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How Symphonies Grew Strong Audiences By Killing The Myth Of The Average Consumer

Marketing managers for major orchestras had always assumed that convincing people to give the symphony a try was the key to gaining subscribers. "Get people through the doors!" was their mantra, assuming that the sheer beauty of the music would lure them back.

But when they actually studied the numbers, they discovered that getting new people wasn't the problem. They weren't passing the audition. Customer churn was killing these orchestras.

It turns out the secret to unlocking demand for classical music—as for most products—is discarding the Myth of the Average Customer. Designing a product offer to appeal to one archetypal customer is always wasteful—one size fits few, not all. Instead, demand creators have to constantly focus on demand variation, asking how customers differ from one another and how those differences impact demand. This process of "de-averaging" can be complex, but it offers huge opportunities.

In 2007, several orchestra managers joined forces to analyze their collective marketing challenge. A pro bono third-party study by Oliver Wyman (Audience Growth Initiative) found that on average, symphonies lost 55% of their customers each year; churn among first-time concert-goers was 91%! The study also confirmed that the solution to churn was to move beyond "averages" and to begin looking at the wide variations between starkly different customer groups.

The symphony audience was divided into a core audience, trialists (first-time concert-goers), non-committed (a few concerts a year), special occasion attendees, snackers (people who purchase small subscriptions for years), and high potentials (frequent attendees who haven't bought a subscription). In Boston, for example, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) core audience represented just 26% of the customer base but bought 56% of the tickets. Trialists composed 37% of the base, but bought only 11% of the tickets. In monetary terms, core audience members had a 5-year value close to $5,000; trialists, just $199. With that data, the orchestras' new mission became more targeted. The goal wasn't broadly to reduce churn but to convert trialists into steady customers.

The symphonies compiled a list of 78 attributes of the classical music experience, from the architecture of the hall to the service at the bar to the availability of information on the Internet. Using online surveys and other techniques, the list was whittled down to 16 factors with the greatest impact on attendance.

Horns and strings! It turns out the quality of the orchestra, magnificence of the hall, and virtuosity of the conductor were not particularly important attributes. What was? Drum roll! The most powerful "driver of revisitation" was parking! As with other orchestras, veteran members of the core BSO audience had figured out where to park, but trialists identified it as a huge hassle—so they didn't come back. Another driver was the ability to exchange tickets; trialists found the "no refunds, no exchanges" policy a deal breaker.

Consultants developed a series of "killer offers" for different orchestras. The BSO's killer offer for trialists garnered a response rate 34% higher than its traditional offer—equivalent to 5,100 more tickets sold over a year. The Cincinnati Symphony offered its Summer Pops trialists two choices, and the "killer offer" won, 20 to 1. And so on down the line. The Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, which offered a 50% discount for newbies, saw subscriptions rise 30% in 2008-09, and 50% over that in 2009-10.

The so-called "Churn Report" showed that classical music itself was not the problem with declining audiences. The problem was the overall customer experience, and customer expectations were quite different for each group. De-averaging customers requires research and analysis. But the benefits are as clear as a cymbal crash.

Adrian Slywotzky is a partner at the global management consulting firm Oliver Wyman and a best-selling author. This article is based on material from his new book, Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It (Crown Business), to be released on October 4, 2011. Follow the Demand blog at

[Image: Flickr user trp0]

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  • Colin Bunnell

    Has there been a steady decline of parking spaces around these 9 major concert halls over the last 30 years that I am unaware of? Snarkiness aside, I think a more subtle interpretation of these results is needed here. You say parking is the biggest reason trialists do not return, yet when given a killer offer, they will return (and I'm assuming no new parking garages were built near the venue). That says to me that the benefits these trialists expected from attending a classical music concert lowered after their first experience. Perhaps the problem is not percieved shabby accomodations. Perhaps the problem is due to low musical acuity among the trialists (who are novice symphony goers by definition) and their inability to extract the value from the music. Their decision to return is based on a simple cost/benefit analysis: trialists don't experience enough bang for their buck because they are novice listeners, and aren't skilled enough to extract an experience with a percieved value greater than the full priced tickets plus the hassle of heading into town. But when prices are slashed, they'll give it another try? Great!

    The problem isn't the parking. The problem isn't restrictive box office protocols. The problem isn't even high ticket prices (they came the first time when they thought they would enjoy it more). The solution is community education. Society needs to know more about how to listen to classical music so they can enjoy it more. We, as a society, are getting progressively farther away from the origin of these great works. Classical music is becoming more abstract and culturally irrelevant. We need to educate our potential audience so they are better equipped to understand and interpret symphonic music. We don't need to put a parking garage in Lincoln Center Plaza.

  • Cellist

    Completely agreed! This article is full of inconsistencies. Another key to classical performance attendance is educational outreach among schools. I probably would never have become such a devoted classical music listener had I not been exposed to it as a child by my parents including taking me to concerts with them. It's difficult to make any adult take a consistent strong interest in anything had they not been exposed to it as a child.

  • Alice Korngold

    Well played, Adrian!  Great example of business principles being applied to vastly improve a
    nonprofit's revenue model.  It's not always and entirely about getting
    board members to write big checks (although that's good too). Often and to a great extent building stronger nonprofits is about
    smart business.  This goes to boards hiring CEOs with better business acumen, and to building better boards with greater
    business acumen and the willingness to use it in the board room!

  • Jamiel Cotman

    This would be a bit of work as well. How do you structure offers, for a specific group without having it discounted to everyone? Again, it takes work! You have to target, and create dead locks so to speak that assure it only gets to who it’s intended to get to

  • Jamiel Cotman

    This is good information. You often hear of ''consumer intelligence'', as meaning that consumers are smarter about what they purchase. This article sort of gives entreprenuers in on that. Consumer intelligence, on our end, is knowing, properly classifying, and identifying what is important to each sort of consumer and prospect we have. From here we are able to better structure demand based on what they want in lieu of just assuming they all want the same thing [averages], heightening the liklihood of profits [not just sales because we are no longer wasting dollars/trial and error].

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Great points. Chasing some sort of "average" customer will yield disappointing results, but focusing on what prevents good customers from becoming great ones will yield much more. I love that the big issue was parking, that's just funny. Of course it's parking in Boston! Creating a special parking deal or even just including a map on the website will improve the customer's experience, and help the BSO to compete with the suburban mall-based movie theater and preserve and expand a wonderful cultural institution.

    For me, it would improve the quality of the experience if I could buy tickets within a few days of the show (without paying huge fees). I love classical music and opera, but I'm not the kind of guy who will buy tickets for something six months out. I don't make haircut appointments either, I just walk in. If you want my money (and I do want to give it to you and take my wife out for a great experience), you'll have tickets available closer to day-of-show. Anyway, that's just me.

    Thanks for a great article.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach & CEO

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  • Bette Boomer

    We've got a rocking symphony orchestra with charismatic young leader in Darko Butorac in a thriving cultural community. with performance venue problems & not much room to grow. The community keeps voting down choices for a multi-use civic center even though we've got a perfect downtown site available. So that's it, just de-average & enhance customer experience & expectations. Fix parking! No exchanges no refunds! Interesting article though.

  • Liz Jayanti

    Yes! I couldn't agree more. Outliers are the far more interesting groups to study--yet so much of what companies do in terms of market research is all about the bland and average "middle of the bell curve." As my late father, who was an educator, used to say "there's no such thing as the 'average student'"--or in this case, consumer.