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Timmy Metzner
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Grow arts and culture revenue

Subscriptions Aren't Dead. Patience Is.


For many years now, performing arts organizations have agonized over the “death of the subscription.” We’ve pointed to signs of subscription demise in everything from the economy to audience attrition. Conference sessions have commandeered the conversation with doomsday predictions from nearly every sector. But here we are, decades later, and arts organizations still have subscribers. So what is going on?

No doubt audience priorities and behavior are shifting—this is undeniable. Culture is no longer defined by the performing and visual arts. Attending a live performance can hold just as much value to someone as a social interaction or experience. People don’t want to be told what culture is or how they should consume it. And this is the crux of the problem. Assuming your performances are more valuable than a night at home with Netflix robs you of insights into how today’s arts patrons behave.

Rationally, arts administration professionals and performing arts devotees see the case for subscription. So why aren’t audiences behaving rationally? Because patience is dead

"In our binge-watching, Uber-calling, same-day-free-delivery culture, asking people to pay for something now and see it in a year is more than just a hard sell, it borders on absurd."

Today, a person can order dinner, find virtually any movie they desire, and watch it immediately without leaving their couch. We no longer have to wait for anything! In our binge-watching, Uber-calling, same-day-free-delivery culture, asking people to pay for something now and see it in a year is more than just a hard sell, it borders on absurd. Tearing through an on-demand TV series is so much easier than keeping track of a subscription package where performances spread over nine months are constantly bumping up against ever-changing life events. With lives full of options, audiences delay decisions until the moment they desire them. Your competition is a swipe-right away. 

Resist the urge to grieve, because there are plenty of opportunities here. First, accept a new definition of “subscription.” Innovative organizations have malleable offerings including memberships, flex passes and mini-packages. Newer models help capitalize on different behavior. Try appreciating and accepting the multi-buyer, who has most likely been given every opportunity to subscribe, but doesn’t want to—probably for many of the reasons outlined above. Instead of offering and re-offering them something they don’t want, focus on increasing multi-buyer loyalty through programs and incentives that appeal to that behavior. 

Creative payment plans have also removed barriers by allowing subscribers to pay on a schedule or as they go. Thinking outside the box like this requires effort. The process to renew someone into the same seats for every production and take a payment in full is easy; it’s much harder to administer an inventive solution. Because of the time and energy needed, and an organizational hierarchy of preferred behavior, these non-traditional options are often seen as lower tier and are rarely given the same marketing effort—but they should be a top priority. 

Rather than focusing on whether or not subscriptions are dead, use your time to identify how your audience wants to attend, commit, participate and engage. Create multiple attendance opportunities around maximizing that behavior. Make it clear, communicate the value, radically reshape your own definition of “subscriber,” and you’ll no longer be planning a funeral service. 

Contact JCA Arts Marketing to learn more about innovative pricing strategies.