How to Talk About Pricing… with More Light Than Heat


Why is it so difficult to discuss how we price tickets?

I want to note right away that I’m not asking why we struggle to SET ticket prices; for very good thinking about pricing, I suggest you read through Trisha Mead’s posts on the subject. I’m asking why we struggle to TALK about setting ticket prices.

In his very thought-provoking book Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells an instructive story about the AARP that I think begins to answer this question.

A few years ago, the AARP tried to solicit lawyers to offer their services at deeply discounted rates – $30 an hour, to be exact – to help retirees. No dice. When the AARP subsequently asked lawyers to donate their time, however, there was suddenly great interest. Not exactly rational on the lawyers’ part, no?

Ariely explains that in both instances, the lawyers were being asked to be part of the social contract: to do good for the sake of doing good. In the former instance, however, there was also a small market element at play as well. As has been shown quite exhaustively in behavioral economics research, he illustrates, the presence of market norms in an exchange or relationship significantly undermines (if not destroys) the effect of social norms.

A quick definition of terms: social norms are the touchy-feely, largely-unwritten rules that govern the ways in which we live together as human beings; market norms, by contrast, are the rules that govern the ways in which we transact business.

As theater practitioners, we live in a world in which social norms predominate and market norms are seen as vulgar and distasteful.  This is because our art relies on social norms to function; as Ariely makes clear, market norms obliterate social norms; therefore, we are instinctively afraid to bring market norms into our theaters.

The conversation about pricing would seem, on the surface, to require an engagement with market norms. That’s why we get anxious when we talk about it. We don’t want to harm what really matters to us.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of using market norms to talk about, think about, and determine pricing, we can use social norms.

For example, instead of commodifying seats – as in “How do we sell seats?” – we can think about the services we provide, and the value we receive in exchange for those services.  Instead of talking about “pricing models,” we can talk about rewarding loyalty and discouraging unwanted behaviors.

If we do that, I believe we’ll find that we have more in common than we realize.

We all want our work to be seen by lots of people. We all want lasting, valuable relationships with our audiences. We all want people to value the work we do very highly. And we all want everyone who wants to see our work to be able to see it.

Most importantly, we all want the prices that people pay for their tickets to represent the value they find in the work, modulated by what they can afford.

(Note, for the record, that none of the above desires or values are solely the province of not-for-profit theater; they apply equally well to commercial theater, too.)

Once we acknowledge our common ground, the conversation should become easier. Decisions about what pricing models will make our shared vision manifest might still be complicated – again, I refer you to Trisha Mead for clarity – but they shouldn’t be heated.

  • September 29, 2010
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