February 5, 2011

Arts Marketing: The Post-3D Surround Sound Live Theatre Blues (with Solutions)

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Board Member of City Garage Theatre

Paradise Park, City Garage

Now playing in 3D (no glasses required): a scene from City Garage Theatre’s “Paradise Park”

I have this bizarre communication disorder. Every time I ask someone, “Would you like to see a play?” they hear, “How’d you like a root canal?” or “Let’s watch sausage being made!”

That wouldn’t matter if I cared as little about theatre as I do about pro-wrestling or reality shows set in New Jersey. But I sit on the Board of City Garage Theatre, a small avant-garde company that’s won multiple awards and rave reviews here in L.A. And that means I’m trying to sell theatre tickets to people who’d rather wait in line to see “Green Hornet” in 3D.

How could I get jaded, oversaturated media junkies to come see the original 3D entertainment, where live actors bring carefully crafted characters and dialogue to life in intimate settings?

Enter the Expert, Stage Left

Although I teach and practice marketing, I decided to ask an expert who speaks the language. So I contacted my friend Kori Rodley Irons, a nonprofit-management consultant with a background in theatre.

Kori’s first piece of advice: break that audience down.

“The target market in today’s theatre-going world is elusive. It can be hard to predict who will fill the seats — that might be different for each show. Different shows have the potential to be marketed to specific audiences. While there may be core theatre goers or supporters, there are also those who pick and choose or who will be moved by a particular topic/subject/etc.”

In other words, rather than try to find mythical “theatre lovers,” I should be marketing political satires to politics junkies, absurdist and surreal plays to artists and hipsters, and classic theatre to drama and English teachers. Got it. Now how should I structure the messages to those audiences?

Think Layers and Stories

According to Kori, “Performing arts marketing is best done in layers, and there is a certain amount of timing that comes into play. If you have an unlimited budget, you can market for months, but most companies don’t. Initial marketing via web, a season brochure, blogs, etc., stirs up interest; strategically releasing information about director choice and casting, and looking for special human interest angles, are all good ways to generate a little early buzz. As you know, tell STORIES.”

And that’s something I’d been missing: the storytelling had to begin before the curtains opened. Of course, living in L.A., I should have known that: movie fans voraciously devour backstories and behind-the-scenes exclusives. The dramatic arts should be treated just the same. The traditional stilted approach to promoting the arts only makes the arts seem more stilted.

Kori then suggested specific tactics: “When tickets go on sale, send out postcards and posters. Yes, posters STILL work in the theatre world — people STILL check out bulletin boards at coffee shops to see what is going on, especially those outside restrooms.” Restroom-adjacent bulletin boards were definitely a medium I had overlooked.

Hitting Up the Influencers

She also recommended special deals and rates for target groups. “Consider comping (offering free tickets) to influential people, and I don’t mean the mayor — really people who are natural leaders or connected to groups, organizations, companies, etc., to help spread the word. You can actually do a lot of this via email now: target the connectors.”

“The real blitz should probably be the final two-three weeks leading up to the show. Consider all the old standbys (radio/TV/print) and then some by strategically layering the marketing so people think they are seeing and hearing about it everywhere, when that may not be the case. Strive to front load the run of the show by getting as many people as possible into the first few shows — that way they’ll go out into the world and tell everyone how fabulous the show is.”

Assuming the show is fabulous, of course. This led me to asking her about critical reviews, which had not delivered audiences as well as I had expected. Kori’s response: “Critical reviews are great, but so are saucy, trendy and controversial ones…”

Saucy, trendy and controversial? Hmm, maybe I should be watching those reality shows set in New Jersey. I just might learn something..

***

Related Article: Stage vs Screen: Time to Swap Bodies?

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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