In Search of the Three Digital R’s: Reach, Revenue, and Relevance

By Robert Sweibel · March 8, 2021

The Brief 

At my last Arts Marketing Roundtable discussion, we took a data-driven look at digital performances. Spearheaded by Erik Kaiko of Writers Theater in Glencoe, IL, marketing leaders submitted data and insights about their organization’s virtual performances. The goal was to leverage a nationwide (albeit somewhat limited) data set to gather insights about our industry’s changing reliance on digital media since this time last year. I partnered with Erik to synthesize these learnings for our colleagues and, while the proprietary data can’t be shared, the learnings are widely applicable.

The Big Picture

From the beginning of this industry-wide paralysis, arts organizations have been “invited” to reconceive delivery of their core product to audiences. Nearly all turned to digital channels. Some tapped their archives to release footage from productions long closed. Most turned to Zoom to offer artists a ready-made virtual stage for all kinds of new content.

With close to a year’s worth of COVID-era content in the can, including the formerly box-office-boffo holiday season programming, we examined data from 20 theater organizations representing 42 productions.

The vast majority offered programming for free. Those that charged usually asked for considerably less than their in-venue prices. Some offered pay-what-you-wish options (of which I’m not a fan). In most cases, organizations invited donations on top of, or in lieu of, ticket purchase.

The upside? Per our data, and as reported in The New York Times, “companies and venues that put work online are finding big, new and younger audiences.” Unburdened by geography, price, and other limiting factors, many have been pleasantly surprised. This suggests the possibility of a genuine payoff for organizations eager to expand their reach beyond their core audiences. And there’s been a decided uptick in the number of first-time donors among single-ticket buyers. It seems there’s gold in them there hills.

The downside? For most organizations, digital attendance figures remain a fraction of what a production’s in-venue run might attract. The challenge is compounded by considerably smaller average ticket yields than are typically seen for live productions, especially when compared to hit shows. This leaves arts organizations in a precarious position.

The Big Idea

Our current business models are built for local connectivity. The ethos of our industry is predicated on scarcity and intimacy. The promise and problem of digital programming cries out for an innovative approach to the three R’s–reach, revenue, and relevance. This trio of key performance indicators (KPIs) should guide the way forward for any arts organization reexamining its strategic objectives.

The potential reach of digital productions is nearly incalculable. Ambitious companies with well-funded marketing strategies stand to attract a national, if not global, audience. If reaching a broader audience is a priority for your organization, what’s the plan to get them?

And how does the potential for a new stream of contributed and earned revenue–albeit with lower per-ticket yields–play into planning? So far, comparatively lower per-ticket yields are the norm. While lower ticket prices democratize access, they also stand to devalue the product.

Or do they? We’ve all worked on shows where giving tickets away, never mind selling them, seems like an impossible charge. That’s because we don’t determine the value of our shows; the free market decides what we’re worth.

Will comparatively lower ticket yields continue to define our digital programming? I’m willing to bet that, as we figure our way into this new landscape, we’ll see long-term growth. The way I imagine it, we’re bound to produce content more thoughtfully and distribute it more effectively over time. We’ll do better. Meanwhile…

My unwavering belief in the digital democratization of delivery and access is all about relevance. Digital channels offer limitless opportunities to engage new audiences in new communities.

I know it’s not the immediate cure-all for an industry that’s been under stress since long before the pandemic. Are we prepared to compete with Netflix, Hulu, et al, and their multi-million-dollar marketing plans? Are we prepared to compete with each other when every production of The Nutcracker threatens to cannibalize the audience of every production of The Nutcracker? What if your traditional live audience prefers to watch from home? Then you’re cannibalizing yourself. Yikes.

The performing arts industry business model, founded on the scarcity and intimacy of the live experience, will have to change for us to earn the support of our communities–old and new, at home and in far-flung digital spaces. I’m excited by the prospect of discovering the answers to these questions.