Located in picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the Shaw Festival has been attracting passionate theatre-goers for 52 years—one-third coming from the U.S. Each year it mounts 10 to 12 productions in four theaters, featuring works not only by namesake George Bernard Shaw but other plays from his era (1856-1950) as well as contemporary works that share his provocative exploration of society.
In an era when the arts are struggling in so many cities across North America, organizations like The Shaw can’t rely solely on their reputations to keep red ink at bay. To thrive, The Shaw needed to constantly grow its audience—especially among younger theatre-goers who would be the organization’s future. Thanks to an up-to-date database of previous ticket buyers, marketers at the theatre company already knew their customers’ names. Their challenge was to understand who they were, what they liked—in and outside the theatre—and how to find more of them.
To get to know The Shaw’s audiences better, marketers first conducted a deep analysis of its customer database, segmenting ticket-buyers in no fewer than 123 different ways. They used criteria such as when they buy, how many tickets they buy, whether they like comedy or drama, are under 30 years old or over the age of 65. Then they analyzed the different segments according to PRIZM—EA’s segmentation system that classifies Canadians into 66 lifestyle types—to develop a more robust portrait of the customers’ demographics, leisure activities, media tastes and values. Finally, they divided the results into ticket-buyers who lived close to their stages and those who lived further out. “In the end, we had an idea of which ticket-buyers loved drama, were under 30 years old, lived within two hours of us and what their lifestyle is like,” says Valerie Taylor, The Shaw’s director of marketing, communications and sales.
The analysis showed that 25 PRIZM clusters are home to most of The Shaw’s ticket-buyers. While educated and affluent segments like Cosmopolitan Elite, Money & Brains and Young Digerati were to be expected, The Shaw’s exurban location also resulted in a sizable presence of midscale town segments like Tools & Trucks and Rods & Wheels. The 25 segments were rolled into six target groups that became the focus of successful direct-mail campaigns featuring differentiated messages reflecting the theatrical tastes and lifestyles of the recipients. Last summer, a postcard mailing to 95,000 recipients resulted in $440,000 in ticket revenue. During The Shaw’s fiftieth anniversary season two years ago, a production of “My Fair Lady” attracted significant advanced sales from new ticket-buyers. Using addresses collected between January and March, Taylor’s team ranked local postal walks according to those high-scoring PRIZM segments, and sent thousands of unaddressed mail pieces promoting “My Fair Lady” and the entire fall theatrical season to these targeted areas. “It helped us find more of these new buyers,” says Taylor, adding that the company’s play-and-stay promotion—which offers ticket-buyers discounts at local hotels, wineries, a golf course and bicycle vendor—has proved popular with specific target groups and contributed to increased sales. “Where else can you see ten shows surrounded by this kind of countryside?” asks Taylor. “This is what separates us from Toronto or New York or Chicago.”