Standing Room Only 2nd Edition

Standing Room Only

Marketing Insights for Engaging Performing Arts Audiences


Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

By Joanne Scheff Bernstein



At the core of effective marketing is an understanding of consumer behavior. Marketing planners must understand the motives, preferences, and behavior of their organizations’ current and potential consumers. In recent years, sociologists, psychologists, economists, and arts researchers have been working in areas that assist organizations in understanding the performing arts audience. They seek to answer such questions as: What motivates a person to purchase a ticket? To buy or renew a subscription? To attend once and not return? What factors create satisfaction, even delight, and stimulate loyalty to a performing arts organization?

Arts managers need to focus on creating memorable experiences so that people will take away positive, even delighted, thoughts and feelings about their experience at performances and develop lasting fond memories. People choose to pursue or repeat an activity--or not--based on the feelings, impressions, and experiences that are packaged together in a memory.

Self-expression has become a critical element of our culture. People want to have more and more control over their lives and choice is an essential part of control. In the last three or four decades of the twentieth century, people often subscribed eagerly without even knowing what was to be performed the next season, trusting the artistic director to choose for them. But more recently, many longstanding subscribers have dropped their subscriptions in favor of multiple single ticket purchases and it has become more and more difficult to attract new subscribers because people want to choose exactly which performances to attend. This situation is problematic for arts marketers who must adapt to what has become a much more complex task: selling tickets on a show-by-show basis and attracting people to come back frequently.


People are as loyal as they think they are. People who have attended one performance at an organization each year for the past several years may see themselves as loyal attenders. The fact that they do not subscribe should not be seen as a failure; their annual ticket purchase should be viewed as a success. Of course, the organization rightfully values different levels of loyalty and involvement differently. But subscription is just one type of customer relationship, and it is clear that we need to build value around other kinds of marketing relationships as well, particularly those that reward loyalty without a large commitment. Also consider that loyalty is a two-way street; patrons deserve loyalty from the organization as well. A couple may be loyal subscribers for ten or fifteen years, drop their subscriptions for one or two years, then resubscribe. When they renew after a hiatus, sometimes the organization will treat them as first-year subscribers with the lowest subscriber seating priority. Rather, they should be welcomed back with as close to their former seat location as possible.

Organizations can garner repeat business by “bribing” people with special offers. Loyalty must be earned—and retained—on a continual basis. A serious concern about shrinking subscriptions is that many fewer single ticket buyers than subscribers make donations to the arts organizations they attend. As it becomes more important to garner donations from occasional ticket buyers, marketing and development must work together to develop and implement strategies that will maximize both return visits and contributed income.


Arts marketers focus a great deal on price, thinking that price drives ticket purchase decisions. What people care about more than price is value. One way to increase value is to lower the price. The other way to increase value is to increase perceived or actual benefits. Too often, organizations take the route of offering discounts without either improving or communicating well their benefits. Price discounts offered broadly (not to specific segments such as students) are short-term tactics that are likely to have negative long-term implications for the organization. Arts managers must continually work to balance their seemingly contradictory goals of audience maximization and revenue maximization.

One strategy that helps achieve both revenue maximization and audience-size maximization is the principle of higher highs and lower lows: set prices as high as the market will bear for those eager and willing to have a premium experience, offer low-priced tickets for interested patrons who could not attend otherwise, and offer a range of prices in between, depending on the size and configuration of seating areas and on audience demand. Many arts attenders want the best seats and are willing to pay for them. On the other hand, many people who enjoy attending the arts can only do so if inexpensive tickets are available. Because patrons who buy high-priced seats are relatively price inelastic, meaning that price increases have relatively little effect on their willingness to buy a ticket, when raising prices, arts marketers can often increase the price of their most costly seats by a much greater percentage than that of the lower-priced seats.

What devalues the performance-going experience more: deeply discounted tickets or a half-empty hall? The answer is that it’s not one or the other. Unquestionably, everyone, from the performers to the audience, has a better experience if most of the seats are filled. But people need to feel they are getting a special benefit or opportunity with a low-priced ticket. If discounts become the norm, people will assume that this is all the ticket is worth and will never pay more. Rather than reaching automatically for the price discount to make their programs more attractive to recalcitrant audiences, arts organizations need to develop a better understanding of what people value, and better skills in creating and communicating that value. Discount pricing can be a dangerous race to the bottom.

Why do arts organizations habitually offer discounts to their subscribers, those who prove by committing to a season of performances months in advance that they highly value the experiences they will have with an organization? Many marketers have found that enticing first-time subscribers with very low one-time prices will result in a lower renewal rate. The more price breaks and gimmicks that are used to attract people, the less likely they are to renew. Are arts managers offering deep discounts because this is necessary for selling tickets, or are the organizations jumping on the discount bandwagon because they are afraid not to?


Throughout this book I have presented some of the best practices currently in use. But what works well for one organization may not suit another organization’s situation. And because environments change and people’s needs, interests, and desires change over time, the best practices of today may be obsolete tomorrow. Therefore, it is crucial that arts managers and marketers fully understand and internalize the following universal and enduring principles that underlie each and every successful strategy.

Manage for the Mission

Managing for the mission means that an organization takes no decision or action that is not informed and inspired by its mission statement. The mission is the organization’s purpose or reason for being. If an organization devotes a disproportionate amount of its resources to activities that do not support the mission, then the organization is supporting only the institution and not the reason for its being.

Second only to its mission, an arts organization should focus on its core competencies. It is important to concentrate on only a few things, to do them well, and to communicate effectively what those strengths are.

Focus on Quality

The most important factor responsible for the success or failure of an artistic product is its quality. The product that has a quality advantage is destined to capture the minds and hearts of the marketplace. Cutting corners in a way that adversely affects artistic quality is the sure road to failure. Marketing strategies may attract customers, but if the experience itself is not highly satisfying, promotional techniques will not bring them back. Spending advertising and promotion dollars on behalf of an inferior product is counterproductive, if not futile.

Commit Resources to the Marketing Function

Marketing success requires a wholehearted commitment of funds, well-trained personnel, and trust in the marketing function itself. An arts organization cannot muster or maintain a strong audience base without full-fledged campaigns designed to attract, retain, engage, and educate patrons.

Know Your Customers

Customer insight—knowing as much as possible about the values, needs, and motivations of existing and potential customers—is the lifeblood of the organization. The most successful arts organizations are those whose products and services are directed at separate, distinct, and reachable segments of the population and whose offerings are positioned from the customer’s viewpoint, not the organization’s.

Create Accessibility

An important marketing task is creating access for the current or potential customer to the product. Remember that reality is what the consumer perceives it to be, that the solution is not in the product or in the marketer’s own mind, but inside the prospect’s mind.

View Changes as Opportunities—Not Threats

Embrace change. When it comes to the future, resistance is ultimately futile. Pay attention to societal trends. As customers’ needs and preferences change, so must every organization’s marketing strategy. Each current and potential arts patron—including single ticket buyers—should be respected, listened to, appreciated, and then, when possible, nurtured into higher levels of commitment. If arts organizations do not respect and meet the public’s changing preferences and needs with respect to how the product is offered, there will be an ever-diminishing audience to share in the artistic experiment. So in the long run, such change can only serve to strengthen the organization, not to weaken it.

Focus on the Art and the Audience

If the essence of art is the relationship between the artist and the audience, the arts organization must be vigilant in pursuing both the artists’ and the audiences’ best interests. Artistic programs should be developed not with the purpose of keeping the institution alive, but of making it viable. In the end, as managers, marketers, board members, and others who work to sustain and develop our arts organizations, our accountability is to the artists and their publics—not to the organization. By attempting to alter public perceptions of our institutions, we only scratch the surface of the challenges we face and, at best, create short-term solutions. By educating our publics about the art we treasure, by being relevant to our communities, and by being sensitive to the continually changing behavior, interests, and needs of various audience segments, we can build enthusiastic and loyal audiences for the future. And by doing that, we can guarantee that art will thrive and prosper.

Joanne Scheff Bernstein, Standing Room Only, 2nd Edition, published 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.