For TAFTO, It Depends On What The Meaning Of The Word ‘Is’ Is Part 2

Part 1 in this series examined the value behind re-evaluating how the orchestra business defines a “core audience” and how an organization might go about creating a new definition…

In particular, I outlined a process used by the U.S. Armed Forces to determine an appropriate ratio of career vs. short term officers. Although the application of officers compared to orchestra ticket buyers is certainly different, the method each institution uses to determine a proper ratio has much in common.

In the case of the U.S. Armed Forces, their officer ratio had traditionally been dictated by whatever needs existed at the time. However, as time passed and the number of full time troops increased, those officer ratios became more important. As a result, the U.S. Armed Forces decided it was in their best interest to examine the concept of defining appropriate officer ratios and as a result, they began to redirect resources and implement new policies which would result in the desired outcomes.

The orchestra business can learn from this process in a few key aspects.

Within the U.S. Armed Forces, each branch of service maintains a different ratio of officers vs. unlisted personnel. Nevertheless, every branch attempts to maintain the same 60/40 ratio between their respective career and short term officers (detailed in Part 1). As such, the difference in the number of officers and unlisted men requires each branch to create significantly different programs in order to arrive at the desired 60/40 ratio.

Orchestras typically direct marketing efforts toward the repeat subscribers: individuals that purchase large subscription packages on an annual basis. An orchestra’s marketing department usually knows where they live, what they like, and how they spend their money. As a result, selling them tickets is a relatively easy and inexpensive task.

Over the years, most organizations have developed efficient marketing techniques in order to sell those traditional ticket buyers the most tickets at the lowest possible cost. However, the numbers within that traditional core audience have dwindled (to put it mildly) and orchestras found themselves in a difficult position: they had to start spending more money to sell the same (or even fewer) tickets than before.

The result is that many ensembles have begun to create revised long term sales strategies and this is the point where the lesson from the U.S. Armed Forces is best applied.

For example, many ensembles decided to gear their marketing efforts toward rebuilding the traditional definition of a core audience. On the other hand, many orchestras are also quick to say that the numbers of individuals interested in classical music to that level are much lower than before. The result has been much less bang for the buck with regard to marketing budgets in both acquiring new subscribers and maintaining them. It simply doesn’t make much sense to sell harder to a group of buyers you publicly state is shrinking.

Instead, many of those same organizations could apply the lessons discovered by the U.S. Armed Forces and attempt to redefine their core audience. From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to comes right back to the “most bang for the buck” concept: orchestras need to find ticket buyers to comprise their new core audience which cost the same amount to sell to as their traditional core audience.

At the same time, some organizations may discover that rebuilding the traditional core audience is the best move to make. In the largest of metropolitan areas (NYC, LA, etc.) it’s more conceivable that there are a sufficient number of individuals that comprise that definition and can also fill the seats. However, in places such as Phoenix and Denver, it might be more efficient to redefine a core audience, determine how to accomplish the “most bang for the buck” goal, and direct the increased marketing resources in that direction.

Although ensembles which select either option will always have a portion of their audience which fits into the traditional mold of “core audience” it might be better in the long run if they re-examined their situation in order to determine similar characteristics among a larger percentage of their ticket buyers and define that as their “core audience”.

This is the point where TAFTO comes back into the picture. A program which relies on existing patrons to help draw in new ticket buyers is unlikely to build large numbers of traditional “core audience” members. Instead, it’s ideally suited to provide a means for orchestras to begin defining a new core audience and developing sales strategies best suited to their marketing environment.

If you believe that earned income via ticket sales will continue to become less important over the years (as I do) with regard to cumulative revenue, then you’ll also begin to see the importance of programs like TAFTO. Having a low cost, renewable vehicle to identify and attract a regular group of enthusiastic ticket buyers capable of filling concert halls in excess of 90% of available seats will become fundamentally important.

Perhaps more important is the fact that a TAFTO-like program will serve as a useful tool allowing orchestras to re-evaluate their definition of a core audience often enough so they can maintain a high level of attendance across stages of internal and external growth and transition.

In addition to TAFTO, there’s another program orchestras will be able to use that turns what many in the business consider a negative aspect into something positive (what more could you ask for?). But that discussion will have to wait a few more weeks.

In the end, much of this is summed up by TAFTO 2006 contributor Marc Geelhoed in a blog he published the other week which pokes some fun at the concept of a traditional “core audience”. In essence, he states that most people today assume the core audience is also classical music aficionados and he’s right on target with that assessment.

I sincerely doubt that the classical music aficionado will ever go away (I pray to God it never does) but whether or not that group will constitute the majority of an orchestra’s core audience is something which will evolve on its own whether or not an organization wants it to happen. Hopefully, orchestras will figure out what’s best for them without going broke in the process.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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