In 2008, Oliver Wyman worked with nine prominent U.S. orchestras to study the experience and behavior of first-time concert goers. The results were published in June of that year in “Turning First-Timers Into Life-Timers“. That report sparked a lot of conversation in the orchestra world and influenced the thinking of its marketing leaders (see the Jan-Feb 2009 Symphony article “Into Thin Air” for reactions and the Jan-Feb 2010 Symphony article “The Price is Right” for stories on orchestras applying the report’s recommendations).

I was recently made aware of the First-Timers report by the good folks at the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO) — where we’ve been plying our data-driven trade for the past year. Wyman’s methodology — a) customer segmentation b) loyalty driver research c) targeted and tested promotions — is chock full of the basic staples of a data-driven diet. However, some of the report’s emphasis and a few recommendations struck me as off. With all due respect to the Wyman consultants, I’d like to offer a (somewhat) dissenting opinion on First-Timers.

A symphony is a shared experience

What makes the Wyman “killer” offer killer? The report clearly states that (more than free drinks, favorite composers, or soloists) discounts are “by far the most powerful lever.” But which discount: 2-for-1 or 50%-off? That’s easy; go 2-for-1 — it brings back more first-timers and it emphasizes that a symphony is a shared experience. Consider the case of the ESO:

  • A solid majority of concert-goers buy tickets in pairs.
  • Couples occupy the majority of seats in any performance (excluding kids series).
  • Couples are more likely to donate than individual (male or female) account-holders.
  • When couples donate, they tend to give significantly more.

Couples are vitally important to the well-being of orchestras — but orchestras, in all fairness, gives something back. John Dewey wrote: “In life that is truly life, everything overlaps and merges.” For a listening audience, a concert hall performance of a symphony is alive with overlaps, of people and memories near and distant. This breaking down of boundaries is, in my mind, a kind of generosity. And when patrons attend as a couple, and return as a couple, and subscribe as a couple, they come to see each other (and those around them) in that spirit of generosity.

An online dictionary provides this lovely definition of the word: “freedom from meanness or smallness of mind or character.” Just that gives you a fleeting impression of your better self, less separate, less apart. Dr. Francis G. Winspear donated $6 million to the building of the Winspear Centre (the largest single private donation to a performing arts facility in Canadian history) “… to have a place where the people of our region can make the most beautiful music they are capable of – and share it with each other.” Dr. Stuart G. Davis donated the Davis Concert Organ to “honour the memory of his late wife Winona.” This is the society of symphonies.

You come away from a performance believing that the way you act toward each other can be free of meanness or smallness. It echoes the crushingly beautiful words of Donne: “… any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde.” The Wyman report, with its technical and uninvolved taking apart of the “product” of the symphony, takes no real interest in the shared nature of the experience — which may have been because the shared part is obvious (and difficult to claim as the key finding of a top-flight study). It’s unfortunate but understandable. In management consulting, overlooking the obvious is an occupational hazard.

It’s OK to ask

With respect to turning First-Timers into subscribers, the Wyman report recommends relationship building: “Don’t ask me to marry you after the first date: I don’t want to commit yet.” One step at a time is the preferred approach, sort of like the Loyalty Ladder. The problem with this view is that customer relationships don’t always evolve in a neat, linear, sniffing-around sort of sequence. Customers make leaps, and first impressions produce emotional, often inarticulate, commitments.

With the ESO audience, as an example, patrons are as likely to become subscribers after their first performance as their second or third. (In fact, it’s not until after they’ve attended their seventh single ticket performance without having ever subscribed that the probability of their subscribing starts to go down.) The benefits of turning a single ticket buyer to a subscriber are obvious: increased seasonal revenue, higher donation likelihood, and higher probability of retention. A patron can’t become a long-term loyalist without first becoming a short-term loyalist.

So, it’s not only OK, it’s important to ask First-Timers if they’d be interested in subscribing. If your situation is similar to the ESO’s, you’ll have the same success rate as you will if you wait, but you’ll have it with a much larger prospect pool. American orchestras apparently telemarket First-Timers for subscriptions within days of their attendance. That does sound pushy (to people who wouldn’t think of subscribing), but the sales side is reaching out to warm prospects who have the (hopefully wonderful) experience of the symphony fresh in their minds. (The ESO’s subscriber acquisition campaign runs mostly in the period between seasons.)

Are they likely people?

When you read about Judy’s illustrative (and terrible) orchestra experience in the First-Timers report, the overwhelming feeling you should get as an arts marketer is not “We have to do better.” It should be “We have to do better at attracting people who are not like Judy.” Wyman uses Judy’s experience (missed shows, nightmare parking, crowded bar, unknown performance pieces, and a flood of post-concert direct marketing)   to browbeat orchestras for neglecting to provide a comprehensive value proposition. But, really, why not turn the scrutiny around and take a closer look at Judy? Are her problems really fixable?

Fred Reichheld puts the idea of customer loyalty like this: 1) Some customers prefer stable, long-term relationships. 2) Some customers are more profitable. 3) Some customers are more responsive to your particular business strengths. For a discerning business, acquiring new customers is a matter of asking of any prospects, “Are they likely people?” That is, will they be loyal, will they be profitable, and will they respond?

The Wyman First-Timer report doesn’t tell orchestras a thing about which groups to target as first-timers. Instead, it focuses on the retention of whoever shows up. But, if you consider Reichheld (and we do), instead of being independent, retention is actually a function of whoever shows up. Judy may have just been a poor prospect. That she had a terrible experience is unfortunate but not altogether unexpected. Remember, some customers are more responsive to your particular business strengths. It’s incredibly difficult for a business to create tastes and habits in a customer in a first visit. The First-Timers report tell marketers “It’s all you.” But it never is.

Now the report’s recommendations (familiar repertoire, background information, enjoyable pre- and post-concert experience, easy access to the hall, and flexible exchange of tickets) are good (except for perhaps the flexible ticket exchange for a first-time buyer), but not game-changing. What’s game-changing is the 2-for-1 discount, which clearly works, but should perhaps be used more strategically.

I think orchestras could benefit from a try-us-twice concept where the 2-for-1 offer applies to the tickets for the second performance. This way patrons buy the try-us-twice packs up front. You’re essentially getting First-Timers to commit to coming back in their first transaction. I think there are all sorts of benefits here, but we’re still in the early stages of thinking this through.

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