Cash Mobs: Countering the Discount Culture of Theatre

03.28.12 | 7 Comments

CATEGORIES #stealthisidea, board members, cash mob, charity, community, conversation starter, crowdsourcing, funding and support, ideas, partnerships, rabble rousing, social profit, sponsorship, theatrical ecosystem

photo by Tadson Bussey, used under a Creative Commons license

Full Disclosure: I worked at Actors Theatre of Louisville for over 7 years. I am currently a board member with Le Petomane Theater Ensemble. Over the years I have held internships at Arena Stage, New World Theater, Trinity Repertory Company and Amherst College Theater & Dance Department. This article in no way officially represents any of those organizations, even though it is informed by my experiences with each. And I don’t claim to have the answers to these issues.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years surrounding the development and flurry of activity on local deal sites like Group On, Living Social and Try It Local (among others). This is not about those sites, at least not really.

I saw a link on Twitter about Cash Mobs (via @andmegansaid) – the name and then the content caught my attention and my brain would not stop. Especially since the moment I re-teweeted this link, three people I know immediately picked up on it (@GJMaupin, @michellej and @dloehr) And thought it was a phenomenal idea for Louisville. And one of them volunteered to coordinate.

Then I got a LinkedIn message about it from someone who was already on it in terms of organizing for Louisville and asked if I was interested in being involved.

Then I mentioned it to a friend at The Paper, and they were interested in hearing what happens, and I suggested they cover it when it does.

Then one of the tweeps (@dloehr) asked me to write something for #2amt, which was exactly where my once-a-theatre-marketer-always-a-theatre-marketer brain was going.

You see, there’s a lot of talk about why the arts can’t get audiences, can’t bring in younger audiences, deep discount too much, give away the farm with Group On offers, etc. And on the fundraising side, there’s similar discussion about how those things impact donations.

But there’s not much talk about the fact that we already know a certain segment of theatre audiences can probably afford to pay more than they are already paying. How do we know this?

I’m not going to say this is Intuitively Obvious to the Casual Observer (favorite logic term learned from high school math teach Coach Brian Spicer). However, having absorbed a ton of sales data, survey and research statistics on theatre attendance, audience development and ticket sales, I would posit the following commonly held observations culled from said years of data (and would point you towards Americans for the Arts, the Doris Duke Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, Theatre Communications Group and smart people like Devon V. Smith):

A) Top predictors of theatre attendance are education and income.

B) Actual average ticket prices paid (i.e. if you average total revenue over total paid tickets sold) hover very low compared to median face prices. In most cases this occurs even when you exclude standard discount face prices such as student matinee tickets.

C) Most theatres (but not all) charge less per ticket for season tickets than they do for single tickets. In some scenarios, that price may be even less than the actual average ticket price paid. (Remember, that price is often lower than median face price.) So the people we often cite as being more engaged (season ticket holders) are paying less per ticket. Not necessarily bad, just an observation.

D) Season ticket holders skew at least slightly higher on income and education than single ticket buyers.

If these well-educated, high-income attendees can pay more, why don’t they? As many others have written and complained about, we have conditioned audiences to expect discounts. As fewer people have written, in recent years with budget constraints and staffing cuts plaguing the industry, quality has had some roller coasters. Correlation? Not for me to say.

So, and?

When you not only buy a discounted ticket to the theatre, but you buy it through a site like GroupOn, you are double-dinging the organization. Part of the money you pay (for what is already a large discount off the face price) goes to that arts organization, and part goes to the deal site.

Yes, the organizations who participate in these local deal sites know what they are getting into, just as they know what they are doing when they offer $10 tickets at the end of a run that is not selling and seats sit empty.

But, wouldn’t it be great if those who CAN afford to pay more, do so? On a regular basis?

I’m not saying that theatres should raise their ticket prices, exclude lower-prices or stop all discounting. There is something to be said for the service theatres provide to the community, which CANNOT be said if tickets are exclusively available to those with a college education and the income that goes with it.

I think there is a family of four who will stop going to see that family friendly show every year if the bottom level price or kids discounts go away.

I think there are at-risk kids who would never have a chance to experience theatre if it weren’t for grant programs and comp tickets. I have personally heard stories of the positive impact that the act of going to see a play with an involved teacher and classmates can have on a kid who has very little to be cheerful about.

And a theatre would be shooting themselves in the foot regarding continual audience development if they made it less likely for parents and teachers to introduce children to the theatre (and bring them back for return trips).

I think most theatres undervalue current and prospective audience members who do not have an advanced degree and are not at the top of the income bracket. Theatre is not some lofty, intellectual realm to be preserved for the elite. Theatre is one of the oldest forms of mass entertainment and you don’t have to have a fancy piece of paper or a big bank account to enjoy it.

I think a college student or typical 20-something with a job not at the top of the pay scale is more likely to give your show a try as an entertainment option if they can also afford dinner or drinks on the same night. And maybe groceries that week, too. Make it easy for them to realize that there is value in what you do, and they will pay full-price one day.

And lest my friends in development skewer me over a marketing/fundraising divide bonfire, yes, I think you should still ask those who attend the theatre for donations to support your operating budget. I’ve always been a big cheerleader for educating laypeople that theatre costs more than what you and others pay for tickets.

And I think if you are not already doing so, you should happily accept even $5 donations from those who are either too young to be at their top earning potential, or not in the highest income bracket. Look what Obama did with $5 donors.

However, if a theatre – especially a non-profit theatre that makes up less than half its operating revenues through ticket sales – values tickets in the best seats at $50 each, I think there are people who can probably afford that who should pay full price, instead of paying less.

The whole idea behind Cash Mobs, is that you can show support for the local businesses you love, by paying what you think their product is worth – the full price the business is asking.

I’m excited to see what Cash Mobs can do to support local businesses in Louisville. We’re a very proud city, so I think it will be successful. I’m also interested to see what Cash Mobs could do for the arts, as a statement of support by those who can afford to pay full price.

Because when you are fortunate enough to be able to pay full-price for something and do so in the face of daily deal sites, pay what you can and day of discounts, what you are really saying is:

I think this is important.

I think this has value.

I think this is worth paying “full-price.”

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Cathy Colliver

Cathy Colliver is a marketing professional and creative analyst with over 10 years of marketing experience in brand management, project management, crafting and implementing marketing strategies, intrapreneurial initiatives and applied analysis.

After over 11 years working and breathing non-profit theatre in one form or another, Cathy made a foray into the corporate (“filthy lucre”) sector. She is also currently a board member of Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble.

She really does still respect the work of Danny Newman, and lays claim to more questions than answers, but thinks we live in a superbly different world now.

Cathy lives in Louisville with husband Todd and son Paul. She holds a B.A. from Amherst College and an M.B.A. from Bellarmine University.

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  • I think the main point that needs to be pointed out is the fact that arts organizations in general are not asking for full price from our loyal audiences as an option.  For example, I once took a box office call for a subscription drive, and the loyal patron exclaimed, “Don’t you need the money?”  In that moment, I asked if she would like to make a donation to round up to the regular price, and you know what, she actually did!  She received the subscription price for the tickets, but we received a donation for the difference. 

    Are you asking for a round up?  Are you giving your audiences the option to pay more to help out your theatre?  Are you being proactive with these types of asks?  You will be surprised and delighted at how many people are willing to pay full or closer to full price, and if you ask for it as a donation, these amounts will help with your grant reports.

    The Cash Mob concept is very interesting.  My area is starting to use this concept to support local retail businesses.  So far, the spike in sales for those particular days are noticeable (from what was reported). I will be interested to find out how it would work for a local theatre company.

    In the arts, in general, we seem to be afraid to ask for support.  I feel that the number one reason we are not getting enough support is the fact that we are not asking enough.  You can ask more often within reason.

    In terms of the Groupon issues – I have a blog for that:

    Cheers to happy and loyal audiences!

  • Carlo

    I almost never pay full (rack) price for theater. I almost never pay full (rack) price for orchestra concerts.
    I always pay full price for opera.  Why?  Because opera is a better value.

  • Norman Orlowski

    Our company OnStage Publications provides printed programs/playbills for over 90 organizations nationwide.  In working with our clients we have developed two products which address the problem you outlined.  The first is TicketLove which leverages our local business contacts and provides us with a warm lead for selling tickets.  Second ArtsFreePress a smart phone App that has a “crowd funding” feature along with social networking live feed. These are provided to our clients at no charge and initial trial data indicates a very strong potential for both.  

  • D Schmitz

    This is the first I’ve heard of Cash Mobs, so forgive if this question is too basic.  You do a great job of making the case for Cash Mobs in performing arts (I agree, there are a lot of people in the audience that could and probably would pay more), but what you don’t address is what ideas you’ve had for implementing one.  It seems to me that the cash mobs online were created by “concerned consumers”…is there a way to replicate this idea but have it originate from the organizations (without it feeling disingenuous)?  

    From what I’ve read, I’m not sure I see how an organization could start one without it feeling like another marketing trick.  From what I can tell, these groups are sucessful because they are consumers coming together to support their local businesses rather than local business – or arts company – asking people to pay “full price.”

  • Ben

    Just a little note: I believe the way groupon works is that the business pays groupon upfront to run the promotion, and then the business gets all the revenue from actual sales of the groupon. 

  • Prop Thtr

    if the mission is to carve into the existing audience market, then the logic here is impeccable.  If, however, the mission is to attract some of the ca. 70% of Americans who have never set foot in a theater, then some different thinking and different research criteria would be in order.

    There is an argument to be made for hunkering down, in these times, to concentrate energies upon the quality of work produced and the economy within which the greatest potential can be achieved.  Sometimes a simple policy beats the sophisticated one which requires staff hires and hours of box office related work. 

    How about simply asking  “$X (suggested price) or pay what you can afford”?

  • MuseSalon Collaborative

    I understand the concern for cash flow in the performing arts and the need for audience development.  However, I would like to ask why it is that so many professional arts venues only hire artists from out of town.  I know it’s a part of marketing and management commissions etc., but wouldn’t it be cool to go to your local theater and see locals on the stage?  So many of us artists are being shipped to obscure areas like Siberia (not kidding), to perform for a community that thinks we are “exotic.”  I would spend more money attending my local theaters if my awesome Thespian friends from high school (who are famous in Europe, but not here) were on stage.  I think that’s how it used to be, right?