Is it still possible to sell subscriptions?

Magnus Still
Magnus Still

Magnus Still, founder of Finnish company StillArt and author of Fill Every Seat – EVERY Week. The Power Of Subscriptions And How To Make Them Work Today says there’s hard proof of rapid subscription growth in the industry. In this edited extract from Chapter 2 of his new book he says you need to start by asking the right questions

One of the most common questions we get at StillArt is: ‘Is it really possible to sell subscriptions any more?’ The second most common question we get is: ‘Can we actually achieve more subscribers?’

There is a very widespread misconception within organisations that everything possible has already been done to win more subscribers. At StillArt we have come up against this argument often. There also exists a twin argument: ‘We know we have reached the total subscription market available.’

But we know that this is not always the case: six months after a new strategy has been put into action there are 100, 500, or in some cases more than 1,000 new subscriptions.

The thing is, people at the organisations really have worked very hard to improve subscriptions – and I do believe that they have honestly done their very best – yet the numbers still don’t improve and so the conclusion becomes: ‘There are no more subscriptions to be had and it’s simply not possible to get any more’.

The factual reality is that everyone can attract more subscribers. StillArt senior advisor Bernhard Kerres [founder of HelloStage] is the former CEO and artistic director of Wiener Konzerthaus. When he joined Wiener Konzerthaus they had 26,000 subscribers: within this same market, Musikverein had tens of thousands of subscribers; Jeunesse Musicale in Vienna had thousands of subscribers; Staatsoper, Volksoper, all the theatres, and all the publicly and privately funded excellent Vienna orchestras, had tens of thousands of subscribers between them – so in Vienna, Kerres was dealing with an extremely saturated market.

Please keep in mind that at the time there were only around 1.5 million people in Vienna, out of which many actually did not have a connection with the Western classical music heritage. Bernhard was repeatedly told that anyone in the city who could have wanted a subscription, already had one. Yet when he left Wiener Konzerthaus some six years later, subscriptions stood at 31,000 – an impressive increase of 5,000.

At the other end of the spectrum is Vara Concert House. Vara is a small village of just 4,000 inhabitants, located around 100km north-east of the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Here the Vara mayor came up with an exciting plan to build a concert hall – with ambitious plans to present some 150 programmes each year. From the outside it seemed like a problem waiting to happen.

When StillArts joined the project, the concert house had reached 375 subscribers. Within 18 months of our collaboration, we helped them to almost double their subscriber base to 795 members.

In research conducted by Vara Concert House (postcodes were checked to impress the politicians as to how successful they were  at attracting visitors to the village and generating money to the community) 50 per cent of visitors came from Vara, whilst the other 50 per cent did not.

So not only was this institution helping to generate local income for the community, it also meant that 400 of the 4,000 people living in Vara, had a subscription card in their pocket – a full 10 per cent of the population. (Even more if you exclude young children, babies, elderly and those that might not be mobile enough to access the concert hall.)

Martin Hansson is former CEO of the Vara Concert House and currently a StillArt senior advisor. When we experienced problems on a different project, I asked him how he had succeeded at Vara. The answer, he said, was that they had worked extremely hard on building a strong, relevant and exciting brand in the minds of the local people. It was as simple as that.

At StillArt we have a rule of thumb that between one and two and a half per cent of the population can be activated as subscribers: one per cent if you work with discipline, and two and a half per cent if you work really hard. We believe this also applies to the United States.

Taken out of context that might sound like a very small number of people, but let’s say you have 80,000 inhabitants in your town. That probably means you have around 100,000 people you can effectively target in the wider geographical area.

For a performing arts institution, an audience lives typically within 50km. Whittled down, one per cent of 100,000 inhabitants = 1,000 subscribers; therefore, two and a half per cent = 2,500 subscribers.

In most cases, that many subscribers would mean you would run into a completely new and much more pleasant problem – you wouldn’t have enough seats in your hall to meet the high demand.

If those numbers don’t solve your problem, you might need to consider either cutting the number of performances or broadening the appeal of your product to a larger population.

Perhaps you may need to emphasise the local pride in your brand and the social aspects you bring to the area. You may want work more with the broader experience of “a night out” or use local opinion leaders in your marketing. [See IAM’s interview with Manchester Camerata in Vol 12, Issue 4 for ideas .]

In an ideal world, how many subscribers should you aim for?

Here is a simple calculation: you have one single series and there are 1,000 seats in the hall. Let’s presume that 100 seats are not optimal seating. Let’s also say that you always sell 200 single tickets, and an additional 50 are reserved for staff, politicians, occasional professional visitors, local critics and various others. So far, we are down to 1,000 (– 100) (– 200) (– 50) = 650 subscriptions. You might be happy with less because it feels good in the hall already with 700 people (500 subscribers and 200 single ticket buyers), and you may want to sell a lot of high-value ticket performances with well-known artists without discounts. Or you might value artistic freedom and experimentation more and so push for 800 subscribers.

There are obviously many different factors here and we have only covered a few – but the important point is this: yes, you can sell more subscriptions, but to get there, you need to ask the right questions first.

Do not ask:
Is it possible to sell subscriptions?
Do not ask:
Haven’t we reached the total market already?

Instead ask:
What do I really want to achieve?
What is my vision?
What is driving the heart of my organisation?
What would be the ideal subscription level?

Then ask these follow-up questions:
How can I achieve my aims most effectively?
How will I finance and manage the transition?
Remember – rather than asking ‘Is it possible?’ ask ‘What do I want?’ and ‘How do I get there?’