It’s the greatest fear of any theatre maker, greater even than blanking out in a scene or going on stage without any pants on.
It’s an existential fear that questions what the point is of our existence.
It is the fear of empty seats.
It is Theatre 101, right after the chapter on, “Theatre is meant to performed.”
What is theatre without an audience?
But how do you get an audience to choose your show over their Netflix or their Marvel or their Star Wars or their sports or their Coldplay concert?
How do you get heard in all this noise?
Here are ten tips that you can work into the marketing strategy you build and help you promote your show.
Set a budget
The first place to start is to set a budget. Marketing campaigns can easily make your spending creep up. As you monitor the results, you might be tempted to spend more in ads to get more results, or to spend more to keep the great results coming.
Make sure that in your production budget, you have identified marketing expenses and then track your spending.
Other than keeping you from getting caught overspending on Facebook Ads, this will allow you to determine your cost per acquisition at the end of the run.
As you grow and learn from show to show and season to season, you will be able to make decisions that will bring your cost per acquisition down.
Pick a target demographic
When you tell people they will improve their marketing efforts by choosing a target demographic, they get very skeptical. "I want to speak everybody."
The problem is when you try and speak to everybody, you often end up speaking to nobody. Your brand becomes vague, ambiguous and there is nothing worse in writing (or marketing) than ambiguity.
Circle this principle: specificity.
You want to activate your content, give it energy. The first step is to pick a target demographic: a persona, somebody that you can speak directly to and say, "This show is just for you. You will love it."
By the way, marketing is about telling the truth, so if you're promising your target demographic that they will love the show, make sure they'll love the show.
Create a landing page
Your landing page is where you want to drive the traffic. Use a url that isn’t too long or difficult to type and that is relevant to the production you’re promoting.
People who come to this page want one of two things: more information or a quick and easy way to buy tickets, so give them both. (Check out this terrific post by Braden Josephson on how to eliminate friction on your donation pages — applies here.)
Don’t bore them in details; tell them about the things you found interesting when you chose this production or about the things that are unique about your staging, tell them about the themes. Interest them.
Share, share, share
I always find it odd when I'm involved in a production and asked not to share production photos on social media. I understand there are different reasons for this. Sometimes we want to hold something back for the audience when they come. Other times, a company might be concerned about controlling the narrative and their brand. Or they're worried the aesthetics on a social media post wouldn't properly reflect the aesthetic when seen in person.
But that's the point. Social media gives audiences and prospects a peek backstage. They get to see it from the perspective of those who are involved in the production company.
Nothing can ever replace seeing the thing live. That's at the heart of theatre. Trust in the power of your art.
The more we give them, the more they'll want to be there. To see it, to feel it and experience it.
And when you have people involved on your production who are eager to share about what they're doing with their network, you've won at social media! Do you know how many brands wish they could foster that level of engagement? Don't dampen that excitement. Encourage it. Provide guidelines if you must ("This plot point we're keeping secret," "This costume gives too much away," etc.)
Of course don't give out story spoilers but other than that share the crap out of the process and encourage everyone to do the same.
Don't buy small ads on busy pages
If you buy newspaper ads, make sure it's prominent. Don't waste your money on anything less than a half page.
Nobody reads a newspaper looking for the ads. We've gotten very good at tuning them out. If your ad is sharing a page with three other ads, it's just asking to be ignored.
Get your money's worth and pay for an ad that people can't ignore. Or spend it somewhere else. Like Facebook.
Reward your returning patrons
Retention is an important part of any strategy. It is absolutely crucial.
If an audience member had a great experience at your show, they're far more likely to come back.
So don't take it for granted! Engage them right away. Reward them for coming back.
Start a loyalty program or a punch card system at your concession. Gamify the experience and make it so delightful that your audience can't wait for your next show.
Invest in quality video and photography
Good photos and videos have the power to arrest people. Make them stop dead in their tracks (or mid-scroll).
Not only that, but theatre is by its nature highly visual.
So use it! Find the moments in your major turning points and in your climax where the characters are in crisis and capture those instants. Dramatic poses, dramatic lighting, expressive faces, dynamic moments.
If there’s one place that worth blowing your budget on, it’s here. You’ll be surprised how far you’ll go with $50 in Facebook Ads, some social media posts and an email strategy.
As long as you have stunning photos and a great video.
If you’re starting out, this should be one of your top priorities: develop a mailing list. Collect people’s email addresses and send them quality content.
Getting people’s email addresses is one of the best ways to identify your prospects, engage with them and to convert them into patrons. And from patrons into returning patrons. Then maybe, because of the emails they get, they’ll donate once. And from a single-gift donor, then they’ll become regular donors, then monthly donors and before you know it, they are thoroughly invested in the success of your company. They are a part of it.
No other channel has the ability to do this quite like email so use it and use it well.
Do you know more people who use Facebook or who read the paper?
How often do your acquaintances use Google? Is it more or less often than their quarterly local theatre magazine?
This is not an attempt to discredit print. It has its uses and if you have the budget, I definitely recommend it.
But I’m shocked that we’re often willing to spend $345 on a quarter-page ad in your local community paper but hesitate to spend the same amount on a targeted Facebook Ad.
So invest in print ads but only if you are willing to spend money to retarget with digital ads. Print ads will get you awareness. Your digital ads are your strategy to separate the jokers from the real prospects and to get those prospects to buy a ticket.
Also, as a nonprofit, you qualify to receive $10,000 every month in free Google Adwords, so claim your grant and use it.
What’s the point of blogging? I can hear a lot of theatre companies say that since so very few of them do it.
Blogging is the best way to increase organic traffic to your website and to boost your site’s domain authority. It also gives you the ability to tell your story and to engage with your audience.
Blogging is useful from a brand perspective as it’s one of the best ways for you to get found on the internet.
It’s useful from a marketing perspective in growing your sales-qualified leads.
And it’s useful from an audience perspective as it gives us rare glimpse behind the scenes of a theatre company.
Delight your audience with a remarkable experience
There’s a lot of noise out there. There’s a lot of mediocrity.
If you want to stand out, hopefully I’ve given you some great ideas. And a lot of these will work even if your content is mediocre (but if your content is mediocre, fix it).
Theatre has the power to deliver remarkable experiences that are unlike anything else we get, especially in the digital world. And those are experiences that we crave.
So surround yourself with a great team of passionate, talented artists and put together an incredible production.
And in every channel where you interact with your audience, deliver that same quality: compelling copy, stunning photography, a user-friendly website that charms and thrills.
From the box office lineup to the lobby where your patrons will stand and wait to the house where they will sit and the concession — every element is important in the user’s experience.
That experience is in your hands.
So delight us. We’ll keep coming back.