It’s 7 minutes past the hour and house lights go down. The pre-show announcement finishes and the curtain goes up to reveal the actors frozen onstage. The show begins. The same procedure happens for intermission. When the curtain finally drops, the audience applaud and exits out the side doors right back onto the street. But who were they? Who were all those people? What do you know about them? Nothing.
Everyone knew who was onstage. Everyone got a little book with their photos and biographies as soon as they walked in the door. Producers spent a ton of money designing and printing those. But did they invest a tenth of that amount in finding out who was on the other side? The more important side (to them)? Most ticket sales at the box office, group sales offices, and discount vendors aren’t tracked. Who just occupied 1500 plush red seats? “Audience members”? ”Theatergoers” ? “Patrons”? Is that the best you’ve got? I mean, they’re all the same, aren’t they? Audience makeup is more important than just butts in seats.
These butts are unique, like snowflakes;each is different (and special). It’s like saying we all drive cars so can therefore be lumped together by automotive companies. Similarly, audience makeup cannot be generalized and is, obviously, not the same for every show; I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone from the matinee Gore Vidal’s The Best Man in the Priscilla Queen of the Desert house that night. The audience makeup of these productions even changes from performance to performance — is the Tuesday night (savvy city folk) the same as the Wednesday mat (grey-hairs) or the Saturday evening (bridge and tunnel crowd)? Most theatre companies and producers don’t care about the differences in these publics, seeing audience members more as bodies working toward an end goal — recoupment of investment. This is a mistake.
Theatregoers are seen as theatregoers and no further distinction is made. Untargeted direct mail is sent to mailing lists (I receive several every week) for shows completely irrelevant to demographic interests. Huge lists of everyone who’s ever interacted with the company (or another via a purchased list) are spammed with lackluster, generalized content. #thatawkwardmomentwhen my mother, stepfather, and myself receive the same glossy mailer to the same address when we all have divergent tastes and aesthetics. What is the Director of Marketing doing if not this market research? Approving overprint and proofing artwork? Slash that six-figure salary. What about the army of unpaid interns? Can’t they, at a bare minimum, check for redundant addresses?
Producers and marketing directors must stop counting patrons as simply $121.25-ers and look to radically change the 2.5 hours of non-relationship currently practiced. Most other industries would kill for this time with their publics, especially when they’re being paid! Learn about who they are and how to better serve them; not only will it help fill seats for what’s running today, but it can help influence future season planning, drumming up repeat business. As a first step, at least try to learn someone’s genre preference. Don’t send my grandmother who’s recently attended The Seagull and A Doll’s House a mailer for your upcoming productions American Idiot and [title of show].
Start to learn who your repeat attendees are and service them well. You’re ignoring your brand ambassadors right now. Are they subscribers or single ticket buyers? If they’re lining up over and over again to see your productions, make a membership worth their while. What about group sales? Are you reaching out to them or just hoping they’ll come to you. Find the pattern of successful visits and reach out to organizations with the same makeup, interests, and missions. Why is Sister Act is still open — they’re doing this extremely well with a line of buses in front of the Broadway Theatre before every performance.
Strong group sales can keep a struggling show in the black long past its expected closing notice. How about corporate clients? How many large corporations own season tickets or a luxury box for a sports team? Why can’t we do this for theatre as well? Imagine if a company had four tickets to every weeknight performance of Book of Mormon, Wicked, or Jersey Boys? While these shows are at 99% attendance every week, those open seats are available weeknights when the crowds and tourism are lighter, just when corporate clients are in town. A mutually beneficial relationship.
As shows begin to leave the realm of what traditionally would have been classified as “theatre proper” ten years ago, its audience has diversified and changed as well. Productions have become both more mainstream and specific at the same time, catering to a new demographic. This widening of the market will only continue over the next several year.
The traditional audience for theatre is well-informed, has a high critical standard of expectations,- and exhibits above average attendance of drama and plays. They are older, best educated fairly evenly divided by sex, and veteran theatregoers. A large majority, within the New York metropolitan area, come from Manhattan, Queens, and the affluent suburbs. With the highest incomes, few are black or have children. The theatre is part of their general cultural interest, nothing unusual or especially exciting. – 1980 “Marketing Broadway” Case Study
Things have changed. We now must speak to these different audiences directly and to their interests, even if that means differently for the same productions. Marketing is not different just because the industry is arts. Knowing who your audience is, segmenting them, and narrowly targeting messages is the key to success for profit and non-profit, single show and subscription. With new shows opening every week (more than 10 on Broadway in the next month!), billing your show as the “newest in town” with your flashy cast on a glossy mailer will get you nowhere. It’ll just become a poster on that crazed 13 year old’s wall, never once to show the ticket and pricing info.
Interested in the topic further? Here’s a great article by Sold Out Run’s Clay Mabbitt.