Jill Robinson

Jill Robinson

Ten years into our ongoing patron behavior research and analysis, data is showing us an alarming fact: There’s a huge set of cracks in the foundation of patronage that arts organizations are built upon.

In patron behavior terms, the “cracks” are caused by Tryers. These are households that have infrequent, one-time, or long-ago transactions with arts and entertainment organizations and they are the most prevalent type of patron behavior.

Right now the databases of most arts organizations are likely comprised of 90 percent Tryers. And most of them are patrons you’ve allowed to lapse.

Tryers—TRG Arts research has found—are the least loyal, most expensive to acquire, and most difficult to retain patrons. That most audience or visitor bases are built on Tryers is a real threat to the sustainable future of arts and entertainment organizations. It doesn’t have to be that way.

  • The focus on finding new single ticket buyers is part of the problem. Research tells us that new ticket buyers churn out an alarmingly high rate after their first attendance. Often, organizations lose more patrons than they bring in annually, and that trend triggers institutional decline.
  • Specific patronage programs–subscription, annual fund giving, membership–are escalators toward lifetime loyalty. Patrons who stick with a company over time and through continuing investment—loyalists—do so through these programs.
  • Loyal patrons are made, not found. An organization’s most loyal, most engaged, largest invested patrons rarely if ever arrive in an organization’s pool of supporters fully formed. Research shows that new patrons who do stick with an organization do so by adding specific transactions in an escalating pattern of increased, frequent, current investments of time and money.
  • Household-by-household patron cultivation is the key. Cultivation—the ability to mine an organization’s database to move patrons from newbies to lifelong loyalists is the path to sustaining patronage and revenue. Organizations must identify—at the household level—patrons and their next best loyalty-instilling action.
  • Achieving loyalty means offering patrons their right next step. The goal is to get more Tryers to move up—not out—of active patronage. Once they do they become part of the group of active “Buyers” who subscribe, become members and generally add transactions to their experience with the organization. Patrons at the top of the loyalty pyramid, we call them Advocates, get there through philanthropy—and most often with an annual gift in the $1,000—$2,500 level.

Today, 10 percent or less of all patrons are moving up the loyalty escalator toward the type of support that can sustain arts organizations.

The focus needs to shift from finding new patrons to putting in place smart loyalty programs that can increase the number and proportion of Buyers and Advocates.

Read Jill Robinson’s full blog post, Too Many Tryers to Sustain the Arts, on the TRG Arts blog.

2 Responses to “The Cracks in the Arts Patron Foundation”

  1. Thanks for the great post Jill! These seem like important points to make.

    But I also wonder if the reason there are so many tryers is that the arts they are trying have in some way failed to connect with them in the first place. I wonder if the 90% are just not in a position where these arts matter to them. In other words, while we can give them better incentives to move up the pyramid, does this really address why they so frequently lose interest in the first place?

    The sense I get is that we are asking folks to appreciate these art endeavors without having laid much of a foundation for those arts to make a difference in their lives. Or maybe just not enough…. Perhaps most folks just aren’t prepared to investigate these arts deeper than the superficial first introduction. Why would they? If the arts are a sophisticated form of communication, is it something like trying to sell an incomprehensible product in a foreign language that the person has very little grasp of? Will incentives make it much easier, I wonder? Unless folks already ‘get’ the value on display, putting incentives on something considered inscrutable or valueless will have only predictable results.

    I also wonder if addressing these issues at the stage where folks are already either patrons or not is a case of having missed our opportunity to make the greatest difference. Asking someone as an adult with adult concerns to suddenly become a financial supporter of the arts doesn’t make much sense without a basic grounding in their lives of why the arts matter. Or of specific arts in particular. And it seems that this argument is less likely to win folks over the more adult their concerns are. Or maybe there’s a better argument than I’ve been hearing…. It just seems that the foundation of loyalty is something that is best formed at the earliest age possible. Wait too long and the efforts to instil it are doomed to diminishing returns. It seems….

    If someone grew up playing baseball, watching baseball on TV, and going to games, doesn’t it seem like handing out an incentive to support baseball as an adult would be an easier sell than to someone who has little exposure to it? It just seems that we train folks to either appreciate art or to ignore it in those ‘formative’ years. I suppose that’s why they call it ‘formative’. Have we failed to properly take advantage of those formative opportunities and are we paying for it now? Are we simply asking too much of folks that are basically already fully formed, but without an appreciation of art in their make-up?

    Does that make any sense? I’m just throwing ideas out that seem to bear on the problem, but I’d love to hear what other people think.

  2. [...] had a new post recently that detailed the results of a ten year study on Arts patron behavior. And these findings [...]

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.