Actually just some ideas that anyone could come up with if they take a minute to think about it.
Theatre marketers assume there’s a market. There isn’t, there’s only a target market. That one erroneous assumption is why theatre makers believe they’re in an art that is becoming irrelevant. From this flow the dull mailing list based strategies that people ignore. Once you realise that you don’t have a market you can start asking yourself how you’re going to get one.
Step 1: Who are they? What do they do for fun?
Let’s say you’re doing a play about… oh, I don’t know… a haunted house and it’s ghoulish inhabitants. It’s a black comedy, it’s not for kids. It’s not the kind of play that draws the regular theatre crowd – the silver foxes who love a bit of Fugard, read the newspapers, listen to Fine Music Radio and get their Sunday best on for Dame Janet and Sir Anthony. No – this is the kind of play made for people who download movies, argue about the difference between nerds and geeks and dress a little… oddly. Look at who likes your subject matter, not as individuals but as subcultures. In Adam Thurman’s words: “what flag are you flying?”
Step 2: Find someone who speaks their language
If I asked you to name as many theatre publicists in Cape Town as you could I doubt I could get more than three names out of you, maybe five at a push. Independent hired guns – Not employees of a single entity. And they are all white women of a particular kind right? No disrespect intended – The three I can think of are top of their game, working magic for big shows and companies. They are well connected and talented and they understand the regular theatre crowd. And that is why they can only help you so much. If you want geeks to come to your show, you need a geek. You want hipsters, you need a hipster. You want kids, you need a mum.
Marketing is the creation and management of a relationship, for it to thrive you need to speak the language. Authentically. When I worked in book store, customers would constantly be recommending books to me because people love to share their passion. And of course I recommended book as well; I shared my opinions. I loved working there because I was passionate about books too. What stuck out for me was that I wasn’t a salesman in these situations, I was sharing not selling. We had a clerk who didn’t work out, let’s call him Shelby. Shelby didn’t really read. He could read, he just didn’t. He got hired because we suddenly found ourselves short staffed over the holidays. He could direct people around the shop; he could tell people about best sellers, he could point out our staff picks. But he didn’t understand what it was that a crime reader wanted out of a story if they preferred Mankell to Grisham. Or what someone wanted when they had exhausted all Gaiman’s books and wanted something similar. Shelby was an outsider, he didn’t speak the language.
The image we have of a publicist is out of date. We cannot stick with what we know, what we think of as ‘safe’ – safe is staying at home on Friday night. Safe is dull. Safe doesn’t change the world, not in the smallest way.
Step 3: Do it
So you found a geek to help sell your theatrical horror comedy. Hopefully you didn’t just grab the first one you thought of, hopefully you picked someone with drive, organisational skills and a bit of charm. Now sit down and make a list of everything that has to be done:
- The Basics
- Press mailing list and widely read release carriers like Artslink
- A press release with expanded content – So that’s your basic grab and 100 words with a pack of print quality photos and biographies to back it up.
- Everyone involve posting on their social media about how they feel about/what they are doing for the show. Everyone ignores advertising.
- Now, time to get creative. Your insider knows things you don’t know about your target market, you need to use this insight to figure out new strategies. (If he doesn’t actually know any more than you and you hired them because you’re too busy, fair enough. But be careful: hand-holding isn’t fun and doesn’t save time.)
- What do they read? Draft an alternative press list, contact newsletters, online forums and clubs that share similar interests.
- Who do they follow? Find the connectors, the ones open to interesting experiences and sharing them. The bloggers, the party organisers. Doing a Horror in Cape Town? Find the guy who started Zombie Walk here, email the Legion Ink moderators, go meet the DMs of the various Ds.
- What do they want? Find what appeals to them and add the incentive. Is it going to be free wine or block booking discounts? Dull and done. Give people discounts for coming dressed for Halloween, get a popcorn machine, make it something they’re going to talk about. The whole experience. I’m sure your play is great. But will the whole night be? People talk about they didn’t expect, they talk about little touches like wine served in teacups or that Lurch sold them their tickets.
I’m sure someone is going to accuse me of making it sound easy. It’s not. But coming up with different ideas is. It’s hard to implement a different approach, but let’s admit that it’s not the reason we hold back. We play it safe because we are tired. The theatre makers I know and admire work damn hard, they work long hours and routinely turn their living rooms into workshops. But pouring all your creativity and time into the work and not finding a partner capable of doing the same with the marketing is a waste. Let the people who’ll love the work as much as you see it.
Oh and by the way – if you were intrigued by the idea of a haunted house filled with ghoulish characters then go watch Beren Belknap’s Madame Touxflouwe at the Artscape Arena – 5th January 2012. It’s really very funny. In a macabre way.