Theater Promotions and Theatrical Marketing: Online and in the Real World

Like many theater people, Alexandra Kesman discovered the stage in high school. She dabbled in acting, but spent more time backstage: stage managing, designing lights, running sound, and crewing a variety of shows. She attended Antioch College, where, thanks to an extensive co-op program, she graduated with an impressive résumé: The Magic Theatre in San Francisco, The Cincinnati Fringe Festival, Know Theatre of Cincinnati, Live Bait Theatre in Chicago, The Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse, and The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. In 2008, she took a full time position at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati, and today serves as Manager of PR and Marketing.

Kesman is in the vanguard of theatrical marketing professionals, comfortable with virtual promotions and prepared to do whatever it takes to start selling seats. Viral, stealth, and underground marketing? As “a mid-sized theatre with little to no budget for promotions,” she explains, “we are forced to rely on such types of marketing to get the word out.”

The Know Theatre’s mainstage season, from October to May, produces shows in their versatile black box, where seating is deliberately limited to ninety-nine or fewer, to keep shows intimate. Every June, they produce the Cincinnati Fringe Festival: thirty-five shows, twelve days, one hundred fifty performances, sixty-five hundred spectators. This season, they launched The Jackson Street Market, a series “dedicated to fostering and growing our local artist community” including “space for several groups to host salons and performances and the launch of a resource sharing website where Know Theatre’s resources can be utilized in exchange for volunteer hours.” On New Year’s Eve, they host their popular Speakeasy Party Fundraiser.

So, how does one go about promoting theater on a shoestring budget?

Kesman can rattle off myriad low-cost options, which have varying effects on ticket sales. In regard to free video content, she says that the theater was “one of the first in the area to really jump on the Youtube bandwagon,” offering, “video trailers, snippets, and ‘funny things that have nothing to do with our show’ videos,” which don’t necessarily sell tickets, but have a positive impact nonetheless. Due to the nature of the Internet, such clips, “create a conversation, show an insight into our company, and engage audiences.” Kesman suggests that, by opening a dialog, free content allows theaters to talk with potential patrons, rather than at them. She says that, once such a conversation has been started, “maybe they’ll buy tickets farther down the road. A good deal of our social media, blogging, and video efforts revolve around that.”

What of social media and blogging? The Know Theater maintains a Twitter feed and a Facebook fan page, each of which has over fifteen hundred followers. Facebook’s new tagging feature means that posts, “are mentioned periodically through other patron’s pages…helping drive traffic to our fan page and Twitter.” Even Kesman was surprised by the Facebook effect. She noticed that after inviting a few hundred Facebook friends to an event, a certain percentage would click “like” and soon enough, “I was surprised…to find out that Facebook was the number two referrer of traffic to our website, right under direct links and entries..”

Social media helps the theater share updates about shows and tickets, but Kesman sees the main purpose of such pages as, “being silly, fun, and engaging with our fans, rather than just posting ‘Get your tickets!’” A popular example? One snowy day, they created some cool buzz using “a photo of our building with the K in our logo replaced with an S, making it ‘Snow Theatre’.”

The Know Theater’s blog also serves to “engage our patrons.” Content is created by staff, actors, directors, and designers, and while Kesman sometimes has trouble motivating them to sit down and blog, she’s managed to get some exciting content for fans: tutorials on making fake blood, photographs taken by the touring cast in different parts of the country. For the basics, the Know Theater relies on their homepage, where readers can find “info about all of our productions, special events…staff, mission, history, production history, your average fundraising pages…and headshots and bios for our company and guest artists.” This site gets about three thousand hits a month, and, with an “in-house ticketing system that allows online purchases as well as over the phone and in person” is responsible for about thirty-five percent of the theater’s ticket sales!

And everything that Kesman does, she has to do twice. The Know Theater and the Fringe Festival maintain separate, but connected, Facebook, Twitter, and home pages!

In the real world, Kesman knows that “reviews in the paper can really get the word out about a show like nothing else.” She also makes certain to hang Posters and Flyers in the city and the suburbs. Another tactic is to target specific groups in advance, such as “major distributions with the city’s library systems and sneak-peek performances at bookstores,” for family-friendly shows based on books.

The possibilities seem endless. Kesman can drive even more traffic to the website by sending announcement to local community calendar sites. She counts about thirty such pages for her area and says, “You’d be surprised how this can actually sell tickets. People always say, ‘Oh I saw it online somewhere’.” The next big thing looks like their upcoming Google Grants account for Google Adwords donations. She advises, “For anyone that isn’t aware, Google provides a budget per day for some non-profits in Google Adwords. It’s a process to set-up if you are approved, but could really help traffic and searches in the future.” She expects to have it up and running by the spring.

Her advice to newcomers to social network marketing? “Reading books on social media isn’t going to get you anywhere. You really just have to dive in and figure it out…. Ask your friends. Everybody uses Facebook these days.” With a little experimentation, you can learn what Kesman already knows: how easy and navigable social media and blog sites really are, how well they allow you to communicate with patrons and draw traffic. Still intimidated? She suggests you research best practices online. Find a marketing blog that emphasizes the arts and the nonprofit sector. “Find some you like and read them regularly,” she advises. “You’ll learn a lot.”