I'm going to challenge the creative in you; the one that is so proud of their work that they want everyone to see it. The one who has declined so many events with family and friends using the phrase, "I can't, I have rehearsals".
We've all done it. We create a piece of theatre and begin promoting it...and promoting it...and promoting it. OMG, we promote the crap out of it. That's all we hear from you.
"The cast is great!"
"The show is great!"
"We've been working so hard."
And my favourite guilt trip... "Support the Arts!"
Now, before someone loses their artistic baggage, know this...
I consider the arts to be one of the most valuable elements of any culture. I believe it to be a necessary part of the development of a society of intelligence, empathy and joy. But, blindly yelling at me to support the arts as a way to guilt me into buying tickets to your show is empty advocacy and it has less impact than you think.
Here's the problem for creatives promoting their work - we are too close to our work. We are unable to emotionally detach ourselves when we have to tackle the necessary business side of theatre, including marketing. Add a lack of marketing strategy to that and you have the recipe called "How to destroy your audience in three easy lessons".
You see, apart from your Mum, your best friend (who is probably into theatre anyway) and perhaps the family dog (who will follow you anywhere), no one cares about your show, certainly not as much as you do. In fact, no one else is thinking about it at all. People have their own lives going on and they are thinking about how they're going to get through their own day.
I'll leave you to sit still and stop hyperventilating for a few minutes before I continue.
This is a super tough lesson for a creative because we feel so much. Just read the post show content on any cast member's Instagram feed. When we spend months creating a show, we build bonds and expose our vulnerability. We are very emotional beings. We want everyone else to feel this joy and connection.
But here's where theatre goes wrong. We think everyone else feels and thinks the same way we do, and they don't. The general population aren't thinking about you or your show. They're probably not even aware you exist. They are thinking about their own lives and how to get through their week.
Take a step back for a minute and examine how you respond to being 'talked at' by promoters - of anything. You don't like being told what to do or how to think and yet, that's exactly how we treat prospective audiences when we promote theatre. We come at everything from our perspective and what WE need rather than considering what prospective audiences need to know to decide whether they're willing to spend their money on your tickets.
It's not all about the art for them. They want to know about parking, where they can get dinner before hand, whether they'll relate to the story and sometimes, if they'll feel comfortable in a space that they perceive to be uninviting (think 'artistic elite'). We get so comfortable in the theatre space that we forget that non theatre goers could feel quite intimidated.
There are a lot of things to consider when promoting to a non theatre audience but let's begin with the basics. Remember that it's about your audience and what they need to know, not you and what you want to tell them.
Let me give you an example:
As community theatre promoters, you will be thinking -
How hard everyone has been rehearsing.
How wonderful the performers are.
About the emotional impact this experience has had on you.
That you need to sell more tickets to cover your costs.
All these things come from a position of subconscious neediness. We usually don't recognise it and it influences everything we put out into the world. The problem with that is that people generally don't want to be involved with something that is needy. They want to jump on board with something that is exciting and inviting.
Your potential audiences are thinking -
Can I park near the venue.
Where can I get dinner before the show?
I don't know anything about this show. Will I like it?
What do other people say about the show? (and that's not from reviewers).
Now, take a look at the promotional material you're putting out and consider how many of your audience's questions (and these ones are just the tip of the iceberg) you're actually addressing. If you're ignoring your audiences needs, they're much less likely to feel comfortable spending money on tickets.
Let's go a little deeper into how your branding and community engagement can impact and help your promotions.
When all you do is advertise your show, when you forget to connect with your audience on a deeper level (sharing who you are as an organisation, your values, stories about your people and how you fit into your local community) you effectively productise theatre. You've turned it into a product to sell rather than art to share.
This means your theatre organisation is 'Coles/Woolies' and the show is a bag of hash browns. Now, all you have to differentiate your show from any other bag of hash browns is price, packaging and position. Is that really how you want to project theatre into your community? Of course not! You want to share stories and joy with both the participants in the project and audiences.
When audiences look at six different 'bags of hash browns' to choose where to spend their money, what will help to influence their decision in your favour?
YOU! The answer is - YOU! It's always going to be you! Your organisation. Your people. Your stories. Your personality. Your values. Your sense of humour. How you fit into your community. Now, how much of what you currently project into the world includes ANY of that?
When an audience member is making a choice about buying theatre tickets, they will be influenced by a theatre organisation that has spent time with them, sharing stories, making them laugh, allowing them behind the scenes, talking about the organisations values and how they want to 'be' in their communities. That audience member will feel connection, feel they have been included in the project from the beginning and will more likely want to see the end result.
Thinking long term, this community building approach allows you to develop consistency - things like group bookings, season ticket subscribers, a strong email list of people who want your communication. Now you can plan for the future with more security. With the right systems in place, you can view your show marketing as a set of building blocks, growing year after year, rather than starting again from scratch every single show.
Let's get one thing very clear. You cannot control your audience's purchasing decisions. You can influence a purchasing decision but you CANNOT control how people will respond or whether they will buy tickets. You also can't control what else is happening in the world around you at the time (think major events). Your job is to simply share who you are, connect with your audience and then offer tickets to your show. The rest is up to them.
Too many community theatre marketers carry the burden of ticket sales. That is not your burden to carry. Ticket sales are influenced by things like programming (the season your theatre organisation has chosen to present) and the size of the theatre you're trying to sell. Some shows are more difficult to promote than others, musical theatre is easier to sell than plays and, not all theatre is, shall we say, 'strong'.
This all basically boils down to this - community theatre marketing works best when you're building community connection. Over time, you'll build a strong group of followers that love you and what you create, will share it for you and even want to become involved themselves. You're no longer just a 'hash brown'; you're a valuable member of your community, sharing stories that challenge and entertain.
The best you can do is all you need to do!
Sherryl-Lee Secomb writes her blog, An Idiot On Stage, specifically to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Sher has been building brands for performing creatives in Australia since 2011 and now advises theatre organisations and performing artists in marketing their work and building awareness of their brand.
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