Is Churn Driving You Crazy?

Been a bit busy with projects in Palm Springs, but thought this re-post would also add to the conversation Doug Borwick and TRG Arts are having about the relationship between engagement and marketing.


I was chatting about audience development recently with a fellow who manages a prominent performing arts institution and the discussion turned quickly toward the subject of churn. He was having problems with uncommitted single ticket buyers who returned infrequently or never at all and it was driving him crazy.

The more he talked about his churn problem, the more disdainfully he spoke about his unreliable, marginal, inconstant customers and the more obvious it became that he resented them deeply for the damage they were doing.

Later in the same conversation we talked about new audiences and he began to speak eloquently and surprisingly optimistically about untapped markets of loyal ticket buyers that he was certain lay just beyond his grasp. He was convinced that there were new audiences out there that weren’t being properly courted and that, if they could be found, would be the answer to his audience development problems. I could tell by the way he spoke that he was tremendously fond of these people, imaginary though they were.

What fascinates me about this, and other conversations I’ve had just like it, is the disparity in affection we maintain for the audiences we have and the audiences we wish we had. I admire the optimism that allows some to envision an enthusiastic, loyal, well-behaved audience that has yet to be properly persuaded, but I worry that belief in such an ideal may be preventing us from facing an unwelcome truth, which is that the new audiences we’re looking for are going to be found among, or near, our least favorite customers.

You know those folks who bought half-price tickets through that online discounter? Or the people who got vouchers through their HR office? Or the kids who used Grandma’s subscription seats that one time when she was in Florida? Or the couple who came with that other couple who bought some extra singles at the last minute? Or the folks who were at the hotel down the street and popped in for lack of anything better to do? Or the business guy who came because his client was an arts fan? Or that gaggle of young people who decided to try something different but left at intermission? Or the out-of-place-looking young couple in the cheap gown and hand-me-down jacket? Or the folks who came once because a starchitect designed the new venue? Or the people who were more interested in drinks and dinner than they were in the show? Or the people who came to the one event that featured people like them but then never came back? Or the folks who came on the bus with the person who placed the order with the intern who returns the messages on the group sales line? You know; those people?


We can dream all we want about external, ideal, as-yet-undiscovered audiences that are comprised of younger, more culturally diverse people who behave just like the audiences we have now, but those audiences are a delusion. The audiences that do exist are the ones that are coming now – and others very much like them who are not as well motivated but who are nonetheless more likely than the rest of the world to give us a try. These are our marginal and adjacent audiences – our new audiences – and they’re our future.

A few months after our conversation, my churn-weary friend’s organization sent me a subscription brochure that was every bit as old-fashioned, cliché-ridden and insider-oriented as the stuff that arts organizations started sending out when Danny Newman wrote Subscribe Now! thirty five years ago. He wanted the churn to stop, but he couldn’t bring himself to face, let alone speak to, the dreaded churners on whom his survival depended.

“Displacement” is a word that Freudian psychologists use to describe what happens when people substitute an imaginary ideal for an unacceptable reality. It’s a defense mechanism that helps otherwise healthy people cope with difficult situations. Unfortunately for some, displacement can become a debilitating disorder that prevents them from recognizing and dealing with the world as it is.

Crazy, huh?

Churn, Learn, Love and Earn

This repost fits perfectly with a series of posts that Doug Borwick and Amelia Northrup-Simpson are featuring this week on the relationship between engagement and marketing.


In my first post in this series we talked about the last seat sold, the empty seat next to it, and what the person who showed up and the one who didn’t quite make it have in common. We in the arts talk a lot about new audiences, but we seldom take time to focus on exactly who these people are, how much they care about us, or why any of them might want to buy what we’re trying to sell.

And at the same time we complain bitterly about churn – the tendency among contemporary audiences to sample our wares without becoming regular or dependable customers. Having built our institutions on audiences of loyal, stable, committed patrons, we tend to view churn as a problem that needs to be overcome and we’re reluctant to accept the fact that churn and new audiences are essentially the same thing.

Audience TiersI used this diagram in my book to describe the place where churn and new audiences meet. The inner circle is the arts organization, of course, and everyone professionally associated with it. The first ring is the core support system of members, donors, subscribers and loyal patrons. The second ring is the somewhat less avid, but nonetheless vital population of regular patrons. And the third is the fickle, least avid, least committed audience of frustrating churners. So far, it’s a picture of the audience segments I described in my last post.

But the ring I’m most interested in is the outermost ring – the thin, light gray ring just beyond the third that identifies the relationship between old and new audiences. The folks who occupy this adjacent space are more likely than others to give us a try, but for some reason they haven’t yet stepped across the boundary to become part of the active third ring. Nothing, as far as I’m concerned, is more important than understanding how to motivate these people to cross that line.

I chose to illustrate new audiences this way for four reasons:

1. It is imperative that we begin thinking about audiences in terms of relative avidity – the further you move from the center, the less avid the customer’s interest in the product. New audiences who inhabit the fourth ring are even less avid than our third ring churners, but compared to the rest of humanity, they’re the only people out there who are likely to participate. This places them in a very specific position relative to our existing communities of customers.

2. The closeness of new audiences tells us exactly where to look for them. A lot of arts professionals dream of ideal but as yet untapped new audiences that look and act just like our super-avid base – but who exist in some mysterious realm that we haven’t yet figured out how to contact. Realistic marketers, meanwhile, know that new audiences lie just beyond the ragged, chaotic fringes of our universe of tepid dabblers.

3. Everything we need to know about motivating the fourth ring, we can learn from the third ring. Those who occupy the churn zone have the most in common with those who lie just beyond its boundaries so the more we know about churners and the more actively we use that knowledge to persuade new audiences, the more newcomers we’re likely to pull into the fold.

4. Our job as arts professionals is to persuade everyone within our four-ring universe to move toward the center. If we direct our persuasive energies to the outermost ring, it will naturally influence the inner three rings and draw everyone within our sphere of influence closer. But if we apply our persuasive energies only to the first two rings, which is what most of us do now, the third and fourth rings will remain uncommitted and elusive.

The lesson in all of this is that we have to love the churn. We have to create as much of it as we can, we have to learn everything it can teach us, we have to use what we learn to forge stronger bonds with uncommitted churners, and we have to apply what we learn to unpersuaded outsiders so we can lure more of them into the zone.

Or to put it in community engagement terms, we have to know and love the folks in – and just beyond – the churn zone as well as we know and love the folks in the super-avid base. Then we have to relate to them in a manner that is as personal, relevant and meaningful as the way we’ve been relating to avid arts lovers for the last fifty years.

I know it’s counterintuitive. No serious arts professional wants to believe that our future is dependent on investing in people who don’t currently care all that much about what we do, but it is. Our job now is to convince them we’re worth caring about – and then give them a damned good reason to continue caring once they’ve passed thorough our doors.

Churn, learn, love and earn.

New Audiences Are Like Fairies

When arts professionals use the phrase “new audiences” I like to ask them who they’re referring to, and the response usually goes like this: “You know, younger and more culturally diverse.” It’s an easy picture to conjure up – like a photo in a UCLA recruitment brochure – but press a little harder and you’ll find that most arts pros don’t have a clue who they’re talking about.

I once asked the executive leader of a top American opera company who these younger, more culturally diverse people were and he said, “I don’t know who they are, I just know they’re out there and we’re not doing enough to reach them.” He spoke hopefully, but wistfully, as if he were talking about leprechauns or fairies.

cott-fairy1The problem with talking about ‘new audiences’ in a marketing context is that new audiences don’t exist. Audiences are comprised of individual human beings who don’t become audiences until their butts are in the seats and the lights start to dim. If we want to form new audiences, we have to focus on real, live, individual human beings, and we can’t focus on real, live, individual human beings if we’re dreaming about populations of mythical sprites who exist only in fairy tales.

If you use the phrase ‘new audiences’ to describe the people you’d like to see filling the empty seats in your venue, and you can’t identify exactly who those people are and how they relate to your organization, you are virtually guaranteeing that those seats will remain un-filled. It is impossible to market to people you don’t know.

But if you’re actively engaged in the process of identifying new customers, learning about their needs and desires, and convincing them that your events will satisfy their yearnings, your audiences will begin to grow again.

Here’s some practical advice for arts professionals who want to sell more tickets. Stop talking about audiences and start talking about individual members of your community who can be known, understood and persuaded to buy tickets. The more specific you are in identifying them, and the more thorough you are in learning about their lives, the easier it will be to turn them into customers.

Audiences don’t buy tickets; individual decision makers buy tickets.

There’s a special magic that happens when a room full of individuals becomes an audience. But that magic will never happen if we haven’t bothered to figure out which individuals we intend to have filling the room.

Two Ways To Design A Classical Music Brochure

Here’s one way to design a classical music sales brochure based on a survey of season brochures from America’s top orchestras:

  1. Use a cover image that appeals to industry insiders (i.e. your conductor)
  2. Fill inside pages with photos of artists, instruments, venue, etc.
  3. Use copy that mixes overblown boasting with condescending history lessons
  4. Be relentlessly self-centered, self-important and self-congratulatory
  5. Include a picture of an ethnic child at an education event

Here’s another way to design a classical music sales brochure based on essential sales principles:

  1. Use a cover image that motivates new customers to read the brochure
  2. Fill inside pages with images of customers enjoying themselves at concerts
  3. Describe in natural language how the product will satisfy customers’ desires
  4. Be relentlessly customer-centered
  5. Use pictures of ethnic children only if you’re trying to sell tickets to ethnic children

A brochure is a sales tool. Good sales tools are about making customers happy. But somewhere along the way classical music industry leaders decided that sales tools were rsz_1unnamed-2about making themselves happy. “Yay. We get to publish a brochure once a year that tells the world how wonderful and important we are, and then send it to thousands of people who, if they think we’re as wonderful as we think we are, will pay us to make art.”

Audiences for classical concert music have been diminishing steadily for decades. The best way to reverse this process is to stop doing self-centered promotion and start doing audience-centered sales. But this requires humility and a willingness to make customers a top priority, which – after so many years of using marketing materials to kiss their own asses – is something classical music administrators may never be able to do.

Why Amazon is Soaring and Traditional Arts Organizations are Sinking

I read a fascinating NY Times article on Sunday about the work culture at Amazon. It directed me to a list of “Leadership Principles” the company distributes to new employees and publishes on its website.

Here’s Amazon’s first principle of leadership:

CUSTOMER OBSESSION – Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

There’s nothing unusual about a successful business saying it makes customers a top priority, but what struck me was how different this is from the arts, where leaders never obsess about customers, and where leaders would never dream of starting with the customer and working backwards. In the arts, we start with ourselves and work back to ourselves. Customers are a priority only to the extent that they’re willing to be caught up in this loop.

I wouldn’t recommend adopting Amazon’s management approach, necessarily; the article makes it sound pretty scary. But I can’t help wondering what would happen if leaders of failing arts organizations started obsessing about customers for a change – especially the new ones they’re going to need to keep their organizations alive.

Where I Spent $50 in Boston (Not at the MFA)

Had I done my homework, I’d have learned in advance about the Museum of a Fine Arts’ exorbitant admission fee and saved a trip over there.

My husband and I were in Boston for the first time in many years and thought we’d pop in for a brief visit as part of our day’s adventure. Once in the lobby, though, we discovered that our museum visit would cost $50.

I asked the fellow who greeted us if the fee was suggested or mandatory, and he told us to come back on Wednesday at 4:00 pm when we could pay whatever we wanted (this was Friday). I knew he was just a low-level staffer so I said, politely, that we were in town for a few hours and couldn’t commit to a long enough visit to make it worthwhile. He cocked his head and shrugged his shoulders in a way that said, “We’re far too important to care if you stay or go.”

A nice security guard did let us slip in to use the restroom, though, so our trip to the MFA wasn’t a total loss.

With more time to visit old haunts, we ended up having an exceptional day in Boston where we treated ourselves to a lovely lunch with a nice bottle of wine, which we used to toast the museum and its thoughtful security staff.


As a long-time cultural tourism professional, I’ve paid close attention to the chronic decline in museum attendance over the last twenty years, but mostly from an abstract, aggregate perspective. This weekend I came face-to-face with the choices potential museum goers must make when they assess the relative value of their leisure options: Nice lunch out in an appealing destination, or a visit to the local museum.

I can see why more and more of them are choosing lunch.

Things Hartford Symphony and Pittsburgh Symphony Have in Common

Today I read that the venerable Pittsburgh Symphony is suffering a precipitous drop in ticket sales for their classical concert series. So I went to their marketing materials to look for signs of trouble, and there I found this brochure.

What’s most striking about this sales collateral is its startling resemblance to Hartford Symphony’s brochure. Check it out:

Pittsburgh ArtHartford Art

Two orchestras in the news for declining ticket sales and both chose images of women playing instruments with blobs of paint coming out of them. What are the odds? Clearly, these marketers have tapped into some universal longings that transcend geography. People in Pittsburgh and in Hartford, it would appear, have a burning hunger for women playing instruments with artsy blobs of paint coming out of them.

I would love to have been in those focus groups when young, culturally diverse respondents began talking about their pent up longings for women playing instruments that churn out paint blobs. How fortunate these marketers must have been to have gotten such rich data that gave them such clear direction.

And look at those tag lines. In Hartford, the focus group participants said they had a yearning to be transformed, while in Pittsburgh, they expressed a poetic desire for art that is somehow also play.

“When I look for ways to spend leisure time and money, I respond to abstract, artful imagery that symbolizes my deep-seated desire to morph into a different plane of reality through some sort of mystical process that includes young female musicians, musical instruments, colorful bursts of paint and an eventual transformation into something light and carefree like a butterfly.”

“When my friends and I plan our social outings, we give careful consideration to the complex, semantic interrelationships of art and play and we’re just nuts for poetry so when someone uses clever double entendres that combine these two interests, we jump at the opportunity to buy what they have to sell.”

It’s fascinating to think that new audiences in these cities would have expressed yearnings that come so close to matching the artsy images and cutesy phrases that out-of-touch arts administrators like to put in their classical music brochures.

The focus group research that I’m familiar with, meanwhile, tends to reveal more concrete desires. Rather than talking about abstract metaphorical yearnings, people talk about having a good time with friends or family, seeking entertainment that’s memorable and enriching, enjoying food, drink and art, doing something special, etc. And since motivating these people is a process of leveraging their desires, effective strategic messaging usually involves reflecting these desires and demonstrating how they can be satisfied by purchasing the product. You know, like showing people having a great time enjoying one another’s company at a concert.

I’m not privy to the research that the folks in Hartford or Pittsburgh did to understand what motivates new audiences to buy classical concert tickets, but I can’t help thinking there are young, culturally diverse people in those markets who would be better motivated to participate if they saw themselves and their actual, stated personal yearnings reflected – and satisfied – in local orchestra marketing materials.