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Butts in seats: uplifting anecdotes from the uphill battle of theater marketing

Buttons galore for Guthrie productions.
Photo courtesy of Guthrie Theater
Buttons galore for Guthrie productions.

Somewhere, in the course of my recent encounter with “Peer Gynt,” I picked up a tiny campaign button that boasted: “I heart Peer.”

To say nothing of the Guthrie‘s production, which I rather enjoyed, the message on my new button struck me as a rather peculiar one: I heart a swashbuckling, and probably a misogynist, late 19th-century tramp.

It made me chuckle. And as it turns out, I do love Peer — if for no other reason than the unflinching honesty with which he was written. I quickly fastened the thing to my lapel and made off for a post-show drink, happy to have made my chest a billboard in the latest Guthrie marketing campaign.

Of course, when it comes to marketing the performing arts, button brigades aren’t exactly cutting edge. Consider the Minnesota Fringe Festival, where, for five years, the purchase of a button has been a rite of passage.

Wrestling with humdrum tradition

Even so, the playful “I heart Peer” button, with all its amusing subtext, gave a shot of much-needed amusement to the humdrum tradition of theater marketing. Full disclosure: I am perhaps acutely sensitive to this tradition because, for three years in the early 2000s, I wrestled with marketing in my administrative role at Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis.

Theater-marketing campaigns — usually a carousel of season brochures, magazine and newspaper ads, direct mail and email blasts (all easy to ignore) — are, slowly but surely, transcending boilerplate 20th-century tactics. Sure, the standard marketing fare isn’t always so sleepy. Our streetscapes are decorated with many a glitzy billboard advertising the latest touring Broadway show. The Minnesota Opera’s ethereal Transtop ads feature a rotating cast of lascivious model-waifs who, let’s face it, couldn’t hit a High C if their next collagen injection depended on it. But so far the most modern and best-looking arts marketing campaigns have been the distinction of visual arts organizations, such as the Walker Art Center and the Soap Factory.

Now more than ever, arts organizations must fight to retain the fractured attentions of their patrons. In the past decade, many theaters have complained of dwindling audiences. At the same time, most have failed to attract new and younger audiences. Even so, a seasoned Minneapolis arts marketing consultant (who prefers not to be named for fear of angering clients) assures me that when budgets are tight — as they are at several prominent theaters these days — marketing is the first budget to get slashed.

Long-term survival now depends on a theater’s ability to turn things around, to engage splintered audiences with meaningful blogs, uncomplicated incentive and membership programs, and even crass publicity stunts. These days, at the stalwart Guthrie, there’s more than just loyalty-building buttons in the marketing department’s bag of tricks: The organization recently painted the town with guerilla sidewalk drawings and has been posting online videos of its stars.

Occasionally, marketers at small- to mid-sized companies have endeavored to engage the imaginations of prospective ticket buyers by distributing tchotchkes that tie in with the theme of their latest productions. In my days at Jeune Lune, we mailed a toy magnifying glass along with a brochure printed with the tiniest-point type to announce a production based on “Gulliver’s Travels.” Elsewhere, folks from Pillsbury House Theatre were seen handing out toy bugs to tout their production called “Bug.”

In search of inspired marketing
Along these lines, the Jungle Theater‘s marketing guru, Dana Munson, stumbled into a happy circumstance in recent years at the Twin Cities Pride Festival: On the hottest of summer days, he was, perchance, handing out “Jungle Fans,” a paper fan-on-a-stick printed with pertinent box-office information. This tactic, he reports, did much to boost the theater’s annual season-ticket campaign.

As for my Lilliputian stunt, however, I can’t boast of similar results. In fact, much as I’m tickled by these lighthearted tactics, I have no idea whether they actually work.

In my quest to find inspiring marketing stories, my anonymous insider points me back to Theatre de la Jeune Lune (whose $1 million deficit has been well publicized), where the new marketing director, Scot Covey, is embracing online marketing techniques.

“Theater, more than any art form aside from maybe dance, gives you very little information before you buy a ticket,” says Covey. “And my response to that is: Of course attendance is going down. People don’t want to take that risk.”

Covey manages the risk — while, at the same time, meeting the needs of his information-age patrons — by producing high-quality trailers for each show. The quirky trailer (see below) he recently made to tease the company’s current production, “Fishtank,” was posted on YouTube, and was even passed about the inboxes of enthusiastic theatergoers. In other words, it became “viral,” which is the best thing to be in the media-saturated age of TiVo.

As for the problem of cultivating relationships with younger patrons: Covey introduced a $9 ticket, which he offers to any theatergoer age 25 or younger. He also employs a youthful intern to help manage the theater’s MySpace and Facebook pages — both important vehicles for marketing the discount.

Are his actions paying off? Covey reports that the $9 tickets “have really changed the profile of our audience.” So far during “Fishtank,” $9 tickets make up 29 percent of total sales (as opposed to last season’s stat: 16 percent of total sales were student tickets, which were only a few dollars off).

And “Fishtank” is selling so well it has been extended through March 30.

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