BLOG 2nd December 2021

Does free mean accessible? Think again

Can we start a conversation about ticket prices?

Last week I attended a couple of sessions at the Family Arts Conference (which is well worth the ticket price for anyone targeting a family market) and made a beeline for the session on pricing, led by Baker Richards. The last time I heard them talk about pricing and value, my mind was racing with ideas and questions. Some of you have probably heard me repeat some of examples they talked about during that session (if you haven’t, and you would like to, I would be more than happy to have a chat).

Yet again, there was a lot to consider in the session but I wanted to focus here on one specific thing – the thorny issue of free and the message that sends out to our audiences.

Price as part of your messaging

At the session, the question was asked “how do you set ticket prices for your family shows?” and the vast majority of answers focused on the tricky balance between covering costs and making the work accessible. But the conversation around price has to be part of your communication strategy. This is not new news. Price is after all one of the 5 p’s of marketing, alongside its friends, product, promotion, place and people.

Price sends out a message to your audiences about value, quality and who is welcome at your event. If you have a show that doesn’t have a ticket price for children, it implies that children are not the intended audience and therefore you don’t really want them there.

Free means accessible, yes?

To be blunt, no. There is much research that shows that free tickets will only succeed in attracting the sort of people who would buy tickets anyway. You might get more of them, so if simply increasing the number of people who attend is the goal, have at it. But if you are aiming for diversification that is attracting different types of people, free won’t give you the results you are looking for.

To put it into a “real life” context, take my mum as an example. She would be classed as one of those “hard to reach” audiences we hear about – not a big cultural engager, older demographic etc. You could offer her a free ticket to a performance everyday – she still wouldn’t come.

And that’s because price is the final barrier she would need to overcome but if we haven’t tackled all the ones that come before it (that’s not for me, I wouldn’t know what to do, I don’t think I would understand it) then price is completely irrelevant.

That’s not to say free never works. Think about all the boxes of Cornflakes bought just to get the toy inside. But is has to be part of a much bigger overall strategy. If free is your loss leader, how are you going to make up that income somewhere else?

Free and quality

We are hard-wired as consumers to equate a higher price with higher quality – we automatically think that an £8 bottle of wine will be better than the bottle that costs £5. So the message that you send to your audiences when events are free is that it won’t be as good as the one when they paid £15. Even more confusing is when different events cost different amounts. If the ticket for the local theatre company show is £5, but the visiting show is £10, we know that is because they probably cost very different amounts to buy in. But audiences will hear that one is better than the other.

But really it is about value

Everything you do has to be about value – not just price. Every target audience places a different value on things at different times.

Take another example. My local takeaway was giving the option during lockdown of buying ready meals that you could cook at home – 2 meals for £7.50. But that seems a lot I thought – I could make dinner for a lot less than that. But come a Friday night when I don’t want to cook, I’ll be quite happy to get a takeaway from the same restaurant for £12.

And the same applies for our ticket prices. If I really want to see something, I will happily pay a higher price.

There’s more…

There were plenty of other really interesting things in the session, for example anchoring and price thresholds. If there is interest, we can turn that into some tips and tricks.

But to leave you with a takeaway:

Free does not equate to access

How you price your work sends a message to audiences – so take some time to plan it.

Fiona Bell

Chief Executive

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