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Case study: Cincy Shakes increases first-timer reattendance

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's building in downtown Cincinnati.

The capital campaign is, arguably, one of the biggest times of change that a performing arts organization can go through. Be it a renovation, an addition of a new wing or moving to a whole new building, it’s a high-visibility venture and a chance for organizations to examine how they connect with their patrons. One story that stands out for being particularly successful involves an organization that approached their campaign as more than a move to a purpose-built building in a more central area, but as an opportunity to fundamentally change their approach to audience building.

When Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (Cincy Shakes) moved from an old movie house to a new $17.5 million facility in the middle of downtown Cincinnati’s arts district, they went from a narrow seating plan with varying sightlines to having nearly 100 more seats, all of them fewer than 20 feet from the stage. With more space to welcome patrons and a bigger role to play in the city’s arts landscape, Cincy Shakes created a new audience building process to make the institutional changes they built in their capital campaign sustainable now and into the future.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company space comparison: Old venue sat 165 people while new venue seats 250, all fewer than 20 feet from stage.

Step 1: Connect with new patrons

Launching a new marketing campaign, they focused on how close the seats were to the stage and encouraged patrons to buy tickets to the first four shows of their debut season in the new theater. They chose productions that would appeal to a wide range of patrons, including first-timers who were not only new to Cincy Shakes, but to seeing theater in general.

The campaign turned out to be wildly successful, with first-timer attendance up 43% from the previous year. They brought in 2,464 new households, which represented about 25% of their total paid household attendance or 40% of paid single ticket attendance. But it was only after those results came in that the real work began.

Graphic showing that Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's first-timer attendance is up 43% from the previous year.

“Getting new people in the door is not necessarily easy, but it’s something that we’re good at, and we can really turn that problem over and we’ve got a lot of solutions,” Jeanna Vella, Cincinnati Shakespeare’s Director of Marketing and Sales, said. “But getting them to come back and increasing the revenue from those folks re-attending was really key.”

Step 2: Build a reattendance program

It’s at least five times more expensive to attract a new customer than it is to retain an existing one, according to the Harvard Business Review, and increasing customer retention rates by just 5% can grow revenue by 25% to 95%.

To proactively prevent customer churn from these 2,500 new households, Cincy Shakes launched the Welcome Back Program. Using Spektrix’s email automation features, they sent first-time patrons emails that were triggered automatically after their initial purchases. The emails thanked them for buying tickets and supplied some useful information about getting to the theater. They also left personalized thank-you notes on their seats from one of the actors they were about to see onstage.

Cincy Shakes has a resident ensemble of actors that patrons can see in a variety of shows and their ensemble became a key part of their Welcome Back Program after patrons had seen their first show.

Email from Cincinnati Shakespeare company member thanking patrons for attending and telling them they have $20 in account credit.

Those first-timers received a post-show email with a letter from an ensemble actor telling them about the next production they were in and informing them that a $20 credit had been automatically added to their account. They had a sponsor underwrite these initial costs.

“There’s all this psychology around ‘now you’ve got 20 dollars burning a hole in your pocket that you can spend,” Vella said. “Spektrix, again, made that piece of it really frictionless for the patrons.”

The result of these emails: In their debut season in the new theater, Cincy Shakes saw 20% of those 2,500 new households come back in the same season. This topped the re-attendance trends they had before, especially in the same season. More than just bringing in higher numbers, though, they were training behavior: New theatergoers and people who normally only attended a show once per year were coming back.

Graphic showing Cincinnati Shakespeare had 2,464 new households, or 25% of total paid attendance and 40% of paid single tickets.

In their current season, Cincy Shakes’ first-timer return is 15% for people who were new the previous year, so they are continuing to grow that group. Vella has all of their customer records tagged in their system, making it easy to check in and remind them about their credit if they have not used it yet, or to plan another campaign with a resident ensemble member.  

Over her decade at the organization, Vella has found that about 30% of regular ticket buyers come to more than one show a season, so moving first-timers into that regular category is where a strong and reliable revenue increase comes into play. With the tools to repeatedly channel first-timers into that category, Cincy Shakes is leveraging the opportunities that came from their capital campaign into sustainable revenue growth well beyond their debut season in the new space.

“We’re seeing really promising results with the Welcome Back Program, and especially on the functionality that Spektrix has been able to bring to help make those things more automatic,” Vella said. “We’re now able to be really granular with our messaging.”