7 Basic Lessons I’ve Learned About Marketing A Mid-Scale Theatre

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.

Canal Holiday Didn’t Float My Boat

I thought there would be nothing more relaxing than a canal boat holiday. Travelling at 4mph along sleepy waterways through beautiful countryside sounded idyllic. Until I did it.

Paul Lewis gets that sinking feeling
Paul Lewis gets that sinking feeling

I thought there would be nothing more relaxing than a canal boat holiday. Travelling at 4mph along sleepy waterways through beautiful countryside sounded idyllic. Until I did it.

Let’s take that 4mph thing first. Time goes slowly and that’s what we love about canals- if we’re sitting out on deck with a G&T. Time going slowly is not so much fun when you’re waiting for the boat to respond to your moving the tiller and you’re going down a canal that’s maybe two or three boats wide. You hardly ever seem to get more than five minutes before a boat comes past in the opposite direction. Steer too far to the right and you’re grounded, too far to the left and you’re playing dodgems.

At first, I was zigzagging from left to right like a UKIP voter. Eventually I acquired a steady hand on the tiller but, even then, I couldn’t afford to lose concentration for a moment. If I took a second to look at a heron or sip a beer, I’d find myself grinding to a halt as I mounted the deceptively shallow bank. And, however blasé I became, the approach of another boat seemed to draw me toward it like a moth to a flame.

Aye Aye Captain

While some of the ‘crew’ might relax with a cocktail or a cuppa, there was no relaxation for the Captain and me. (My brother-in-law saw himself as Captain Hook while I, as a less than able seaman, was clearly Smee.) Every few minutes, there was a lock or a swing bridge to negotiate. Each time, I had to leap from the barge onto the tow path with a rope, pull the vessel into the bank and tie it up to a little bollard.

This was not helped by my complete ignorance of the way floating objects behave. I soon found out that when you pull one end, the other end goes in the opposite direction leading to the boat completely straddling the canal like a river police roadblock.

Having secured the vessel, I would sprint to the lock, ratcheting some ratchety thing to fill or drain the lock chamber, untie the boat so it could sail into the lock, and then go through the process in reverse. After that, it would sail out of the lock and I would have to secure it again while I finished my work at the lock. Finally I had to untie it and push it off with one foot on the tow path and one foot on the boat, bringing me dangerously close to falling in or splitting my difference.

Swing bridges, which operate like the gate to a field, are slightly easier but still hard work. On one occasion, pushing the bridge open proved beyond me so my brother-in-law got off the barge to help. It was only when we finally opened it that we realised we were both on one side of the canal and the boat was on the other.

Cabin Fever

At the end of each day of this ‘relaxing’ holiday, I was more exhausted than I have ever been in my life. At least I slept well because it might otherwise have been a sleepless night, given how cramped these boats are, even the big ones. My wife and I were sharing with two other couples. So each evening, we had to convert the comfy chairs in the sitting room-cum-kitchen into a bed for one couple. Then my wife and I would retire to our ‘cabin’ which was actually closer to being a drawer, part of which went under the third couple’s cabin. Consequently, any movement of our legs led to severe bruising and complaints from next door about the knocking sounds against their headboard.

So, what about the view? It’s true I saw some beautiful rolling Cotswold landscape and very pretty views from aquaducts. But the immediate view was of an almost continuous line of moored boats. From the look of them, I’m guessing quite a few people who live on the canal can’t afford or don’t want a mortgage. Maybe they just don’t want to be part of mainstream society. Whatever the reason, they choose to live on these small boats and then, apparently, discover that while acquiring one may be cheap, maintenance isn’t. I can’t imagine any other reason why so many of them are held together by rust.

Many of them also seem to collect junk. Quite a few boats were piled high with old bikes, tyres, wheelbarrows and who knows what items that someone must have thought would be useful for doing up or selling for parts or, most likely, as scrap metal. Very friendly people, mind you, apart from the odd grumpy one who was probably worried that any ripple from our boat as it passed was liable to shake their fragile home apart.

That Sinking Feeling

The facilities on a narrow boat are inevitably limited. It’s a bit like a caravan, I imagine, but at least when you’re on dry land you can stock up when something runs out. On the last full day, we ran out of water and missed the Water Point where we could fill up. As at a well known supermarket, once it’s gone it’s gone. There’s no turning round with a canal boat except at ‘winding holes’, which more rare than the sighting of that kingfisher everyone talks about.

Because it was cold (and wet) most of the time, we had the heating on continuously. Consequently, even though we were told it would never happen, we ran out of gas. No water and no gas might seem bad enough but there was worse to come. We awoke in the early hours if our final morning, the chemical toilet had filled up and begun to back up.

We hightailed it for the end point- or at least hightailed it as much as a boat going at 4mph can. We arrived with dawn chorus still chirping and got off the vessel feeling much as the pilgrims must have when they disembarked from The Mayflower after their transatlantic journey.

In marketing, emotion rules reason. Of all people, I should have known better and thought through the practicalities instead of being swayed by the romance of a canal boat trip. One thing’s for sure: a canal holiday has gone from my Bucket List to my something-that-rhymes-with-Bucket list.

A version of this article appeared on the Daily Echo website.

Paul Lewis is the owner of the Winchester based marketing consultancy Seven Experience

Lots of laughs as Travesties and Mr Darcy both mash up literary greats

LipService in Mr Darcy Loses The Plot
LipService in Mr Darcy Loses The Plot

Two plays in the same week featured a mash-up of authors’ works.

LipService’s Mr Darcy Loses The Plot at Theatre Royal Winchester found Austen’s hero leaving Pride And Prejudice to blunder into Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton and even Beatrix Potter. It was very funny, not least because Austen’s creation has become a staple in subsequent literature, the dark silent hero with a hidden vulnerability.

In London, Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties may have hit some higher intellectual targets, such as Leninism, Dadaism and the tricks of memory, but it didn’t quite match the hit rate of laughs achieved by the pair of slick, professional comics that is LipService.

Hardly anything they did was new but, boy, did they do it to perfection. We’ve seen live actors disappear into film projection before but rarely with such perfect timing as when Darcy and Elizabeth move behind the screen to appear seamlessly in the ball and then dance out of it just as smoothly. We’ve seen actors have to change their appearance or actions to match a changing narrative but the gameness and confusion Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding conveyed to the audience was worthy of Morecambe and Wise.

Tom Hollander in Travesties
Tom Hollander in Travesties

In Travesties too, a faulty memory meant that scenes and characters changed in a dizzying trip into the past. It was 1917 in Geneva when James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, the founder of Dadaism and a British embassy official, played brilliantly by Tom Hollander, might have met (but actually didn’t). Hollander’s character is the unreliable narrator who misremembers events and mixes them up with The Importance of Being Earnest in which he was cast at the time.

We each have a history and so does art and so does the world. Both plays said much about how we rewrite the plots of our lives and change the meaning of the past and how the strands of our culture are inextricably entwined. And both productions did it with energy, panache and tremendous fun.


Print versus Digital- It’s All In The Mind

Theatre Royal Winchester brochure cover
Theatre Royal Winchester season brochure

If you’d asked us ten years ago, we marketing folk would probably have said that our season brochures and postal mailshots were on their way out. More and more people were getting digitally connected, websites were well established and getting faster, emails were all but ubiquitous. We couldn’t be blamed for thinking our print would be going the way of paper order forms and letterheads.

Yet here we are and our print is still going strong. This despite the fact that over 50% of the population have constant access to the internet via smartphones and tablets. At Theatre Royal Winchester, which I market, questionnaires, filled in by about half our customers, tell us the season brochure is still the number one source for their decision to buy a ticket, it can be as high as 60% of customers in the case of a play.

Digital has undoubtedly had an impact. The website is the second most mentioned of our marketing tools. E-shots are now the third best way of selling individual shows.

So why does print maintain such a hold in our digital world? There are some practicalities. Brochures are usually easier to navigate than websites, try as we may to tailor the UX to the visitors’ needs. You can flip through, dip in, and hang on to it through the season. But there’s more to it than that. Research suggests our brains may be wired for print.

Take this study sponsored by Canada Post and carried out by True Impact Marketing1. It found Direct Mail requires 21% less cognitive effort to process than Digital Media, meaning that it is both easier to understand and more memorable. Print created 20% higher motivation to act than digital. The ratio of these two factors means print is much more likely to lead to consumer action.

More than that, the impact lasted longer- recall of the brand was 70% higher for direct mail than digital. And print gets its message across more quickly.

In a study from Temple University2 using brain scans, physical did better than digital on the time a customer spent on an ad, the emotional reaction, how quickly and confidently they remembered it, how much they subconsciously wanted it and valued it. Digital only scored better on focusing attention on key elements. Other factors like the amount of information processed, how accurately they remembered it and how willing they were to purchase were even-stevens.

This could be the clincher. The ventral striatum area of the brain was activated more by print advertising than digital media, indicating that the former was more successful than the latter at create desire and a sense of value.

Brain scans were also used in a case study by Millward Brown in collaboration with Bangor University3. It found ‘physical material is more “real” to the brain. It has a meaning, and a place. It is better connected to memory because it engages with its spatial memory networks.’  ‘Physical material involves more emotional processing, which is important for memory and brand associations.’ ‘Physical materials produced more brain responses connected with internal feelings, suggesting greater “internalization” of the ads.’

Two more studies show the power of print. One found that comprehension is higher when people read print4. The other showed that digital readers browse and scan and don’t pay sustained attention5.

Even though print may be a better marketing tool than digital in oh-so-many ways, digital comes into its own when you compare cost. You may not sell so many tickets per e-shot as per mailshot but you can send out thousands of them for the cost of a handful of letters. So I find it’s best to hit customers first with an email and, only if they don’t respond, send a mailshot, and even then only to the best prospects.

The power of print means your season brochure should be your strongest marketing tool. Direct mail selling individual shows may fall down on the ROI but, in one piece of print, a brochure can cover dozens of products, thus spreading the cost and maximizing ROI.

1 Canada Post / True Impact Marketing, Understanding the Impact of Physical Communications through Neuroscience, February 2015

2Predicting Advertising Success Beyond Traditional Measures: New Insights from Neurophysiological Methods and Market Response Modeling. Journal of Marketing Research, August 2015

3Using Neuroscience to understand the role of Direct Mail. Millward Brown

4Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, Vol 58, 013, Pages 61–68

5Ziming Liu, (2005) “Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 61 Issue 6, pp.700 – 712

What’s more important- Length or Quality? Houdini & Heaven Eyes

Mr Swallow in Houdini
Mr Swallow in Houdini

Should you tell them the length or let them find out? The theory of not saying anything is that by the time they find out how short it is, they’re committed and they’re going to enjoy the experience so much, they won’t mind.

I would like to think that all that matters is the quality but I can’t deny that, when we’re talking about theatre, the actual performance is only part of an evening out. There’s also the travel, the drinks, maybe a meal before or after. An hour long show isn’t exactly a full evening out. Does that matter if it’s good or are you left you feeling shortchanged?

I went to see Mr Swallow in Houdini at Soho Theatre a couple of weeks ago. I loved it and laughed more than I have in a long time, so I certainly didn’t mind that it was only an hour long. Even so, it started at 7 o’clock so my wife and I were back on the street just after 8.

We could have been wondering what to do next but fortunately we’d been forewarned that it was an hour long so we were prepared to go on to a restaurant afterwards. Otherwise we might have found ourselves a few hours short of an evening out.

As someone who markets Theatre Royal Winchester, I always try to let people know if the performance is short but this raises a number of questions.

Does taking the trouble to point out that a performance is only a hour long suggest that I think you may think it’s not good value? At what point does a performance become standard length- 90 minutes, two hours?

There are other questions when it comes to describing the mechanics of a performance. Should I say if there’s no interval? Should I tell people if it’s extra long?- Hamlet usually runs to three and a half hours.

On the website, we do give the running time of every show, when we know it. But, to me, these are the kind of details that take up valuable space in a season brochure that I would like to use to tell people about the content of the show.

A brilliant play called Heaven Eyes, full of suspense, mystery and magical realism, is coming to Theatre Royal Winchester on 6 March. It’s about an hour and a half long and there’s no interval, so as not to break the spell. I think people will be so gripped that they won’t notice the length. However, their bladders might tell them it’s time for a break unless we forewarn them.

I’m happiest when I can use a quote like ‘a fun-packed hour’ or ‘the four hours go by at the speed of a train’.

It also depends on the genre. People expect a show for young children to be no more than an hour so I would advise if one was longer. Anyone who goes to a contemporary dance show would be surprised if it went on for more than an hour and a half, not because you can only take so much of people leaping around and catching each other in the air but because it’s so intense.

It’s quite natural to want a full evening’s entertainment but, when you think about it, it’s ridiculous to judge a performance by its length. One of the best shows I saw last year was Wot? No Fish! at Theatre Royal Winchester which was barely an hour long. I’m sure we’ve all seen shows (at other venues, of course) which we’d wished were only an hour in length.

Paul Lewis markets Theatre Royal Winchester and Hampshire Workspace and is the owner of the marketing consultancy Seven Experience. A version of this article has appeared on the Daily Echo website.