Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Strategic Plan for Marketing a Theatre Show

My least favorite thing about producing theatre is naturally my most stressful. Something I’ve learned over the years is that the things that are the most stressful for me are things that I have the least control over. And when I’m talking theatre, my most stressful/least favorite thing is trying to get butts in seats.

Butts-In-Seats falls into my marketing toolbox. I know I’m not alone in this, but there are essentially zero examples of marketing/advertising plans out there for theatre, especially smaller theatre. What you kind find in books are too general for a company producing in a specific city, and often out of date. I know; I’ve searched. And other companies don’t share— it’s like taboo, a jealously guarded secret. We will post Youtube video of our shows, talk about our process, throw out a few marketing tips, but the bulk of our marketing plan is secret. It’s a competition. There are limited resources.

I don’t like that idea. So I’m doing it. I’m sharing our marketing plan for The Tender King. It’s complicated, but I’ll try to be both thorough and succinct. This post is just about the strategic plan for marketing an individual show. It’s not about company marketing, outreach, branding, or crafting your message. Those are other techniques. This is about where we put our dollars, why, and when. I’ll do a follow up blog with learnings from this show’s marketing strategy… what worked and what crashed.

First, it’s important to remember that effective marketing is constantly changing. The resources, tools, and what’s effective is constantly evolving. Some of my approaches are probably becoming outdated; others just coming into fashion. You have to work to stay on top of trends.

A recent TCG survey found that on average, 12% of theatre budgets were set aside for marketing. That fact isn’t entirely illuminating (were companies successful at 12% or is more better?). But it’s a starting point. Previously, our budgets were closer to 7%; so we beefed it up for TK.

In developing a strategy, you have to examine your strengths and weaknesses. For 2nd Wind, a prevailing weakness is that we only produce two full shows a year. Audiences forget who we are; critics forget us or turn over; branding efforts don’t carry over to the next production because it’s too far out. There are ways to address these weaknesses (most of which we don’t do) but I won’t get into that here.

Our strengths are in our ability to plan, create “content” (video, images, blogs, and tweats) and the amount of time we have to do marketing. Over the years I’ve concluded that the most effective marketing is not money-based. Good marketing is about footwork; it’s about word of mouth; and it’s about status. The latter two (word of mouth and status) are severely hampered our two-show schedule. So planning, content, and footwork are our weapons.

Since all of this is about getting butts in seats I’ll make a pitch here. Come see The Tender King. Tickets are available at: http://www.secondwindtheatre.com/. There, I’ve justified my post.


Where the Dollars Go:

Postcards:
> 1st Batch of cards: $50
TBA Distribution: $45
> 2nd Batch of cards: $75
Mailed: Postage: $120

Google Advertising: Visual Ads (Display Network):
This turned out to be a waste of money. After the first $50 or so, we switched to advertising on the SFGate top banner. This was mildly more successful. For VIGILANCE, we'll be experimenting with Facebook's advertising system & reducing our budget to $300.
> Paid per click $800

Enhanced Website Listings: $100
SF Gate (the SF Chronicle’s website)
Citysearch.com

Paid Newspaper Distribution $30

TBA Website Ad: $140

Email Blast: $65



TOTAL Marketing Budget: $1417

In this current strategy, the Google Ads are new for us; they’re also the most expensive element. Everything else we’ve done before.

The budget indicates what paid tools we use, but not how they’re implemented—or which non-money tools we use. In theatre everything is about the details, so I’ll discuss them:

POSTCARDS:
For this show, we printing one batch of cards early and are using Theatre Bay Area’s distribution system, which places stacks of cards at 20 locations. These will go out 6 weeks before opening. A second batch will be mailed 3 weeks before opening. The batches are different versions of the same card, in part because we’ll have the chance to put actor images in the latter card. I also plan to put a discount code for $5 off (King1945) on the early card, which can be redeemed on full-price web purchases only.

PRESS RELEASE:
Your press release and your listing release are vital documents (they are two slightly different formats). Write them early, a month before you cast your show. Then re-write them. Write several different show blurbs of various lengths. Describing the show is less effective than describing the experience for the audience; be sparing with adjectives and when you use them avoid cliques or common ones. Let “exciting” become “breathless.”

ENHANCED WEB LISTINGS:
This is where your listing release comes in. We used enhanced web lists for our last production. How directly they relate to ticket sales is unclear, but they do allow for you to place more content (images, links) on the listing, so we utilize one of our strengths.

NEWSPAPER/ WEBSITE LISTINGS:
2nd Wind uses Fullcalendar.com, a service that posts to newspapers and event websites. This was disaster number two (after the Google ad investment). It worked well last year, but this year they missed their posting deadline, then included my email in a craigslist posting that generated a huge amount of spam for 6 months. Unfortunately, there's no shortcut here. We're back to posting by hand, individually.

Early Listings: Hand Done 6 weeks before Opening
> Fullcalendar: 4 weeks before Opening
> Follow-up to important listings: 3 weeks before Opening

TBA WEB ADVERTISEMENT:
TBA (Theatre Bay Area) operates their own Half-Price ticket booth and website. For our last show, we purchased a banner ad. It was not effective in raising sales through their site, but I’m proposing a second attempt. Adjustments: I plan to pay a little more attention to the ad design, post it early, and link it to our full price tickets.
> Purchase Impression Add 10 days before opening (20K impressions)
> Evaluate whether to buy an additional 10 days
Sorry TBA, this didn't turn out to be particularly effective. It's very difficult to evaluate advertising like this, but I was dismayed by how few ticket sales we had through their website.

HALF-PRICE TICKET VENUES:
There are two half price ticket dealers for SF.
Goldstar: Goldstar is very popular Half-Price ticket website. Half-price or less, actually. They order their listings based on popularity of ticket sales, so giving away a few free ones gets you off to a good start.
> 10 Freebies on Preview
> 7 $8 Tix for Opening; 7 half price
When I post on Goldstar, I leave out one performance date. Then, after the show is up and running (and presumably we’re not as noticeable in the listing), I offer up that performance and we get a special announcement. We provide 15-20 seats to Goldstar for each performance (it’s a 60 seat house)

TIX Bay Area: The Other Half Price vendor
> Submit Full price ticket listing 3 weeks before
> Submit Half price ticket listing 1 week before

EMAIL BASED PROMOTION:
Email Lists
2nd Wind uses Vertical Response. It’s a pay service that helps you design emails and send to your list. It’s worth the price because you can track whether your emails are opened or ignored, and whether someone opened the email and did/did not click on the link to your website. This allows you to target your follow-up. Email ignored? Re-title and send again after a few days. Opened but did not click on link? Send the same title after we open.
> Full list Blast 12 Days before (on a Tues or Wed between 11-4pm, because that’s when people are bored)
> Follow up with UnOpened emails 8 Days Before Opening
> Follow-up with Opened but Unclicked emails the 4 days before Opening
> Follow up with all other Opened 3 days after
> Full Blast (or All Opened) 2 weeks after Opening; or if there’s a good review:
> Article Blast 3 days after appearance

BayAreaTheatreBums:
Bay Area Theatre Bums is a list serv: they send out blasts to several hundred theater people who have joined. It’s rather over-used, so things are often ignored. But, we list:
> 2 weeks before Opening
> 3 Days before Opening
> If there are any reviews/articles
> 2nd Week after Opening

SNAIL MAIL LIST:
Our snail mail address list is pretty small—just 400 names. We send postcards to this list 16 days before Opening.

CRITIC INVITES:
Timing your invites is difficult because preferences vary. Many don’t decide more than two weeks ahead; others are booked by that time. Send your press release in the body of the email, avoid attachments.
> Early-Invitation to all critics 6 weeks Before Opening to get on their schedule. Email works best. Follow-up with a call three days after your email blast.
> Follow-up invitation to critics 10 days Before Opening: this is a combination of emails and calls, depending on what contact info I have and the relationship
> Remember to invite Bloggers!

GOOGLE ADVERTISING:
I have used Google’s Adwords program, which places a sponsored links in the right hand column of their search pages. I don’t find it to be effective in generating ticket sales. Nonetheless, we are planning on using their visual ads program this time round, which places real advertisements on related web pages, and can be limited to your region. We’ll see how this works out. Can't tell you how frustrating and ineffective I found this experience. Others may have better success, but I found all of the best key words were priced above what we could afford for our show size.

There are some alternatives: a paid listing in the SF Chronicle. We’ve done this before, costs about a $120 a pop (for one day, I usually pick Thursday). I haven’t found it to be effective, based on who we are as a company. I think it’s a useful guide for visitors to SF, but they are less likely to choose small theatre.

OTHER ACTIVITIES:
Be sure to list on Yelp and Going.com.
Should you start a company blog? They’re time-intensive. Do they sell tickets? I don’t know—buy a ticket, come to the show, and tell me what you think.
Twitter? In my opinion, Twitter is not a good tool for marketing individual shows. There have been numerous articles on why this is the case.
Craigslist Events? Why not?


BASIC MARKETING TIMELINE: Date from the Open Night

8 Weeks before do your Early listings
6 Weeks before Postcard to TBA for distribution
6 Weeks before Set up online ticketing service; Critic Invites
3 Weeks before Do Fullcalendar listing
3 Weeks before Mail 2nd postcard; set up Goldstar; first email Blast; Critic Follow-up, TBA ticketing
2 Weeks before Set up Google Ads, Fullcalendar follow-up, BATB listing
10 Days before Critic Follow-up2, Enhanced Web listing
7 Days before TBA Ad
5 Days before Going.com, Yelp, Email follow-up
4 Days before BATB listing
1 Week AFTER Email Blast follow-up, BATB

A couple of things to remember: First, you can’t start designing your marketing materials early enough. Do as much as you can a month before you’ve cast the show. Your images, your ad copy, are crucial. Second, marketing doesn’t end after the show opens. You have to keep updating and sending out.

And finally, decide what you think the buying cycle is for your company. A “buying cycle” is the number of days from when a potential audience member hears about the show to the time they purchase a ticket. For 2nd Wind, I think it’s about 10 days for planners, and 4 days for “impulse” buyers. Very few hear about the show and decide to go that night. They may not commit to go until a day or two in advance, but it’s been stewing in their subconscious for several days. That means there’s nothing I can do to boost sales the day before—I have to plan at least 4 days ahead

This, again, is just the “product” side of marketing—the concrete things we do. It doesn’t illuminate how to talk up a show, make people feel included, or design ads or copy. So what do you think? Any ideas/strategies I haven’t mentioned? I challenge you to break the taboo and share your knowledge.

Oh and most importantly—come see The Tender King. Tickets are on sale.

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51 Comments:

Anonymous Enrico Banson said...

Thank you for sharing and being so supportive of the San Francisco Bay Area theatre community as a whole. As the artistic director for The Royal Underground Theatre Company, most of my experience with the local theatre scene has been strange, snooty and sometimes (not all the time) shady. I don't know if it's because of our film background or that we also produce shows in L.A., but it's nice to know that I'm not the only one who feels my fellow theatre artists here in the Bay Area tend to be exactly what you mentioned: jealously secretive. So for you to share this is amazing.

I plan to check out The Tender King. Good luck with all your endeavors!

November 11, 2010 at 7:48 PM  
Blogger Ian Walker said...

Thanks for the note, Enrico. It's a peculiar community here at times. There are folks who are amazingly open and generous... some of whom are way too busy and under the gun. And then there are folks who are, well, snooty and focused only on their own shows. Some of these people to great work and build a real sense of community within their company but it doesn't extend beyond that.

November 12, 2010 at 9:02 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Ian, great write-up. You are a mensch for sharing all that.

Enrico, it is a shame you have experienced secrecy. Most companies I know of share knowledge, especially the smaller companies. Custom Made has survived our first few years in no small part from the help of a few very supportive, and giving, companies.

There is a committee of Theatre Bay Area you might want to get involved with, called Alt Stages. We have been hosting roundtables that do exactly what you might be looking for. A recent successful one, coincidently, was on publicity. All the groups who attend have been very open and supportive.

Ian-> again, good stuff. I'm going to focus again on unopened e-mails as I have been neglecting that process.

One thing I would suggest altering in your time-line is when you contact press. Hurwitt and Avila, and countless others, have asked for a six-week lead, minimum. They say that is when they begin calendaring.

They may not get back to you right away, and I follow up with the six to eight critics I really care about three weeks before, and then one week before. If desperate, then again the weekend before. This is has been successful process for us at Custom Made.

November 12, 2010 at 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Michael Meigs, Austin Live Theatre said...

Thanks -- posted the opening and a link at www.AustinLiveTheatre.com for the information of local theatre groups.
regards,
Michael Meigs

November 12, 2010 at 3:09 PM  
Blogger Ian Walker said...

Thanks Brian, for your info on contacting Hurwitt et alia sooner. I know the date has been creeping earlier and earlier. I think in actuality we sent our first email to critics 4 weeks in advance-- then followed up with call and an accompanying email two weeks before. As yet I've not heard from Mr. Hurwitt; Avila trying to work us into his schedule (so perhaps we were late). And I'll keep following up with reviewers even after we open.

November 12, 2010 at 4:55 PM  
Blogger Ian Walker said...

Michael-- thanks for posting the link and getting the word out.

November 12, 2010 at 4:56 PM  
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Thanks so much for posting this. I am forming a company now in LA and this will be hugely helpful.

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Blogger Corey Sutherland said...

“Good marketing is about footwork; it’s about word of mouth; and it’s about status.”—That’s it, Ian. Others might think that a good marketing strategy ends with giving away flyers or leaflets and paying for advertising and such. Well, those are just a part of the strategy. The main core of marketing is to provide knowledge of what the audiences will expect to your show, and to get as much people as you can informed.

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