Thesis: People with whom you have some relationship are far more likely to attend your work than are total strangers.
I am aware of two major movements within marketing over the last century, and I’m increasingly convinced that neither of them is any longer well suited to attracting audiences to theatre, especially unfamiliar theatre.
The first movement was mass marketing. The skeleton of mass marketing is developing a single, broadly appealing message about a product then putting it into channels that will reach an enormous number of people as many times as possible. The odds of someone making a buying decision each time he encounters the message are very low, but because so many people are exposed to the message so many times, the multiplier effect eventually causes a large number of people to buy.
The second movement has several names, niche marketing, tailored marketing, post-modern marketing. The skeleton of this movement of marketing is to carry out a great deal of research on the population to identify segments within the population who are likely to buy the product for a particular reason. For each segment, the marketer then develops specific messaging and determines specific channels that will get the message to the members of the segment. Because the message is tailored to members of the segment, they are much more likely to purchase than they would be if they received a generic message. So fewer people receive each message, but each one is more likely to buy, so you deliver a higher sales efficiency per encounter with the message (often called an impression.)
For selling attendance to plays, mass marketing is in collapse. Fewer people are paying attention to the mass media channels that theatre companies can afford. Local newspaper reading and local radio listening are plummeting as narrow cast media draw people off to specialized channels.
All this specialization might present an opportunity to deploy the tactics of post-modern marketing, but there’s a rub. The amount of research required to learn enough about the marketplace to build a proper niche campaign is huge and expensive. You can make some guesses about what segments may exist, what messages their members might respond to, and what channels might reach them; but without literally hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of research, you’re likely to get it wrong.
With mass marketing failing and post-modern marketing too expensive for any but the largest companies, what is a mid-sized or smaller company to do?
I recommend a third kind of marketing, which I call invitation marketing. In a way, it is a special case of post-modern marketing. You are aiming at one segment, people with whom your theatre company already has some kind of relationship. You can probably get away with one message, which should be geared to explain to recipients why they will enjoy attending. The channels to reach these people are also highly affordable. Some of them, you are already probably sending email to. Others are social media friends or followers. A key here, though, is not to act as a single point emitter on social media. What you put on your company page matters relatively little. Your goal is to get every human involved in your production to act as another source of marketing, promoting it to their own circles of friends. Finally, you want to build your messages so they are easy for the recipients to share onward to their circles of friends. If you can get a repeat audience member to receive and retransmit your message, you get a powerful endorsement of your message to people you didn’t previously directly know.
So that’s really the whole idea. Spend less of your energy on advertising, because the kind you can afford doesn’t work very well; and the kind that works you can’t afford. Spend more of your energy working your social networks, both electronic and real world, to encourage those you already know to attend and to invite their circles to attend. Your messages will reach fewer people, but each one reached will be much more likely to attend. On balance, this is likely to lead to larger audiences.
Future posts will contain specific examples of companies I’ve watched use some of these techniques effectively. View this as the introduction of a concept.
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.