Sam Freeman

Theatre | Comedy | Marketing

Tag: arts

The Bigger Picture: Using Data In The Arts

****Please Note: This is unremittingly a blog about theatre marketing, data and being smarter****

How it all started

About four months ago I was sat in a meeting at the theatre I work for as conversation bounced round the table. Every now and again a question would be asked or a statement stated – “how did that show do?” or “this year’s going much better/worse isn’t it” and I’d jot down the bit of information I’d need to run 3 or 4 reports by the next meeting to answer.

“If I have to run another shitting sales report they want a “minor tweak” to I will go on the rampage…”

A little while later I started to think, well, this was all just a bit silly. After all the data we need to make smarter decisions is sat in our box office system. In fact, there’s probably far more data in there than we know what to do with. But while we can run reports the process is incredibly time consuming and, crucially, the report will answer only the basic question we ask of it.

Let’s think about that most simple of question, raised countless times, “how did that show do?” You see that’s not the question which, when answered, helps you make a great decision. Exploring it a chain of questions might go something like this:

How Did That Show Go? > Was that just a bad year though? > How did it do compared to other shows in that year? > How did it go compared to other similar shows? > Did our members buy it? > Was it a shocker of a dog-shit show so we comped it to the extent of 300 tickets a night BUT because artistically it got 4 stars in The Guardian our collective memory has gone a bit awry?

It’s never ending and simply running reports destroys your time. Let’s imagine that every report takes 5 min to run… How many reports would get you to the answer? 5? 10? Would you have to get new reports made? Maybe it’ll take a day, week to turnaround? In the meantime a poorer decision might have been made.

Sometimes you need Jazz Hands…

So I found myself in this position wondering what to do. I also wondered how to use data to persuade people. Data is only as useful as the influence it can have and if it’s presented in a shit Excel chart then some people will turn off to it. So I needed something that would visually be simple to read, could answer questions fast, was completely customizable and, crucially, was pretty as a picture so that I could use it to show non-excel geeks.

I’m not interested in… Wait… Wow… What a lovely graph…

The solution has been Tableau (link here) a data visualisation piece of software where you import a .csv file in, move the data around and into different formats and then explore the data. It’s obviously a bit more complicated than that but you, yes you, reading this, can do it.

Below are  some images of some of the dashboards that I’ve created as part of a Tableau file I’ve affectionately named Data Cruncha.

***Obviously much of the data is fake as the real version has actual financials in – use them to get an idea as to what’s possible!***

Filtering The Data

The first thing to realise is that you can have near-instantaneous data to play with. This search criteria is a really simple version that I made to look at the data. It can run on whatever datasets you want in whatever combinations you need.

This one can filter by:
# Month (but it could do year/hour/day/week)
# Genre (depending on how your data is labelled)
# Who Produced The Show (depending on how your data is labelled)
# Venue (my theatre has 9 distinct venues…. sigh…)
# Whether a ticket was complimentary or not
# Whether a member purchased or not
# Or just looking at a single show…

You can essentially search by whatever dimensions (or categories) you have in your original data. So if you had an incredibly insightful box office manager who added in the show director into the show setup then you could potentially search by that. This ease of filtering is really important to know as it instantly updates every graph, chart and map you will see in the next few images.

Sales Dashboard

This is exactly what it says on the tin – it pulls together all your basic sales data. Things to note:

  • You can set up tooltips (the Dad’s Army box), essentially pop up bits of info that appear when you hover over data these can be populated with whatever you need.
  • You can group the data in columns or lines or bar charts, by any time period.
  • Each graph is made separately and then assembled on a dashboard. You choose what goes on which dashboard. This is great as you can start to visually see correlations in the data.

Behaviour Dashboard

This is (also) exactly what it says on the tin – it pulls some of the data about  how your audience interact with you.


A quick and easy way to use top line postcode data (e.g. CH7) to look at where you audience is coming from and how it’s changing.

Target Setting Dashboard

Want to look at how a range of events performed – perhaps need some guidance of the best case and worst case scenarios? What’s interesting about the cinema data below is that if you look carefully you can distinguish between Live Screenings and Standard Films without a filter…

Donations Dashboard

You’ll also have line-by-line data on merchandise, donations and any transaction fees. All these can be reported on and explored.


This is the quite cool one. It’s useful for understanding how people book your tickets and which seats are in higher demand. You can then answer how well the house dresses itself. For reference the stage is at the bottom and red seats are the ones which have, on average, been booked most in advance (opposed to looking at frequency it’s been bought). Essentially if you want seat E16 our most popular seat then you’ll have to book 134.3 days before the show’s on… ish… (This is a real bit of data, but only for last year’s production of a touring comedy that sold out…)

What next?

Top question. Here’s my answer…

  1. Well if this is of interest then please tweet me @mrfreeman1984 with something cryptic like “#TopData” or “‘#CoolGraph”.
  2. You should also download the free demo version of Tableau which is available on their website and have a play with it… It’s really easy to use and it’ll help you try to learn if it’s going to be good for you or not.
  3. If you want to have a chat to me about what I’ve made or have a 10 minute online demo then drop me a tweet and we’ll see what we can do. (If you want a more in depth chat or me to make you something on a freelance basis either for money or free (if i like you or your theatre) then also get in touch.)
  4. Be fucking brave and not a massive wimp. Four months ago I tried this for the first time, I’ve been playing (yes, playing) with it in my spare time, learning by failing and then improving. It’s changed how I think of data. So give it a go.
  5. I’ve so far only scratched the surface of what this can do, of how it could be used organisationally… If you use this then get in touch, we’ll swap ideas and both become smarter.

I hope this is useful/interesting.

Best, Sam x




Cats, dogs and why we live.

Firstly, before you read any further, let me drop a couple of truths before you read any more (then you can decide whether I’m going to waste your time or not).

  1. This blog post is heavily related to arts marketing and theatre
  2. It is also related to the idea of owning a dog (even though I want a cat)
  3. And it touches on working practice and happiness.

Want to read on?

Here’s your chance to go…

Right, now that I’ve got your full attention I want to talk about a couple of ideas that I have found are dominating the arts and the direction I think we should be going. To start with a few trends I’ve noticed. As always, all opinions are my own and not reflective of any of the organisations I work for.

  • We’re time poor, in static environments non conductive to work and under stress
  • There are highly stressful pinch points throughout the year
  • Wages are remaining static (at best), or are drastically decreasing through inflation, increased hours (we’re all working pro-bono but are in denial about it) or simply through budget cuts.

I’ve also noticed that there are other elements touching my life away from work.

I’d like to own a dog for example (actually I’d like a cat but my other half is allergic…), I’d like to do more writing and creative work, I don’t exercise enough or, and I appreciate this is a contrast, drink in a non-binge fashion enough. It seems that work is increasing encroaching upon life. This naturally begs the question which we all ask from time to time: are we living to work or are we working to live?

I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the centre but slanted towards living to work. What I know to be true is that life shouldn’t revolve around feelings of stress, helplessness or occasional panic, nor should we accept stress, being time poor or wages as “part of the job.”

I’m a firm believer that there’s an issue in the UK where we mistake someone who is good at their job for hard working. After all someone can be shit at their job and hard working – the hard working is, it could be argued, symptomatic of lacking the efficiency to work a sensible amount more effectively.

See what I did, I repurposed hard working to mean something different there. Think about it, we wouldn’t approve of hard-drinking, hard-drug taking, hard-liners or excessive amounts of Laurel and Hardie. Yet when it comes to work we take pride in it. I do it too, and it’s starting to get tiring. We need to work easier, smarter and happier.

A friend once told me that the biggest problem the arts has is mistaking efficiency as a foe rather than a friend. That the prioritisation of getting work done shrouds the greater issue, that we don’t ever look at how we can make that work simpler, faster to do, to free up more time for life and creativity. We doggedly stick to systems that we have always know rather than ever really focusing on how we find an easier way. Yes, sometimes the easier way results in a lower quality of something, but we need to look at balance, efficiency, about whether the needs of that thing outweighs the greater good of the saving in energy both emotional, mentally and physically.

Let’s go back to our list from earlier – so where could we look at ideas surrounding this – i’m going to use examples from my own role.

  • We’re time poor, in static environments non conductive to work and under stress
    We need to look at how to free up time and reduce stress. Why not take a week or even better a month and look at where time is being absorbed. For me it is unfocused meetings, e-mail and lack of flexible working.

    • Meetings should have a clear singular objective that has to be achieved within 30 mins not drag for hours, and decisions should be made at the end – the decisions need to be tracked, progress monitored, and not through e-mails and meetings, through specialist software that manages projects efficiently and effectively. How much time would we gain? Would projects work more efficiently?
    • I trawl through 60+ e-mails on a daily basis – how can I reduce this to focus on the really important?
    • Flexible working is tricky – I work in a busy, uncomfortably small office where there is no space for having quiet space, or being away from people – I realised that if I work from home I do 2 days work in 1 day – how do we replicate that at work? Is one environment appropriate to all tasks we do? I wouldn’t write a play in a busy office, why would I write a business plan or strategy?
    • I’d like a dog, they’re relaxing and calming and bring joy. I work better when I feel joy, relaxed and calm. Would this added feeling make me work better at the cost of 2 x 30 min walks a day and a dog in the office?
  • There are highly stressful pinch points throughout the year
    We need to take a serious look at pinch points. For me three times a year I have near unbearable stress when I put together a brochure. It is, however, at its core, to each element, not a stressful activity (design, writing, pricing). The process that we work to create brochures merely compresses 50 shows going on sale, and everything associated with that into 2 – 3 weeks. Why not have a rolling season? Lose that stress, develop a system that is adaptive and flexible rather than operating within the constraints of the three season structure? What else would need to change? What would be the benefits rather than the costs? Would anyone underwrite us (ACE?) to try this so we don’t avoid change to avoid falling on our arses. How do we mitigate our fear of the unknown?
  • Wages are remaining static
    People do not work in the arts for the money it is said. Yet the arts are still hemorrhaging some of the best staff. Clearly it’s a factor. If we can sort the first two issues to make people more time rich, less stressed and working more efficiently (ideally with a pet) then we should look at addressing the wage problem in a creative way. Maybe not with higher wages but with better conditions. What if you did a 4 day week on the same wages? Or worked 6 hour days instead, again for the same wage? What if you were happier, more motivated, less stressed, more time rich, more efficient and paid for your time more reasonably – would that make us all work better?

I appreciate that people will invariably say that either a) that’s not how the world works or b) (and this is to be blunt) make excuses for why none of this is possible. The question I wonder is that if the arts doesn’t address the status quo, the increasing difficulties that the workers in arts organisations have, how can it expect to sort the issues the whole industry faces organisationally, sociologically, ethically and morally.

The arts are about change for the better, to find a vision for a new hope through reflection or ambition. They need to find a place in the 21st century and discover how they can influence the development of society and humanity in a world that increasingly feels to have lost the wonder, the clear eyed wonder and joy of simply living – and this it needs to start at home.

Big statement? Yes.
Big ideas? Maybe.
Starts from the smallest but bravest of changes? Definitely.

If you found this post interesting then please read this one which I wrote a few weeks ago! Click here!

Any thoughts or comments please tweet me @mrfreeman1984

Surviving a seeming arts apocalypse… (part 1)

It seems not a day passes without further signs in the decline of British Theatre in the regions, from the liquidation of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews to Taunton’s Brewhouse moving into administration it seems clear (in the media at least) that the arts are enduring a torrid time of uncertainty, fear and closure.

My arts career began at the Stephen Joseph Theatre around 2002 as an usher and continued through jobs at York Theatre Royal, Grassington Festival, TakeOver Festival and now to Unity Theatre and running my own brand new touring company. I currently work as Marketing Manager for Unity Theatre (please note the views expressed here are my own and not those of the organisation) and am also a playwright, director and comedian (although vastly unsuccessful at all three).

Small and mid-scale venues are coming under increasing pressure to reduce their reliance on grant-based funding (or in some cases forget about it completely) which, for small-scale organisations with limited capacity seating causes problems, it’s not a case of selling more tickets, moving from selling 70% of tickets to 100% of tickets, as we’re often talking 30 tickets not 300, there is limited spare capacity and the costs for producing and receiving small-scale work are very high. It’s a case of selling all the tickets, increasing prices and wringing every dime from the audience from donations to support the valuable work the venues do as part of the UK’s theatrical ecology – developing work and artists for larger venues and ultimately the West End, TV and film – even with that it’s a huge struggle.

There’s also the diversification of incomes, often mentions as a saviour, from bars and cafes, to weddings and gaining corporate sponsors all while providing challenging programmes, maintaining price accessibility, providing quality work for young people, working with schools, the list goes on and on…

Many of the smaller venues, with skeleton staff have,  I believe, one major limitation, time. To do all these things, on top of the day to day, on top of creating and supporting art, takes a huge amount of time. Even something as seemingly simple as finding corporate sponsors takes research time, resources, time meeting people, and even then it may be a sales relationship rather than philanthropic. And the best organisations to approach for donations are often being targeted by larger venues – with dedicated teams for development (or “give us money”).

Time though is the killer. Show me someone who works in the arts with an empty to-do list. They don’t exist, especially so in small-scale venues.

People often talked about the glory days, when theatre was a centre piece of people’s lives, queues round the block every night, in draughty spaces with wooden bench seating they came from far and wide – in those days there wasn’t even an Arts Council, so why now, why not any more? It’s easy to point at the competition theatre faces now, film, tv, computer games, facebook, on-demand porn, gig venues, indoor mini golf, the expansion of theatre venues – there are so many more demands on our time. Perhaps it’s relevance, or function, or the forms we use, or perhaps social expectation of theatre. Maybe it’s all of these things and more.

Scary times.

So what’s the solution?

To be honest I don’t fully know. I’m about to start work on a document to explore all that – a daunting undertaking but one I’m excited about in a strange way. I have some initial ideas, around shared services, building audiences, producing small-scale work, balanced programming, marketing strategies, pricing and operations and about experience management and development, but these are ideas rather than anything fully formed and don’t consist of a fully fledged theory or hypothesis forming “the solution”. I will write up and then share as much as I can over the next 4 months, for interest but also as a record… I’d love to get your thoughts as I broach different issues and offer questions and ideas many people will hate or find scary, or both.

For now, however, goodnight – see you next time.


P.S. – If you’re wondering why I’ve not mentioned many gigs recently it’s because I’ve found getting regular gigs hard, I really want to find a show to compere, any ideas please get in touch!

Hitting the target – Brochures

I hadn’t written any particularly niche marketing-centric posts for a while so I thought it was high time to inflict a glazed expression on all your faces, make you wonder where it all went wrong and how life had led you to read this, look around the office and consider whether you can end it all with a toner cartridge, full pack of paper clips and the 2002 edition of the Yellow Pages (why is it always 2002?).

I wanted to talk about some of the work we’ve been doing lately with our brochure and mailings at unitytheatre. It’s not a vanity post, I’m well aware that everything we have done is well inside the conventional and is pretty simplistic. However it’s a useful bit of information for small-scale theatres, for comparison purposes, but also for me to jot down what I’ve been upto and to hopefully get some feedback from those wiser than I.

The transition we find ourselves in at the moment is one from moving from a broad un-targetted resource sapping method of launching a season of work, to one highly focused, individual and with a high ROI.

What we used to do:

The past method of mailing was to take everyone who’d booked in the past year, then two years, then three years, enough so that we got a mailing list of 5,000 people and then we’d mail all these people on bulk. They’d receive the brochures (text heavy, lots of company information and jargon) and that’s it. In addition we’d distribute (of the 15k printed brochures), 5k around the city, 2.5k in arts-specific locations with the remaining 2.5k used for the building.

So what needed to change?

Well, firstly, brochures are very expensive to get designed and print, postage is increasingly expensive, distribution is good to an extent but unreliable (it can tend to be buried), and brochures become outdated the moment the first show has finished. The brochures were text heavy, with lots of jargon and information about the companies. All this in combination meant that nearly 60% – 70% of the annual budget was being spent on brochures that were ideal for people already theatre-savvie – not good.

So what did we do?

The first thing we did was simplify our brochures, work on the simplicity of presenting information but also questioning content. This requires you to step away from ‘working in theatre’ and imagine that you are Joe Bloggs and ask the brochure questions:

Do people care who did the original lighting design?
Is the company name going to sell it to people?
Do many people associate the show with the obscure period of 19th century history?
Does it sound exciting?
Does it tell me why I should want to see it?
Does it tell me why other people are clamoring to see it?
Does anyone care it’s a co-production funded by 9 different groups?

To an extent all of these can be answered yes and no, the question is about giving the theatre-savvie groups enough information to get excited while maintaining accessibility for people who might be visiting for the first time. Let’s think about the top of the page for example:

Company X present
Written by a new writer

What would happen if the headline information became:

Written by a new writer

It’s a simple change, perhaps too simplistic, but it presents a level of information not previous obviously had, it’s more consumable, in-yer-face, accessible.

We applied lessons like this across our work, simplifying copy as far as possible (it’s still far from perfect coincidentally), we cut the jargon that turns none engaged audiences off, losing complex sentences, trying to cut the length of copy length (halfed in most cases) as well as reprioritising the information available.

Reviews = Important
Movement Director = Cut
Director = Stays but small credit unless they’re well know (e.g. Peter Hall)

It’s harsh and unlike subsidised theatre in general.

And then what?

We cut the numbers of brochures printed in half, replacing the lost half with a much more cost effective folded mini-brochure (with half the copy of the full version). This would mean we’d have full-brochures for mailing our ‘keen-o’ audience members, for the building and for arts-specific distribution points and mini-brochures for the more broad, less effective distribution.

We also created bi-monthly flyers of what’s on (very cheap) for general distribution focusing on programme, cheapness of tickets, and, importantly social media and online links – just a top-up so we can keep fresh, bright, eye catching information around the city.

We mailed 2.5k people our brochure, of which 500 went to people who visited in the last year, 2+ times and (KEY) had booked online, they were sent just a brochure on its own (after all they’re visiting lots and in the right way, no need to try and change their behaviour yet). The other 2k went to people who’d been in the last year but hadn’t booked more than once or online, but we included a flyer with info about how easy it is to book online (as we want to e-mail them in future!).

Then we mailed 2 types of postcards to different groups. To our slightly lapsed attenders we sent a postcard about how exciting our new season is with lots of big links to online and social media. To our more lapsed (or bad) attenders we sent a “We’re missing you” postcard, reminding them of our great value, fun, excitement and the ease of finding us. Massive savings to an audience who we’ve struggled to reengage in the past.

(P.S Without the massive mailing we could bring it inhouse, try seeing how long it takes to label a postcard opposed to stuff a brochure)

But Sam, there’s a massive saving there, what about the other money you have left?

Good question: Out of the balance difference (around £2k) we’ve used a sum for Solus E-mails to two different lists (cost £500 total  to 40k people), we’ll be doing some extra bits of targeted distribution, we’ll be trying some google ads and facebook advertising to drive more traffic to our site, and with the remaining £1k we’ll be going on holiday. Only joking, it’s now money we can use on specific audience development campaigns in the future, so, we’ve hopefully addressed our current audience, been noticed by a new audience and have money to spend on getting people who’ve missed us so far.

And in the future?

Well evaluation first, we can test the ROI of the mailings and the distribution to an extent. But we need to make the print more personal, personalisation is key, wouldn’t it be great if every brochure opened with “Dear [Name], you’ll love this season” for the people we posted to, cut down the paper weight and the cost further, perhaps cut down on the time spent creating brochures, if leaflets are effective as directions to the website, make the segments even more specific, genre specific for lapsed attenders, or maybe incentive driven.

That’s all folks…

Sorry a bit of a head splurge there… Tell me what you think – it’s early stages but I’d be happy to talk to anyone interested!

© 2019 Sam Freeman

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