Changing the Narrative

Why “Getting New Audiences” Isn’t the Right Answer

Aubrey Bergauer
Jul 30, 2016 · 11 min read

To be fair, getting new audiences is part of the answer, but it’s not the full answer, and that’s where so many arts organizations miss the mark. And that’s also why we’re starting this blog: to tell others what we’re working on, sharing information with our constituents, the community, and the orchestra world at large. For whoever is interested, really.

Pictured: Music Director Donato Cabrera with the California Symphony after a fundraiser concert in June 2016. Photo: Lindsay Hale

Three years ago, the California Symphony was about to close its doors. Donations and ticket sales were down, concerts were half empty (or filled by papering the house, i.e. comping tickets), the original founding music director and the Board parted ways, and the organization was without an executive director for about a year. Then the Board did two very smart things: 1) hired Donato Cabrera as the new music director and 2) hired Aubrey Bergauer as the new executive director. Cabrera was at the time the Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony just 25 miles away from the California Symphony’s home base in Walnut Creek, and Bergauer came from Seattle where she had a decade in management experience at the largest performing arts organizations there. In 2013, Cabrera got to work rebuilding the relationship with the musicians, and one year later Bergauer came on board and got to work rebuilding an audience.

“Most orchestras don’t have a problem attracting new people. It’s getting those people who give it a try once to come back again that’s a challenge.”

In just two seasons, the California Symphony has grown number of tickets sold by 140% and has nearly quadrupled the number of donor households (180% increase). Looking at earned revenue strictly from subscription concerts (i.e. ticket revenue from our regular season and not counting ancillary events), the California Symphony is up an average of 25% per concert. So how exactly did we accomplish this? We looked beyond getting new audiences, and instead focused on audience retention. Most orchestras don’t have a problem attracting new people. It’s getting those people who give it a try once to come back again that’s a challenge. Now, no matter who you are, from a first timer just checking us out, to a season ticket holder, to a long time donor, the California Symphony has a thoughtful and strategic plan for you, and this post examines two of the groups we have deemed essential for retention. Some of these tactics are things other orchestras are doing. Some are not, and even at the nation’s largest performing arts organizations, rarely are the marketing and development departments working together and taking all of these steps.

Definition: People who are brand new to the organization, or who have not attended in four or more years.

How do we find/track them: new and different ad formats (digital, mobile, remarketing); direct mail via list trades with other organizations; earned media. After each concert, we run a list of new ticket buyers from our database to determine patron history.

This group is in many ways the most work and even the most critical in that we as arts organizations have a limited window of time to capitalize on a new person’s first interaction with us, and if we miss the boat, the consequence is that we can miss out on thousands of dollars of revenue over the life of that patron. Each new attendee receives a postcard as soon as possible after they attend for the first time thanking them for joining us plus inviting them to return again with a discount offer valid for their choice of the next two concerts. It’s worth mentioning that this postcard is designed using the color scheme of the marketing materials for the concert they just attended, thus reinforcing the experience they just had with us. Also, there’s no picture of the music director because new people don’t necessarily know or care much about who the person is waving the baton (not to worry, we focus on developing this later); this postcard is all about coming back at a discount. We have these postcards pre-printed and ready to go for each concert, so as soon as we have the final ticket buyer list, we can send these cards out right away.

“The only next step we desire for this group of people is for them to come back again to another concert, and that’s the only thing we offer them…again and again with open arms.”

A week later, this group gets an email with the same information and discount code, making it easy to click, click, click and get their next ticket. We also include a deadline on the discount (on the printed postcard and reiterated on the follow-up email), because the response rate is always higher when there’s a deadline creating a sense of urgency. And creating a sense of urgency to return is exactly what we want: research shows that the lifetime value of a patron who returns to an arts organization within one year of their first attendance skyrockets compared to when the organization can’t secure that return visit. With this group of people, we are taking every step we can think of to get that return visit.

Examples of first time buyer postcards, color coordinated to match the marketing for the concert they just attended. The message is always “Thank you for coming! We love you and we want you back again soon!”

A few more notes on this group: after this initial follow-up, these patrons are added to our regular email and mailing lists for future ticket solicitations. They are NOT, however, added to any fundraising solicitations or even season ticket solicitations. No subscription offers, no donation appeals, no telefunding. The only next step we desire for this group of people is for them to come back again to another concert, and that’s the only thing we offer them…again and again with open arms. This is very different that most other arts organizations.

Definition: People who have attended more than one concert in the same 12 months, and preferably within the same season.

How do we find/track them: This group is found from our database; we pull this list after every concert.

Once someone has attended a second time in the same season, this person becomes the most promising lead for a new season subscriber; therefore, we want to do everything we can to show this patron how awesome and wonderful it is to come to the California Symphony again and again. After each concert when we pull the list of first time buyers, we next pull the list of multi-buyers. Within one week of their second attendance in the same season (or year), this group receives a snail-mailed thank you communication, which this time isn’t just a postcard, but a card inside an envelope (a little more fancy) that says we’ve noticed they’ve joined us a few times recently, and we want to thank them with a voucher for a free glass of wine on their next visit. By the way, this voucher has a clearly printed expiration date for the end of the season, again creating a deadline and sense of urgency. This group is flagged in our database as a multi-buyer and goes right onto the list for season ticket solicitations going forward. For people who become multi-buyers at the end of the season (i.e. their second attendance with us is at the end of the concert season), we still send their voucher with an expiration date for the upcoming season, and then over the summer they are included in our season ticket mailings.

Examples of Multi-buyer thank you cards, designed to incorporate the musicians and maestro. The message is always “The Symphony keeps getting better; let us enhance your experience and help you form a habit of coming here.”

Note that this piece does now include Music Director Donato Cabrera and the orchestra. By the time someone has come twice in the same year, we want them to start getting to know the artists that make the music happen. Not that we didn’t want that to happen before per se, but the mental shift one makes after coming for the first time (“crossed that off my bucket list”) to coming a second time (“this is an activity I enjoy enough to repeat”) warrants the distinction in how we try to market to each group.

This past spring when we were in our renewal period for current season ticket holders, we tried a little experiment where we mailed our multi-buyers from the past two years a season brochure and subscription information at the same time as all our existing subscribers: We allowed them to subscribe to the number of concerts of their choice and pay up front for their desired seating section, and we took notes on all their seating preferences (not too close to the front, outside aisle would be ideal, in the balcony is fine but only the first three rows, etc.) so that when the renewal deadline for existing subscribers hit, these multi-buyers who had chosen to subscribe were first in line for us to assign their seat. This resulted in getting season ticket materials in front of these top prospects earlier than if we had waited until after the renewal period was over (a typical timeline for many arts organizations), as well as providing them priority to be at the top of the queue. AND, whenever any of these patrons asked why they couldn’t be assigned a seat yet, it gave us an opportunity to explain to them that one of the benefits of being a renewing season ticket holder is that you’ll have first right of refusal on keeping your seats next year, so by becoming a season ticket holder now, you’ll be ahead of the pack and guaranteed your same seats this time a year from now. Most people really liked that we were so protective of subscribers’ seats and wouldn’t give anyone else’s seat away until after the deadline, and we made a lot of money this way, converting more patrons to season ticket holders earlier than normal.

“We’re generating thousands of dollars in incremental revenue from these efforts and seeing an ROI of up to 800%. And that’s just in one year.”

Lastly, if you’re reading all this and thinking, “what’s the point in all this?” or if you work for an orchestra with limited resources (newsflash: we all have limited resources, so you’re not alone), then follow this exercise to see why this matters to us: Let’s say for each concert, we have 120 first time buyer households (this is about right for the California Symphony), and we know our return rate for first time buyers is 18% (some are responding to the discount card they received, and some are purchasing at full price since we look at people who have returned within a full 12 month period). That means 21 households from any given concert return in the same year. We send those people drink vouchers and a little over 10% of that group becomes season subscribers (2–3 households) at about $1000 each. That means we’ve generated $2,000-$3,000 in just one year from patrons at ONE concert off an original cost of $330 (that’s $150 for the first timer postcard + $75 for the multi-buyer card + $105 beverage vouchers redeemed per concert). Multiply that times the number of concerts in the season, and we’re generating thousands of dollars in incremental revenue from these efforts and seeing an ROI of up to 800%. And that’s just in one year. That’s not even scratching the surface of the lifetime value of these patrons.

This is a look at just two segments of our audience, and we hope you can see how the California Symphony has dramatically changed the way we think about these important groups over the last two years. For us, the call is not to “get new audiences;” it’s about how we can be laser focused on getting those newcomers to return again. We have plans like those described above for every audience member, including groups we didn’t talk about here like first time subscribers, renewing subscribers, first time donors, renewing donors, special event attendees, and the less fun segments of lapsed donors, subscribers and ticket buyers. Some of this we’ll share in future posts (update: like this one), as we have tons more data, tons more stories, and tons more ideas that we’re working on now as we’re looking to the future. The theme through it all is that we’re an orchestra doing a lot of things differently than we used to. We’re changing the narrative, and it’s working. More to come.

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when most arts organizations are scaling back programs, tightening budgets, and seeing declines in tickets and subscriptions, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (young patrons group for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to quadruple the size of its donor base. From growing audiences, increasing concerts, and expanding programs to instilling and achieving common goals across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, Bergauer is someone you want to follow — on the nationally-recognized blog she created to discuss what actually works in a changing arts landscape, and in real life, too.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through ground-breaking marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of technology, and through taking strategically calculated risks in a risk-averse field. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of impact and execution at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around.” (Mercury News) Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization’s mission and vision is creating a transformational change in the office, on the stage, in the audience, in the community, and going well beyond the industry of classical music.

Aubrey Bergauer

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Working to change the narrative for orchestras. Executive Director of the California Symphony.