Subscribers in Our Midst:
How the University Musical Society Engineered a 70% Increase in Subscriptions
By Adam Glaser
Published in Inside Arts and ArtsReach, 1996
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It happens when we fall asleep at night. We have dreams of complete strangers waltzing gleefully into our box office. They float in slow-motion over to the ticket window, a feeling of pleasant discovery coming over them as they cast their eyes on our brochure for the first time. They purchase a pair of tickets. They smile. We wake up.
That’s it? One pair of tickets is all we can dream up when a new face walks into the hall? Often our aspirations stop there, for the time being, because we deem ourselves die-hard realists who know it takes a few years of single-event attendance before we can expect that golden commitment. We become unstoppable market segmenters, confident in our ability to differentiate a potential subscriber from an eternal single-ticket buyer with our eyes closed. With these definitions of the likely and unlikely subscriber, we have been trained to have lower expectations of commitment from certain groups defined by economics or genre (who ever heard of a jazz subscriber?), and to create packages for others with whom we are more familiar historically.
It is said that belief engenders reality, a maxim that becomes a curse if that belief happens to be off base. From the way many of us package our concerts to the way we promote these packages - and to whom they are promoted - we have been creating our own reality based on the belief that we can market to a typical subscriber. The problem is this: the age of the typical subscriber has ended. Yes, we should continue to create packages designed to please our traditional subscribers who, indeed, comprise the bread and butter of our foundation. After all, there is nothing redeeming about a marketing plan that successfully courts the curious if it also alienates the faithful. However, it is time to look beyond these definitions - better yet, turn them on their heads - for in doing so we may stumble upon enormous potential not only for subscription growth, but for new public relations vehicles and audience diversification...the kind of potential we have discovered here in Ann Arbor.
In the 1995-96 season, the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan (UMS) experienced a 70% increase in subscriptions, amassing 1,360 new subscribers to bring our previous total of 1,970 (in 1994-95) to more than 3,330. Before even half of our events took place, we had surpassed our 1995-96 ticket revenue goal of $2.17 million, reaching a total of more than $2.5 million by season’s end - an extra $330,000, or 15%, above the goal. In addition, we sold out more events in one season than ever before. Why? In a nutshell, we have created accessible and attractive points of entry into the UMS Subscription, and people are using them.
For many years, UMS presented its season in three major series contexts: a 10-concert Choral Union series of major orchestras and recitalists now entering its 118th season; an 8-concert Chamber Arts series; and a set of roughly 20 jazz, dance, opera and world music presentations from which patrons could choose 4 or more to make their own Choice series. From a maintenance standpoint, the system was working well, subscriber loyalty drifting only slightly amid the recent national wave of decreased subscriptions. From a growth standpoint, however, we were missing a host of untapped markets. With only two packaged series, each requiring a commitment to at least eight events during an academic year, we were allowing traditional definitions of a potential subscriber - i.e. the wealthy, classical music lover with lots of time - to determine the scope of our subscription campaign. Sure enough, the responses came in almost by our own design. Choral Union series and Chamber Arts series subscriptions comprised 80% of our subscription base, giving our classical music events an early boost at the box office. Meanwhile, our Choice Events, minimally bolstered by the choose 4 or more subscribers, were essentially left to fend for themselves.
MORE OPTIONS IS THE TICKET
We decided to try something new by offering a much broader scope of subscription opportunities, a process which would begin with the programming for the entire season. Alongside our three previous offerings, we created 14 smaller, more genre-specific packages of 3, 4 or 5 concerts, all built out of the pre-existing Choice Events. With such new titles as The World Tour, Jazz Directions, Six Strings (guitar) and African-American Stories to promote for the first time, we began a subscription campaign
quite different from any we had implemented before.
QUICK-RESPONSE TACTICS WHEN THEY’RE LEAST EXPECTED
First, we uprooted our conventional idea of subscription marketing by applying mid-season tactics during the pre-season months. Many of us tend to credit brochures exclusively for series sales, while such time-sensitive media as radio advertising and postcards are credited for single event sales. That may have been true in the past, but today fewer subscribers are as inclined (or available) to peruse a full brochure. In fact, some patrons are now more inclined to purchase subscriptions in a quick-response manner similar to that of single events. Last summer, our early investment in these traditional mid-season vehicles brought astonishing results. Our series brochure, mailed in April, had been generating the usual orders for the Choral Union and Chamber Arts series, but little for our smaller series. In June, we mailed individual postcards for each of seven new series to targeted lists gleaned from our database and through list trades with community groups. The response was immediate. Our box office, normally experiencing some down time in the summer months, found itself fielding a blitz of calls more typical of the winter months. Even with a modest investment of financial resources, we generated a return on our dollar over four times that of our individual event postcards.
MEMBERSHIP (AT ANY LEVEL) HAS ITS PRIVILEGES
Second, we put some of these smaller series in the spotlight, assigning three of them - particularly those which were either unpopular or brand new - one of our most valuable privileges: the ability to purchase advance tickets for our sure sell-out opening night recital by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. As we watched the allure of one famous opera singer boost sales for our theater, dance, and sacred music series (all three joined our top five sellers), we learned that the special concert privilege has value not only for its own genre interest group, but for subscribers of almost any genre or level of commitment.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR TARGETED PUBLIC RELATIONS
Third, we used our new configuration to target our publicity endeavors to a wider spectrum of smaller, harder-to-reach communities. Where our three large packages have always maintained our presence broadly, our new genre- or community-specific series allow us to talk directly to these very specialized audiences on a continuing basis throughout the season. Our Divine Expressions Series, featuring sacred music events in the sanctuary of a local Catholic church, has become not only a box office hit but the subject of various church newsletter articles throughout the season as well. As a result, the group sales opportunities in this context are plentiful, as are the chances to engage a set of potential subscribers. Only in its first year, the Divine Expressions Series has attracted more than 120 new subscribers.
Fourth, several of our series became vehicles for long-term collaboration between the Musical Society and various communities. We began by expanding our programming to accurately reflect our community, encompassing the diversity of cultures which define it. From there, we wanted not only to speak directly to these communities about these programs, but to engage specific groups in continuing, ever-growing partnerships. It is one thing to present an annual event for the African-American community on January 15. It is quite another thing to present an African-American Stories series that explores the traditions of this community throughout the season, and to invite leaders from within the community to work with us in making these events successful. Through these efforts, we have not only diversified our audiences tremendously; we have created significant, long-standing relationships with them. As we continue to build solid relationships with more community groups, they are more likely to feel invested in the success of these events, which in turn will create a feeling of investment on the part of individuals within these groups.
NEW SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES
Finally, we used these more focused series to upgrade the level and depth of our sponsors’ support. Local jazz radio station and National Public Radio affiliate WEMU had offered in-kind services as part of a media sponsorship for individual jazz events in the past. As we prepared to launch our first Jazz Directions series, we invited the station to become partners with us in the entire four-concert series by increasing their level of support.
More than simply multiplying the financial value of in-kind services traded, this sponsorship generated more added value for both organizations than would have been possible with four individual events. Having been brought into the fold from the beginning, WEMU’s program hosts have been entirely invested in and enthusiastic about UMS, as are their listeners.
Through our Jazz Directions series, we now enjoy a partnership which has afforded us continuous on-air presence throughout the calendar year, yielded impressive numbers at the box office, and opened up critical doors for UMS into a previously untapped community.
Most importantly for the jazz community, a solid foundation for expanded jazz programming has been created under very successful auspices; in 1996-97, the Jazz Directions series has doubled in size to include eight concerts, a far cry from the one or two jazz events programmed in past years. A huge undertaking in jazz - a genre with which this organization has less experience - could only take place with the knowledge that this dependable support would be available.
Next season, two brand new series - New Interpretations Contemporary Arts), and Visions and Voices of Women - will receive their debut with full media support already guaranteed by WDET, a public radio station in Detroit with the largest NPR market share in the state of Michigan.
COURTING THE CURIOUS WITHOUT LOSING THE FAITHFUL
With this new system, UMS as an organization has equipped itself to serve thousands of new ticket buyers and subscribers in increasingly more specific ways. Of course, with any significant shift away from a traditional system to which the subscriber base is accustomed, there is the risk of courting the curious at the expense of the faithful. In our case, we were originally concerned about some of our Choral Union and Chamber Arts subscribers abandoning their 10- and 8-concert packages for the more affordable smaller packages. What resulted was quite the contrary. Our Choral Union and Chamber Arts subscriber base was not only maintained this season, but has in fact increased for the first time in years. Even better, we found a number of Choral Union subscribers purchasing additional smaller series along with their regular 10-concert packages.
It’s an age-old lesson, but it warrants a paraphrase: the whole is indeed greater - and more effectively marketed - than the sum of its parts. With a realignment of programs tailor-made for future subscribers, the potential for unprecedented growth by large measures does exist. This process, however, requires that we abandon traditional images of the subscriber, simply because today’s subscribers do not look or act like they used to. For starters, they are not homogenous. They come from disparate places, and they are equipped with both varying ideas of commitment and very individual tastes, differing not only from the typical subscriber, but from each other.
They like jazz. They hate jazz. They like the Stones. They hate Mick Jagger. They buy Hondas. They ride the Metro. They’re single. They’re parents clocking 110 hours weekly. They’re single parents. This is one incredibly diverse group of people we’re courting for marriage, which means we need to diversify the points of entry we offer them and the levels of commitment to which they can ascend in our organization.
There are leagues of potential subscribers in our midst, whether we see them at the moment or not. If we take it upon ourselves to make our packages both accessible and relevant to their needs and interests, we will find more of them inclined to subscribe than any of us had ever imagined in our wildest dreams.
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Adam Glaser was the director of marketing and promotion at the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor from August, 1993 to July, 1996. This fall, he will be returning to school to pursue both an MBA and a Master of Music degree in orchestral conducting. He can be reached at email@example.com.