A Catalogue of Ills

Back in 1988, when I joined the new marketing team at The Mayflower Theatre, just about the first thing we did was redesign the season brochure. (It’s something new people like to do.) We hired a top local designer. Everyone thought it was beautiful. I thought it was beautiful. It was beautiful.

But when I look back, I realise just how poor it was. This was not the designer’s fault. He did as requested and created a brochure that was superb to look at. It was our fault in not understanding that a brochure should be about compelling shows, not corporate classiness.

Since then, I’ve carried out research and I’ve read research, volumes of it. I now know so much that I get called upon for advice by theatres who want to improve the effectiveness of their season brochure. The funny thing is, though, we marketing people often know less than the person in the street about the basics of a good brochure.

There may be a lot of subtle stuff going on regarding the psychology of colours and the science of eye tracking but everyone knows whether the cover made them want to pick it up and read it. Except the marketing people who already have it in their hand.

The public know whether the pictures were attractive or boring, whether the headlines and straplines engaged their attention, whether the copy told a story that made them want to see the show or buy the product.

The reader knows whether he or she could actually read those words. This is a good moment to stop the litany of woes and dwell on this point. To me, it is plain common sense that the text needs to be big enough and contrast enough with the background to be able to be read.

This is without the research that proves comprehension drops dramatically along with smaller type sizes or a change from any colour other than black on white. I don’t entirely blame the designers. They sit in front of their Apple computers which either show the letters magnified when they’re working on detail or as a block when they’re considering the overall design. I do blame you- the marketing guy, the business owner- who should provide the bridge between aesthetics and the real world in which we communicate with customers.

You don’t have to go very far to find this surrender-to-the-designer syndrome. Look at any rack of brochures in a Tourist Information Centre. Tiny red type on a black background or white reversed out of a multi-coloured photo looks lovely, unless you want someone to actually read the it. In these times of reduced funding, arts venues can’t afford to produce print that people can’t read.

The good news is that, as the baby boomers get older, attitudes are changing. I find it interesting that many magazines have got the message that their customers need clear type. Take a look at Woman & Home or the Radio Times now and a year ago and see the difference. Hopefully the rest, including arts venues, will follow their lead.

In a few years’ time, another generation on, it probably won’t matter because we will be looking at electronic forms of brochures where we can zoom in on the type and probably even change the colours if we don’t like them. But in the meantime, brochures with their power to be picked up randomly, sent in the post, browsed through and conveniently left on the coffee table, are still a powerful tool.

If you doubt that, consider that Next have just sent me two telephone directory size hard cover catalogues and even though Argos have cut their catalogue print run from 20 million to 16 million, they still reckon 85% of customers buy from it.

Catalogues, brochures, call them what you will, are not going out of print just yet. So, for the time being, if you’re publishing one, you might as well make sure your audience can read it.


This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy The Lewis Experience and online retailer Your Life Your Style, and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.




How To Get Your Theatre Audience To Go Online

A theatre manager friend of mine told me he would like to get more people to use his theatre’s website. There are a number of reasons why this is a good idea. You can communicate a lot more information on a website and the more people know about a product the easier it is for them to make a decision. You can clinch the sale there and then without the customer needing to pick up a phone or visit a box office. You can track what they are interested in. And if they book online, you save all that box office staff time.

What I’m not sure about is whether you can save money on print if people are using the website. It seems logical and it’s certainly what managers would like to do in these difficult times but research does show that an awful lot of people still need a piece of paper to stimulate their initial interest. Not to do with websites but I think the real digital saving is getting people to accept emails rather than letters.

So, how do we get people to use the website? First, make it easy to find. I’ve done quite a bit of PR for touring shows and I’ve been shocked at how many times council owned venues’ websites are hidden within a local government site or how many use a name that is different to the one people know it by. Assuming the address is what the customer would expect, you still need to rank highly in search engines. So, first, make sure your website is search engine optimised. It would be nice to think Google and the like would automatically recognise that you are the number one theatre in your area and indeed there is every chance that if someone types in your theatre’s name and location, your website will come up. But you may share your name with other theatres or people may type in much vaguer search words. So, you need to use all the methods we’ve discussed before that ensure your theatre’s name, location and the simple word ‘theatre’ combined with your location are picked up by search engines.

Second, make it easy to use. If you know me, you’ll know I have a thing about designers who get carried away with their creativity. We all know branding is important and the appearance of your website needs to impress your visitors but, come on, you couldn’t get a more simple site than Google’s and it’s the world’s number one. Okay, you’re a theatre and you need to look a bit showbiz but make sure your home page gets straight to the point. ‘This is what’s on now’- ‘this is what’s coming soon’- and a quick download.

It’s the same with navigation. Of course, your designers are bored with the same old tabs and left hand column list of page names. But your customers aren’t. That’s what they understand and they just want to get to the information.

Ideally you’ll have a mobile version of your website available since at least 20% of your visitors will be on their smartphone and find your traditional desktop version difficult to view.

So, you’ve told them about the production and you’ve shown them photos and a video. They want to buy. What’s this? They’re going to have to pay a booking fee! Why? If you want people to book online, you cannot charge them more than they would pay if they phoned up or called in at the box office. Fact. For goodness sake, the internet is where they’re used to finding things cheaper.

All right, let’s look at other ways to get your audience to go online. You need to collect email addresses. Whenever someone buys a ticket, ask for their email address (you don’t need permission to email someone whose bought something from you).  When someone visits your theatre, get their email address- bribe them with a free drink or something but just imagine how much that small investment may yield.

Make sure that all your communications- season brochure, fliers, letters, emails, even business letters- include your website address or a link directly to the show you’re promoting. Always include a QR barcode. These are the square barcodes you increasingly see in advertisements. When you point your smartphone at one (with the right app), it goes straight to your website. They’re catching on (and they’re free) so use them.

You also need a presence on social networks. Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest may not yield huge amounts of business but people who are interested enough in your theatre to follow it are worth nurturing, so post wisely and give your followers news and links to your website. And YouTube- a bigger search engine than Google- is essential. Create a channel and post all available video footage. The rules about search engine optimisation apply.

A few more things about website content. If you provide links on your website to other sites, e.g. a show producer or a sponsor, don’t lose your visitor: make sure any links open in a new page, so your site remains open and available. Make sure your site has all the useful information about how to find the venue, where to eat or stay nearby, what the auditorium looks like, parking, seating plans. If people want this information, don’t fill you precious brochure with it, direct people to your website. Finally, make your website a place where audiences can rate, comment on and discuss your theatre and its products- even if the postings are critical, it gets people to engage with your theatre online


John Lewis Show How Not To Design A Catalogue

Why does a major retailer like John Lewis ignore scientific research on how to produce a catalogue that sells? Here are a few of the rules they ignored in this year’s Christmas brochure.

Today I’m guilty of a deadly sin- Criticising John Lewis, which clearly would have been the eighth deadly sin if the shop had been around at the time. Like all shopkeepers, I admire and seek to emulate JL, but this year  was surprised that their Christmas catalogue failed to observe what I would consider some basic rules.

Even in these days of online catalogues, the printed brochure remains an important selling tool. I’m not a designer but, over the years as a marketing person, I’ve made a point of learning how to produce a catalogue that sells. When I worked at The Mayflower Theatre, the season brochure was the single biggest generator of ticket sales. Apart from my own experience, I learned a great deal from the brilliant American catalog specialist Richard S. Hodgson. I’m still happy to offer advice to companies on how to produce effective catalogues on a tight budget.

So what was wrong with John Lewis’s catalogue and why does it matter? Here are just three examples. Faces and eyes on the cover attract attention yet all JL had were a few tree decorations against a grey background. Yes, grey- the least attractive colour in the universe.

Number two. When people look at a double page spread, their eyes start at the top right, travel the middle, then go to the bottom right. In other words we barely notice the left hand page unless there is something there that grabs our attention. This is scientific research done by Professor Siegfried Vogeler using a camera to measure eye movement. I could find hardly any left hand pages in John Lewis’ brochure that had a striking image.

I could go on- choice of font, font size and, moving on to the text, the need for copy that sells benefits not features…

Third thing. More scientific studies, this time conducted by Colin Wheildon many years ago, showed that the most easy to read colour combination is black type on a white background. Did you ever read a novel that wasn’t? You might think white on black wouldn’t be much different but in fact ‘good comprehension’ goes down from 70% to 0% and ‘poor’ comprehension up from 11% to 88%. Despite this, more than half the pages in the John Lewis catalogue use white type. To be fair, it’s not always on a black background, sometimes they use white on grey or even wood grain. Wheildon doesn’t have a statistic for this latter combination- I doubt he thought anyone would try it.

Why does it matter apart from giving me the chance to show off my knowledge? Well, I think we should be concerned that there are an army of designers, who have studied at art college and who create lovely looking catalogues, yet ignore or have never been taught the scientifically researched rules of producing a brochure that actually does the job of selling the products. They’re not dissimilar to religious fundamentalists denying evolution. That’s not what we retailers and other businesses need.

Now John Lewis may feel they got exactly what they wanted out of their Christmas catalogue. I guess that in an age when scientists are wondering if there is something faster than the speed of light, anything can happen. Personally I don’t see the harm in following a few tried and tested rules. The catalogue I produced for Your Life Your Style for door-to-door and mailing was simple in style and produced on a shoestring but it did just that and the results were everything hoped for. Please take a look at my 10 Ways for A Winning Brochure.

If an architect ignored the science of constructing a building and simply made it look nice, it would fall down. It seems some catalogue designers don’t want anything as boring as selling to customers to get in the way of their art.