Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Your Theatre Company's Marketing Problems

This is not a good picture to market your show

Let's talk for a few about the way we market our theatre companies in Chicago.

After I wrote that sentence, I took a week away from this piece to think. I get so frustrated with the state of our visibility and marketing decisions, that I wanted to make clear, coherent arguments that would be helpful for the discussion instead of angry, insane ramblings like we usually do.

But the thing is, when you have a review blog, you receive no less than 5 press releases a day and the atrocities are constantly in your face.

So let's start off easy and discuss your theatre's Mission Statement.

A Mission Statement is used to grab grant money and to inform potential board members of your goals and the type of work you are interested in doing.

Eclipse Theatre Company presents the work of one playwright each season. We offer the audience an opportunity, unique in the midwest, to journey with us through the playwright's works.

See? Simple, succinct, classy. It tells you what the company does and doesn't talk itself in circles.
Another example in a different style from The Hypocrites:

We will make theater. We will respect the audience. We will create a unique theater experience for every production. We will push our own limits in order to push the limits of theater. We will honor the playwright's intentions. We will hold interest in entertainment and art. We will change these rules.

That seems fun! All quirky and shit... You don't agree? Who cares. It's a Mission Statement and at the end of the day, the only people you are trying to please with this is Corporate Donors, Board Members, and Grant Writers.
You need to say that you are the best, give yourself a little rubdown and move on.
*I am not discounting the importance of a great mission statement, but I think that is something you can figure out for yourself. If you are using it as a guide within your company, stop and make a Constitution so everyone understands their rights and responsibilities in your group.

Now, let's move on, briefly to Show Selection.

Part of the beauty of this town is the unending choices of live entertainment you have in front of you. In plays alone, there are usually at least 1oo shows going on at any one time. The sort of plays you decide to do is your decision, but know that if you love to do Eastern European Existential Farces, that no audience is going to come and see it, and plan accordingly.
Get a smaller theater, cut down your marketing budget, because all the advertising in the world will not help you get people into your place.

So, the long and short of it is, do whatever you want. BUT you are also a consumer and know what people want to see, so just keep that in mind.

Press Releases

This, and the subsequent section are the hardest for me to deal with because I do not have many answers. I can tell you that collectively, we make GOD AWFUL press releases with no end in sight.
The problem is not in our writing ability or in our intentions, it is in the fact that we expect everyone else to be as boring as we are.

Vampire Couch Theatre Company is proud to present a devised new work based on The Ancient Fables of Phaedrus. Entitled "The Joy of Sharks and Romans" Vampire Couch seeks to explore what it means to be a human in these trying times of memories and acceptance. Told through Commedia Dell'Arte, Character based Movement, and Rhythm, Vampire Couch shines a provocative light on Humanity.

Sounds ridiculous, right? No one would ever write something like that, right?
If you think that this fake synopsis sounds ridiculous, you ARE right. If you think that no one would ever write something like this, then you are WRONG, bro.

Read a press release every now and then. They are all terrible. Not all. 90% of them are terrible. You are trying to get people to come and see your show! Pay attention!
Is there somebody in your show that is super hot right now? Did the director get great reviews for something else?
Use that in your release!

"From the Producers of 'Mexican Christmas' comes..."


"Caroline Neff in..."

Why are we afraid to be celebrities and use our names to sell shows?
Are we afraid of fame? Are we scared we will hurt somebody's feelings? If Rob McLean is in a show and his name is not at the fucking top of the bill, you are doing a disservice to your show.

I went and recently saw a Joe Foust play. Now, please bare in mind that Foust is this city's finest actor. People fucking love him. I love him. Do you know where his name was on the advertising?

In alphabetical order.


Is it not worth it to you to use a person's name to help promote your show? See, when you run an entertainment business, you need to stay on top of trends and understand the climate of what is popular and who is making things happen.

As I am writing this write now, I am imagining at least 30% of the readers are very involved in Chicago Theatre and have no idea who Joe Foust is. Or Joe Dempsey. Or even Rich Cotovsky or Lance Baker.

Why don't they know?

Because they don't fucking care! They want to make their own little movement based plays and fight for Chase Grants and explore.

It takes 10 minutes to jump around some websites and find out how your actors are with critics. We have things available to us now that we didn't before. TheatreInChicago.com is a great resource for review collections of shows. Go on there and find out about your cast!
We are making a professional decision here to make a show, act like an adult and promote it that way.

If the show is hot, talk about that. You got a great director? Talk about that.

Whatever. Just don't use your play cookie cutter to make a show.

Now, that brings me to Marketing Companies. I know it is very trendy to hire your own Marketing Company right now, and I understand why. Because it is less work for you, less pressure, and you have someone to blame when it doesn't work.

And while they tell you they have 750 contacts they can reach, and you can possibly get on Dueling Critics or they can guarantee a Trib review...go on the internet and see how many new periodical contacts you can get in 30 minutes. Read some of their past work. Ask them who their favorite artists are in town. Chances are, they don't know shit.

I LOVE Shout! Marketing, and think they are knowledgeable and easy to work with, for the record, but unless you have either a hot director, actor or a hot previous show, it's hard for anybody to get Chris Jones to pay attention.

We have created a world where the only voice that is worth anything is Chris Jones at the Trib. There are other great reviewers, including Kerry Reid, Kris Vire and dozens of bloggers that are knowledgeable and worthy of our inclusion .

That being said, the only reviews that make any difference for ticket sales are Chris Jones, a 5 star review from Time Out, and the Asshole at the Times. You cannot worry about what she says, because she doesn't know what she is talking about.

Now, my point is, is that if we continue to rely on reviews from Chris Jones exclusively, we will fail at our potential. He is a smart and nice man, but unfortunately for us, he is also honest.

So how do we turn the tide? We need to constantly be embracing other blogs and periodicals as we would the Trib. Our theatre patrons will follow, if we make it the way. Direct them to sites tat you like and are proud to have in your town. Build their trust. Get a Yelp page.

We, as of today, rely on reviews to sell our shows because we are too lazy to actually try to get subscribers, but if this is going to be the case we need to get creative and put an effort into our exposure through other online sites, AND we need to get off the computer and talk to people and sell our product.

Which brings me to Facebook.
Facebook is our greatest online marketing tool. It connects us with each other in the community and helps us know what else is happening. Now you and I both know, that if we rely exclusively on Facebook to promote our show, then we will fail. We cannot rely on social networking to promote us and keep us afloat. Do not be lazy. People will listen to you speak more than they will read your posts.

That being said, if you have an ensemble member who isn't on Facebook, kick them out.

If you are going to exclusively rely on Facebook, then learn how to use it. Look at your impressions and see what time of day you are getting the most hits. Don't post things at 10pm and expect anyone to read it. The same goes for 7am. Read a book about how to use it correctly, because I am not telling you.

Here's the thing with marketing in this town, too. It's fun! You get to go out and drink! Go to an after party at a theater you have never been to and meet new people. Develop relationships, expand your talent pool. Do not wait for them to come to you, because they won't. They will say that they have never heard of you and change the subject.

We need to make a conscious change in our Facebooking soon because if you haven't noticed, it is suffocating.

You know what is best for your company. You are an artist and can find creative ways to market your product. Stay diligent. Have fun. Bond with fellow artists and learn about the world you are a part of, because lots of other people know about it already and will give your company a chance.

Artistic Directors, make your ensemble go work other places and meet new people. It will help you in the long run. You will meet new faces.

Also, if you are a casting director and you don't go and see theatre then you are an asshole and should be relieved of your duties. Not the same 5 theaters you always go to either. Go! Get out of here and go meet new people!

And last but not least, Marketing Photos.

Go ahead and splurge and take a picture that is interesting. Take a quick walk through a theatre website and look at the artwork you see. It is all awful. The only consistently decent company with this stuff is The House. Why? I dunno. Have you ever seen a House show? I bet at least half of you reading this haven't.

You look at advertising all day, and you are not exempt from making attractive ads. So take a pen around town and see what jumps out at you and what about them are interesting.

If I see one more picture of people standing in corsets in a field I am going to murder you myself.

Chicago, get better at this. Get better at your art and get better at the art of selling your art.

-Anderson Lawfer, Eric Roach


  1. Facebook is almost dead. Your Machine is talking to my machine.

  2. Anderson Lawfer = BALLS. Dead fucking ON, sir! My favorite bit:

    "Why are we afraid to be celebrities and use our names to sell shows?
    Are we afraid of fame? Are we scared we will hurt somebody's feelings? If Rob McLean is in a show and his name is not at the fucking top of the bill, you are doing a disservice to your show." ARE YOU LISTENING, PRODUCERS???? And douche-y auteurs who style yourselves directors when what really happens is that good actors who know what they are doing SAVE YOUR JEEZLY ASS time after time?

    "I went and recently saw a Joe Foust play. Now, please bare in mind that Foust is this city's finest actor. People fucking love him. I love him. Do you know where his name was on the advertising?" Ok I mostly like this quip because I know it gave Joe Foust an erection visible from approximately 715.8 miles away. But still, a golden bowl of awesomesauce.

    What you miss mentioning is that there IS a strategic reason why prejudice against naming actors in marketing materials is the standard practice: actors who are acknowledged as a box-office draw merit and demand more money to do their work. And some producers hate that, because then they have to deal with spending the delicious 501(c)3 nonprofit grant spoils on what we politely call "administrative expenses," including 6-figure salaries for the artistic director.

    There, I said it.

  3. I wish people would do more Bruch Reed plays around Chicago.

  4. Having worked in arts administration, I remember once sitting in an all-staff meeting to brainstorm marketing the new season. They asked for suggestions and I came with a five-words-or-less summary of what, in the words of one of my mentors, made each show sexy. Each was dismissed in favor of lofty and self-congratulatory musings on high art or boring rhetorical questions. (i.e. When is hope dangerous? Can we trust?) Long after the marketing materials went out and the opening nights were upon us, the shows got some much needed publicity. When all of the news stories focused on what I had suggested, I would have felt vindicated were it not for my desire for the theatre to be successful.

    I certainly don't think I have all the answers. Like most people in theatre admin, I hold a theatre degree, not a business degree. But, like anyone who isn't suffering from tunnel vision, I can distinguish something static from something dynamic. (Guess which category this falls under: marketing theatre to other people working in theatre.) Fringe companies can risk trying something new, like Oracle's triple threat of Public Access Theatre, free beer and the B-Sides projects. Yes, every company needs to know its mission. (Ideally something more specific than, "We make good theatre that is unique, challenging and inspires dialogue," because without programming specifics all that says is, "We started our own thing because we like theatre.") Separate from the mission, each company needs to know its gimmick to get people talking and land butts in seats. Nothing is wrong or artistically impure about a gimmick, especially if it's innovative.

    1. Thanks for the kudos! I would love to discuss with anyone how this model has completely changed the way we approach marketing. - Brad from Oracle

  5. To be mentioned in the same breath as Rich Cotovsky gives me mucho tumescence. Amen to the (admittedly self-serving) desire for theaters to promote actors. 20 years in the scene and I don't think my name alone has ever sold a single ticket, which is fine and all, but why not foster a "Chicago theater celebrity" culture, just to have more selling points to shows? I remember a production of "Hamlet" came through Chicago Shakes a few years ago and I couldn't for the life of me find the guy's name on the website. Is Bruch right, that it's simply a way to keep the power balance in the hands of the gatekeepers?

  6. marketing never give problem to anyone, i also work with SEO Company

  7. This is great. I am marketing theatre in England and EVERYTHING you say applies to theatre here too.

    I have read some God awful press releases (may have written some too!)


  8. Interesting. Facebook is dying. That's my two cents, and I would be that ensemble member that would be kicked out. Ha!

    But here's my thought, the problem with Facebook is that unless you're willing to invest in learning Edgerank and posting a lot of photos and posting at the exact right time, then 16% of your followers will see your posts. When I was a user of Facebok 13 years ago, you put a page up and you had 1k users by the end of the day, then Facebook got sold to Goldman Sachs and had investors, and then it needed to please those investors. So those people who built a huge page back then and didn't change are benefiting, but those who don't are loosing it.

    I would say that you should look at the company members Klout score, because the internet is much bigger than Facebook.

    As for Mission Statements, Vision Statements, Mantras, and Manifestos, I'm sure there will eventually be something else that comes out that we have to have to make money. By all means, go for grants, but the grants, according to the School of Philanthropy are like 5% of what is being given. (I'm pulling that number out of my ass, so bear with me) and the number one giver is individuals. Money is coming in the door and walking out of the door. A mountain of free volunteer services are walking out the door. Just because I don't give you money doesn't mean I can't give you amazing stuff.

    As for Marketing companies, here's a thought. You have 20 people that are around your show. Engage them to be social and website media dynamos. Tell them to talk about the show on the train. Strike up conversations with strangers. Crazy thought, but creative ways to get out there will bring in people.

    I recently went to the #GracelandTV premiere. Check it out on Twitter. They have everyone in their cast tweeting. They had me livetweeting. And since I've livetweeted about it, I get something about that damn show every week. It's almost got me not wanting to watch the show. I got free glasses that I've worn with a hashtag on the side of it. I got free popcorn and sodas. I got to see the preview for free. All from my online Klout store. They branded the talent in their marketing. They showed pictures with the artist and had a "two truths and a lie" game where I could find out about the characters.

    This was brilliant. I'll use it sometime later. How about making 10 posters with a different character on each poster. Then you might be able to do the post modern play and get away with it.

    Just some thoughts about the blog. Loved it. I'll read more.

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