Filthy Lucre #3: Through the Looking Glass


We price everything backwards in the theater.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You debate with your box office/marketing/artistic staff to find just the right price point that feels “accessible” (read, your friends tell you that this is what “they” will pay to see your work, despite the fact your friends are comped and rarely actually pay to see your shows). You create special discounts for young folk (because they’re poor, you theorize inaccurately) and old folk (fixed incomes! Plus they are the loudest complainers about price changes). Then you slap that price on everything you print.

And you wait. Some sales trickle in, from the usual suspects: people who see everything you do and subscribers who want to bring their friends. A week before opening you PANIC. Too many lightly sold houses! A special offer must be created!

You think of everyone who might be able to send out a 2 for 1 offer to their email list. You promise to give a curtain speech in their honor longer than the play itself and spam your own customers with offers from them just to get them to offer 2 for 1 tickets to their 300 email list members. You paper the first weekend’s houses with ANYONE who will be willing to show up.

A trickle of movement. Still not much though.

Then BAM! A great review hits. Now your Friday nights start filling up. Woo hoo! All those people who got offers are now racing to buy your Friday night tickets at that great deal you offered.

Saturday matinee is still dead. But that’s okay- you have a rush ticket program, so people start lining up on Saturday for $10 tickets and your house goes from 1/3 to 2/3 full in the last ten minutes. You didn’t make any money on those seats, but hey- they were just going to go empty. Right?

Closing weekend comes. The word of mouth has been great, so it sells out. All those people you made 2 for 1 offers to? They’re scrambling to get in. The people who always hit you up for comps? They’re desperate to see it closing night. And, you’ve got a line around the block of people trying to snag no-show seats for that amazing $10 rush deal. You turn half of them away. And smack your head, saying, “Let’s extend! We’re a huge hit!”

If you went back and did the math on this huge hit, you would discover that your average ticket price was APALLING. That carefully modulated perfect ticket price that you haggled out with your business manager and your artistic director? You didn’t even come close. A shockingly small percentage of your patrons paid anywhere NEAR your perfectly accessible-but-culturally appropriate price.

On top of that, look at the behaviors you’ve rewarded:

1. Wait till the review
2. Wait till the last minute
3. Wait till the last weekend

Let’s cull that down to the one behavior you’ve rewarded: WAIT.

Why do we do this? Our own egos, pure and simple.

First we are massive optimists. We assume that of course everyone will rush to buy tickets to opening weekend even though there’s been no reviews (our postcards in coffee shops are just THAT compelling).

When that doesn’t happen,the thought of a half-empty opening weekend fills us with dread of embarrassment- Those patrons who paid our idealized price early can’t be allowed to discover that they paid that price for something only a few people wanted to see!

So we throw out a deal or an offer to paper the house. The house fills, but some of our patrons who paid top dollar get that email and discover that, if they’d waited, they could have paid half price. Some of them call and demand a refund for the difference. So in the name of good customer service, we provide it. But hey- it was worth it.

Because a FULL HOUSE of $10 tickets is better than a half-full house of $60 tickets.


Then, when the closing weekend sells out and we’re all congratulating ourselves on our success, we make the stupidest decisions of all: we feel powerful by comping in important people to a sold out house. We plan a longer run for the next show (because, clearly, the audience wants more of us). And we feel compelled to honor the advertised cheap deals we sent out early in the run (that we failed to set any limits on) despite the fact that the next person in line would have paid full value or more to get in to this super popular show.

It’s all backwards. The people who commit BEFORE the reviews should get the best deal.

The people who wait till that perpetually sold out closing performance should pay the most money- because those seats are in the highest demand!

And if 10 performances that will sell out 5 minutes to curtain at $10 a ticket is good, then 4 performances that fill with truly committed and excited $60 buyers weeks in advance is BETTER.

Want longevity as a company? Build your audience one committed high-value patron at a time, rather than in batches of low commitment, procrastinating deal hunters.

And before you holler about new audiences, remember: New, young, hip, diverse audiences are not all poor and they’re not necessarily price sensitive. They’re just MASSIVELY UNIFORMED about your art. Informing and exciting a new audience member takes resources. Resources that will be provided much faster by a committed existing audience willing to pay top dollar for the experience you provide them.

So, how do you structure your marketing campaign reward early and committed, while leveraging those early adopters to help you reach sexy new audiences?

Here’s 5 Things You Could Do to Push Your Pricing Back Through the Looking Glass:

1. Stop Panicking. A half full house early in the run is not a failure. Price resistance in the box office is not a problem- if you are not getting 10 to 15% of your audience asking for a cheaper deal than your top ticket price, your prices are too low.

2. Think like a Bedouin. If you buy a rug in Morocco, the price you are first quoted is double the price that anyone actually expects you to actually pay for the rug. The list price is a starting point, a claim of value, and an assurance that the ultimate price you pay must be a WICKED GOOD DEAL. If you have developed a magic perfect price for your shows, you’re most popular night should be as much as 20% higher than that perfect price. The people who really don’t care about price will pay it, and the people looking for a deal (like those theater industry friends who complain about how expensive you’ve gotten) can be negotiated into an earlier show, a harder to fill time slot or a highly visible but less desirable seat.

Remember, it doesn’t matter if they think your tickets are EXPENSIVE. It matters that they think they got a GREAT DEAL on a normally expensive ticket.

2. Be a Boy Scout. Be prepared.Identify your usual problem houses (for many theaters, the Saturday after opening is a common culprit) and create early offers to your strongest supporters for just that performance. Not a blanket offer. A targeted offer for the early performance that’s a tough time or day. This takes research, to identify the right audience group for the offer. And it takes time and effort to give that group enough information about the show and a good enough offer to get them to bite early and help flesh out that troublesome house. Have these offers prepped weeks ahead of opening night.

This is also a great way to reach your accessibility goals (if price accessibility is important to your mission or donor pitch).Target specific groups you’d like to be accessible to (women’s shelters, treatment programs, under-served neighborhoods and children), and offer a trade: their contact information in exchange for a great deal on a difficult night. Then make sure they have the opportunity to advocate for your show by sharing their thoughts about the experience on Facebook, by e-mail, or on a board in your lobby. Their public goodwill becomes a reward for the donors who help pay to make seats accessible to that audience, completing the circle of value without giving away seats to people who can afford more.

3. Reward early and committed. They follow you on Facebook or Twitter? They get a great deal for buying early. They’re on your mailing list? They get the best price, two weeks before opening. These people have given you something precious- a cheap pipeline to communicate with them. Make it worth their while with great deals. Make sure that if they ever accidentally find out what the person is paying at the box office 5 minutes to curtain, they get to GLOAT about the deal they got instead of GRUMBLE about why they paid more than the uncommitted schmo who showed up off the street two minutes ago. Many of these people may choose not to take the deal. But they’ll still be thrilled to receive it, and they’ll rate the value of your communications higher because of it.

4.Make Procrastinators Pay for the Privilege. Last minute and closing night should cost more. Instead of advertising rush, make sure your audience knows that the price goes up the closer you get to curtain.

5. Turn people away. A triumphant sold out closing weekend is better for the future sales of your next show (“I guess I better buy my tickets sooner next time!”) than an anemic extension tacked on at the last minute because closing night sold out. People who didn’t get in to your last show will make more of an effort to get in early on your next show.

A word of warning: the first time you implement this strategy, it may feel REALLY WEIRD. After all, if you’ve been living backwards your whole life, moving forwards might really take getting used to.

And you might find resistance from pockets of your organization (and your audience). So make sure you track the results of your new efforts- from audience feedback to average price point and average house size. This will help you balance the reporting about the new strategy. Everyone will have heard about the two cranky patrons surprised to learn they would pay more for procrastinating. But unless you tell them, nobody will know the dividends earned from the many happy, higher paying patrons who bought earlier and felt great about the price they paid.

  • April 15, 2010
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