For those who live in northern climates, this time of year begins the annual search for the perfect warm weather escape destination that will provide the light at the end of the tunnel through the cold winter months. When my husband and I search, all we know is that we will be heading south. Beyond that, to determine our destination we ask friends and family for recommendations of places they’ve gone to and loved.
Then we hop online, read about the various cities and look for the most cost-effective flight options. Once booked, we begin the process of finding a hotel. Then, and only then, we read reviews, but almost exclusively on user-generated, review-aggregator sites like TripAdvisor, to best ascertain which hotel has an equal combination of affordability, great location, and favorable reviews from a large number of users. We never read reviews by professional travel writers. Instead we rely on the expertise of the crowd, and in almost a decade of traveling together, we’ve rarely been disappointed.
This is the challenge facing arts criticism in the 21st century. In a recent survey sent to our single ticket buyers at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, we asked patrons what drove their purchasing decisions, and their responses mirrored my own hotel searches. First and foremost, patrons must be interested in the subject matter or premise of the play. Next, they check with friends and family to get recommendations, and then consider the ticket price. Only after all that do patrons report that a professional review will influence their purchasing decision. Just a decade ago, I ran a similar market study while at Arena Stage, with patrons reporting that the primary purchasing decision rested on the review of the Washington Post. So what’s happened in the intervening years?
Just as video killed the radio star, has the enormous access to the hive mind collective of the internet diminished the prominence of traditional media outlets? In looking at the data, there may be no more challenged sector in the United States than traditional print newspapers. A 2015 report from the Brookings Institution shows that the number of newspapers per hundred million population fell from 1,200 (in 1945) to 400 in 2014. Over that same period, circulation per capita declined from 35 percent in the mid-1940s to under 15 percent. U.S. newspaper advertising fell from a high of $65 billion in 2000 to less than $20 billion today, while the number of newspapers has dropped by more than 25 percent, including the closing or drastically cutting of several high-profile papers including the Rocky Mountain News, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, San Francisco Chronicle, Detroit Free Press, and Tucson Citizen. While typically a presidential election year results in strong newspaper readership, results from 2016 weren’t stellar. While some national news organizations have shown promising gains in online readership, according to a recent Pew Research study, total weekday circulation fell 8 percent in 2016 nationally, marking 28 years of consecutive decline. (Ironically, I gathered all this information in about five minutes on the user-generated site Wikipedia.)
In other words: If your theatre doesn’t have a post-newspaper communications strategy, the data suggest you may need one soon. This trend first caught my attention in 2009 while I was the chief marketing officer at Arena Stage, when I predicted that to adapt, theater institutions would have to become content producers themselves. President Obama’s campaign taught us that it was possible to build, in a relatively short amount of time, a digital communications infrastructure primarily consisting of social media and email that could reach more individuals by far than the daily circulations of the country’s 10 largest newspapers.
Fast forward to 2017, when a single tweet from the president can cause global disruption. Almost a decade ago, Arena Stage invested in its first digital content producer, who developed engaging video and social media content for the theatre’s distribution channels. We learned to give our best customers exclusives by reporting directly to them; patrons could depend on hearing news from us first via our various media outlets.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of co-chairing the League of Resident Theatres conference focusing on marketing and media. While working with the planning committee, I spoke with theatre marketing directors from all over the country, and it became apparent that having content creators on staff is no longer cutting-edge—it is standard practice. For some, the best content providers have come from journalists who spent most of their careers at newspapers. That’s the case with John Moore, the first senior arts journalist at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), previously a reporter and critic for the Denver Post. In response to declining arts journalism, DCPA created their own robust NewsCenter, complete with videos, podcasts, feature stories, and social media posts not only about DCPA but about the entire local arts scene as well.
Some time has passed since the launch of the NewsCenter, and Moore shared some interesting statistics. Not only was readership of NewsCenter significantly increasing online traffic to the DCPA website, cookies were embedded in stories, allowing DCPA to track the purchase behavior of the readers, which confirmed a strong business case for the model.
The decision to implement a post-newspaper communications strategy was an easy one for Portland Center Stage (PCS). In 10 years, the Oregonian’s circulation had plummeted from a reach of more than 30 percent of the metro population to just 8 percent, and the paper made the decision to end daily editions, opting to deliver two editions weekly, one mid-week and one on Sunday. In response, PCS managing director Cynthia Fuhrman adopted a digital-first marketing strategy, drastically reducing the theatre’s print advertising budget and shifting resources to digital and outdoor, as part of a broader branding campaign centered around their performance venue, the Armory.
Every city has its own dynamics, of course, but for those who rely heavily on print advertising, consider: Today PCS spends less than 3 percent of its ad budget on print, and yet has experienced an increase in overall ticket sales. In addition to shifting its advertising priorities, PCS also invested in a new platform called Playmaker, an online rewards-based incentive program that encourages predetermined behaviors. Users are rewarded for various actions with points that can be exchanged for perks, prizes, and exclusive experiences; these actions include the sharing of digital content to social media networks, simultaneously leveraging the viral power of the web while building PCS’s social media footprint.
While these strategies are crafted to better position theatres in a rapidly changing media environment, one important ingredient is still missing: transparent third-party criticism. Consumers deserve to access independent feedback from sources not aligned with the theatre. Some social media sites like Facebook solicit independent reviews from theatregoers, but theatres by and large continue to employ promotional strategies that highlight professional reviews. This strategy needs to be rethought. While throughout my career I’ve had close relationships with many reviewers and have found on numerous occasions their reviews to be invaluable, whether positive and negative, there is an inherent flaw in traditional criticism. Lyn Gardener pointed it out in “Criticism needs to Change” for The Stage. While critics have the power to judge quality and excellence, it is important to acknowledge journalists are also just individuals, who like all of us experience performances through their own lens, influenced by their own experiences, biases, and worldviews. And just as the American theatre needs a wider variety of voices at the helm of our theaters to effectively serve diversifying communities, we need a wider, more diverse pool of professionals reporting on and evaluating the work on our stages. As critics effectively curate culture, and in some communities can make or break theatres and artists, Gardner warns of the danger of “turning critics from midwives into gatekeepers.”
This is the difficulty of having a single arbiter of quality for anything so subjective as theatre, and it’s the reason why crowd-sourced review sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Google Reviews have exploded. If just one person has given a positive review, consumers have discovered that the statistical probability of having a similar experience is much lower than if it was highly rated by thousands of people from diverse backgrounds. It’s simply the law of averages.
This has troubling implications for the future of professional criticism, but it also begs a final question: Might we who work in theatres have the courage to crowd-source our own patrons’ reviews and prominently feature them on our websites, with no editorial influence, as the only way to develop trust with our audiences is to post the good, the bad, and the ugly?
In an age of uncertainty, one thing seems pretty clear: The predominance of singular authority has diminished. Wikipedia has replaced Encyclopedia Britannica. With rising healthcare costs, many only consult a doctor after they’ve tried to diagnose and treat themselves via WebMD. And when we have a question, all we need to do is ask the Facebook hive mind. For better or worse, technology has given everyone the opportunity to amplify their own voice, and even the most powerful individual will not be able to compete with the shouting of the masses. This will elevate some voices and diminish others, while forcing us all to better discern who we will trust.
Chad Bauman is the managing director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.