Why you need to build your online brand presence.

You've spent too many years promoting primarily to your family, friends and theatre colleagues, bless 'em. Your message, your work needs to be seen and heard by the communities around you. The arts, in all it's forms, is what encourages our society to think more deeply, to feel less alone, and to challenge their understanding of the world. Building your online brand presence is where that all begins.

"My work will speak for itself" is a lie.

It was 2010. Social media was still in its infancy; still an unknown marketing tool that had to be justified to disbelieving business decision makers. No one knew how to use it to share a message of worth, let alone how to include it in a marketing strategy. This is where I began my journey as a brand strategist for independent theatre.

At the time, I was a small business operator who had learned to create effective marketing strategies in the days when, to reach your audience, you put a stamp on an envelope or an advertisement in the local paper. You paid a fortune for study courses and learned through experience that most marketing advice, strategies and teaching is developed for companies that can outsource to an agency.

The agency life wasn't me. It would never be me, but with social media coming onto the scene, I realised there was huge potential in this new resource that no took seriously, for the independent theatre industry. I just had to figure out how to apply it.

For the next few months, I tried desperately to find teachers of the tactics and potential of social media and finally realised that those people didn't yet exist. Now, you can't open your phone without a social media training course popping into your feed but then - nothing. I had to figure it out for myself.

Actually, this was a blessing in disguise. Without the restrictions of the old guard - those that tell you how things have always been done and insist that "we've always done things this way", I could develop my own processes around the specific needs of organisations that were owner operated and self managed their marketing. I took the typical 54 page strategy document, stripped out the irrelevant tactics and kept the principals.

I was working with a very large community theatre organisation in Brisbane at the time. They had no online brand presence at all and knew they needed one. Spending vast amounts of their marketing budget on newspaper ads and postage to promote auditions and shows, they asked me to develop their online brand presence. What followed was several years of intense testing, measuring and development and I had more fun than a marketer should. Two of the tools I developed were digital Audition Packs and Media Packs. No one was using these yet and they were integral to building this company's brand.

Over the next few years, I tested everything, learning what was absolutely necessary to developing a theatre's brand and what traditional marketing tactics were unnecessary and outdated. The company surged forward, becoming a hugely prominent musical theatre company and easily selling thousands of seats for each of their seasons.

The audition pack I had developed started to turn up everywhere, usually in the exact same format I created. Others were beginning to understand its value. What I didn't see, however, was an uptake in the digital Media Pack. Because this document is not public domain (it goes directly to journalists and editors), theatre companies were not seeing it. I realised people were watching and needed access to more tools.

When I talked about all this through my community theatre blog, An Idiot On Stage, I began getting requests for assistance from exhausted volunteers tasked with the huge job of marketing their theatre companies. Doing everything it takes to build a brand and promote a show is one thing but teaching it is quite another and I struggled to find ways to share the things I had learned in a way that could be replicated by people who didn't have marketing experience.

Whilst I've done it for years, social media management is not the part of the process that I love. What I love is how simply it can help a theatre company or creative, build their brand presence. Used well, it's a loudspeaker for important messages and causes, for sharing opportunities to participate in theatre or to enjoy it as an audience. It's not an advertising platform but so many creatives only use it that way.

1. There are tactics and there are principals

Understanding that social media is only a fraction of what it takes to build the online brand presence of a theatre company, I needed to find a way to be more effective in teaching this stuff to the many, MANY theatre creatives who were trying to share their creativity with the world. I didn't want to go down the agency route (even agencies are now questioning the agency model). I wanted to remain an independent freelancer, mainly because I loved working directly with each creative, developing a strategy that was specific to them and their unique needs.

There are some things that don't change - photographic images are the lifeblood of promoting your theatre company and project; you have to have a well designed digital media pack and know how to use it properly; and you have to develop and consistently use a visual brand identity that allows people to recognise you instantly amongst the thousands of pieces of information they see every day.

What is unique to a theatre company, however, is their true brand story and knowing how to share that story so that they build strong relationships with potential audiences and the press. Knowing your brand story and developing systems for sharing it within your own unique infrastructure is something that is much more difficult to teach.

For instance, I can look at a series of photos from a promotional photoshoot and tell you which ones will resonate and be effective in the press. I can tell you that you need to spend 12 to 18 months building the brand presence of your theatre company before you can expect to get solid traction that you can anchor your marketing to. I can tell you that the shorter the lead time you have leading up to opening night, the more it's going to cost you in advertising. I can tell you that a simple, consistently used visual identity (logo, fonts and colours) can make a huge impact on brand recognition. I can tell you that your brand experience (how people experience their interactions with you) is just as important to your brand as that promotional photo you're so enamoured with.

But what I can also tell you is that only a small percentage of theatre companies and creatives effectively use all these elements to their benefit.

2. We need to upskill to market effectively

Most theatre creatives spend most of their time playing with the 'tactics' of social media. Hours are spent creating Tiktok videos, doing Facebook lives that have no purpose, posting on newsfeeds without any strategy and avoiding using hashtags because 'they don't personally like them'. Social media is a part of a larger strategy that allows you to build a stronger future for your theatre company. One that allows you to leverage your past efforts with each new project.

If the 2020 pandemic has taught me anything, it has reinforced my passion to help independent theatre creatives to become strong and effective promoters of their own creative ventures. Things are tough. They've always been tough and they're going to remain tough until we accept that the phrase, 'our work will speak for itself' is just another way of saying, 'I don't know how to speak for my work'.

We need to do this. We need to skill up as an industry. No one is going to do it for us. We have stories to tell. Our communities need to know that they have a theatre company in their own suburb, that there is affordable entertainment in their neighbourhood. There are talented, passionate storytellers all around them, desperate to entertain, to influence opinions, to make an emotional impact on their lives if they only knew these creatives existed.

You've spent too many years promoting primarily to your family, friends and theatre colleagues, bless 'em. Your message, your work needs to be seen and heard by the communities around you. The arts, in all it's forms, is what encourages our society to think more deeply, to feel less alone, and to challenge their understanding of the world.

3. Speak up for yourself

Let me show you how to share your message, theatre, and creativity in a way that is true to your intentions and accessible by your audiences. Don't wait for the world to find you. It won't happen that way. Stand up and proactively share your message. Think outwards, not inwards.

If not for such a time as this, then when?

At the beginning of this 'book' of a post, I mentioned I was a brand strategist. That means I help you to discover what your brand story is and collaborate with you to develop strategies to share it with the world, using all the resources (online and offline) available to you. I'm here to support not just emerging artists, but a creative community that is emerging from a year that challenged even the strongest of it's members.

I've spent 10 years successfully marketing theatre, stripping away stuffy, dry and useless 'business' marketing strategies, and developing systems that actually work for theatre creatives, within budgets that can vary from 'I've just been through a pandemic' to 'stuff the pandemic, let's go'. My philosophy? 'It is what it is so let's get this done'.

I don't manage your social media. I show you how to use it within a bigger strategy. I specialise in 'beginnings', whatever that looks like for you. I know how to make you look professional and credible, even when you don't feel that way - yet. I'm the person you collaborate with to build a brand presence that will be attractive to a record label, a venue program manager, journalists and audiences.

Want to talk more about how to get serious with your creative brand or theatre company's marketing efforts? Email me at hello@sherrylleesecomb.com or check out my website at sherrylleesecomb.com

Cheers, Sher.

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