A few weeks ago, I was asked to contribute to the Boston Theatre Conference Blog 2011. I sent this post in late and it was never put up so I thought I would post it.
In presenting my graduate school thesis, a website redesign and strategy for The Peterborough Players in New Hampshire, I opened with the prologue from Henry V:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
It goes on. I’m sure you know it. If you didn’t see it done at Actors’ Shakespeare Project last fall, for a refresher, you can see Derek Jacobi do it.
Riffing off the prologue, which discusses the magic of theatre, the illusions we create on a daily basis as we transport audiences to different times and places, I went on to discuss the challenge of creating a website that truly lets someone experience a theatre production.
Marketers, too, have to create an illusion, inspiring people to believe that they will be transported to different places in their imagination while in the theatre. Not only do they have to be inspired to go on the journey, but they have to also be willing to pay for it. In our society, one of the primary ways we show that we value something is to pay for it. As a marketer, my duty is to make people value the art on stage sufficiently so that they will part with their money to see the show and, hopefully, return some other time to be transported to another, vastly different world.
Marketers do it in short time periods and limited budgets. How do we do it?
Tom Stoppard would say: “It’s a mystery”. Well, not so much a mystery as a shared enterprise with all the “players” in the company from management to creative staff.
One of the greatest lessons I learned in college sticks with me to this day: The key to great theatre is understanding how to listen. It’s a difficult thing to learn but it’s essential to everything we do, every day, from ordering a cup of coffee at Starbucks to having a conversation with a colleague. Listening is how we get stuff done. Listening is how we collaborate and build community. We find out what other people need, we share our own goals and aspirations, and find out if we can work together to achieve them. But after listening comes the problem solving; sometimes the listening results in a consensus, sometimes not, but that is where some dynamic leadership steps in.
I arrived in Boston in 2003, a year out of graduate school in Internet Strategy. While that may seem like a common degree or idea now, back then I was constantly giving an elevator pitch of what I knew. In 2003, the Arsenal Center for the Arts hadn’t been built (I was sharing part of a New Rep office with Adam Zahler in Newton Highlands, back when performances were at the church). Zero Arrow Theatre (now Oberon) hadn’t yet been built. The Calderwood Pavilion didn’t exist.
Back then, print media had a whole different meaning, too.
I remember Adam taking me to a TAMA (Theatre Arts Marketing Alliance) meeting in the South End. It was there I met all the others who were in charge of selling the shows. It was there I met all the others who are preoccupied with whether shows have momentum and buzz. I was in a room full of people who understand the pressure-filled no-win situation of the adage:
“When the show does well, the show was good.
When the show tanks, the marketing sucked.”
From January 2009 through November 2010, I wasn’t part of this community. I wasn’t employed at a theatre company. I was unaffiliated. It was a strange feeling. Looking in from the “outside” made me realize how much I valued the work of the committed people in the Boston theatre community. I am back in the conversation on the frontlines with my current position at Central Square Theater.
What did I do in the interim? I never stopped thinking of you, the Boston Theatre Community. I did what I always seem to do, not wax nostalgic about what happened in the past, but reflect on it so I was pushed to be innovative and creative with where the opportunities were now, fill a need, and lend a hand, something like a community organizer. In this case, the community I was organizing wasn’t the other marketers in the Boston Theatre Community but the audience.
In May 2008, ExploreBostonTheatre.com began with a Twitter account (@exploretheatre). I set up an email account and a bunch of Google Alerts on every Theatre Company and artistic director in Boston and New England. I started sharing links to stories, listings, and reviews that came down the pipeline. I tracked click-throughs and within a couple of months was seeing the links were being shared and clicked on, sometimes, 200 times.
One important contradiction to remember about me: I am a marketer who detests hype and hyperbole. Whenever I see it happening, I think of the late, great George Carlin’s “Advertising Lullaby”.
What do I like? I like content. I like things I can read, watch, listen to. Things which cause me to pause and think; things that draw me closer, connect, and encourage me to be part of the movement. I want to be moved and inspired.
In August 2009 when I launched ExploreBostonTheatre.com it was as much a laboratory for me to find out what was possible and successful as much as it was a way to contribute to the building and strengthening of audiences for Boston theatres. What did I learn? Here are some takeaways:
- Find the words to express your passion. It’s important. To inaugurate the site, I gave a softball-freebie to any artistic director who wanted to answer the call. All they had to do was answer the question: Why is theatre important? Of the few hundred theatres to whom I sent emails, I received two. I even received a response from one artistic director who said, “The answer to that question is self evident.” If The Boston Globe came calling and gave the artistic director the same opportunity to expound, words would be found—they would leap off the page. Take advantage of every opportunity to reinforce that you are passionate and people should become part of your tribe and invest in your success.
- We live in a Google world. 65% of my traffic came from search engines, primarily (95%) Google. If you can’t be found easily online, you don’t exist. What search terms were driving traffic to my site? Theater company names, actor names, playwright names, director names, phrases (people looking for information about the cast or running time). More importantly you should ask yourself: Why were people going to my site before they were going to yours?
- Press Releases are not just for the press. They are Google bait. People know press releases are a good source of the basic facts they need. Make it readable and accessible. Remember: People like me, BroadwayWorld.com, Playbill.com and many others who use press releases to create content to inform their audience. Write well. Be passionate.
- The more hype and hyperbole in your press release, the less credibility it has. In the year-plus of ExploreBostonTheatre.com, I read several hundred press releases from Boston theaters. It’s like sitting in a room observing auditions. You get bored. Tell me a story about the piece and convince me it’s important that audience (or, just me) see the show right now.
- Create beautiful content. 80% of the press releases I received never had any photos. Most of the company’s websites didn’t even have publicity photos. I would make a gallery and so would others. Plan ahead. Celebrate your productions with beautiful content.
I want to be part of a community of generous individuals who care about the bigger picture of defining what theatre is and means to audiences right now in the world, even if the views in this world of theatre diverge. Convergence is not what the individuals in theatre strive for. I understand that. The creative path is one of being different from your neighbor; offering something unique to the audience. But we all share the wish and the need to entice the audience to participate in our world. If we don’t keep that goal in mind, we go dark. Marketing wants what the art wants--important work that speaks to Boston and beyond, forcing us to see the world through different eyes or to know that we are not alone. I always go back to music and recall this quote from the movie Walk the Line, when Johnny Cash is auditioning for Sam Phillips:
“Bring… bring it home? All right, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing *one* song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”
I don’t go to church. I go to the theatre. I experience art to be inspired, enlightened and yes, maybe even saved. I believe in it. And, I have this suspicion that if you’re part of the Boston Theatre Community, you believe in it, too.
“We push in line at the picture show
For cool air and a chance to see
A vision of ourselves portrayed as
Younger and braver and humble and free.”
Remember everyone in your organization, from marketers to fundraisers, to production managers, to box office representatives are there for a reason. They are there by choice. Don’t take them for granted. They help make everything happen for the audience.
Now, go create and inspire—and listen.