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. 

With a lot of things in flux, and some new venues to work in, the staff also decided the time was right to experiment with sales and marketing strategies they could refine on the road and try out in their new home. That experimentation was funded in part by The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation through its Audience Building Roundtable initiative, and a case study has been written describing in detail what they did, how they did it, and their results. We sat down with research and evaluation expert Bob Harlow, the author of the case study, to get his top-line reactions to what the Alliance is learning – and how other organizations might apply those lessons.

The Alliance Theatre set out to revamp its sales and marketing practices. What were some key moves that the staff made? 

 The evolution is ongoing, but sales and marketing are very different from what they were just a few years ago. Two major shifts began to take shape the year prior to and then including the off-campus season. First, the staff placed as much effort on audience retention and movement (up the “staircase”) as they did on audience acquisition. It perhaps won’t surprise many in the Audience Building Roundtable that TRG provided guidance here. 

The second was using data to guide those practices. Like so many arts organizations, the Alliance Theatre was acting on a lot of assumptions and practices that had just developed over the years. “The way we’ve always done things” always seemed to work, so why shake things up? Managing Director Mike Schleifer, Director of Marketing Jessica Boatright and board member (and prior Board Chair) Reade Fahs thought they could do better by becoming more data-driven instead of just relying on hunches. And it’s beginning to pay off.

What kind of results are they seeing?

They’ve already chalked up a number of early wins. One that stands out is dynamic pricing. Sales and Revenue Manager Thomas Pinckney kept close watch on how each performance was selling, with detailed spreadsheets that were updated every day. Having that information allowed the staff to quickly spot where fast-selling shows created opportunities to bump up prices, and in a few cases, rescale the house when shows were selling slowly and risked not meeting sales goals. Many of the shows were general admission, so Thomas also used some clever forecasting to oversell sold-out shows, estimating the number of no-shows based on prior sales patterns of different audience segments.

Subscription campaigns targeting segments of prior multi-ticket buyers were another early win. They went back to prior subscribers that hadn’t renewed in the past year, and got an average 14% response rate over three seasons. They also managed to move buyers of their “Choose Your Own” subscriptions to more expensive full-series subscriptions. An astounding 39% of the households they targeted with those subscriptions made the move. Other campaigns to multi-single-ticket buyers and subscribers who had lapsed further in the past than one year were not as successful, but still had a very respectable 3% response rate.

Another major tactical change was treating first-time ticket buyers differently, right? 

Yes, in that most recent off-campus season. Instead of hitting them up for a subscription or donation right away, or putting them in the same pool for single-ticket offers as people who had been going to the Alliance for years, the staff reasoned that the important thing was just getting them to return for a second visit. So, they provided timed, discounted offers for upcoming shows. Response to those offers was not high, which could have been due to a variety of factors—it was the Alliance’s first season with these offers, and they were moving around from venue to venue. As we state in the case study, now that they’re in their new home and things are settled, there is a good opportunity to experiment with some of the offers they are sending to first-time patrons. The offer doesn’t have to be the same each time, and they can mix it up to see what works. Most of the research done in this area, at least what’s been published, has been done by orchestras, and they find that ingredients of a successful “killer offer” that first-time patrons find hard to pass up varies from one organization to the next. That is, there’s no winning formula that works in every case and it requires some tweaking to find one that works. 

What factors do you think are contributing to areas where they are succeeding?

Beyond the bold decision to present their season in 13 different venues—unheard of for a theatre—the staff didn’t just re-imagine sales and marketing practices, they thought through what was needed to execute and went all in. That meant not only new campaigns, but also staffing changes to focus on content strategy and sales and revenue management, to better align with the Alliance’s marketing and revenue goals. To make it work over a long time arc, the leaders and staff had to really buy into it. It can be difficult to maintain that focus not only because it takes a lot of work, but also because it takes time to see results and may require some experimentation if it doesn’t work right off the bat, and it rarely does. It’s much easier to just revert to old ways.   

I think it’s also important to point out that while we think data is great, and it is, it can’t do everything on its own. Many of the positive results the Alliance saw were because of how the company prepared, monitored, and responded to data. Successful data-driven strategies require a lot of human intervention and conscious, intentional action. I already mentioned that Thomas Pinckney kept a close eye on sales for each performance, and that’s a huge undertaking. What’s more, he modified his strategies as he learned more about how shows sold. There’s also an important data hygiene element. The success of the subscription campaigns was only possible because of years of attention to keeping the data in order. The Alliance’s Manager of Information Resources Jim Hubbert runs a tight data ship. At the start of the initiative, 95% of the Alliance’s household records had contact information attached, and the vast majority (90%) had email, mail and telephone. That allowed the Alliance to create multi-mode campaigns—email, direct mail, and even phone. There’s real value in attention to data hygiene over time. 

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