As marketers of the arts, we are frequently confronted with questions about who our audiences are and how to reach them. Who will enjoy our production? Who is most likely to be willing to pay for a ticket and invest their time and energy? Who is most likely to be a repeat attender to our venue? How do we reach new audiences, or individuals that don’t typically go to theatre?

These are tough questions that, unfortunately, tend to lead to broad generalizations of the people for whom we create our work. As artists, we understand the layers and nuances of human personalities and behaviors; individuals are complex. As marketers, we are pressured to categorize in order to maximize results. For people like myself, who run both the artistic side and the marketing side of a theatre company, this can feel like a challenging juxtaposition.

Last year, while writing my master’s thesis on the marketing of lesser-known works, I conducted a survey of 150 theatregoers. About half were from my geographic area, but the other half spanned across the United States. The primary goal was to determine what types of marketing methods were most successful in motivating them to attend a theatre piece they’d never heard of. I listed all the usual methods: Direct mail, posters, advertisements, social media, recommendations of friends or family, news features, detailed website descriptions, and more.

When I was creating the survey, I assumed that when I got to the analysis portion, I would gain answers by segmenting responses based on demographics like age and income level. For example, I assumed, as many marketers probably do, that older people would consistently respond to more traditional methods like direct mail and ads, while younger patrons would be more motivated by social media and other online content. I also assumed that patterns would emerge based on income, and that different geographic locations were more likely to respond to certain types of marketing strategies. I was certain that clear-cut patterns and answers would come from looking at behaviors relative to these traditional demographics.

I was completely wrong.

As I perused the survey results, I became overwhelmed by just how little commonality there was amongst demographic segments. For example, social media posts were noted as a successful publicity method relatively evenly across the surveyed age groups, indicating that while social media is important for motivating young audiences, it may not necessarily alienate those who are older. As might be expected, print, radio, and TV features were listed as a motivator for 73 percent of respondents age sixty and older, but this method was still listed as a motivator at a significant percentage for other age groups. Recommendations from family or friends were listed as a motivator at a high rate across all age groups, motivating an average of 90 percent of people.

Income level provided even fewer similarities in answers. The reasons for income levels are varied, and therefore the individuals in those categories may not have easily discernable motivators. Plus, a high income doesn’t necessarily mean that one spends their disposable cash on the arts. One of many surprises was that recommendations of friends and family scored far better as motivators for people with higher income than those on the other end of the spectrum.

General demographic profiles are broadly drawn, but many marketers (myself included), start and stop there in working on segmenting their audiences. They assume a certain attitude about theatre relative to age groups, races, and other categories. While this may be the case to some extent, as arts marketers it is detrimental to assume that one age group, race, or other division of individuals are all looking for the same thing from their arts experiences. The truth is, it’s much more complicated.

So where does that leave us? How are we supposed to identify our audiences outside of these traditional demographics, particularly for theatre works that do not have instant name recognition?

Four actors posing in costume
For their recent production of Lizzie, a rock musical about Lizzie Borden, Music Theatre of Madison relied heavily on visual marketing methods. Photo by Brett Williams.

The answer to this may lie in digging to the root of the customer experience, rather than their cultural and economic statuses. In my survey, the key patterns, in terms of effective strategies, emerged when looking at how often someone attended theatrical productions. In the groups I surveyed, people who attended a lower number of events per year indicated a much stronger reliance on visual media and detailed website descriptions than those who attended semi-frequently or frequently. Semi-frequent theatre goers were highly reliant on recommendations of family and friends. Perhaps most surprising was that people who were attending theatre the most frequently were not, as we might assume, rich people with a plethora of disposable income. Their average income level was only slightly higher than the infrequent and semi-frequent theatregoers. Rather, they appeared to be the most price sensitive group. Many indicated in the comments that they were attending because they were getting a student discount or were part of some sort of club, or, to a lesser-extent, were subscribers.

To me, this indicates something very important for arts marketers to consider: Our audiences may be best segmented and targeted by how they think about theatre as part of their lives, rather than by traditional demographic labels. It seems that when we consider how people think about theatre in terms of its importance in their lives, we can begin to understand what types of marketing methods might best work for attracting them. While my research was focused specifically on marketing lesser-known pieces, it is my belief that this tool can be applied to any arts organization producing any type of work. It comes down to asking simple questions. How essential are the arts to your target customers’ lives? With that, what strategies will be most successful in convincing them that your arts experience is for them? We can begin to answer these questions by keeping track of our patrons’ attendance frequency and what is motivating them to attend our productions, and then cross-referencing to see if patterns emerge.

Steps to Using This Tool
Three important, perhaps even challenging things, must occur in order for this strategy to be used effectively:

1. The definition of “frequent” must be determined relative to the market in question.  

For the purposes of my survey, I identified infrequent theatregoers as people who attended between one and five shows per year, semi-frequent as those who attended between five and fifteen, and frequent as those who attended more than fifteen. However, what constitutes frequency fluctuates widely. Companies that want to put this targeting method into effect should use their judgement relative to their audience and location. 

2. Some type of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, or a reliable substitute, must be implemented and equipped to ask customized questions of ticket buyers. 

CRM systems come in many different forms. Many companies use a CRM for donor tracking. Most venues where arts performances take place will also use them to track their customers, their buying habits, and their contact information, which is what’s needed in order to implement the strategy I’ve described. Typically, a CRM that does this is specific to a permanent home base, as it can be customized to give buyers and option to choose their seats when buying.

However, many organizations, including the one I run, do not have a permanent home. We rent from other venues, sometimes using traditional theatres and sometimes using unconventional spaces like community centers or bars. When we use the latter, we use an online ticketing service that allows for credit card purchases and tracks general admission. For the former, we are typically at the disposal of whatever CRM the rented venue uses. This provides us with data from multiple systems at the end of the season.

This can prove very problematic when trying to track customer information and discern patterns. If you have multiple ticketing systems that are dependent on the venue you are using, it can be time-consuming and potentially expensive to cross-reference your data.

Moreover, as my theatre recently experienced, the CRM of a rented venue often cannot be customized to ask specific marketing questions other than those automatically programmed. This means collecting desired information about a patron’s habits may simply not be possible during the buying process.

The CRM issue is probably the biggest hurdle to making this strategy work. As a company that plans to continue using multiple venues, Music Theatre of Madison is attempting to track customer behavior by implementing a post-show survey. CRMs collect e-mail addresses for customers that purchase in advance, as well as tracking the “permission to contact” option. We will use that information to e-mail attendees asking them to answer the questions we couldn’t glean when they purchased their tickets. We’ll examine these answers to follow trends.

While surveys often aren’t reflective of the entire audience, they can give us at least a passing understanding beyond the current guesswork forced on so many marketers. This may be a good jumping off point for small arts organizations to help them understand their patron behaviors, even if they can’t implement a formal CRM tracking method.

3. Wording in consumer surveys should be reconsidered

As I’ve been increasingly studying marketing of the arts, I’ve spent a lot of time considering the question that appears in multiple ticket-buying platforms: “How did you hear about this production?” My newly-formed irritation with the question is not the fact that it exists, but the way it is worded. Hearing about a show and being motivated to buy a ticket are two different things.

The question should really be divided into two parts: “How did you first hear about this event” and “What motivated you to purchase a ticket to this event?”, because these are two different considerations. The answers to these should not include the extremely general “word of mouth,” instead using more specific answers like, “A friend who had seen the production recommended it on social media” or “A friend or family member who is involved asked me to come.” These questions should then be accompanied by “How frequently do you attend theatrical productions?” Wording our inquiries this way helps us to understand our customers’ motivations along with their attitudes. We can track what types of marketing efforts are actually resulting in a purchase.

A group of singers performing at a new musicals reading
For their recent series of new musicals readings, Music Theatre of Madison began asking audiences both how they heard about the events and what motivated them to come avoiding the "word of mouth" generalization. Photo by Meghan Randolph.

As Heather A. Beasley recently noted in an article for HowlRound, typical demographic questions about income, race, and other very personal identifiers, can feel invasive. The above questions, emphasizing behavior, can feel less so and in fact may be more helpful in determining future strategies.

This part of my research on marketing lesser-known pieces was the most surprising, somewhat inconclusive, and contains the most caveats. I am acutely aware that surveys, CRMs, and other things described in this article are difficult to fine-tune. But at its root, people’s motivations being linked to their mentalities makes a lot of sense. As theatre companies work toward drawing in more diverse audiences, I believe it is very possible that using this strategy can help in the long run.