The Danger of Relying on Word of Mouth

Word of mouth can be one of the most explosive and efficient means of marketing your show… -but it usually isn’t. Sure it’s inexpensive and scales well, but it requires people who don’t have a personal stake in the show to have enough passion and persuasiveness to convince other people that your show is worth attending. And that persuasion needs to happen quickly so that people come out to see you before the run is over. AND it needs to happen with many different people to start generating the “buzz” that defines a successful word of mouth marketing campaign.

Romantic notions to the contrary, just having a great show is not enough to create successful word of mouth.

I can think of a few shows I’ve acted in where much of the marketing was left up to word of mouth. The productions themselves were very solid. In fact the few people that did see those shows often had emphatically positive things to say. If creating great art was all it took to build buzz around a show, then these productions wouldn’t have seen such low box office numbers in the final weekend.

The problems with word of mouth

1.) You avoid responsibility. The biggest problem with this approach is that it lets you off the hook. It’s so easy to shrug your shoulders and refuse to take responsibility for ticket sales. After all if the key to selling tickets is word of mouth, then it’s really up to the audience, right? Either they talk about the show or they don’t. Relying too much on word of mouth is disempowering and frankly lazy.

Relying too much on word of mouth is disempowering and frankly lazy.

2.) It’s slow. Word of mouth takes time. If someone tells you about a great show going on tonight, do you cancel whatever plans you had already made. Not usually. You look ahead to see what you’ve got going on next week. Maybe it’s open, maybe it’s not. If your audience is young singles, they don’t need as much time to make new plans for the weekend, but young singles are not (usually) the most profitable demographic to target. For the most part there’s a delay between the time someone hears positive feedback about your show and the time they get to the box office. For many people that delay can be weeks, by which time your run may be over.

How to increase the odds of word of mouth working for you

Any successful word of mouth campaign reaches a tipping point. The conversation starts out painfully slow, needing to be pushed along every step of the way. But like a snowball rolling down hill, it eventually picks up enough momentum that it starts moving under its own inertia. The challenge is to get to that tipping point, where the conversation takes on a life of its own. Here are a few tips to help you reach that point.

1.) Get influencers in early. Most people only think of a media preview happening the night before opening. That may be the soonest you can get the traditional press to come and see what you’re working on. But are there other people who would be willing to come to a rehearsal sooner? (Especially if it means getting a scoop on traditional media like newspaper.) It could be non-traditional media like bloggers and local web shows. It could be your show sponsors who would love to start telling people how smart their investment in this production was. It could be local dramaturgs, teachers, or just your friends in the business. People are more likely to start talking about the show when they see some proof of the quality you’re putting together. Which of your scenes is starting to show hints of greatness?

The challenge is to get to that tipping point, where the conversation takes on a life of its own.

2.) Amplify the message. When someone mentions your show, fan the flames. Every positive word you get can be spread through social media, updates to financiers and stakeholders, and informally through conversations you have with everyone who asks how the show is coming along.

3.) Ask. Even people who love the work you’re doing may not automatically think to talk about it in their circles of influence. While there may be exceptions who should be cherished, most of your friends are probably not natural born promoters.  Just ask them if they can mention the show on Twitter or send out a personal email to someone they know who might like the show.

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