What 6 Project Management Principles Taught Me About Theatre Marketing

In addition to experimenting with and writing about theatre marketing, I also work full-time for a marketing firm here in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. (Update: I’ve since left that company, but picked up a lot of marketing wisdom in my years working there.) Part of my work there led me to enroll in a series of project management classes this spring.

One of the core concepts the instructors drill home is the idea that everything is a project. Building an airplane, planning a wedding, cleaning your garage and, yes, even marketing a stage production are all projects. That being the case all of them can run a little smoother if you apply a few best practices from the realm of project management.

1.) Define your objectives

That’s simple enough, right? Sell lots of tickets. Next…

Hold on a second there. That might be okay as a big picture goal, but you need to get more specific. I can hand out coupons and give group discounts so that the cost of a single ticket averages out to $1. Or maybe you pay full price for a ticket, but you get a voucher for $25 worth of concessions. I’m selling lots of tickets, but is that really what you want?

Here are some specific questions to help you identify your objectives.

  • Are you more concerned with maximizing revenue or getting the most people to see the show?
  • Do you want people to become season ticket holders or just come to this one show?
  • Do you want families to come to the show? College students? Fans of the avant garde?
  • How many tickets do you want presold versus at the door?

2.) Decide how you are measuring success

Once you know your objectives, it’s pretty straight forward to figure out how you are measuring success. Are you looking at the number of tickets sold or how much money you’ve taken in. Did you get reviewed by all the local arts bloggers?

A big advantage to deciding how you are measuring success is you will know how to respond when you come across new opportunities. Let’s say you contact a restaurant owner who is willing to attach a flyer about your show to the receipt they give all their customers… but only if you give their customers a 50% discount off the ticket price.

If you aren’t sure how you want to promote your show, you may struggle with this one. It gets a lot easier if you’ve already figured out your objectives. If you just want to get people in the seats, this is probably an idea you’ll want to explore further. If you really want to maximize revenue, your going to need to negotiate on the half-price tickets or walk away.

3.) Assign responsibilities from the start

It is very unlikely you have a single person with the time, contacts, and specialized skills to handle every aspect of promoting your show. That means you are going to have a team of people working together. You don’t want to have people duplicating efforts, and you don’t want a situation where some critical task is left undone because everyone assumed it was someone else’s job.

This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some common tasks that you’ll want to make sure you have covered.

  • taking and editing pictures
  • updating social media
  • contacting the local press
  • giving interviews
  • getting posters printed
  • getting in all the local events calendars
  • updating the website
  • shooting and editing promotional video
  • calling on local businesses about group sales
  • communicating promotions with your box office

4.) Measure to see if you are getting results

You could always wait until showtime to see how your marketing efforts are doing. You peek out at the house and see how many seats are filled. It’s an incredibly easy method for checking how effective you are at promoting. Of course if you didn’t do as well as you hoped, by that time it’s too late to do anything about it.

Don’t wait for the curtain to go up to decide if you should have been promoting differently.

It’s a good idea absolutely imperative that you measure your success as the weeks roll on. Don’t wait for the curtain to go up to decide if you should have been promoting differently.

If one of the ways you are measuring success is total ticket sales, you can at least see how many tickets you’ve sold in advance. Suppose by four weeks until opening night your theatre has typically sold 100 tickets for most of their shows. You should check in to see how many tickets you’ve sold by the four week mark.

Have you sold 150? Then you know things are working. Stick to the plan. What if you’ve only sold 50? Then you need to ramp up your efforts. Which leads to…

5.) Be ready to adapt your plan when things change

Just like every other aspect of putting on a show, your marketing plan is going to change along the way. You may not end up having the advertising budget you were originally promised, or the artist who was going to do posters drops out at the last minute.

Along the way you are going to come up against some unexpected challenges. They may not even always be bad challenges, but they will still require you to shift what you are doing.

How would you react when the venue tells you tickets are selling so well that they want to add a Wednesday night show and a Saturday matinee? That’s ultimately a good thing, but the “date night” promo with local restaurants that proved so successful selling out your Friday and Saturday nights isn’t going to do you much good on Wednesday night or Saturday afternoon. And now you have even less time to figure out how to promote those new performances.

You can’t predict the future, but you’ll save yourself a lot of anxiety if you figure out how you might adapt if things are either going very well or very poorly.

  • What marketing tactic could you cut if money gets tight?
  • If someone on your marketing team became unavailable, who could you call in a pinch to help out?
  • What would you do differently if you had a little more money?
  • What would you do if a major news story bumps the coverage of your show off the front page or the nightly news?

6.) Examine what didn’t work the way you expected

There are so many variables that affect someone’s decision to buy tickets to a show. Schedule conflicts, knowing someone in the show, their financial situation, the name of your show, and a hundred other tiny details figure into things.

So while you may be very confident that posting rehearsal photos on Facebook is going to make the box office switchboard light up, you don’t really know for sure until you’ve tried it. After your run is complete, you may be tempted to breathe a sigh and move on to your next project.

You’re not done yet. If you want your next theatre marketing effort to be easier and more successful, you need to review how this last campaign went. You need to identify what didn’t really seem to work, but then you also need to figure out why.

You were so sure posting those rehearsal photos was going to do the trick, so what happened? If you can’t figure out why they didn’t work, you’re bound to repeat the same mistakes next time. Here are some possibilities:

  • you had an unskilled photographer taking bad pictures
  • the camera itself was low quality
  • no one in the show is active on Facebook to share the pictures
  • the lighting was bad
  • the subject matter of the photos made the show look amateur

There are ways to address each of these issues, but until you identify the problem you can’t fix it.

Conclusion

Project management is popular in the business world because it allows you to get consistent results. It’s definitely more science than art, but I find the structure to be soothing rather than stifling. Instead of frantically scrambling to promote a show on an ad hoc basis, the project management approach allows you to focus on other things because you know there is a system in place to get butts in the seats.

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