally, all New to File subscribers received a Nutcracker souvenir program (if they had Nutcracker tickets as part of their package) and a signed poster at the March performance. For the 2017-2018 season, all subscribers received a Nutcracker souvenir program (if they had Nutcracker tickets as a part of their package), a personalized thank you note via mail and email after their first performance, program notes via mail and email before each performance at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, and a free parking voucher for the February performance. New to File & CYO subscribers also received an invitation to the January in-studio preview.
The fruits of their labor have been sweet. Renewal rates have grown by 9%since the 2015-16 season and are on pace to exceed 10% growth heading into the 2018-19 season. Indeed, 56% of subscribers from the 2015-16 season renewed into the 2016-17 season, and 65% of subscribers from the 2016-17 season renewed into the 2017-18 season. For the 2017-18 season to date (as of June 11, 2018), 60% of subscribers have already renewed into the 2018-19 season. By comparison, as of June 12 last year, only 50% of subscribers had already renewed their subscription into the 2017-18 season.
From this study, the Atlanta Ballet learned that focusing on subscribers can be a worthwhile endeavor for any arts organization. According to Atlanta Ballet Marketing Director Tricia Ekholm, subscribers have a less expensive cost of sale and are much easier to keep, meaning that an arts organization can generate significant revenue from subscribers in the long run. Therefore, she advises her colleagues at other arts organizations to hold these patrons closest. Her general advice to her colleagues is to stay focused on the data: track how and whatpatrons purchase as they move through the patron loyalty ladder.
The Atlanta Ballet is continuing its subscriber loyalty efforts and embedding the practices in their organizational behavior. The next step for the Atlanta Ballet is to dig deep into their data to see if they’ve moved the dial on their single-ticket retention program. Stay tuned for the results!