Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

Arts Marketing: Are Offers Always Bad?

A continuation in my current series of posts on pricing, offers and ticketing with a robust aim of allowing to to procrastinate long enough to avoid thinking about the thing I’m definitely meant to be doing (new show). As always, tweet me, like, share and message if this is useful! Best, Sam

A Whimsical Opening

We’ve all heard the horror stories.
You know, the one whispered at Arts Marketing Conferences.
The one brought out long after the evening social has ended.

In a dive bar, where you sit with your ninth bottle of tequila (whatever numbs the pain right?), around a table littered with pork scratching wrappers, ticket stubs and the business cards of whatever innovative new box office has been invented that year (“it’s a Swiss box office system entirely made of jam and crackers”), the semi-whispered moment…

“Did you hear about Shitville Theatre?” Someone slurs, “they got into the offers cycle…” (hushed silence) “…and now, well, they’re totally f**ked.”

To Begin

Offers can often feel like kryptonite for theatres – lots of us talk about how if we get too close to them they’ll kill us. When young marketeers go to bed aged 5 or 6, the stories of offers are told, a warning, a last resort, the nuclear weapon of arts marketing tools – sure you’ll have a brief win, but ultimately everyone will be a loser.

The offers cycle – the concept that audiences start waiting for 2-4-1 (or better) offers rather than booking in advance when they learn that the venue does offers regularly – has been well talked about for all the time I’ve done arts marketing (18+ years) – they’re a short-term life-vest but a long-term noose.

I first became aware of it when Groupon hit the scene. For a year or two it was talk of the town – “they did Groupon and then no-one bought full price tickets again”.

I was talking to a press consultant in London recently who said that the “entire West End” was doing offers “for everything” in a desperate attempt to get audiences back in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic.

And that’s it – desperation – offers feel like the tools that are deployed when a show’s producer insists that we need to “drum up audiences”, or the show’s director insists that you stand in front of the cast to apologise to the company for the disappointing sales, and you find yourself saying “we’ll do offers” rather than “have you considered being in a less shit show”.

However I don’t think that offers are always bad. If we deploy them in a smart, sensible and targeted way they can be vital audience development tools for driving increased sales.


I think I had my eyes opened to the potential for doing smart offers when a few people (there were five or six marketeers who talked about them in a different way so I can’t remember my main source – two of them were deffo Stephen and Christina of TRG fame though) started talking about their philosophy, or principles around ticket offers.

Here’s mine (there’s a lot, sorry!):

  • Offers are not sent late – if we’re to do one then it needs to be at least 4 weeks before the show’s on – we’re trying to build early booking in audiences. Ideally we should do offers when the show is put on sale.
  • Offers are (almost) never public – we never put an offer on facebook for everyone (people who’ve already booked the show will be pissed off), but also it sends a message of “this isn’t selling” which then reads as “no-one wants to book this show”, which then becomes “this show is shit”. The only exception would be an early bird – which is sometimes something as a compromise with challenging promotors who refuse to do anything else.
  • Offers are always time limited – indefinite offers don’t motivate booking – if there’s an offer where I can get it at any time there’s no impetus to take action – we need a deadline, and a limited, slightly pressured amount of time to take action. The longer the time to deadline the longer people have to forget the offer and that it seemed like a good idea.
  • Offers are always limited availability – Good things are scarce (diamonds, uranium, good U2 albums) – we want demand, we want people to rush to book, we’re motivating behaviour – to take action. When people think something is in short supply they act irrationally. See toilet roll and petrol.
  • Offers must reward or encourage good behaviour and it needs to be explicit – I want offers to be obvious as to why people are getting them and for that to reinforce behaviour – E.g. “You’ve bought for 3 shows already [good behaviour], because of this we’ve an offer for 40% off for this extra show [consequence] we think you’ll really love”
  • Offers are segmented – Don’t send your entire database the offer unless your entire database likes the same thing. You need to be relevant and targeted. So be specific – target a dance audience who’ve not booked for over 4 years and who live in Swindon – tailor your offer to them, but start with the question “will they like this show?”
  • Offers are personal – Or at least feel personal – If you’ve an offer for people who’ve not been for 4 years then make that part of your body text and make the discount code “4YearsIsTooLong”
  • Offers drive specific performance – Don’t make it a blanket offer – target specifically slow selling performances, sometimes individual show instances and be really clear about that – you want this amazing offer, then it’s for the first Monday of the run – looks less desperate, more targeted. Offers can also drive purchases for non-discounted tickets.
  • Offers are not just for shows selling badly – Offers are a useful part of the holistic marketing mix for reinitiating lapsed audiences, for getting that second or even third visit, for even upselling and getting people to buy just one more show. If the offers are time-limited and limited-availability and people miss out, that fuels perception of success.
  • Offers are not for shows that are terrible – Don’t ask people to come and see something if you know they’ll have a terrible time. They won’t come back, it’ll be a short-term win but might put people off for life. Maybe put on less terrible shows.
  • Sometimes you shouldn’t do an offer – Sometimes an offer isn’t the solution – maybe a better option is ripping up the creative, or changing the copy, or changing the tone. Is the copy really clear about “what the fucking show is?” and how it’ll make you feel? Do we even say that people will enjoy it?

Non-Toxic Offers

Here’s 4 (really obvious) offers that I think are non-destructive and quite easy to do…

#1 – Long Term Lapsed Frequent Attenders
I’m segmenting for people who’ve not visited for over 4 years (pre-Covid) but who came more than 4 times in the year prior to that, within a 40 mile radius of my venue. I’m going to send them a season brochure with a beautiful letter saying how we’ve not seen them since Covid and it’d be great to welcome them back. I’m going to offer them 3 shows for £36 in total (£12 a ticket, rather than £30 for the best seats), with the code “ComingBack” but the offer expires in 3 weeks. BUT if they book within 5 days it’ll be £30 instead. I’m giving them the options of 8 shows to choose from, but I’m specific – for big hitters I’m aiming for the opening nights of those shows.

#2 – Buy One More
Everyone who has already bought 3 shows for the current season but not for the target shows – I’m asking them to step out of their comfort zone – try something new that we think they’ll love – the letter comes from the Artistic Director – we think they’ll love it because they’ve got really eclectic and brave tastes. So for 7 days only with the code “theatrehero” they get 25% off tickets for the target shows. AND as an extra Thank You, if they take the risk, we’ll give them a free ice cream for the show they book!

#3 – First Timers
Be honest. Thank you for visiting us for the first time, we hope you had a brilliant experience. We’d love you to come again soon – so here’s an offer just for you – 2-4-1 tickets for one of 3 shows – 2 which are similar to what they’ve just seen and one completely different. It’s only valid for 2 weeks so you’ll need to be quick! The postcard lands the day after their visit. We also include an e-mail address in case they have feedback. If their feedback is bad (or even bang average) then their next visit is on us. The postcard has a picture of the theatre with a big “Thank you” written in stars over the top! (or something less sickeningly cheesy)

#4 – You’ve Got Credit

A huge number of people donated their ticket value to credit during the pandemic.

Why not encourage them to spend that money by incentivising it, but also as a thank you? 25% off any of these shows so that the money you entrusted with us can go further for you – thank you for supporting us when we needed it the most, its our turn to give something back to you – it could be mixed with a message about the philanthropic mission of the organisation, or about the civic function of the organisation. It could be sent with a season brochure – a reminder that they even have credit (loads of people forget) – mail merge the exact amount (unless it’s under £10).

The offer might be for less popular shows, but maybe people will decide that it’s effectively “free”? Oh and only valid for 2 weeks, only 100 applications of the offer available.

I hope this is useful/interesting – tweet me, drop me a line or message below – tell me what you think!

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