Audience Development For Individual Productions

Audience development is a very popular term in theatre marketing circles – and with good reason. Building a community of engaged patrons who keep coming back to see your productions is critical to running a financially stable theatre. But there’s another side to that coin. If you become too reliant on this loyal audience (who buy tickets with relatively little promotional effort on your part) you can get lazy. You lose your edge. I’ve seen it happen. You forget how to go find a new audience, and a regular stream of new patrons is as critical to your stability as your pool of familiar ones.

Last week I read a post by Adam Thurman on how the WWE made necessary (if unprofitable in the short term) decisions to grow an audience that was a good fit for that organization. A few of his words in particular really resonated with me:

The audience that built your dance company probably isn’t the one that will sustain it. The group that built your museum isn’t the one that will make it thrive for the next fifty years.

He was making a point that sometimes rebranding your organization is the right next step to continue growing. It’s a great point. (In fact Thurman makes a lot of great points on his blog. If I wasn’t going to be on stage the same weekend, I would hop in my car and drive to Chicago for his $90 workshop on April 20.)

His words got me thinking about theatres that rely almost exclusively on their familiar body of patrons to fill the seats. That’s great right? You’ve built a community of people that keep coming back for your new offerings. I think it can be great, but I worry about theatres who grow so comfortable with this (and it can happen in just a few years) that they forget how to promote each of their shows on its own merits. It puts you in an awkward position:

  • You can’t innovate because you need to keep delivering the familiar shows that your existing audience is comfortable with. Since you don’t know how to market a show that doesn’t appeal to your regular crowd, you just have to turn down those productions.
  • But if you don’t innovate your existing audience will eventually disappear. Some people will decide they want something new and look for their live theatre elsewhere. Some will move away. Others will age and stop attending as much theatre.

Good theatres avoid this trap. Along with a few crowd-pleasing standards, they consistently mix innovative, eclectic choices into their season. But they don’t just let those shows play to empty houses while the blockbusters cover the financial losses. No, they promote every show, and do whatever it takes to make each one profitable. (At least the best ones do.)

When you know how to go out and hustle for an audience if gives you all kinds of artistic freedom.

They go out and find the audience for the shows that are quirky or dark or conceptual or whatever it is that pushes the envelope for your regular crowd. They bring in a new audience that wasn’t interested in the standard fair, but you know what? Some of those new faces will stick around. They’ll come to a few more shows. They might even grow to like the old chestnuts – especially if they’re done with a new twist – and they end up being the new blood that keeps your core audience fresh.

When you know how to go out and hustle for an audience if gives you all kinds of artistic freedom. You can do shows that won’t necessarily appeal to everyone because you know how to go out and find those people who will love it. Some of your core audience will even appreciate the change of pace, and they’ll tell you with their pocketbooks.

This is how you break out of pigeon-holing and get known among a more diverse population in your area.

And don’t feel like you are letting your existing audience down. Farmers rotate their crops. They plant corn in a field on season, soy beans the next, then leave the field fallow for a year. That variety is what keeps the soil healthy and able to sustain a good harvest. I’m laying this metaphor on a little thick, but my point is you can extend the life of your existing audience if you don’t burn them out on one flavor of show.

So don’t just focus on audience development for your organization. Spend a little time an energy on audience development for each of your individual productions.

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