A Simple Guide to Marketing

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 Arena5th January 2012. It’s really very funny. In a macabre way.

Cannibal’s Pie: Theatre Competition

There’s this thing called market share. You may have heard of it. It’s a pretty literal term measuring how big your slice of the pie is. For some calculations the pie is made of money and for others it’s a cannibal’s pie made of people.

I’m concerned about the cannibal pie right now. Audience. And what I really want to know is: how big is this pie? When I first started thinking about pies and such I had a little revelation: there are no slices in this pie, the market isn’t saturated. The same people who watch the Mechanicals’ Rep season will go check out the Artscape Spring Season and pop into Kalk Bay to see what’s playing there. Like most of my revelations it got replaced by another one that said the opposite in a louder voice. Having been at the opening of the Pink Couch’s Mafeking Road last week at the Intimate and of Solomon and Marion on Saturday at the Baxter I could use my keen powers of observation to tell that they were completely different people. Of course that’s a pretty small data set – statistically insignificant is the term – but it supports the slice analogy, and a good analogy is totally awesome.

Now there are two ways to increase the size of your slice: Take someone else’s or make the pie bigger.

So because stealing is frowned upon in our society unless you have a official title it stands to reason that we need to make the pie bigger to make our slice big enough to fill our stomachs for the month. That’s one of the goals of the Pink Couch – get the next generation watching theatre. Pretty sweet goal. But it should also be one of the goals of the big companies. Right now Solomon and Marion is R130 for students. That’s pretty steep for students. But it’s also a fair price. And is Solomon and Marion really aimed at the next generation anyway?

The big theatres have the big slices of the pie, fair enough. They’ve been around for ages, they build and maintain audience bases, they provide secure employment in an industry where most people don’t know what they’ll be doing in 4 months, they have programmes promoting and supporting new work. But maybe that first revelation I had wasn’t so crazy after all. What if the pie can be shared? What if there was pin board up at the Baxter or the Artscape or the Fugard that listed productions at other venues? By small, independent companies? The more theatre people see, the more they’ll want to see and the pie will miraculously get bigger.

The market isn’t saturated. We can afford to say that there’s other theatre out there. Let the big theatres have their big slice and share it too, and let the independents work on making the pie bigger. After all the tattooed hipster of today is the tattooed ballie of tomorrow and we need to get him into the auditorium now if he’s going to be shelling out R180 for a ticket tomorrow.

Numpties on Safari

So my last post got a certain comment, pointing out that I addressed the letter to theatre-makers. Whose job is to make theatre, not market it.

My first thought was: Am I on a safari? Because a buck was just passed.

Most of the theatre-makers I know do the majority of their marketing themselves. But let’s say just for a moment that they didn’t, that they have a dedicated Marketing Minion to do it (the ideal world for some). They would still be responsible for the shitty poster/garbled press release/passive-aggressive facebook invite that the Minion produced. Why?

Because it’s your play.

Theatre isn’t run by a sinister cabal of producers who set ticket prices, lay down budgets, dictate casting and collaborations and take every decision away from the powerless theatre-makers. Sometimes it feels that way (and a half decent argument could be made that the economy serves this function), but it isn’t. So just like you don’t cast an utter numpty in your play, you don’t let an utter numpty do your marketing. Even if that numpty is you. If you can’t hire a professional Marketing Minion and you can’t use your flirty eyelashes and boyish hips to get some pro bono, and your friends are all marketing numpties too then READ THE MANUAL. And by this I mean do some research, use the internet, ask for advice, look at publicity you think works and rip it off, etc, etc, etc.

Here’s something you may not know.

A play happens between at least two people. The performer and the audience. It can have a story. It can also not have a story. It can have words or not, music or not, lights or not. But it will have a relationship between at least two people. And that relationship, the interaction and reaction, is the play.

People who say that the job of theatre makers is to make theatre, not market it don’t understand what theatre and marketing are. They are two parts of a relationship. It’s not just about bums on seats, it’s perception, values, expectations.

Don’t leave that to a numpty.

An abandoned letter to Theatre makers

Theatre is great. Most anyway. Actually only some. But 90% of everything is crap and people don’t avoid cinemas because 90% of the films suck. Your theatre is definitely in that magical ten percent of goodness. I know this because you tell me. I can see by the care you put into your facebook event, letting me know who the cast and director are and the dates and time while leaving out any info on subject matter so I would have a nice surprise when I come watch your show. I don’t even know whether I’m going to laugh or cry. Or the way you playfully make a hideous poster and stick it up on poles all over the city, I’ll certainly not forget that image no matter how much I want to. I love the sassy way you challenge Capetonians not to be lazy, because that’s obviously why they don’t come to theatre. Sheer laziness. Never mind that they flock in droves to night markets, gigs, gallery openings, beerfests and quirky little film festivals.

Oh shit, I moved off sassy satire into outright sarcasm. That’s not what I meant to do. I meant to parody the thinking of marketing in the theatre scene, instead I just got angry.

Look, I don’t have a degree in marketing or sales or anything other than theatre. But I can see that if you are not giving people reasons to see theatre then they won’t. I go watch shows because I work in theatre, I have a professional interest. So if you see me at your show it’s not because you did anything right. You can only measure that by counting strangers.

TheatreSports has lasted for 18 years, which makes it a pretty successful company. It has no sponsorship or funding other than what people pay for tickets. I’ll be the first to admit that our marketing is patchy at best, but we have one incredible strength: we give people the reason to see our show. We don’t tell people how good we are, our awards, how long we’ve been running for or that theatre is an amazing cultural phenomenon that deserves support. We tell them that it’s hilarious improvised comedy. And when they come for hilarious improvised comedy, we give it to them.

Essentially marketing is telling people what you have for them. You cannot get people to pay to see something they don’t want to and you can’t get someone to come back if you can’t deliver.

So, semi-fictional people I began addressing at the start, look at the points of contact you have with the public – your posters, releases and facebook/blog posts – and ask yourself what reason you’re giving people to see your show.


How to Sell Yourself

Think positive. Act confident. Highlight your good points.

Today I was reading the Cape Times and in one article about fracking they referred to the Karoo brand. Not about the brand of spring water, or hotels or something – just the Karoo, it’s a brand. That’s the world we’re in today.

We are in an age when interconnectedness makes infinite variety possible and yet instead jargon and practices are becoming homogenized. Art should be exploding into that realm of potential but instead the systems of capitalism have spread like a monkey-borne lung-melting virus. Branding, marketing, selling. That is what we do as creatives. And we do it in the same way as every other salesman.

Tweets, updates, blog articles – be positive, be interesting. Don’t be critical, don’t be challenging. Take whatever publicity anyone offers, if you’ve been in business 6 months it’s a perfect time to get celebrated as a success. And the press will help you. They are hungry for a success story since the depressing daily grind of most artists won’t make it past their editors.

Spin, spin, spin. Get dizzy, fall over.

What is the point of art if we don’t care about the truth? We can add adjectives to everything we say and write to make it upbeat, fabulous, sexy, funky, cutting-edge, awesome, ground-breaking, successful and amazing but that doesn’t change the industry. I look around at South African theatre and I see a dire situation. Too many clubs and cliques and not enough audience. We are irrelevant to 99% of the city. We’re too busy telling ourselves we’re thriving to really think about changing. That’s the danger of the ‘we are awesome’ marketing strategy – you start to believe it before the audience does. And of course the other problem is that everyone else is doing it too.

I’m deadly serious. We have 2 strategies of marketing theatre in Cape Town, ‘we are awesome’ and ‘it’s theatre’. The Fugard gets a little better by knowing who they’re selling, ‘it’s Athol Fugard’ or ‘it’s Sir Anthony Sher’.

Maybe I’m not angry that we’re so infected by marketing speak. Maybe I’m angry because we’re so infected and yet still are doing it badly. Can’t we bring the interesting, honest, creative spirit off the stage for a minute and ask it to talk to the press? Or write a press release? All the craft that’s put on stage is wasted if it is not met by an equal craft in the selling of the show. How can we take risks on stage when we aren’t willing to take risks off it? With our reputations, with the status quo, with our money.

Selling doesn’t have to be compromise. Selling isn’t compromise. And that we think the only way to get audiences into our work is to create indistinguishable brands and mutual appreciation societies shows that we are not the challenging, creative, daring industry we like to pretend we are.


Selling Points

I thinks it’s pretty common knowledge at this point that Theatresports has been going through a lot of changes recently. Since the beginning it’s been Megan Choritz‘s baby and she’s been the perfect mother – nurturing but ready with a firm hand when it’s needed. Her decision to take a well deserved break from it has shaken up the group a lot. For myself I miss her focus and drive at class especially. Megan teaches from the front and learns as she instructs, a rare and great strategy.

The biggest change however is that the way Theatresports is run has shifted on to the shoulders of the remaining senior members. I am now in charge of PR and marketing. Scary. It’s a position with a lot of responsibilities and a lot of tasks. Most of them I like, photoshopping and designing and dreaming up ideas. Some I find a bit of a schlep, like the administration of updating listings and press clippings.

Over the next 2 weeks we’re going to be preparing for a press push – the fundamental part being new printed materials. Our budget is modest right now because it needs to be distributed across several new sectors – updating our company registrations, keeping our license with the International Theatresports body and putting up a new website.

The team are definitely not short on passion or ideas though, the key will be following through on all these great plans.

Life is crazy.