Freud und Churn

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?

Uh huh.

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 don’t exist. 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 delusion that prevents them from recognizing and dealing with the world as it is.

Crazy, huh?

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