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TBA Online: News & Features: April 2015

Rising above the Din: A Brief Introduction to Theatre Marketing

Friday, April 17, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Sasha Hnatkovich

Here's what we know: the percentage of Americans who attend a play or musical each year has been declining for the past two decades. That's what all the surveys say, anyway.

Photo: "Holiday Noise" by Rosa Menkman on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license. 

While we don't fully understand why (though everyone has a theory), we do know that theatre is not the only industry struggling to adapt to the disruptions and distractions of the Internet era. Both despite and as a result of having more tools for communication and promotion, it has become increasingly challenging to get people to notice our art and our organizations. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art's chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan is fond of pointing out, the scarcest resource of the 21st century has become human attention.

Donny Gilliland, marketing director of San Francisco Playhouse, agrees. "There's competition from all forms of entertainment—sports, Netflix, TV—and we have to fight for our share of those viewers," he says. "Not only do we need to have effective advertising and affordable pricing, but we also have to continue to stage compelling productions. We have to strive to make sure that the quality of the work on the stage is worth dragging someone away from the new season of House of Cards."

So how are arts marketers convincing people to put down the Roku remote, put on some pants and go out to our theatres?

The first step has to be strategic—we set goals and draft a marketing plan. (Here's a practical guide to help get you get started.)

An important part of this process is to leverage what we already know about the people who come to our theatres. "We have an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of our patrons by connecting the data that we've collected across numerous sources—sales, web, engagement," said Peter Yonka, marketing manager of Berkeley Repertory Theatre. "We want to build richer profiles of them so that we can generate a better customer experience both online and at the theatre."

The second step is tactical—we need to find creative ways to get the word out about our organizations' productions. According to preliminary data from a first-of-its-kind survey, arts marketers are currently favoring such tools as video assets, user-generated content like testimonials, dynamic pricing, pay-per-click online advertising and lifestyle campaigns. With Google's announcement this month that their mobile search rankings will soon favor sites that provide a mobile-friendly experience, mobile optimization can be added to this list. In the Bay Area, Marin Theatre Company (where I work) has one of the rare examples of a theatre website with responsive design—change the size of your browser window to see what happens. 

None of the above marketing activities combat what may be the arts' greatest failings when it comes to marketing. Consultant Trevor O'Donnell put it bluntly when he recently wrote, "we absolutely suck at persuasion." This is especially true when we're trying to appeal to people who either rarely or never choose to go to the theatre or, for that matter, our theatres.

"The intrinsic value of theatre isn't necessarily a given," said Alicia Coombes, marketing and community outreach manager of The Cutting Ball Theater. "Just telling people that we're doing amazing work worth seeing and expecting them to show up and be engaged isn't going to cut it. There's a lot of noise out there—just being heard is difficult, much less being listened to."

Want to learn more about arts marketing? Here are a few good blogs and other resources: 

You've Cott Mail
Marketing the Arts to Death
Seth Godin
TRG Insights
Mission Paradox

What else would you like to know about marketing for your organization? 
Sound off in the Comment section below.


Sasha M. Hnatkovich is communications director for Marin Theatre Company. He has an MA in community development and planning, has completed National Arts Marketing Project's Boot Camp and has previously served an orchestra, a church and a university in marketing and communications capacities.