The Alliance Theatre’s Year of Bold Experimentation: A Case Study

Following a $32-million renovation, the Alliance Theatre opened the Coca-Cola Stage this past January. Even as construction was being completed during the 2017–2018 season, the show had to go on, and leadership at the Alliance made the untested (and rather bold) move to produce 12 shows in different locations around Atlanta, selecting venues that complemented themes of the work being produced. The hope was that they could meet Atlantans where they lived and bring them back to the newly renovated stage once it opened. 

JULY 2018 ISSUE: The Results are In: True Colors Theatre’s Patron Retention Analysis

True Colors Theatre

By Jamie Annarino, Audience Building Roundtable

True Colors Theatre is not unlike most arts organizations in that it strives to determine the most effective strategies to maintain audience engagement and keep ticket buyers/patrons coming back. But how does an organization know if it’s on the right track? Which marketing strategies really “move the needle” and contribute to the organization’s bottom line and which ones only have a marginal impact on patrons returning to the theatre? 

In November 2016, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation offered the opportunity for member organizations of the Audience Building Roundtable to participate in its first “patron retention study.” The Foundation contracted with TRG Arts, a national arts and culture firm grounded in data-driven consultation, to conduct the study. 

The study included a comprehensive review of transactional audience information, including each participating organization's growth in the number of households in its database of ticket buyers and subscribers; the rate of attracting new patrons (first time buyers;) the attrition of both new and existing ticket buyers (exits) and the data about same-year multi-ticket buying. Each of these metrics were studied by type (ticket buyers, members, donors, etc.), and then compared in each category to the other organizations participating in the study and to TRG's national comparison group. 

 The analysis included:

  • Buyer type trend analysis
  • Analysis of audience behavior for each individual organization and among the five participating organizations
  • Analysis of age cohorts for each organization and in the aggregate for the 5 organizations
  • A survey administered to non-returning ticket buyers, members, donors and subscribers to understand the reasons that they were not returning to the theatre
  • Analysis of marketing expenditures

True Colors Theatre was one of five organizations chosen to participate in the study. The key findings offered an opportunity for True Colors to revise its marketing approach. 

  • True Colors’ season subscriber growth is slightly above the national average, with the lowest attrition rate among the five organizations in the study
  • From 2012 to 2015, True Colors Theatre’s total household ticket buyers and supporters remained steady, then experienced a decline in 2016
    • True Colors Theatre became more reliant on its existing households as its new household growth slowed during 2016
    • True Colors Theatre was losing its existing audience at a greater rate than it was acquiring new audience members (households) and its attrition rates were similar across all demographics
  • The organization’s expenses remained flat while its revenue was declining
  • The study revealed inconsistent growth in philanthropic support and a marketing expense budget with above-average marketing expenses 


Translating Data into Action

Keep Em’ Coming Back
The study suggested diversifying marketing efforts to convert first-time ticket buyersinto returning patrons(multi-buyers, subscribers, and donors;) specifically, the analysis recommended using direct mail as a means of outreach. 

Following True Colors’ show, King Hedley II, a targeted direct mail and email marketing campaign was implemented - aimed at the first-time ticket buyers to the seasons past three productions. True Colors Theatre mailed a simple “thank you” postcard with a stunning image from this show and included a follow up 50% discount promotional code to these single ticket buyers; the code was good for tickets to attend the upcoming show Dot, with a promotion period of 6 weeks. 

The postcard mailing yielded a break-even on costs. True Colors indicates that this was probably because the follow up was sent months after the performance the ticket buyers attended; in the future, True Colors intends to implement the follow up postcard mailing within a week of the first-time ticket buyers attending a performance.

Cutting Costs
With the new season looming, True Colors is drastically reducing its subscriber renewal telemarketing budget (from $30,000 to $10,000) as well as raising adult ticket prices from $35 to $40 per show. Last season, the total subscription and single ticket sale revenue was $409,112. To date for the 2017-2018 season, revenue stands at $559,592, with one additional show on this season’s calendar. True Colors Theatre has implemented email and direct mail strategies for subscription renewals and will kick off a direct mail and email campaign to sell two- and three-show ticket-packages during July 2018. As of June 15, True Colors had sold $23,000 in subscriptions for the 2018-2019 season with four months to the start of the season.  

True Colors is using TRG’s expense projection report to determine revenue and expenses based on direct mail/email efforts. This report has been extremely helpful and is set up to track targeted promotional codes (that True Colors creates). 

True Colors’ achieved 95% of its ticket sales goal for its next season by July 17, 2018. (The goal was to sell half of its tickets for the entire season by July 17.)

Another Point of View
True Colors reports that it “blew their mind” to realize the impact of “household” revenue versus “individual” revenue. This realization changed the way True Colors approaches marketing to existing audiences.

In the 2015-2016 season, revenue of $505,392 was generated by 4,079 households. In 2016-2017, True Colors’ revenue decreased by $100,000 – from 300 households. True Colors’ staff notes that “in marketing, it can get overwhelming thinking about filling 27,000 seats each year (our capacity for 3 productions). However, understanding the patron retention data helped us to realize that we’re really only dealing with 4,000 households to fill those seats.”

This season, True Colors is focusing on getting those 300 “lapsed” households back, which seems much more manageable than focusing on selling 27,000 seats. 

True Colors reports that “cultivating those households when they first come to the theatre is crucial - then fostering the relationship with the household becomes easier to manage once they are more involved.”

True Colors indicates that they are better segmenting their audience as a result of the patron retention analysis, tracking the results of their marketing efforts, and using the data to work toward consistent growth of their audience. 

JULY 2018 ISSUE: Atlanta Ballet Alters Approach Following Patron Retention Study

Atlanta Ballet

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! 

Audience Building Practices That Work: A Recap

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

The Audience Building Roundtable (ABR) workshop on May 17, 2018 was “A Refresher on Audience Building Practices that Work” presented by TRG Arts, a national arts and culture consulting firm that has been presenting workshops to the ABR since the inaugural summit in November 2015. At the close of the workshop, 76 of the 103 attendees from ABR member organizations completed a survey with the following prompt: The workshop by TRG Arts provided me with at least one audience building idea that I can adapt for use in my organization.

Variable Pricing - Increase Revenue While Capturing Data

By Stacey Lucas, Children’s Museum of Atlanta

The Challenge

Children’s Museum of Atlanta, like most organizations with the word “Museum” in their moniker, has a very long history of not collecting data from guests. In general, Museums have fostered a “walk-up” culture, sometimes collecting zip codes but rarely collecting full data sets of their guests. Without accurate data, patrons become a “moment in time” as opposed to a potential return guest, member, or donor. 

Pleased to Meet You, I’m Your Neighbor

By Michael Van Osch, Georgia Ensemble Theatre

Although Georgia Ensemble Theatre (GET) is entering its 25th Anniversary Season in Roswell, we still run into people who have lived here for many years and have never heard of us. We have two major challenges that contribute to this: our home in The Roswell Cultural Arts Center is tucked away in the trees and is not on a main thoroughfare, and because we are in the Roswell Historic District, we are governed by a strict sign ordinance.

JUNE 2017 ISSUE: Actor’s Express

Actor’s Express

With the support of the Audience Building Roundtable Technical Assistance Grant, Actor’s Express set out to turn our large group of one-time attendees (tryers) into repeat ticket buyers (buyers) and our repeat ticket buyers into subscribers (advocates). During our 2015-16 season, which included six mainstage shows and a large summer musical, AE welcomed over 4,000 households into the theatre. Of those households, 78% were one-time ticket buyers, 14.5% were repeat ticket buyers and 7.5% were subscribers. Based on this data we determined that we really need to focus our energy on moving patrons from one-time ticket buyer to repeat ticket buyer status. We have not yet reached the end of our 2016-17 season, so cannot give a full report on the effects of the project, but we have encountered some success with our tactics thus far.

First, we employed the help of an hourly box office assistant to clean up our database. This work included inputting new customers from third-party vendors and merging duplicate records. Our database can now output more accurate data to inform our marketing decisions. We found the results so beneficial that we have incorporated these tasks into the role of a new part-time business manager who started with Actor’s Express at the beginning of 2017.

For each show in our 2016-17 season, we have been following up with single ticket buyers with an email immediately following the performance the patron attends and a postcard mailing after the production closes. The email and mailer both include a discount to the next two productions if booked by a certain date.

Follow-up postcard mailing for Company

Follow-up postcard mailing for Company

The good news is that the follow-up piece has increased our number of return single ticket buyers! We have compared last season’s Sweeney Todd and Yockey Repertory, which had no follow-up mailings, to this season’s Company and Appropriate, which both had follow-up mailings, in the chart below. Both sets of shows had comparable attendance and draw to the two following productions. In both cases,  the percentage of single ticket buyers and first time ticket buyers was higher than  previous seasons.


While the follow-up piece did have a direct impact on single ticket buyers returning to the theatre, we did not see much use of the promotion codes. The code on the Company piece was used 32 times and the code on the Appropriate piece was used just 9 times. Based on these results, we believe it was not the discount that enticed patrons to come back, but instead the follow-up mailing  served as a  reminder. Going forward we plan to experiment with these alterations to the follow-up mailing:

  • Using an exciting production photo from the show the patron attended instead of artwork from the upcoming shows as the focal point of the mailing
  • Eliminating discount code on the follow-up piece
  • Using a deeper discount on the follow-up piece to encourage advance purchase of tickets
  • Sending more follow-up pieces between shows

To address the next level of the patron loyalty pyramid, we have instituted a telemarketing campaign targeted toward repeat ticket buyers to turn them into subscribers. In the past, we have experienced some resistance from patrons in making the leap to a subscription package.To combat this, we created a special package called a 4-Pack aimed toward repeat ticket buyers. This package was not available to the general population. It was only available to the identified patrons who were contacted via telemarketing and through follow-up emails. The package, instead of providing one ticket to each show in our five-play season, allows the buyer four tickets to be used in any way he or she wants. The patron can use all four tickets for one show or use one ticket for each of four plays. This package provides  flexibility to repeat ticket buyers while increasing their commitment to the next season. With the addition of the 4-pack option we saw the number of subscribers rise from 528 for the 2015-16 season to 728 for the 2017-18 season, a 38% increase in the number of subscribers. We plan to use the telemarketing approach in two ways for 2017-18 subscriptions.

  1. Target repeat ticket buyers from the 2016-17 season with an exclusive 4-Pack option
  2. Target 4-Pack buyers to move into traditional subscription packages or a 6-Pack option

Finally, to increase patron engagement for those already deeply involved with the organization like subscribers and donors, we have created two programs based on results of patron feedback. During our conversations with subscribers and donors, we learned that patrons:

  • Want facetime with Actor’s Express artists
  • Want to know more about the behind the scenes work of a professional theatre company
  • We're excited about our upcoming 30th Anniversary Season

The first program we created is called Fridays with Freddie. On the fourth Friday of every production run we invite subscribers and donors to have lunch on stage with Actor’s Express Artistic Director Freddie Ashley. Each lunch has a theme and special guests if appropriate. The first lunch was a sneak peek into Season 30 and the second focused on the casting process. These lunches allow patrons to have an intimate insider experience at AE. We also include a donation request tailored to the event presented by our Development Director as part of the program. Each luncheon has been attended by 25+ patrons and netted at least $2,000. We plan to continue these lunches into our 30th Anniversary Season.

Fridays with Freddie during The Crucible

Fridays with Freddie during The Crucible

The second program is a fundraising campaign called the $30k Club. The goal of the campaign is to leverage the enthusiasm for our 30th Anniversary Season to raise $30,000 in new gifts to support Season 30. Patrons can join the $30k Club either by making a new donation of $100 or increasing their annual fund gift by $100. Members of the $30k Club get special access to events during Season 30 and a pin that gets them a free drink at every show. After launching the program in February, we have already recruited 123 members. The goal of this program is to raise additional funds for Season 30 while growing our base of entry-level donors.

The Technical Assistance grant has allowed us to really look at our own patron engagement pyramid and determine the best ways to elevate patrons to the next level. Our efforts to convert repeat ticket buyers into subscribers through special telemarketing packages and to engage our subscribers on a deeper level through programs like Fridays with Freddie and the $30k Club have been very successful. We have seen some success with converting single ticket buyers into repeat ticket buyers, but we feel there is more to do here. Over the next season, we will experiment with different iterations of the follow-up mailing in addition to introducing some new tactics.

We would recommend that our peer arts organizations really try to understand what their patrons are looking for and develop programs that are mutually beneficial to both the patrons and the organization. Is it access to artists? Is it a behind the scenes tour? Is it guest passes to bring friends? One of our keys to success is making sure that when we do more deeply engage our patrons, we don’t let them leave the theatre without showing them the next step in their relationship with AE.

During this process, we have not encountered anything that we would tell other organizations to completely avoid. We would say to be wary of discounting. With people who are already familiar with the organization, this may not be a necessary tool in getting them to further engage. 

Children's Museum of Atlanta

In past years, we ran a Cyber Monday membership sale. Because of what we’ve been talking about in these meetings, we decided to run a membership special throughout September and October instead of just focusing on Cyber Monday. We had a 4.2% response rate with 27% member renewals during this period at an 18% cost. This is excellent for us; we are thrilled with the results.

High Museum of Art

What are some of the things you've done this last season?

  • We've been focusing on families with free admission on the 2nd Sunday of each month.  The audience is larger and there is more data, but no one is tracking their return attendance, or if they become members.  We need a marketing plan specifically for this audience.
  • We want to try an "art box' program for the families that attend on second Sundays, where they will get incentivized with additional art supplies when they return on days that are not the Second Sunday - to encourage repeat visits.


  • Free admission, Conversion from free to paid, marketing plan
  • Incentivizing

Georgia Symphony

What have you heard today that you need to try to do in your organization?

  • The importance of creating and sharing an experience.

What are some of the things you've done this last season?

  • We created a VIP experience for the GSO Dads Concert.  It was an $11 add-on to raise the price from $29 to $30.  VIP only reception afterwards to meet the musicians, and prime preserved seats.  Sold 28 additionaltickets and had to add a row.


  • Backstage access, VIP, Increase ticket price

Finding New Fish for Your Organization: They’re swimming closer to you than you think.

By Keri Mesropov, TRG Arts

ALERT: Arts administrators in your area have been overtaken by a new obsession. Believed to be a relative of the mania induced by Pokémon Go, symptoms include an insatiable desire to find brandnew patrons for your organization. 

If you’re not obsessed with new audiences, you are really behind the trend...

What is wrong with these people? Uh-oh….

By Ellen Walker, Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB)

Observing participants in a focus group dispassionately dissect your life’s work is a little like strangers disparaging your children – it’s difficult not to feel reactive. In my first such experience, the print collateral that my team had worked so hard on was described by focus group members as “boring,” “stuffy,” “elitist,” and “completely uninteresting.” My first thought: “what is wrong with these people?!”  My second thought: “…uh-oh.”

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