No Silver Bullets in Theatre Marketing… Just Regular Bullets

Our lives as theatre marketers would be so much easier if there was a simple, repeatable tactic we could use to consistently find the audience for our shows. Deep down we know there is no such miracle drug, but the appeal is so strong that we can easily find ourselves looking for what we know doesn’t exist. We don’t get to have a silver bullet in theatre marketing – that one trick we can depend on to fill the house for all of our shows.

But we can have regular bullets, and regular bullets are still pretty effective.

Why can’t there be a silver bullet? I’m guessing most of you reading this can accept that idea that there is no single tactic (like postcards or Instagram) that’s going to address all of your marketing needs. The world is more complex than that.

But what about a collection of marketing tactics? Many theatres that I’ve talked to seem to be looking for the perfect formula. If only they could zero in on the right combination of press releases, rehearsal photos, and social media updates then they could just repeat that same process for every production.

I suspect many people come to Sold Out Run looking for exactly that formula. Here’s why I can’t give it to you.

Every show is different

The title of the show plays a big role in your marketing. It gives people an immediate impression of the subject and tone of the show, and that’s different every production. Anyone who has seen your show before views your marketing with preconceived notions based on their past experience, and even original works create a set of expectations just by virtue of being new. Each script gives you different source material that will lend itself to different marketing channels.

Every market is different

Things that work very well in my town may fall flat in yours. That’s because the cultural landscape in each city is unique. It’s influenced by the individuals that make up that community, and their personal histories, tastes, and social influences. Even a pair of hypothetical communities with the exact same cultural profile would have a different series of productions that local theatres had put on in recent years. That alone is enough to change the way people respond to marketing.

Every venue is different

The environment of a performance significantly colors the audience’s expectations, and we’re never promoting just what happens on stage. We’re marketing an evening (or afternoon) of entertainment which includes traffic on the way to the theatre, parking, the lobby, the decor, how long the line to the bathroom is, drinks, snacks, and a hundred tiny details in addition to the performance. The marketing that convinces someone to see a show in a black box theatre is very different than what will bring people out to an upscale opera house.

Every cast and crew is different

Each person involved with the production has their own circle of influence. In some cases they might have a quite a bit of local celebrity, some good and some bad. But aside from the audience that everyone’s personal brand will attract, your particular cast and crew provides a unique profile of individual talents that you can use to promote your show. Whatever remarkable strengths your team has as actors, singers, costumers, set builders, writers, et al bring those to the front in your marketing.

Every week is different

This might be the most painful truth in this post. There’s no guarantee that the marketing that gave you a full house last week is going to do the same this week. The world keeps moving, and every week brings a new set of entertainment opportunities for your potential audience. Competing theatre productions in your area, local sporting events, road construction, or holidays can have a huge impact from one week to the next. Even particularly good or bad weather can keep the crowds away.

But there are regular bullets

So there isn’t a comprehensive marketing formula that we can operate more or less on autopilot to successfully promote all of our shows. What we can do is pay attention. When you try a new marketing approach or tactic that works, explore that a little deeper on your next production.

It doesn’t take long to start compiling a toolbox of marketing tactics that you know how to execute well. Not every tactic will work for every production, but you’ll get smarter about which ones work on which types of show. Your gut will start to get very good at telling you what works to promote outdoor Shakespeare in August and what you need to do differently for a holiday cabaret.

This is a dangerous phase!

Once you have a few ideas that work, you’re in a dangerous spot. You’ve had a little bit of success, and this is where you’ll be tempted to stop seeking improvement.

Never get complacent – especially if you’ve got a few marketing tactics that are generally effective. Continue looking for new ways to entertain people with your marketing.

The worst thing that can happen for the long term health of your marketing is if you start to believe your regular bullet is a silver bullet, just because it’s hit the target a few times in a row.

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