What I learned from a Mall or Four ways to keep your audience at your theater.

If you run a theater anywhere in the world, your goal should not only be to get your audience to your theater, it should also be to keep your audience at your theater.

The longer they hang around, the more they think of it as a place of respite and entertainment, and the many more tickets they will purchase.  Expand the brand and they will buy.

I call it “Mall theory:”  creating a destination where people want to hang out . . . and eventually they’ll spend money, because you’ll be able to reinforce your message more often, and educate your consumers on all that you have to offer. For you Sondheim lovers, I also call it, “Spreading pitch on the stairs,” so your audiences get stuck.  (Name the show!)

While a theater or a theater complex will never have the traffic of the Mall of America, there are a number of very small and inexpensive perks that a theater can provide to keep consumers coming back, and maybe, sticking around.  Here are Four Ways To Keep Your Audiences At Your Theater.

1.  Free Wifi

With more and more devices that need Wifi (like the iPad) for their full functionality, a free Wifi spot is like an oasis in the desert.  I’ll plop myself for hours in a comfortable spot just to have that access, and I’m sure your audience will, too.  Add Free Wifi to all your common areas, and put signs for it everywhere.  You’ll have people stopping by sooner than you think (there’s no coincidence that Starbucks just traded out their pay Wifi service for free service for all).  Once your WiFi-ers are online, make them sign up for your mailing list in order to access the web.

2.  Live Music

People love live music and it doesn’t take much to get an up-and-coming singer/songwriter to play a few tunes in your lobby or wherever people may congregate.  Or better . . . use your theater itself (which is probably dark during the day) for free lunchtime concerts for local artists.  I know a bunch of folks who’d do it for tips or for the credit (it’s the coffee house or subway tunnel approach).

3.  Food/Drinks

Speaking of coffee, do you offer free coffee at non-peak times?  I’m not saying you have to have the best Columbian beans brewing for every passerby, but some basic free coffee is an incredible pull.  There is a Cub Scout group on I-95 that uses this bait and catches a lot of fish.  They put a huge “STAY AWAKE!  FREE COFFEE AT NEXT REST STOP!” sign on the highway, and get thousands of people pulling over.  They do have free coffee . . . and a bunch of other bake sale items for sale.  I bought a rice krispie treat.  And I don’t even drink coffee. Beyond coffee, strike a deal with a local deli or sandwich shop to get a few sandwiches on consignment.  How many times have you gone to the mall just for the food court, and ended up buying something while you’re there?  We need food and drink in order to survive.  Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for theater.  So, put what we need in your place, and you’ll get more people coming by.

4.  Lectures

People love to learn.  This is especially true of theater audiences (according to League statistics, 73% of the Broadway audience has college degrees, and 36% has graduate degrees).  So get some people to give free talks and lectures about a variety of subjects.  Have a Broadway Producer come and chat about what it’s like to Produce on Broadway (I’d do it).  Have a local painter come and talk about how she gets her inspiration for her paintings.  Or have an investment banker come and talk about how to navigate the choppy market (the subjects don’t have to be about the arts – they just have to be about the audience).  By providing these free mini continuing-ed courses, you’ll be giving something of great value to your audience, which should engender a reciprocal give-back to you, in the form of a ticket purchase or a donation.

Audiences are like children.  You want them playing in your own backyard so you can keep an eye on them, make sure they aren’t being influenced by others, and . . . tell them what to do.

How do you keep your audiences at your theater?