What Every Theater Website Needs

04.09.11 | 10 Comments

CATEGORIES arts administrators, arts service organizations, audiences, conversation starter, marketing, producers

Please. If you are a board member, artist, or employee of a theater company, understand that most people are not visiting your website because they like you, or because they want to like you. First and foremost, they are visiting your website for information. All the glossy photos, taglines, and rave reviews will not give these individuals an emotional stake in your company if you are going to waste their time by not conveniently giving them the information they seek.

The following are the basics for any theater website homepage.  A visitor to the page should be able to find them in seconds.

Address. Clearly, unambiguously: this is the street address for the venue where the show is taking place, and this is the name of the venue.

When. Dates and times. Many theater companies hide this information behind a button marked Buy Tickets, or some variation thereof. If it’s 6:20 p.m. and someone is looking at your website, it is most likely not to buy tickets but to confirm the showtime and/or location. Don’t make people lie in order to find the information they need to see your show.

Running Time. When a show begins is essential to an audience. When a show ends is also useful: a running time or end time. Imagine an overworked couple standing in the foyer of their house at 6:20 p.m., checking your website on their iPhone to tell the babysitter when to expect them home, two hours later or five hours later.

How to Donate. Blue Man Group, skip this one. (Then again, Blue Man Group, skip this whole essay: your website follows these rules already, and in Chicago you pulled in nearly $627,000 in ticket sales last week.)

But if you are a not-for-profit company, give a visitor to your website clear and immediate information about how to donate to your company—even if it’s just a mailing address. Imagine an overworked lumber baron who, sitting at his desk before a roaring fire, has five minutes to give to a charity. He momentarily thinks of his college roommate, whose niece is the sound designer for your company, and visits your website on a whim. If your site requires more than 30 seconds of time to figure out how to make a donation, that lack of clear information could cost your company a major new supporter.

Contact. An e-mail address, a phone number, whatever. Imagine the lumber baron saw your show and wants, simply enough, to thank you. Imagine the possibility of him going to your website, giving up in frustration after a minute, and moving on with his life, compliment unpaid, relationship unforged.

Quick story—this relates more to the content of that contact information than its placement on a website. I work with foundations that fund theater companies. I review proposals and see shows (often, as a representative of the foundation, looking online at 6:20 p.m. for a show’s start time). Recently, I reviewed a grant proposal from a generally healthy, artistically strong theater company that had recently undergone administrative changes. I was trying to arrange a meeting with its managing director.

The e-mail address on the application form was incorrect—the equivalent of, say, Sandbox Theater writing its address as info@sandbox.org instead of the correct info@sandboxthtr.org. The e-mail I spent 10 minutes composing was kicked back to me. Next, I called the phone number on the grant application, sat through a four-minute recorded pitch about the current season, followed by directions to the theater. When offered an option to leave a message for the company, I pressed the appropriate button and then listened to a three-month-old message about auditions for a show that had already closed. When I pressed one more option, I heard an outgoing message from the former managing director, with his personal cell-phone number for those who wanted to contact him. In this case, I finally did go to the company’s website and found the correct e-mail address on their homepage. At least there was that. (And this company does strong work—I’m rooting for them.)

Checklist. The basics—after which, but only after which, feel free to add photos, blogs, color, zingers, slideshows, exclamation marks, and sales pitches:

—Venue address.
—Correct, current, daily showtimes. (If there is no current show, tell us what is happening at your company this month, even if what you’re doing this month is taking time off until you pick your next show.)
—Running time.
—How to donate.
—How to contact the company in a way that will receive a timely response.

One more. It only takes two clicks to get from the homepage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago to its most intimate financial data. (Go to the homepage, click on About Us, click on Financial Data, and you’re there from the homepage in seconds flat.) If your company is not doing the same, why not? Would this not also inspire the impatient lumber baron to write you a substantial check? Why hide?

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Eric Ziegenhagen

Eric Ziegenhagen is an arts consultant, theatre artist, and musician based in Chicago.
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  • Good points, Eric. I’d also add – ensure there is someone in your company whose job it is to keep all information on the website up to date.

    • Eric Ziegenhagen

      Absolutely–makes complete sense to put it into someone’s weekly duties, be it the box-office manager, company manager…

  • And please for all that is holy add a searchbox someplace I can see on the front page. Because sometimes the above checklist isn’t what I’m looking for, you (the theatre company) haven’t anticipated what I’m searching for. Then check back in with what people are using that searchbox to search for in figuring out what links you should be highlighting on your front page.

    • Eric Ziegenhagen

      Thanks, Devon–that’s great. A search box is part of my permanent list from now on.

  • Jonathan Owicki

    Thanks so much for this! I’m in the process of redoing my company’s website and this has been super helpful!

  • THANK YOU for the great reminders. Basic information MATTERS.
    For a class I am teaching I was looking for “good” theatre websites yesterday. I spent literally hours trying to find one that had the basic information I needed, was easy to navigate and made an emotionally convincing case to the potential theatre patron not already “in the know.”

    What I learned is that creating a good theatre website is hard. Very hard it seems. 🙂

    I also gained some “odd insights” for lack of a better word. Patterns I started seeing after I looked at page after page that I might not have seen otherwise.

    **** Along with the address be very clear about the city state and country you are in. I found several Phoenix theatres, Civic Theatres and Center Stages that had locations listed like “2315 Simms St. across from the City Library.” They could have been in any city or country in the world. And these were not just “little theatres” at least two of the venues making this mistake also told me that their venues seated over 500 people. (I just can’t tell you what zip code those patrons are sitting in.)

    ****Kids are cute and engaging, but if you are not solely children’s theatre please put a mixture of images on your home page. I ran into theatre website after theater website that looked like a children’s theatre at first from the colors and the imagery. Until I noticed that their seasons included titles like “Burn This” and “Doubt” even one image of a dorky adult among all those cute kids would have fixed the problem.

    **** “The Empty Space” is the title of a great book by Peter Brooke- but it is not a great sales pitch for live theatre. Many theatres (at least a third of the ones I visited) showed a picture of an empty auditorium or theatre space. And you know what? It was not inspiring it was depressing. Unless you are an architect or an interior designer it is the event of theatre you are interested in more than the space. So let’s start showing happy audiences. It is a not so subliminal message that would do us all good. “Look folks the theatre is FUN come join us!” Seems better than look at what great upholstery, carpet and light fixtures we have.

    Hope that helps those in the design or re-design mode! But first get the basic information out!

    Thanks again,

    • Eric Ziegenhagen

      Thanks Mari–great suggestions. Regarding the last comment, I think theaters do absolutely often miss the opportunity to put their audience in the promotional photography, when they are such an integral part of any performance. It is worth it for theater companies to look at how membership-driven organizations–both gyms and churches–usually feature photos that include the “audience” participating with the space.

  • You sorta mentioned this at the beginning and then glossed over it while talking about show times, but it should be immediately obvious how to buy tickets.

    The other thing is that all of these things should be obvious ON THE VERY FRONT PAGE. Don’t make me scroll or click through to get any of this information. 99.9% of your website audience is looking for the things you mentioned! If they’re buried on another page, they’re that much more likely to just go away.

    Users are very forgiving about scrolling (though you shouldn’t hide this stuff at the bottom of the page either), but much less forgiving about having to click three times just to see what time the show is.

  • This is all such good advice. I can’t tell you how frustrated I get at the whole “click here to buy tickets” when all I want to know is when and where shenanigans. And to know the running time beforehand! How I could plan the rest of my day/evening if that were ever a possibility! Great post.

  • Rebecca Noon

    I recently attended a Creative Capital PDP Internet for Artists Workshop. It was amazing, and they have this super wikispot open to all. Lots of great tips on all kinds of things related to this info. Feel free to peruse, use, and add to: http://ifa.wikispot.org/