Do You Really Want To Play “Sophie’s Choice” With Your Subscribers?

I wanted to follow-up on one specific topic introduced in the sfcv.org article referenced in yesterday’s post in the form of forcing subscription renewals to choose or lose. If you have yet to read that article, it examines how arts organizations are navigating COVID-19 challenges.

Here’s the broader context for the choose or lose subscription sales strategy:

Orchestras are also facing the issue of whether, at this point to continue to sell season ticket subscriptions, forcing patrons to make what McManus describes as a “Sophie’s Choice”: pay now for a season that may not take place in order to secure your seat(s) or wait until a time when the return to the concert hall is assured, though you will have had to sacrifice your current seats.

Let me start off by saying everyone is acutely aware of just how much financial pressure performing arts organizations are under right now. No one is being cavalier when calling pandemic shutdowns a crisis.

Having said that, good crisis management starts with rallying your most fervent core supporters and when it comes to orchestras, traditional season subscribers are as core as you get.

Consequently, the Sophie’s Choice approach of “give us your money now even through your financial future may be uncertain and we may not even be fully operational, or we’ll give the seats you value so much away” seems…counterproductive.

Following the 2008 housing bubble downturn, orchestras were faced with a similar conundrum: we need the cash now but aren’t sure if we’re even going to be operational next season. In some cases, groups were publicly talking bankruptcy at the same time subscription renewal campaigns were in full swing.

Some groups opted to put subscription revenue into escrow as a show of good faith and that’s certainly an option now.

Likewise, finding solutions that focus on rewarding your most fervent supporters will strengthen existing bonds.

How those solutions unfold will be unique to each community thanks to the variation in the way subscription renewals are sold and whether an organization owns and/or operates their primary venue.

At the same time, exploring the potential for offer exclusivity, testimonials, and social proof notifications are good options for just about everyone.

  • Exclusivity: This option likely has the largest amount of flexibility in that it depends entirely on what you have to sweeten the deal.
  • Testimonials: Is there a better excuse to reach out to your core subscribers? And what do you think the conversion rates will be for processing a renewal at the same time?
  • Social proof: This will take a bit of getting over our bad selves in the form of releasing sales figures, but if there was ever a time to embrace risk, it’s now. The concept leverages the idea that patrons will adapt their behavior according to what they see others doing. There are existing providers that specialize in the providing the messages that show up to frontend website visitors (there are email marketing driven options as well), but they’ll need to connect to your box office platform or payment gateway in order to get data for specialized messages along with the necessary action triggers. If all of that is Greek to you, no worries, we’ll see about doing a deeper dive into this concept down the road.

These are only a trio of options to consider, there are certainly more.

In the end, the more we can do to help organizations move away from the Sophie’s Choice approach to subscription sales, the better.

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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