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


Learning To Survive

This is my most recent blog written for the Southern Daily Echo:

What did my shop achieve in 2010? Like most shopkeepers, I’m tempted to say ‘surviving’ was achievement enough. We did manage to do a little better than that. Our Winchester shop saw sales increase by 20% although that would have been better but for snow decimating some of our best Christmas trading days. Our website increased its UK ranking by around 25%.

In a way, though, these achievements are also to do with survival. The longer you are around, the more people get to know you and visit your shop or website. Even so, there’s still a lot of work to be put in as well. All small shop owners will tell you that long hours and very little time off go with the territory.

It’s been a year of learning. We’ve learned a great deal about what sells and that has helped us make good decisions about what might also go well. For example, Steiff Teddy bears and Caithness Glass paperweights were a natural addition to collectible products such as Dartington Pottery, Jo Downs fused glass and Dora Designs animal doorstops. The last year’s success with handmade British hats and Blondie Mania leather handbags was built on the previous popularity of our silk scarves and Bill Brown natural bags.

We had some luck- the cold weather did lead to us selling a record number of Dora Designs draught excluders and handmade faux fur slippers. The Brooks Centre where our shop is located underwent quite a transformation with improved marketing and promotion and, of course, the arrival of Primark.

To improve our website’s Google ranking required considerable work- and that’s just to get it from outside the world’s top half million to inside the top 400,000! When you run a small business, you have to do as much as you can yourself. I’ve learned a lot about ‘search engine optimisation’ during the year, to the extent that I’ve even been able to help some other people improve their site rankings.

By the way, I’m all for competition but at the moment, I’m glad Google dominate online search and advertising. It’s time consuming enough working with one search engine without having to worry about a dozen others.

So that was the year. Most retailers are probably feeling it could have been worse, given the recession. As for 2011, I am confident Your Life Your Style has a robust enough customer base and an attractive enough offer to see us survive another twelve months. Generally I suspect the rise in VAT and unemployment will hit margins and turnover and tip quite a few other shops over the edge.

Happy New Year!

Three Simple Ways To Make Your Website More Search Engine Friendly

You have direct control over some simple factors that have a massive effect on your website’s search engine rankings.

Websites don’t appear high in search engine rankings by magic. If you know the basics of search engine optimisation, you’ll know this and you can look away now. I’m writing this post because a lot of people in small businesses are unaware that they could be making a huge difference to the success of their websites by making some simple changes. Some factors in search engine success such as links to your site depend on otehrs but I’m talking about matters you have direct control over.

You’ve probably been relying on your website designer. Don’t. My experience is that just because they’re good at producing a nice looking site but that won’t butter any parsnips with Google. To see whether your website is doing the basics of search engine optimisation right, there are three simple checks.
Go to your home page and right click. You’ll see a drop down menu- click View Page Source. What will appear will be a whole bunch of words in computer language. Look for <title>. This Title is not the heading that you see on the webpage but the one that appears at the top of the screen. this is the number one source of information for search engines so it should contain the key words that your customers will be searching for. For example, when you visit Your Life Your Style, you’ll see ‘Special Gifts & Accessories from Your Life Your Style of Winchester’. I looked at a friend of mine’s business website the other day. The title was ‘Home Page’!

. This is not the Title that appears on your page but the one that you can see at the very top of the screen and it’s this that is the number one thing that Google and other search engines look at. I looked at a friend’s business website the other day andNext in importance are Header Tags. you’ll see these in the page source as <h1>, <h2> etc. On the page you normally see, these will usually appear as headings or in bold. Again they should reflect the words that your customers will be searching for.
Finally, look at the text on the page and make sure that your key words are repeated regularly. Google and other search engines vary in how many repetitions they look for to tell them that this what the site is about and how many constitute overloading the site to manipulate the rankings. Six repetitions of each key word seems to be a good target but it helps if the copy is long enough for them not to be too obvious.
One other thing, check what the <meta name=”description” says. This is what appears under your name in the search results and describes to the search engines and your potential customers what you are all about. It’s your best opportunity to sell. Your Life Your Style ‘description’ is ‘Your Life Your Style offers gifts and accessories as special as you from our shop in Winchester including Dora Designs, Steiff, Ashleigh & Burwood, Dartington Crystal and many products handmade in the UK’.

If your site doesn’t conform to these basic standards, get your designer to change it right now (because changes can take three months to have an effect) and then change your designer. Not necessarily in that order.