Must-Know Theatre Marketing Ideas From a Business Owner – Part 1

Susanne-RiehleSusanne Riehle is the owner of Studio Productions Inc., the producers of the Chameleon scrim. A big market for her business is theatre. I met her on a discussion board for community theatre, and was so impressed with her thoughtful responses to people’s questions there that I invited her to share some of her ideas here on Sold Out Run. She has graciously accepted.

Like me she has one foot planted firmly in the world of business and another in the world of theatre (and she has about a dozen more feet in various other areas of interest). I asked her to imagine herself in the shoes of one of her clients and apply her considerable business experience to a couple of questions that regularly face promoters of stage productions.

Her responses were very thorough, and there’s so much good information here I’m splitting it into two blog posts. Here’s the first part.

If your business was an actual theatre, what factors would you look at to determine how much money to spend on marketing?

The best answer is that you should spend exactly that amount which maximizes your profit; not a penny more, not a penny less. (That is true for non-profits as well. The only difference between a for-profit and a not-for-profit is where the profits go. In a non-profit case the ‘excess’ money goes toward achieving a mission.) In business this is called thinking on the margins. If spending one more dollar means we sell one more seat, then I spend that additional dollar. But if my tickets cost $15, and it costs me $16 to sell the seat, then obviously I don’t spend the dollar. Rule #1 is maximize your dollar return.

When planning your marketing remember that not all marketing costs equally….some is in fact free. Putting the show name & dates on your marquee is an obvious example. But have you considered that some costs are not really costs? An example is that if your show is a romantic comedy, having a deal of two tickets for $15 when each normally costs $10 might seem like you give away the second ticket too cheap. But if your house never sells out you didn’t give away five dollars, but may very well have gained fifteen. Rule #2: Incorporate free first, cheap second, and more expensive last.

Partner, partner, partner. Remember that businesses market too, and your markets may overlap. If you print florist coupons on the back of romantic comedy tickets, then ask the florist to put your coupons and fliers in his shop. How many times has a theatre asked the lumber company for a discount in exchange for putting an ad in the program? Every theatre does this—but how many theatres look for partners that don’t save money, but instead generate money and sell tickets? Won’t your program advertising sell for more if your shows sell out more? Structure partnerships to sell tickets. If your theatre is a date destination, then you should partner with restaurants and wine stores. If your audience is families, then partner with family interest areas like ice cream parlors. Rule #3: Use your corporate friends to your ticket selling advantage.

Keep a binder for the ongoing promotions. Keep a record of what worked and what didn’t. Pass that binder to responsible people for the next shows. Rule #4: Know what works.

But still how do you establish the budget amount? I suggest that you have two levels of marketing – one for the theater season and one for the show. Allow 5-10% of gross profits for the first. Suggest to your producers that the marketing for the show is part of their budget, but pass them a list of what worked best in the past (or the binder cited above). Each year review the amounts to decide if more (or less) would make sense.

How important are reviews?

Reviews are part of the picture. You’ve heard that there is no bad publicity—that’s true to an extent. Reviews increase awareness of your theatre and of your show. Frequently in small community theatres with short runs the review is published too late to impact ticket sales for this show. However, a great review does make a community realize they want to check out the next show. Even a less-than-great review can pique interest. So if you have a so-so review, remember it may still help the theatre. If you have a great review you will definitely help the next show—and may even boost sales this time.

Aristotle said, “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” Or to paraphrase a quote that I heard recently, if people are kicking you, it might mean you are out in front. What theatre wouldn’t want to be out in front?

But reviews are only part of the picture and the actors are just part of the review. Theatre is an experience. Your theatre is always building or destroying relationships with audiences. If the audience has fun at shows and enjoy going, then the relationship is building. If you are making it difficult to attend, or make it less enjoyable, then you destroy the relationship. You want shows to be well attended with a fun atmosphere. Your reviews will reflect the happier audience. You want someone always checking to make sure that people find it easy to find the show, easy to park, easy to handle your coat, easy to get to your seat and easy to find the refreshment and the restroom.

What can a theatre do to give themselves the best chance of getting a good review?

You want to enhance the experience. Reviewers are people too. They get stuck in traffic, and have to meet deadlines. If you want to enhance the review, make it easy for them. You should have a packet to send or hand to the reviewer that has free parking passes, directions to your show, a cast list and credit list with spelling of names and maybe even a list of other shows they’ve been in. You might want to include notes from the director talking about his vision. You want the review to ‘write itself’. Assign someone to greet the reviewer at the door and talk to him after the show, with a polite thank-you for attending. No pressure, but kindness and consideration.

Stay tuned for more of Susanne’s insight on theatre marketing in part 2 of this series where she’ll talk about the cleverest promotions she’s seen and what more theatres should be doing. Learn more about Susanne’s business and the scrim solutions she can provide at

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