Paul Lewis of Seven Experience marketing consultancy sitting in a seat at Theatre Royal WinchesterI’ve just completed my marketing contract with Theatre Royal Winchester. This is what I’ve learned about marketing a mid-scale theatre.

Previously I have marketed a large scale theatre which is like piloting an ocean liner. The first thing I discovered was that a mid-scale venue is like a dinghy. You’re constantly tossed from wave to wave.

The procession of shows is relentless. Most weeks you’re dealing with three or more shows. In fact, a show on for a week is considered a long run. This means you are constantly making decisions, choices, compromises. It’s no place for a perfectionist or a prevaricator. So here are seven basic things you need to know.

1. You have very limited resources and the pressure is always there to reduce costs. I didn’t stop believing that you need to spend money to make money but at the same time I do hate waste so I analysed the effectiveness of all marketing tools. I used Return-On-Investment data from the Spektrix box office system about purchases made by people who received eshots and postal mailings as well as questionnaires filled in by customers and click-through data from digital advertising and sales patterns before and after promotions.

The result was that I was able to cut drastically print advertising which was not delivering. This saved thousands of pounds.

2. The season brochure was the most effective marketing tool for the majority of shows, especially drama and dance. Even so, I cut the print run. Why? I saw that the response rate was poor for what was supposed to be our best way of selling tickets. So I removed people who came only to shows on which the brochure was shown to have no effect (e.g. stand-up comedy, a large percentage of the panto audience). This gave me a reduction of 40%. In an ideal world, you continue to mail everybody who ever came to the theatre- but the cost is prohibitive. I got the same response in terms of numbers of transactions and saved thousands on printing and mailing costs.

3. On the subject of print, I believe in the importance of getting paper into people’s hands. It’s sticky. Therefore I increased and refined the distribution of print around the catchment area. I found a supporter who had the time to give it his personal attention, which gets much more from the outlets than using an agency. I also continued the weekly small targeted mailings, fulfilled in-house by a team of volunteers.  ‘Targeted’ usually meant people who had bought similar shows before but hadn’t yet bought this one.

4. I ramped up the digital marketing. We sent out more e-shots but carefully targeted so people weren’t overwhelmed by them. Something I didn’t learn at TRW but put into practice while I was there was the necessity of using the knowledge of the team. I inherited an excellent digital specialist. His knowledge of the box office system and other analytics was vital. I learned quite a bit about using social media from him.

Don’t expect straightforward ads for shows to work on Twitter. What engages people are stories and photos about people and news from behind the scenes. Creating a community and having conversations build the loyalty and trust that leads to increased attendance. The same rules apply to your Facebook page but ads can work on the Facebook medium because you can target them so well.

5. I learned you have to use PR very carefully. Like word-of-mouth, a mention in a respected newspaper, magazine or website generates sales among followers. The trouble is, with so many events, I didn’t want to rely on editors’ choices. I concentrated on the shows that would generate the most money for the theatre or needed the most help. The others I ruthlessly ignored so that the editor wouldn’t be tempted to publicise a sold-out comedian rather than a half-full play.

I made sure we sent all the listings website and freesheets the information. Some said they wouldn’t write about us unless we advertised. I took the view that paid-for editorial doesn’t impress anybody.

The main thing is, I didn’t economise on PR, tempting as it was. Even so, I found I didn’t have the time to generate enough of the fun stories that often get coverage but don’t necessarily sell tickets.

6. Nor did I economise on copywriting. Producers will provide copy for brochures, mailshots and press releases but that doesn’t mean you have to use it. There are two good reasons for writing your own copy. Firstly, you should have a house style in your copy, a personality that fits your venue.

Secondly, a lot of the supplied copy is pretty poor. The great Drayton Bird said, ‘How can you make more money without investing more money? Run good copy instead of bad copy.’ What makes it bad? Well, that’s a whole article in itself but failure to understand the medium for which they are writing, failure to produce selling copy and failure to provide up-to-date information are just a few reasons for taking the time to research and rewrite it.

7. Timing is always important but it couldn’t be more crucial when you want to get the most out of limited resources. So I looked at sales patterns to make sure that e-shots, postal mailings and PR hit the ‘sweet spots’ or ‘zero moments’ when people made decisions to buy.

It’s also important to create synergy by working with colleagues from other departments. I helped the Head of Development establish a Friends scheme which gave the theatre much needed income from subscriptions and gave me a list of people likely to be among our most frequent attenders, people who could be nurtured and who would spread the word.

If you’re a producer, please understand that your show is competing with lots of others for the attention of the venue’s marketing people. I have three P’s for you – Provide good easy-to-use information and photos. Make Personal contact. Pester.

That’s just a taste of what I learned. If you already work in a mid-scale venue, I’m sure words like ‘Granny’ ‘eggs’ and suck’ come to mind but, if you’re new to marketing a mid-scale venue, I hope you’ve gained some useful tips. Please contact me if you want some advice or would like to run an idea by me.

Paul Lewis is a freelance marketer and owner of Seven Experience. He is available for marketing projects or short term contracts.