Four Developmental Phases of Theatre Marketing

Before you can improve your marketing you need a good sense of where you are today. I’m outlining these four phases of theatre marketing here to help. In each phase there are different areas you’ll want to focus on to strengthen your marketing.

Before I jump in I want to mention that these aren’t grades. You’re not “bad” if you are in phase 1 right now. Every theatre starts in phase 1, even if they only stay there a very short time. The reason I recommend moving towards phase 4, though, is that marketing becomes progressively easier and more effective in each phase. Okay, now…

Phase 1 – Inactive

This is when you don’t do any official marketing at all. Everyone starts here. In this phase the only people that even know about your show – let alone come out to see it – are close friends and family of people involved in the show.

How to move forward

The good news is that even small forays into marketing can have a big impact at this point. Start by looking around at what other theatres in town are doing to promote their shows. Do they put up posters? What are they doing on social media? Just get some ideas in the back of your head of what your marketing could look like.

You’ll start noticing a few tactics that really appeal to you. If it doesn’t happen right away, that’s okay. Keep looking at what other people are doing to market. Eventually you’ll see a style of poster, a social media campaign, or something else that you think you might actually be able to do!

Now you’re ready to step boldly into:

Phase 2 – Sporadic

Theatres in phase 2 sometimes market and sometimes don’t. Usually the shows that get a lot of marketing attention are the one or two each year that are most important to you personally. The idea of no one seeing what you are putting up on stage is so painful, that you feel compelled to promote the show. Alternatively you really lean into marketing a show because you are feeling a lot of financial pressure to have a box office success.

In this phase you don’t really know what you’re doing or if it’s going to work, but you just feel like you have to try something. It typically involves a lot of trial and error here, but breaking through to phase 3 is fairly simple.

How to move forward

This is an exciting time in the development of your marketing because you are very motivated. You want to harness this motivation to help you on this and all future productions. The most important thing you can do now is: write down what you are doing to promote this show.

At the very least keep a running list of all the marketing activities as you do them. Even better: write down the dates next to each activity so you can see exactly when each marketing tactic happened.

Phase 3 – Standardized

This is where you start to have some predictable success with your marketing. You have a few marketing tactics that you repeat for all of your productions, and as a result you see a couple new faces each show. Better still, some of those faces start becoming familiar as they keep coming back to see more of your work.

Your marketing also causes you a little less stress. Instead of starting from scratch with each new show, wondering what you can or should be doing to promote it – you have written down things you’ve done before into a template. It’s a process, and it is repeatable.

This is a huge benchmark, and congratulations for getting here! Now that you’re seeing a little bit of success, it will be very tempting to take your foot off the gas and coast. Don’t!

It’s great that your audience is growing, but at this phase the growth is slo-o-o-ow. In most cases you’ll be gaining new audience members just barely faster than you lose old ones – and that’s if everything stays constant. An economic downturn or a few shows in a row that fail to capture the public’s imagination will be enough to erase all the gains you’ve made. There’s more work to do.

How to move forward

In this phase you probably have something very similar to the free marketing calendar template that I have available for download. Your template is your bible. It’s your checklist of everything you need to do promote every show, and once you’ve completed the checklist you kick your feet up and relax.

That’s fine if you want to stay in phase 3 forever, but your one small step away from phase 4. Here it is: change something. Even if your promotion for your last show was amazingly successful, change something in your template. Remove one thing and add something different.

You can’t and almost certainly shouldn’t change everything. If you know a particular tactic worked well and would likely work well again, keep that. Change something else.

Phase 4 – Progressive

It would be great if we could put our marketing on autopilot. It’s appealing to imagine “cracking the code” of a formula for our promotions that we could repeat over and over for every show, but it doesn’t exist. In fact it can’t exist.

Different shows are going to appeal to different groups of people. Even if you did the same show over and over again, you won’t see the same theatre full of people returning night after night. If you want to see continual box office success, you need to be proactive about exploring new channels and new messages.

How to move forward

This is when things get really fun because you can systematize how you go about doing something new and different every time. At this point you want to focus on measuring your marketing activity. How many tickets did you sell because of a particular tactic? How tough/costly was it to implement? I’ve written before about deciding which tactics to drop, if you want direction there.

As to where you come up with new ideas: we come full circle. Just as you did in phase 1 you start by looking at what other theatres are doing to promote. You can cast the net even wider now, though, because you’re a bit more sophisticated. What are other local businesses doing to promote: restaurants, barbers, and insurance agents?

You won’t be copying their promotions verbatim, but you will be looking at how you can start with their idea and tweak it to fit a show you are promoting.

Congratulations, by the way. In phase 4 you are a savvy theatre marketer that consistently and predictably attracts an audience. It’s not that promoting your shows is easy – it’s not – but what has changed now is you know how to attack the challenges head on. It’s a good feeling, right?

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