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