Filling the Empty Seats First

It’s 7:59 PM at a one-hundred-seat venue and a show is about to begin.

Seventy-five seats have been sold since the on-sale date. The first tickets were sold to buyers who were eagerly waiting for the event to happen. As time went on more tickets were sold, but the relative enthusiasm of the buyers tended to wane as the sales campaign unfolded. Finally, in the days and hours before the event, a few stragglers tipped into the ticket-buying category and shortly before curtain time, the seventy-fifth buyer walked up to the box office.

Who’s the most important customer?

Tradition would suggest that the first thirty or forty buyers — the subscribers, members and loyal patrons who responded first — are the most important. They’re on the most responsive lists, they come to a lot of events, they have the closest relationships with the organization, they’re more likely to give money, they have more in common socially with the people who run the organization and their motivations are well understood by the managers and marketers who craft the sales messages. Who wouldn’t value them? We love them! Customer number one is customer number one for a reason and the rest follow according to their relative avidity.

Buyers forty-one through sixty-five are a little tougher. They’re more expensive to reach, they’re less committed, they’re less passionate about the art form and they may not show up again until next year. They’re vitally important to the bottom line but they’re an unpleasant necessity. Life would be so much easier if we didn’t have to worry about the vagaries and expense of single-ticket-buying audiences.

And sixty-six to seventy-five? Who the hell knows? They’re late, they’re fickle, they’re unreliable, they’re hard to find, they respond mostly to incentives or discount offers and they have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that’s almost insulting. They may help us with our goals, but they’re a pain in the ass and they’re not really our people anyway. And besides, we may never see them again.

So who’s most important to you?

I loaded these last few paragraphs with a bias that reflects some deep-seated attitudes in our industry. We tend to know and care the most about the people who know and care the most about us; and conversely, we know and care the least about the people who know and care the least about us. It’s human nature. And it makes sense that such an attitude would shape our priorities. After all, why invest too much time in audiences that don’t share our passions and preferences? Why bother with people who don’t even have the decency to behave like proper arts patrons?

But if I were to pick the most important customers in this example it would be a tossup between numbers seventy-five and seventy-six — the last one to purchase a seat and the one who came closest to filling the next seat but for some reason didn’t make it. The rest are important — there’s no doubt about that — but they represent the past and the present; we already know how to talk to them. Seventy-five and seventy-six, on the other hand, define the difference between old and new audiences and they have more to teach us than anyone who’s ever walked though our doors.

Personally, I’m curious to know what made seventy-five get off the couch and drive down to the venue. He almost didn’t make it. I can’t help wondering what moved him to get here in time. We have twenty-five empty seats and if we can learn what motivated this guy, we should be able to use that information to persuade more people like him to come to our events. I wonder if there’s something we should know about him that would make it easier for us to persuade him to buy earlier or come more often.

Havin FunAnd my heart goes out to number seventy-six who thought she might come but wound up somewhere else. Where is she tonight? What did she decide to do instead? Why didn’t she come to our venue to see our show? What was it about what we said to number seventy-five that got him in the door but failed to capture seventy-six? Could we have said something different that was slightly more compelling — something that would have tipped her into the ticket-buying category, too? What should we know about her that would make our messages more persuasive?

No matter what size the venue or how popular the show, the unsold seat next to the last seat sold has somebody’s name on it. And the only way to fill that seat is to make whoever isn’t sitting there a priority.

We can talk endlessly about new audiences while continuing to put all of our energy into making customer number one happy. But as far as I’m concerned, the key to new audiences lies in making the customers who can’t decide where to go as important as the ones who wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.

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3 thoughts on “Filling the Empty Seats First

  1. This issue is why I am (happily) employed by a regional professional opera company. I was hired to conduct an adult education program in which I do not merely “preach to the choir” (i.e. pre-curtain talks for those who ponied up for a ticket and attended), but also go on the road to explain opera to Kiwanis, Rotary, Church groups, college students – any place where adults gather. Call me an operatic missionary, gathering in the musical “heathens” among us. It’s a living!

  2. This is exactly why our project Test Drive the Arts works so well. Not only does it bring in people who have never been to the the arts before but also re engages people who haven’t been for a while. I think many of the numbers 75-100 are unsure where to go, whether they will like it or if they will be wasting money by buying a ticket. Test Drive removes the risk associated with the cost of booking a ticket and allows people to try something new. When they realise that they actually like the event/ artform/ venue, they return in the 41-65 seats. Some stay here but others become loyal customers 1-30 for that particular organisation. Have a look at our website here http://www.testdrivetheartsni.org

  3. Pingback: Developpez votre auditoire » Blog Archive » Préoccupez-vous davantage de vos nouveaux clients

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