In October 2010, as one of our first programs, the Minnesota Theater Alliance participated in the sixth annual, national Free Night of Theater, led and supported by Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national service organization for theaters. This audience development program offers free tickets to people to see one show at a theater they’ve never visited before. With a small staff and limited time to plan and implement the program, we treated our first foray into this program as an opportunity to experiment and learn the most effective approach for reaching new audiences.

We gathered a brainstorming committee of audience development experts from theaters around the state, consulting companies, universities, and arts service organizations. Two immediate conclusions drawn were that most complimentary or discount ticket programs often reach people who are already theater patrons seeking a bargain, and that without help to reach beyond their existing networks, theaters have a very hard time reaching truly new patrons.

We decided to think of complimentary tickets less as a publicity trick and more as an investment in future, paying patrons. We looked for specific kinds of people for whom a free theater ticket would be meaningful now, but who would be likely to become regular paying patrons in the future. In order to reach beyond the existing networks of theaters, for each group of people we looked for organizations with a connection to those people. TCG’s online reservation system had a feature allowing early access to reservations with a secret code. We decided to use several different codes to track which patrons came from which partner organizations.

Almost 5,000 tickets were given away to 96 performances at 58 different theaters across the state. Every patron answered demographic questions to make their reservation. We cross-referenced demographics about the audience with the organization affiliation code they used to make their reservation. The result of our experiment was a ton of revealing data about which kinds of partner organizations reached which kinds of patrons.