Reviving Theater Through 1st Party Data-Driven Audience Development: The Virtuous Cycle of Success

Matthew Zarracina
4 min readAug 16, 2023


Credit me — Segerstrom Center 2019

In the wake of unprecedented challenges — a pandemic, a shutdown, and audiences that were slow to come back — the theater industry now finds itself at a crossroads. As the dust has settled, the impact of the crisis has continued to resonate, forcing theaters to reevaluate their strategies and seek innovative solutions to not only survive but thrive. As Damian Bazadona points out in his blog, a shift in mindset is key.

As the curtains rise on a new post-pandemic era for the arts, the concept of a virtuous cycle offers a promising path forward. By embracing 1st party data-driven audience development, theaters can set in motion a positive feedback loop that not only revitalizes their audiences but also fuels sustained growth. Success is best told through a story — and this story is about Lisa Middleton, VP of Marketing & Communications for Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and her team in Costa Mesa, California

The Power of 1st Party Data-Driven Audience Development

The digital age has provided venues with a valuable resource: data. The massive opportunity for venues now is expanding the knowledge of who their audience is from ticket buyers to actual venue attendees. Harnessing the power of 1st party data-driven insights can provide venues with a broader and deeper understanding of their audiences, enabling them to make informed decisions and tailor experiences that resonate.

The True Tickets and Segerstrom Center journey dates back to 2019 before Lisa joined the Center. But even from those early days as a concept and a pilot program, the goal of True Tickets was to create a product that connects Segerstrom Center with its actual patrons. Lisa, as a new Segerstrom Center executive, decided to leverage True Tickets’ 1st party data-driven audience development capability directly address the challenge of connecting with new patrons. In one year, True Tickets helped the Center connect with 22,387 new patrons — patrons they had never had contact data for. Once she was armed with knowledge about who these patrons were, Lisa and her team devised targeted marketing campaigns that would resonate with them.

The Virtuous Cycle of Growth

Lisa’s initial investment in 1st party data-driven audience development set off a chain reaction, igniting a virtuous cycle of growth for her theater. The concept of a virtuous cycle, as defined, hinges on the idea that initial actions lead to outcomes that reinforce the initial action, fostering sustained growth. For Lisa, this cycle began with her tailored marketing efforts.

Earlier this year, Segerstrom Center started marketing to the 22,387 new customers they were able to reach thanks to utilizing analytics. They started sending out emails to greet new customers, post-performance surveys, emails to thank their patrons for attending and asking them to come back, as well as emails summarizing recent posts of Segerstrom Center’s blog.

The cycle proved its value with repeat buyers. Since the campaign kicked off, almost 1,000 of the new customers have returned (return buyers), purchasing more than 3,330 tickets . . . for almost $300,000 ($293,231 to be exact as Lisa likes to be). The Center has become a cultural hub that embodies the essence of community and artistic expression. The repeat buyers didn’t just contribute to sustained revenue growth; they formed a passionate base that propelled the theater’s success through word-of-mouth promotion.

Why is this so important for Lisa, Segerstrom Center, and other venues across the US? Because finding a new customer is anywhere from 5 to 25 times more expensive than retaining a current one. And for venues, while your ticket buyers may or may not be your customers, those coming through your doors are.

How is Lisa’s team doing relative to expectations for year 1? They are converting new patrons at a 4.5% clip, on the upper end of the generally accepted 2% to 5% range and on par with the Media and Entertainment industry. Not too bad for year 1!

From Audiences to Advocates

The virtuous cycle that Lisa set in motion has the potential to resonate much further. The ripple effects of a solid 1st party data-driven audience development strategy can extend beyond mere attendance numbers, transforming audience members into loyal advocates.

As the Center’s marketing campaigns hit home with the identified audience segments, ticket sales increased. This initial growth in ticket revenue provided her with the resources to further reinvest in marketing efforts. As Lisa continues to leverage and gather insights from True Tickets, she can fine-tune her offerings to align with her audience’s preferences. Segerstrom Center can now better tailor their marketing campaigns according to info received from broader and more direct engagement with their audiences as well as ticket buyers. This personalized approach can not only enhance audience experiences but also foster a sense of belonging among attendees, turning satisfied patrons into vocal advocates for Segerstrom Center.

Shape the Future of Theater

The journey from crisis to triumph begins with a single step: investing in 1st party data-driven audience development. In an era of uncertainty, Lisa’s story stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration for cultural arts venues. By investing in 1st party data-driven audience development, theaters can navigate the challenges of the present and lay the foundation for a prosperous future. The virtuous cycle that Lisa and Segerstrom Center for the Arts initiated showcases how a well-informed strategy, backed by insights from analytics, can spark a chain reaction that leads to sustained growth, improved experiences, and a thriving community.



Matthew Zarracina

Co-founder & CEO of True Tickets | reader, rower, & former pilot | amateur ball player & guitarist | full-time husband & dad | intellectually curious by nature