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Subscription schemes encourage customers to buy a number of tickets for a package of events and thereby attend more events than they otherwise might have done. Tim Baker asks why they have not achieved the same popularity in the UK as across the Atlantic, and looks at the experience of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
In the US subscription drives form the backbone of most performing arts marketing campaigns. Subscription did see a rise in popularity in the UK during the late 1970s and early 1980s following the success of Danny Newman?s work in the US and his book ?Subscribe Now?. Since then, however, interest in subscription schemes has waned and many schemes have declined as a result of increasing competition for the leisure pound and the development of a culture demanding more immediate gratification, with less of a predisposition to planning ahead. But the benefits of subscription haven?t lessened and we can still reap them by analysing our market and developing subscription packages accordingly.

Subscription schemes appeal to people who like to plan their lives. These people use a subscription as a spur to action (?If it wasn?t for my subscription I?d never go out?.) Unfortunately, the very reason why subscription is attractive to this group makes it unappealing to those who like to keep their options open and choose between the ever-increasing number of competitors for their leisure time. For this group the prospect of pre-determined packages requiring significant commitment at an early stage lacks appeal, particularly in marketplaces where there is significant competition. The key to attracting this second group initially is flexibility and the minimum of commitment.

Subscriber benefits

In designing a benefits package for subscribers it is vital to research which benefits are valued by existing and potential subscribers, as what works in one marketplace will be very different from another. Furthermore, some benefits may be seen as attractive in inducing initial subscription purchase while others may be about increasing satisfaction and serving retention.

Discounts are essential for creating a sense of value for money, and by placing a deadline on the offer a sense of urgency can be created. However, the level of discount offered is rarely the most significant factor in the decision to subscribe. The attender who subscribes, excepting schemes targeting students or other low income groups, is less likely to be price-sensitive and is more likely to opt for better seats.

Scarcity of product can be used to drive customers into subscription by offering desirable products to subscribers only (i.e. products where demand outstrips capacity). But caution must be advised here. While this may be an attractive benefit for the 20% of the audience who may be our subscribers, it could rapidly alienate the remaining 80% of customers and present the organisation as elitist, unfriendly and exclusive.

Priority for subscribers on the best seats and seat retention schemes (where priority on the best seats is given to subscribers according to the length of time they have subscribed) can operate as both an incentive for new subscribers and a powerful tool in retaining subscribers. Dropping a subscription will mean losing a level of priority that cannot be regained. In some cases subscriptions are handed down through generations!

Many performing arts organisations have stringent ticket exchange policies. However, in return for committing so far in advance to specific dates, subscribers may expect the organisation to be understanding about their need to exchange tickets from time to time. By enabling them to exchange their tickets the organisation will help to ensure satisfaction with the subscription and increase its subscriber retention rates; offering exchanges into subsequent seasons can also create a useful tie-in.

Other benefits for subscribers may include priority booking, special events such as opportunities to meet the artists, newsletters, and associated discounts or freebies such as merchandise, drinks, parking, etc.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that in relation to the benefits being delivered to the organisation, subscriber benefits are not costly and are relatively easy to implement.

In designing a scheme it is important to research the benefits sought and the nature of the market. Schemes include:

? a ?Take it or leave it? offer of a complete season

? ?Choose a series? typically on the same day where there is a choice of packages

? ?Pick & mix? where the scheme aims to give a customer maximum flexibility and choice

? purchasing a package of vouchers that can be used at any time during the season.

Having designed the scheme to suit the market and maximise sales, there are a number of structural variables to consider: season length, offer timing and availability, discount levels and number of purchases required.

Breaking down barriers

Where possible, barriers to purchase amongst the market should also be overcome. The most common reasons for not subscribing are cited as too great a financial outlay (so allow customers to pay monthly), not wanting to commit in advance/inflexibility of personal schedules (so stress flexible exchange packages), or wanting to choose which events to attend (offer a pick and mix subscription).

Schemes should also make the renewal process as easy as possible. Help the subscriber with their decision-making process by using a personalised mailing that makes a booking recommendation based on previous purchase and enables them to simply tick a box and make a payment rather than filling out complicated forms. Furthermore, don?t expect everyone to act on the first mailing ? some subscribers will need reminders and follow-up contact.

Identify and cultivate subscribers. They value their relationship with your organisation and consequently may contribute significant income and support throughout their lifetime.

Tim Baker is an independent consultant. t: 01223 242100; e: timbaker@ednet.co.uk