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?

Should previews be open for online review by bloggers, chatters and more?

Ellen Gamerman at The Wall Street Journal wrote a terrific piece last week about previews, and how problems that shows encounter during the several weeks of previews are exposed more in an online world than they were a decade ago.

It’s true.

Leading man flubbing his lines?  It’ll be all over the boards.  Problems in Act II?  Expect a blog about it.  Set come crashing down on the ensemble?  Well, in that case, you’ve got bigger problems than the boards and the blogs.

There’s a lot of people out there that are jumping up and down, throwing tantrums that two year olds would be proud of, saying, “You can’t review previews!  These people shouldn’t be talking about previews!”

To that I say . . . here’s a bottle of milk and a blanket, now get over it.

As much as we might not like our shows facing quicker criticism from audiences than ever before (and a few of mine have faced some harsh online attacks), there is nothing we can do about it.  Online word of mouth is the new Word of Mouth, and there’s nothing you can do to get in its way.  Can you imagine if any of the people upset about “preview reviews” went up to a group of folks at a Starbucks who were trashing a preview of a play and said, “You can’t talk about that show, it was a preview!”

The group would laugh, and probably trash the show even more.

Word of Mouth used to be invisible, which is why no one complained about stopping people from “chatting” about shows in previews.  The internet gives us (and others) a chance to see the formerly invisible force, which is why so many people want to stop it.

But you can’t.  We all need to realize that Online Word of Mouth and Traditional Word of Mouth have merged into one stronger and faster force of customer communication.

Critics, of course, who work for publications and are given free tickets, are subject to regulation.  One of the reasons I helped form the ITBA, was in the hopes that the new media warriors (aka The Bloggers) could get the same access as critics, which would give the shows a chance to reach a new audience, but with some control over when the bloggers were seeing the shows.

But if your chatters are paying for a ticket, you can’t stop the e-talkin’, so I wouldn’t even try.

People are talking about you behind your back. And now, you can listen.

Bad word of mouth is like a little forest fire.

Get enough bad word of mouth and those little fires will combine and be on your doorstep, smoking you out of house and theater, before you can say, “Smokey The Bear.”
Since so much word of mouth occurs online these days, there are several online “smoke detectors” that can help you monitor your word of mouth and online reputation.
And if you’re smart enough, you can actually throw some water on those fires, extinguishing them before it’s too late (insert scary fire music here).

Here are three “smoke detectors” you should be using to monitor what people are saying about your shows, and an example of how we’ve used them here in my office.

1.  The Google Alert
The Google Alert is the classic detector. Sign up, tell Google the word, phrase, etc. you’d like to track, and it will send you a daily email of all the web sites with that word, phrase, etc. in it.
Put in your show’s name (and any variation), your name, your theater’s name, whatever, and let Google do the work.  Or, put in the name of a competing show . . . he-he-he.
How have we used it?
We’ve used Google Alerts to find good reviews, both in the ‘traditional’ press and from the new media corps (bloggers).
But most recently, a Google Alert sounded an alarm about a a rogue and unauthorized production of The Awesome 80s Prom.  We were able to react swiftly and shut them down before any damage was done to the brand.  Thank God for Google, because we were about to enter into an agreement for The Prom in the same city!  That Google Alert saved that deal, without a doubt.

2.  Tweet, Tweet.

Thanks to Twitter, there’s a new type of online conversation going on now.  Luckily, there are ways to monitor it.  Twitter has a search function which pulls up recent activity on any word or phrase that you’re interested in.
Since tweeting doesn’t take much time or commitment, your brand is much more likely to appear all over Twitter than in more full length blogs or articles. Just click here to see all the recent random tweets about Altar Boyz!
In addition to the Twitter search function, there are a bunch of third party search applications like Monitter, etc. that are tracking the T-world. Here’s a blog that discusses a few.
How have we used it?
We find out who’s tweeting about us, then follow them with our Twitter and encourage those same peeps to follow us.  Presto.  We’ve now established one-on-one communication with someone we know has an interest in our brand, and are building a Twitter army.
3.  Manual Labor
This is the hardest and most time intensive but, regardless of all the auto-detectors out there, I still recommend having someone on your team doing walk-throughs of potential “danger areas.” There’s nothing better than a Forest Ranger sniffing around every once in a while.
Put someone on trolling the message boards on Talkin’ Broadway, BroadwayWorld, and BroadwaySpace.  Search the site pages for your title (use the “Find On This Page” option in your browser menu).
How have we used it?
In previews for 13, I used this detector to find similar comments of both praise and criticism.  If one person says something on a message board, it’s not as important.  But find 3 people saying the same thing, it deserves further thought (regardless of whether or not you agree).
The biggest of brands out there are all monitoring online activity.  Starbucks, Jet Blue, and so on.  And why shouldn’t they?
After all, it has been said that the greatest leaders are the greatest listeners.
It’s just time we listen with more than our ears.
– – – – –
The Blogger Social is tonight!
Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

I'm on a mission to help 5000 shows get produced by 2025.

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