These days, with streaming video and prestige cable competing for audience attention, how does a theatre compete and sell tickets? Well, the first step is to take theatre marketing out of the 19th century and bring it into the 21st. Here are four key tips, gleaned from conversations with some of the best theatre marketing professionals across the U.S.
De-silo. At most theatres, the artistic director selects the shows, then announces the season to their staff, who have a month or two to come up with show art, a marketing plan, and community engagement ideas to sell subscriptions and single tickets. But at Aurora Theatre in Atlanta, marketing and sales manager Al Stilo and his team are involved in season selection and planning, which allows them to identify potential pitfalls.
“When we were doing Lombardi, the artistic leadership wanted to do the show in the fall during football season, but I said that if we were going to get football fans to come, we can’t ask them to make a choice between attending sporting events and coming to the theatre,” Stilo says. “We did the show in January, and were able to partner with the concussion center at Gwinnett Medical, the Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders, and the Green Bay Packers Club in Atlanta to engage the audience. Those people were available because we produced the show outside of football season.”
Go digital. Kathy Neus, director of marketing and communications at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, knew she was taking a risk when she eliminated the theatre’s print advertising schedule. Over the course of her 25 years with the company, she has seen the theatre go from getting 20,000 subscribers from mailing two postcards to nabbing 12,700 subscribers by doing everything short of going to every potential patron’s house for a cup of coffee. A few years ago she explored digital ads and social media marketing and found the audience targeting possibilities more exciting. Patrons’ Facebook profiles could tell her everything from favorite food to number of kids to what kind of books they read. This became especially useful when promoting the stage adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery.
“Tons of people like Stephen King, but not all of those people are theatregoers,” Neus says. “On Facebook, Stephen King is so big that he’s an interest, so we did an acquisition campaign just to people who say they’re interested in Stephen King. We got them to click on our ads and visit our website, so that when we started marketing the show, we were hitting those people.”
Engage, then invite. The Public Theater in Manhattan went to the Bronx to host a preview with songs from the show during their production of the Black Panther drama Party People by UNIVERSES. Aurora Theatre’s programs and website are in English and Spanish. Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis has advisory councils for the Latinx, Somali, transgender, and disabled populations in their neighborhood. These theatres have found that the way to get the community into the theatre is to invest in them first.
“When we are thinking about plays to produce, we give them scripts to read and they advise us on how their communities might react to a given production,” says Keri Clifton, Mixed Blood’s chief engagement officer. “They also help guide practice on casting and hiring production staff, and advise us on how to make our space, our marketing, our website, etcetera more accessible to that community.”
Impress the press. As newsrooms and arts coverage dwindle, getting media attention is an uphill battle for many theatres, especially outside New York City. Often theatre critics are juggling as many jobs as theatre artists, with competing deadlines and an unstable publishing environment. To help combat this, Matt Ross, owner of Matt Ross Public Relations in New York, started hosting press dinners during previews so that reporters could have dinner with new playwrights, performers, and theatre leadership before the show.
“It’s a way to create connection,” Ross says. “Face-to-face is more valuable than ever, and people respond that have never responded before. Theatre isn’t quantifiable—it’s visceral, communal, and experiential. It’s like you’re going through something together. You’re marketing an experience, so you should be talking about how they’re going to feel, not just what they’re going to see.”
It’s not just the art, it’s the institution. The only time most people hear from a theatre is when they are trying to sell them a ticket. What if the theatre also became a place where people could go when they are in search of a place to meet friends, bring the family, or escape the troubles of everyday life? What if audiences had the same love and loyalty for their local theatre that they did to their local baseball team?
Gwydion Suilebhan, director of brand and marketing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., believes that every theatre is a brand and that brand is a promise to the communities they serve. Woolly’s brand promise is “rousing, visceral epiphanies,” and he keeps that in mind in everything they do from publicity photos to opening their doors during the Women’s March for protesters to go to the bathroom or get a cup of water.
“Institutional marketing—as opposed to transactional marketing designed to convince patrons to buy tickets to shows—is of critical importance,” says Suilebhan. “It tells people who you are, first and foremost, and by helping them understand you, it also helps them value you. That way, when you do eventually ask them to buy a ticket, they see that exchange as something more meaningful and relevant than a simple transaction.”