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The absolute must haves of community theatre marketing.

(This is the transcription of an episode on my Podcast)

This episode started with just marketing tactics but quickly ended up full of branding principles as well. While the marketing tactics are important and useful in the immediate, they are more useful to you when backed with ‘why’ you use them. That’s part of branding - influencing the world’s understanding of who you are and what you’re about. This is ongoing. Promoting a show is marketing, with a fixed outcome (to sell tickets). You need both to grow your community and organisation.

But let’s begin by taking a look at some marketing must haves that help you promote your shows.

If you sat on Instagram for a little while, consuming all the Insta-guru advice, you'd be forgiven for thinking that all you need to do to market your community theatre organisation is to create a viral reel, get 80,000 new followers and never have to worry about selling tickets again. Of course, if you've been marketing theatre for any length of time, you know how much of a crock that is. Successfully promoting theatre can be one ultra frustrating email-after-TikTok-after-Facebook-post-after-Instagram-story.

The list of what should be done to market a show and to raise audience awareness of the brand of a community theatre organisation - effectively - is quite extensive and honestly, beyond what generous volunteers have the time for. That's the truth! Unless you have access to a full time marketing department or a decent marketing budget, you aren't going to do this in two hours a week. But there are things you can do to achieve more with the time you have.

I've spent over a decade building the brands of community and professional theatre organisations and artists. I've watched artists get distracted by the latest shiny social media tactic and forget that marketing theatre goes way beyond social media. They do tasks as they think of them (a truly stressful way to work) and they're unable to delegate anything because they don't know what they need to do. They have no plan and feel truly overwhelmed and ineffective.

Today, I'm going to share with you some fundamental habits you can put in place today to help you. Try and avoid thinking that you're going to solve all your challenges in the next week or two - you won't. It's going to take consistent effort for a while (consistency and time are key here), but I promise you it's worth it.

While we’re at it, let’s get realistic about how long this takes:

Building a brand that is recognisable, memorable and carries weight within the marketplace takes 12 to 18 months of solid, consistent effort. This will not happen quickly. Equally, if you’re not consistent with your branding and marketing, you slow down the process considerably.

I know this is tough. Community theatres, and most independent theatre companies, are kept going through the efforts of volunteers; volunteers that didn’t join your organisation to do marketing. They joined you to create theatre. The risk today for you listening to this is that you’ll consider it all too much and throw in the towel. Please don’t. Ask for help, ask questions, put down the burden of thinking that marketing is entirely responsible for the financial success of your show. It’s not. There are many factors that must be taken into consideration when considering that bigger picture.

Just begin at the beginning and keep going. You’ll get better, feel more confident and see results. You are contributing to community theatre in a positive way, making it possible for us to have a place to play or work.

So let's begin with -

1. Content

It seems obvious but it's surprising how few community theatre marketers understand the value of good visual content. It's the life blood of effectively marketing theatre. You need it for social media, email marketing, pitching stories to the press, building relationships with your community, developing credibility and trust with your audience, - It’s everything.

Photographs and videos are the foundation of your marketing toolkit so it's worth taking the time to get this right. One of the biggest challenges is having enough of it and if you're making the mistake of capturing content as you need it you will not be able to keep up. Hello burnout.

The first thing I recommend to every theatre marketer is to -

a. Start banking content.

SUPER important skill for a theatre creative - capturing content everywhere you go, documenting the whole process of creating theatre - candid, behind the scenes photos and videos - storytelling. In practical terms, you simply use your phone to capture photos and videos of everything you do and store them in a series of folders for easy access later on. Dropbox or google drive is great; easily shareable, and accessible on all your devices.

Some tips I learned the hard way -

  • Label files and folders. Searching through hundreds of files labelled with 60 million numbers from your camera or phone will waste hours you don’t have. If there are just too many individual files, at least group them in separate folders labelled with a date and keywords of where you were or what you were doing.

  • You mustn't edit yourself as you gather content. Your natural tendency will be to discard photos or videos because you can't imagine their usefulness yet. Just bank everything in your folder system for later.

  • Don't get pretentious. This is no time to be a Spielberg. There's a place for highly produced content and that’s usually highly planned and specific. But 80% of your content should be more relaxed, spontaneous and authentic. Unfortunately, most of your content will only be seen by around 5% of your audience each time you post on social media (more if you email), so you can repurpose and reuse content in different contexts.

I find that the biggest challenge to banking content effectively is mindset and this takes time to adjust. For instance, your current thinking is usually something like:

  1. Every photo or video must look like it belongs in a gallery or cinema.

  2. I have to use content to blatantly promote the show - all the time!

  3. No one wants to see what happens behind the scenes of our show.

So let’s look at each one of these mindsets:

1. Every photo or video must look like it belongs in a gallery or cinema. It doesn’t. A more effective approach is ‘I'll just begin taking photos and get better with practice’. The more you do this, the easier it gets and the more you see great photo and story opportunities everywhere. Store everything, have fun with it. You'll get better with practice. Your creativity evolves with use. You can’t spend months learning something and then produce the most amazing piece of art, music, content, video. Creativity doesn’t work that way. You need to be crap first. That’s the difficult part. Most creatives don’t want to share their crap parts. They want to please the masses and be loved by everyone. Successful branding and marketing defies this part of us. It rewards us when we stop trying to be perfect, when we create something that reflects who we or our community theatre organisation really is - what we stand for; how we really speak. We create with the intention of working on improving the work over time. This process allows us to attract the people who will really love us and what we create - and that’s not everyone.

2. I have to use content to blatantly promote the show - all the time! No. No you don’t. Try thinking, audiences are super interested in how theatre is created. I'll find ways to bring them behind the scenes and allow them to feel part of what we create. It's fun to build connection with my audience and I know that it's more effective than me telling them to buy tickets all the time. If all you're putting out into the world is advertising and promotion, your audiences are already bored to tears. Advertising shouldn't exceed 20% of your output (particularly on social media) but there are ways to always subtly have your show in people's minds without pushing it in their faces. This is called building your brand and it goes way beyond your current show. If you have to tell people how great your show is, you’re already in marketing soup. Your branded promotional content (your professional promo shots, produced videos and the likes) demonstrate the potential quality of your work. They help you create credibility and build confidence in the people you’re promoting to. With a strategy that keeps this high quality content at the top of people’s minds (20% of the time), you’re free to share your personality or the personality of the show with less produced, spontaneous content. This content is more about people and storytelling, entertaining your audiences and letting them build a relationship with you. Then when you do tell them how to buy tickets to your show, they’re more receptive and less likely to mute you.

3. No one wants to see what happens behind the scenes of our show. Actually, they do and the audience you’re probably promoting to now is much smaller than you have the potential to reach. Try thinking as a community theatre organisation, our purpose is to share theatre with our community. You have to stop thinking your entire audience is restricted to Mum, Dad, the cat and other community theatre people. Do you know how big your potential audience is? That's non theatre people. The general public. People with money to spend and looking for entertainment. I'll pretty much guarantee you don't generally reach many of them and that they don't even know you exist. Not only does this mean you’re promoting your shows to a very small pool of people, it means that the actual brand of your theatre organisation is kept small. There are also creatives within the industry that could make a positive impact on your culture and practices but they don’t know you exist or, if they do, they know nothing about you. You’re invisible. The mistake we make is marketing to ourselves. We forget that we have a theatre language no one else understands; that we know all these shows and quote from them. The average person in your community (who is open to attending the theatre) makes the decision to buy tickets on very different considerations than theatre people do. They require different information to feel comfortable spending their money on a $38 ticket. Most community theatre companies are simply projecting statements like “the show is great” (prove it), “the cast have been working hard” (I don’t care. So have I) and my favourite “support the arts”. Good grief that one haunts me! I believe that the arts are an integral part of an empathetic, compassionate and effective society. Theatre supports that by exposing us to stories that are not our own, opening our minds and challenging our conformity. But to constantly tell people to “support the arts” as a way of guilting them into purchasing tickets is hollow and ineffective.

The second thing I recommend to every theatre marketer is to -

b. Gather the five types of content

You need a variety of content to effectively build your theatre brand and promote your show.

  1. Promotional photos - use a professional photographer if possible but if you can't, a good amateur photographer with suitable lighting and a white backdrop can achieve wonders. Keep things simple. Now that graphic design platforms like Canva can remove backgrounds with one click, you have more design freedom than ever before, without having to be a graphic designer. However, if you can afford professionals, use them. Use your photoshoot to gather great video content for reels and videos while you’re at it. The lighting is fantastic and you can bank whatever you capture for use later on. I suggest you go in with a plan to make sure you keep your time management under control though. I'll share my notes on how to create your own photoshoot in an upcoming episode.

  2. Candid and behind the scenes photos & video - the production team meetings, creating costumes, the set construction, social gatherings, preparing the theatre, sourcing props - every single step is ripe for interesting photos, videos and storytelling. You can't be everywhere so ask others on the team and cast to capture their own photos to add to the pool of content you can use.

  3. Shots from the rehearsal space. This is more about people in action. These are still candid - not staged. They're meant to be shot as a 'fly on the wall'. Be selective about what you want to show of costumes, etc and don't use sound of the rehearsal (avoids potential copyright issues). Don't forget your creatives who work behind the scenes - costumers, set builders, front of house, etc. These people all have stories and they ARE your organisation. I’ve always got best results using a photographer using good camera equipment, shooting in the background so as not to interrupt the rehearsal. You want your actors and creatives to forget they’re being photographed or filmed.

  4. Performance photos from a full dress rehearsal. These are necessary for reviewers and great for credibility when promoting your show. You can gather positive quotes from audiences and put them on these photos, just as you would quotes from a reviewer. I always add a selection of performance photos to the electronic press kit for reviewers.

  5. User generated content - reshare photos or video posted by your cast and crew. Seek permission and always credit them for the content. Don't undervalue this type of content. You could enlist members of the team to create content for you based on their own experience of the project, for example a reel of their tech week. Even a typical rehearsal week can be fun content. Each creative has a unique view of their theatre experience giving you a ton of storytelling opportunities.

The third thing I recommend to every theatre marketer is to -

c. Build a team of content gathers

This one’s a little trickier as it requires you to have a basic framework for volunteers to work in because they might be outside your organisation. They need to understand that they’re taking photos on your behalf and that there are restrictions on what they can post on their own accounts without approval, otherwise you may experience breaches to your licensing contract, amongst other things. It comes down to communication. Have a conversation with the photographer beforehand to discuss what you need - don’t assume anything.

Good amateur photographers are worth their weight in gold to a community theatre marketer so look after them. Build a team if you can. Each photographer sees different stories through the lens, so you can end up with wonderful variety in style and content. Here are some tricks I learned along the way that will make managing this particular part of the process far more effective and less stressful.

  • Always credit every photographer's work if you use or reshare it. Create a dropbox or google drive folder for each photographer, labelled with their name for crediting. That way, even if you use it weeks later, you'll know who to credit.

  • When sending photos to journalists, I always label each photo file with the name of the company, show, actors and the photographer’s name. Since I started doing this, I rarely have crediting errors.

  • Ask photographers to provide you with full colour, high resolution copies of all photos so that they're useful in all formats. You don’t want to find the perfect photo for publication only to find its resolution is poor or that it was shot in black and white. Also ask them to vary their framing within portrait and landscape. This helps in post production. Journalists also require a mix of portrait and landscape images for publications.

The next major elements of your marketing toolkit, a project plan and an electronic press kit, will be the subjects of another episode and a video on my Youtube channel but let’s take a look at the basics today.

2. A project marketing Plan

A project marketing plan. If you are trying to run a theatre company or marketing plan without one you will end up sticking a straw in a bottle of red every Friday night to drown your sorrows. You must have a plan. You must have things written down. You can use project management platforms like Trello and Asana to do this but the problem then is that you’re dictating that every other member of your team must use them as well. Working with community theatre organisations run by volunteers is not the same as working a job where the professional expectations are set. There are different experiences and comfort levels with technology and budgets that don’t usually accommodate the cost of planning tools or training. I always recommend you keep things super simple, so that anyone can access the information, it can be shared easily and without cost. I’ve tried to implement many project management tools only to come back to systems that seem to work for any volunteer run organisation.

So, I always have a project marketing plan running in the background. I use google sheets with everything happening throughout the year in the theatre organisation, everything I need to do, every publication deadline, important dates, social media content, and tasks. This allows me to plan an entire year of work. I can book photographers months ahead, meet deadlines for publicity outlets, delegate to other team members, plan for potential challenges or budget requirements, and much more. I could not successfully manage a theatre marketing project without this document. Because it’s a live document (Google drive), I can share it with my team and we maintain document integrity. In other words, we can make changes and know that everyone is still working with the same information.

If you have everything you need to do written down with its various deadlines and associated tasks, it's more likely to get done when it needs to be done. Doing things last minute really annoys volunteers and usually means missing effective promotional opportunities. You'll begin to feel more organised and discover your own systems for getting things done in the few hours you have each week.

My google sheet has separate columns for the day, date, month, event, delegated tasks, social media content, email strategy and content. You can keep adding columns to suit your organisation. I've learned from experience that keeping things simple is far more likely to avoid overwhelm. I use google sheets so that I can then bookmark the sheet for easy daily access and sharing with team members.

There's a lot more to this plan but this document is a game changer to your productivity, organisation and management.

3. Create a press kit

Finally, let’s look at your electronic press kit or EPK. I developed this process over a decade ago and it’s evolved as technology has evolved. It used to be an email attachment to journalists. Now it’s a dropbox folder full of information, photos and video allowing me to send a link. As many publications set up flags for or flat out reject emails with attachments, this simple process is your best way to share information with journalists.

An electronic press kit (EPK) is the best way to get the attention of people who can make a big impact on your marketing efforts and it also helps you to present a consistent and credible branded presence for your show and theatre organisation.

Designed well, an EPK can:

  • get the attention of the press.

  • develop a positive brand reputation in your local community.

  • favourably support a pitch to businesses for sponsorship or collaborations.

  • help you look credible when developing and engaging with potential audience groups.

The trick with this document is in the design. You'll have a major positive impact on your brand's perception/credibility if it is designed well and on brand. If it looks like a Word document produced as a school project, you'll do more harm than good. I’m going to upload a video on my Youtube channel walking you through how to create an EPK so follow me on Youtube for notification on that one. I’ll also send the video out in The Idiot’s Notebook, my regular email. You can sign up to that on my website. I’ll put links to both of these in the show notes along with a full transcription of this episode.

Try not to get overwhelmed by all this information. Choose one thing you can implement now and just keep adding the others over time. Remember, community theatre is about the 'love of theatre'. You are a dedicated and generous person (or you wouldn't be doing the marketing for your theatre organisation). Don't burn out by trying to do everything all at once.

I do this professionally but I've volunteered my services for a number of theatre organisation over the years, so I understand your challenges. Everything I’ve developed over the years has been created within the framework of low budget, no time and probably done by volunteers. If I sit here and suggest a bunch of ideas straight out of a marketing strategy built for a standard business with a marketing budget, staff and skills, it would be totally useless to you.

Finally, thank you! You're an amazing sword wielding donkey rider, and I know you’re determined to find an audience for your shows. But don't carry the burden of this alone. It’s a team project with a lot of moving parts. Remember that you can't control audience behaviour, only influence it. Your job is purely to place the offer in front of them. That's all. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your theatre friends, do all the following stuff on my social media and let me know that this is actually helping someone.

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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