When done right, self-service is a great option to offer customers. When done to merely cut costs, or when done with a poor understanding of the user, it’s mostly annoying. – Seth Godin

Patrons new to the arts are often surprised to learn that some of the highest-calibre artistic offerings in cities like Toronto are primarily presented by volunteer-run organizations (like the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto), or just a handful of full-time staff (like Soundstreams Canada or Alliance Française).

They accomplish the Herculean job of creating rich artistic experiences and eye-catching marketing materials with limited resources. These are the hidden miracles that arts professionals and volunteers work everyday, despite the thankless task. The personal fulfillment they take from the job is one of the reasons they stick around, despite the fraught realities confronting the arts.

It is this dedication that makes the challenge of attracting new audiences such a frustrating one. What more can be done to show the value of the arts? How much more can we give to the creation of unique and memorable artistic experiences?

On Making Art More Accessible

The overarching narrative for the last decade or more has been making art more accessible. We now see discounted tickets for the under 30 crowd (let’s hook them before they start a family) and reduced ticket prices overall (assuming that the arts are in fact competing on price). We also have free shows featuring world-class performers (like the Canadian Opera Company’s free concert series or Harbourfront’s free programs), and the introduction of talks and salons to engage and educate new audiences.

While all great initiatives (and I speak as a beneficiary of many of them), my concern is that we are preaching to the converted. That is, we are wooing the patrons who would have attended anyway, but who are they to say no to a cheaper ticket or a free show?

One of the unintended and rarely discussed consequences of these audience development strategies is that patrons who would have paid the full ticket price are being siphoned to take the place we’d like to fill with new patrons.

On Missed Connections with New Audiences

Try this thought experiment: What if all the effort we have put into attracting and engaging new audiences has merely cannibalized our core supporters?

It’s not hard to imagine, but it does make us uncomfortable, because if it is true, we seem to have worked ourselves into a corner: How much harder do we have to work to create artistic experiences? What’s more accessible than free?

If someone is looking to have an artistic experience, making it cheaper won’t make them want it more. The process we put them through to commit to a show, however, might be the buzzkill that turns new audiences away before you even learn who they are or how many of them are there.

From the moment they get intrigued by your performance, as they proceed to acquire a ticket (or two) and commit to attending, patrons are often confronted with a series of inconveniences: a laborious checkout process requiring too many fields, an interface reminiscent of the early days of computing, and convenience fees whose reason for existing has long been forgotten.

Any artistic and marketing effort is for naught if at the first point of contact, a first-time ticket buyer feels that we didn’t care enough to make a good first impression. These coveted people are bouncing away the moment they land on your ticketing page, and you haven’t even had a chance to say hello. Why do we let this happen?

The Devil is in the (Ticketing) Details

Ticketing systems (or the lack of one) being used by arts organizations don’t often change because they work in a sense. They gather patron info, they are connected to administrative databases, some even issue physical tickets, so the volunteer at the door can manually check for them during admission.

Long-time patrons are patient and well acquainted with the process. Even in a worst-case scenario, you can rely on them to show up and pay at the door. However, the new patrons we so desperately want have a different set of priorities: make the buying process quick, make the admission easy.

If you can make each touchpoint before the show a remarkable one, they come to the show in a great mood, and you leave the impression that you are serious about building a long-term relationship.

BeMused Network applies this simple philosophy to our ticketing service for the arts, and the patrons’ candid responses speak for themselves:

“Thanks for believing that ‘service’ or ‘convenience’ fees are a bunch of nonsense. The financial sector indulges in legal criminality all the time!” – Josh H

“Thank you for the ‘no service fees’. You are right. It is s bunch of ^@#*%> Here’s to taking ownership back of these ridiculous abuses. Merci.” – Gina V

“The Shaw and Stratford festivals need to learn from you. I always think that I should charge THEM the service fee, since I am doing the ordering and printing and saving them the time and money for both! Appreciate your service!” – Joe D

New audiences are not unicorns. They are people like you and I. Between great artistic programming and imaginative marketing campaigns, paying attention to the way your ticketing service makes first-time patrons feel can turn those missed connections into real ones.

We don’t need better art; it can’t get much better than what we are already producing on an ever shrinking budget. Let’s pick a different battle, critically review our ticketing process from the perspective of first time patrons.

It seems absurdly simple for such a seemingly impossible problem, but I believe it can make the difference we are all yearning for.

Thanks to John Terauds and Bonnie O’Dacre for reading a draft of this.

Here’s a related piece publlished on Seth Godin blog today:
Omotenashi and the Service Split.