Marketing Lessons from a 40-Year-Old Theatre Company
Yes, grasshopper, it seems the teacher has become the student.
This fall, I embarked on my first official theatrical Press Reppin’ project with the Billie Holiday Theatre. While I’ve promoted shows before, it’s been as a producer or out of another affiliation with the project, never with the formal PR job title. And while I do marketing and promotional strategy daily for other clients, they’re primarily for-profit endeavors, both in the arts and beyond.
The baggage I hauled to my first strategy meeting with the producing artistic director was packed: ten years of my own experience with theatre and other live events in NYC, creating hundreds of marketing tactics for clients in recent years, and a mental file drawer full of ideas generated through writing here, reading other arts marketing articles, and constantly communicating with other arts marketers. And I’ll admit, the Gen-Y side of me was ready to tear in there and re-brand, re-launch, and refresh the whole operation.
But the Billie has been around for nearly 40 years, producing and selling out shows season after season, so the company had a thing or two to teach me. At the core, it’s a matter of getting back to the basics, even in the age of cleverness and social media and sustainable audience panic, all coming back to the #1 marketing rule that the audience must come first.
Marketable Products, aka Produce Shows Your Audience Will Love
Artists like to make the jump from “audience-pleasing” to “selling out,” when in fact there’s an ocean in between – swimming with pieces both produced and never seen that can both honor your mission and entertain your audience. The Billie struck a great balance between the two by commissioning the playwright of their last big hit to write original shows for the upcoming season.
Marketing Partnerships, aka Build Relationships with Groups
I almost fell of my chair when I learned many performances were sold out months in advance. Establishing relationships with community organizations and creating incentives for them to purchase tickets in big blocks well in advance is a can’t-miss strategy for resident companies.
Brand Consistency, aka Don’t Fix it if it’s Not Broken
The artistic – and entrepreneurial – itch is to recreate constantly. But this can be death when it comes to a brand. Be clear on your mission and your audience, and get innovative when it comes to new ways of communicating that brand.
Scalability, aka Community over Commercial
There aren’t many off-Broadway productions in New York that aren’t overly preoccupied with the potential of “moving” – to an out-of-town run and eventually Broadway. Of course it’s enormously rewarding for a production to be extended, but there’s beauty in the finite, and integrity in developing a well-balanced group of shows that will play in harmony.
So, a special message especially to the emerging arts administrators out there – bring your ideas, your energy, and your inspiration to new project, jobs, and endeavors, but never forget that you have plenty to learn from those who’ve gone before.