The Toughest Obstacles In Theatre Marketing – and How To Get Past Them

 

Attracting an audience to a stage performance is not for the faint of heart. While traditional businesses often have what by comparison amounts to extravagant resources and timelines, in theatre marketing everything has to happen very quickly with almost no budget.

But regardless of the challenges drawing a crowd is critical to a successful run. So here’s an honest look at some of the biggest obstacles we face when promoting a show, and how to tackle them head on.

Time and place

Most shows have a very short run. Unless you’re on Broadway you only have a few weeks when someone could attend your production. Yet we live in a world where people can instantly download almost any movie ever made right to their home. Consumers of entertainment are rapidly becoming accustomed to instant gratification, and it’s an inconvenience to tell them when and where you are willing to entertain them.

Response: Something that is scarce is automatically more valuable. It’s a true luxury to indulge in live theatre. The story you want to tell people is that going to your show is a unique experience that only a limited number of people will get to enjoy. Besides they can catch that movie when it comes out on DVD. Once the run of your show is over, it’s never coming back.

Budget

There is an almost infinite number of things you could do to promote your show… if you have an almost infinite amount of money. Sadly you probably can’t afford to run too many prime time television spots. Sky-writing is a little pricey unless you know a guy, and sending a postcard to every mailbox in your town adds up quickly. The truth is most productions manage to afford printing a few posters, but even those will sit in a stack in the corner of the theatre unless you can afford some means of distributing them.

Response: Don’t get discouraged. Just because you don’t have a big spender bank rolling your promotional efforts does not mean you can’t spread the word. Focus on marketing tactics that do not require much if any financial investment like Facebook, emails, and blogging.

Whose job is this?

Maybe your show is a little luckier than every production I’ve been a part of. Maybe you actually do have someone whose sole job for the couple of months leading up to opening night is to get those tickets sold. In my experience that job is just tacked on to the long list of duties for the director or producer or more likely both. If tickets didn’t sell very well, who is to blame? The director could quite legitimately say she was focusing on the actual show that was being put on stage, while the producer could make a solid case that all the logistic pieces that have to be addressed to have a show we’re demanding all of his attention.

Response: Have everyone play to their strengths, and make sure responsibilities are clearly defined. Maybe the producer has an existing relationship with local media outlets, so the producer needs to spearhead the PR efforts. Meanwhile the director has an easier time adding photos and videos of rehearsals to the show’s website or Facebook page.

Can’t show the final product

Conventional marketing tells us that it’s far better to demonstrate your product rather than just talk about it. But in theatre the final product doesn’t exist until a few days before opening night, and you certainly can’t wait until then to start your marketing. How do you show people what they are spending their money on before it’s done?

Response: You may not have everything ready, but as showtime draws nearer you’ll have more and more pieces falling into place. So slowly throw out crumbs of information as they become available. Give people photos from rehearsal, sketches of the set concept, bits of costumes, and early reactions from people who are seeing the show come together. This is a great way to start and build buzz leading up to opening night.

How much is too much?

There’s only so many seats available. Once you’ve sold out the entire run, there isn’t anymore money you can make. So marketing after that point is wasting time and money. You want to make sure you do enough marketing to sell all of your tickets, but you don’t want to do any more than that.

Response: Start early. If you wait until the last few weeks you have to go on a blitz, and it’s very likely you will do more marketing (or worse – less marketing) than you need to. If you can start building momentum two months out from opening night, you’ll be able to see how well tickets are selling. As you go along you can accelerate or pull back on your promotional efforts as needed.

Bonus: …and if you do go overboard on your marketing, be sure to collect names and email addresses of people that didn’t get tickets to put on a waitlist. You probably won’t be able to get them into this show, but that’s a great group of people to be able to contact when your next show rolls around.

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Discussion

  1. Hi,

    Great blog. I run Pan Theater – Oakland’s community and improv theater. I also run an event marketing (postering service) – the Thumbtack Bugle (www.thumbtackbugle.com).

    For what it is worth – a ticketing service that automatically collects email addresses is super useful. We use eventbrite.com.

    As for marketing – the word of mouth by cast members with a handy dandy postcard does wonders for smaller shows.

    -David

    David Alger on Sun, Feb 12th, 2012 at 5:22pm
    • David, thanks for reading. I think very highly of Eventbrite, and have praised it on my 9-to-5 blog.

      That’s a great tip on the postcards. I see a lot of theatres hand the cast a stack of posters – which is great – but they aren’t very convenient to carry around. A few postcards you can fit in your bag or pocket is a great tip. – Clay

      Clay Mabbitt on Mon, Feb 13th, 2012 at 9:18am

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