10 Good Marketing Techniques for Community Theaters

Anthony J. Piccione

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist
  • @A_J_Piccione

For as long as I’ve been involved in theatre, I’ve known the importance of great marketing, and how it can make or break the success of a show, if not an entire theatre company. I’ve seen some theaters that have been able to sell out nearly every show because they were so successful at getting out the word, and I’ve seen others that have gone under because they barely could. This is a big reason why many of my past columns have touched on the theme of making theatre more relevant and popular among a larger audience.

In response to my previous columns, many readers have asked me what I think community theaters should be doing to boost publicity for their theaters. I’m not going to pretend that I’m the go-to expert, when it comes to professional marketing techniques for theatre companies, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who could do a better job at offering such suggestions than I can. However, as someone who has been on both ends – as both an audience member and someone who has worked on several productions – I think I know enough to ponder some ideas that might work, and what certain theaters could be doing a bit more of, in the hopes that maybe some theaters – especially some newer ones that might need some assistance with such things – can improve their methods, when it comes to filling up seats.

So without further ado, here are just a few things that I think theaters can do (if they aren’t already doing it) to try and boost awareness of their organizations…

•    Please tell me you’re already on social media, and if so, utilize it more – Most theatre companies I know already have at least a Facebook and Twitter page, but I still know quite a few that either don’t have one or don’t use it as much as they should to promote their upcoming shows. If you aren’t already aware of the age that we live it, get online now and get online frequently, so you aggressively promote your show to as many people as you can. Pour at least a bit of money into advertising, if necessary. Encourage your followers to share/retweet everything you post. Post as often as you can, to make sure you get the word out to as many people as possible.  

•    If possible, make a video – Beyond Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat (or whatever new thing comes after that), one platform that seems especially unlikely to go away at any time in the near future is YouTube. So with this in mind, try getting out a camera – or even an iPhone or something – and making a trailer/promotional video for your show to upload to the Internet. Then do everything you can to make sure that it reaches as many people, as possible. Videos are always a good way to promote a product of any kind, and it especially can’t hurt when putting on a show.

•    Reach out to other local organizations who may be interested – Depending on what kind of show you are doing, there may be other non-profit organizations out there that might be interested in what you are producing. For example, let’s say you’re doing a show that revolves around a certain social theme – such as the environment, civil rights, etc. – then maybe you could find a group that specializes in such issues, and reach out to members of such a group to see if any of them might be interested in attending your show. There are also even more obvious suggestions, such as doing more to reach out to students – if you haven’t already – who may be interested in attending a youth theatre production. In any case, don’t be afraid to step outside of the theatre community in this way – if you haven’t already – to find new patrons. If you do, there’s a chance that they might be willing to help promote your show to a wider audience.

•    And that includes other theaters – When you go to a movie theater, one of the things that you always get used to is seeing trailers for other movies (from other movie studios, I should add) before the feature presentation. So why can’t we have a situation where you look in the program of a show and see titles of other upcoming shows from other theatre companies? Theatre should not be seen as a competition for audience members, as far as I’m concerned. If multiple theaters are putting on great shows that people are interested in, it shouldn’t be a controversial idea to perhaps start an exchange between two or more local theaters, where they all agree to promote each other’s shows, so that they could all potentially benefit.

•    Lure them in with a smaller public performance – One thing that always gets my attention, as an audience member, is when I’m walking down the street and I happen to see some kind of short performance that I was not expecting to see. Even in New York – much less, for example, a city such as Hartford – I don’t see enough examples of theaters going out of their way to promote their full productions by offering a live sneak peak for potential theatergoers to witness, which might spark enough interest for them to check out the real thing. So if you can get access to such a place in public where you can perform, and if your performers are willing, this is something that I would seriously love to see more of from theatre groups, if possible.

•    Promise something extra, besides just a show – If you ever go on websites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you’ll see how projects seeking funding offer some sort of reward for whoever decides to fund it, depending on how much money they choose to give. For potential theatergoers who might initially be skeptical of whether it’s worth going to see a show at their local community theater, it might not be such a bad idea to similarly offer something extra for them, in addition to a live show. I’ve seen plenty of children’s theatre productions that offer meet and greets with the characters after the show, just to give an example. So whether it’s something like this – or something as small as free food and drinks, for a more adult show – it’s worth taking into consideration, as people are often easily lured by the prospect of getting extra stuff for free. 

•    Offer discounts on certain dates, or for certain people – Ahh, ticket prices. If there is any one thing beyond bad marketing that holds people back from coming to see shows, it is complaints about the high costs of tickets. Now keep in mind that this column is primarily referring to community theatre, for which tickets are relatively cheap, compared to Broadway or even most Off-Broadway shows. However, many potential theatergoers still might balk at paying even as little as $20 just to go see a local community theatre production. So if you can afford it, perhaps consider reaching out to certain groups of people (students or senior citizens, for starters?) that might be interested – depending on the show – and offer them a nice discount that might potentially get them to buy a ticket. By doing this, maybe it’ll pay off in the form of an overall boost in ticket sales.

•    Don’t be afraid to be controversial – It goes without saying that this might be one of the riskier methods of promotion that I’ve put on this list. Having said that, there is something to be said about the attention that being provocative and controversial can bring, and the benefits that it can provide in the modern era. When doing any sort of marketing for the show – whether it be in print or online – it might not hurt to point out that your show may tackles certain themes or issues that are just as polarizing as they are relevant, or that it may include some plot details that may be considered to be “edgy” or “risqué”. It also might not hurt to possibly include an attention-grabbing slogan that highlights this, for example. Is there a risk that you could be turning some people off to your show, by doing this? Sure. But if you’re already doing a show that some audiences may view as controversial, then you might as well embrace that by maximizing the potential publicity that could come with it.

•    Or to be proud of what you’ve done – Do you know how many people I’ve known as a teenager and young adult who were too embarrassed to talk much about the fact that they do theatre, and thus, do little to promote it beyond maybe a brief Facebook post or two? I can’t help but think that this is one of the biggest reasons why not as many people go to see their local shows as one would think is possible. If more people told their friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, etc. about the shows they were involved in, I imagine that there’s a chance that at least one or two of those people – if not more – would be persuaded to go see it. So if you’re not already doing this, don’t be afraid to promote yourself and what you do to virtually every person you know, if you don’t already.

•    Posters, posters and MORE POSTERS! – How much detail do I really need to go into here? In addition to all of these techniques, it doesn’t hurt to go around posting as many signs or posters for the show, wherever and whenever you can. Hang them up on as many town bulletin boards as you can. Beg stores, if necessary, if you can hang them up at their buildings. Anywhere and everywhere you can, always make sure that people all across town are aware of your upcoming show.

What do you think? Any suggestions that you’d like to add to this list? Anyone out there want to share past experiences they’ve had with these marketing techniques? Please be sure to let us know in the comments section.

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet and essayist currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).

Photo: L-R: Amber Smith as Gabriella, Brian J. Gill as Bernard. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's "Boeing Boeing" Photo by Paul Ruffolo.