Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

Arts Marketing: Winter Is Coming

***Long shot, slowly zooming in***

A winter day, a barren scene, nothing but desolation. A man trudges through the snow. He wears the armour of a knight, but it’s battered and filthy, he’s been through battles and mostly lost. But against the odds he’s still here, still breathing. He’s cold, breath visible in the ice-tinged air, his beard is matted and long, eyes dark and drawn. Each footstep hard, exhausting, difficult. He stops and turns to the camera.

“Are your sales f**ked like ours?” he asks, a pleading, haunted look in his eyes, “or”, his voice trembling, “or are you one of the lucky ones?!?

***Cut to black***

It’s been a while since I wrote a marketing blog. I mean a proper one, a gritty one, with swearing, unnecessarily pop culture references, fruit-based metaphor and wild, unsubstantiated speculation. A blog you read where you instantly understand why Arts Professional and the AMA don’t come knocking. A weird ass, yet actually-I-might-bookmark-this blog about Arts Marketing.

Fuck yes. It’s back.

I’ve been chatting to lots of colleagues in the sector and there is genuine worry about what the future holds – we stand at an unprecedented moment (as we have done rather a lot recently) – on the one hand the ‘aftermath’ (or arguably, continued ‘math’) of Covid, Brexit, furlough, social distancing and redundancies (to name a few) – on the other hand high inflation, stagnant wages, strikes everywhere, cost-of-living increasing, petrol eye-watering and (as a bonus ball) a government that’s inert and perhaps incompetent.

It’s something I think about all the time – I look at comparative sales, advance booking, which audiences have returned and which haven’t and feel a bit nervy. I caveat that with remembering that the organisation I work for at the moment is going through a major capital project, so a few things are in the air. I’m also finding that the reinvention that I promised myself would happen in “how arts marketing operates” and ultimately “how theatre operates” hasn’t really materialised, and I largely find myself constantly trying to keep up, manage the day-to-day while feeling remorse that I haven’t done more of the essential future planning.

So far so grim.

I was thinking about the pro-active things I’ve been a) doing, b) looking at doing or c) pondering to avoid the Ned Stark off-with-his-head moment, or, indeed, The Wall falling with White Walkers destroying everything and everyone in their path (too many GOT references?). It’s so easy to get gripped by inertia – I can feel it on my shoulder all the time, an icy hand telling me it’ll be fine doing nothing, “just grab another Chai Latte and settle in with a copy of The Guardian” the icy hand tells me, “nothing bad will happen” it whispers – and of course maybe it will be okay.

Then again, it feels like lots of little actions can/may/will help – or at the very least help dislodge the faint whiff of worry I have professionally. You (my well informed, educated and, I dare say, incredibly attractive readership*) might of course think that some of these ideas are bad/idiotic/insane – but they’re here to inspire, or maybe just shake ourselves out of inertia. So, here you go, 7 ideas/ponderings to jump on/consider this autumn to help manage the upcoming apocalypse/moment of prosperity/future.

#1 – Credit

When the pandemic hit in 2020 many organisations asked people whether they’d like to credit their tickets to their theatre’s customer account – and many people did – there are thousands of pounds ‘on-credit’ waiting to be spent. Why not create a small campaign that encourages people to use their credit. You could even offer people extra value if they spend their credit on specific products – e.g. Use your credit to buy this year’s panto tickets and save 10%.

Of course there’s a lingering worry about reoccurring lockdowns, or performances being cancelled – you could counter this with a “your money’s safe with us” line, or even a promise (if you’re likely to have spare capacity) that the tickets you buy are refundable anytime up to 3 days (or the hour?) before a performance. Whatever helps reduce the barriers to attendance.

Tone is really important – can you thank people for crediting their money with you while also asking them to spend that credit? Does every penny of the credit they spend with you help support the arts in [insert generic region/city/town]?

#2 – Find where you can sell value

We’ve all got slow shows. All of us**. So how can we extract the maximum value from them despite them being slow.

Well first-up audiences are probably not aware of how they’re pacing compared to target. Is there a way to say “X,XXX tickets available in our autumn season for just £X (or less)”? Is there a way to give people a direct link to find these tickets? Can we add a “first-come-first-served” message to support the campaign? Can we segment our database to look at long-term lapsed attenders and match them up with our slower selling shows – “we know you enjoyed X because of Y, so we’ve a special X for Y offer, just for you, limited time only?”

Is there a broader, positive, philanthropic message for this remaining capacity – “We’ve made sure we’ve over X,XXX tickets available this autumn to support people as their cost of living is being squeezed” or “Our prices are going nowhere – right now we’ve over X,XXX tickets for £X or less”?

#3 – Using Spare Capacity – “Thanks, you’re great”

We’re likely to have spare capacity (as we generally always have done every autumn) this autumn.

The question is what are our options for what we can do with that spare capacity and what could we do to build audiences that may, if not paying today, certainly be warmer towards us in the future. How do we plant the seed now, so that we can get the benefits in a year or two? A few ideas below using the example of a fictional (but very good) show in October that’s selling naff all*** and groups you could target:

  • Panto bookers who never see anything else but panto
    “Thanks for booking for this year’s panto – as a thank you from all our team we’d like to invite you to be our guest for [insert show name]”
  • Long-term lapsed who still live in a 40 mile radius
    “We used to see you all the time but its been a while, here’s a little offer just for you, to welcome you back this autumn”
  • Birthdays
    “Happy Birthday – here’s a present from us to you, something a bit different that you just might love”
  • First Timers
    “You visited us for the first time – we’d love to see you again really soon, so how about this – come and see X for just £X”
  • Local businesses (Chamber Of Commerce) | Industry Meet Up | Teachers Forum
    Is there an event you could run for any specialist groups?

  • Make a socially distanced performance or two…
    There are loads of people who are still not quite comfortable with mixing, or who are shielding to an extent. Is there a way to encourage those people back?

#4 – No Buy, Just Be.

I do a lot of writing in coffee shops on my laptop. I feel like a shithouse no matter how many coffees I buy, no matter how much cake I stuff into my face, I’m still, ultimately, the dick with the laptop.

The coffee shop I go to, to their credit, have only ever been absolutely delightful, so it’s in many ways my internal worries. But I wonder whether theatres and arts venues (particularly those with public subsidy) are explicit enough about the public being okay spending time in them without having to pay.

Maybe it’d be lovely if we had free tea and newspaper day, or were really explicit that yes, you really can use our toilets and no-one will tell you off. We often talk about theatres being places of sanctuary, but sanctuary cannot be limited to pre-planned moments, or a workshop – how is it a pervasive state of mind? And how are we explicit about that with everyone?

And is there a way to encourage audiences to join you on philanthropic journey. There’s a restaurant near me that sells ‘invisible chips’ – they’re a side that’s a donation to charity, to support those who can’t afford real chips. Could theatres do the same thing? Buy an ‘invisible ticket’, or ‘an invisible slice of cake’, or ‘an invisible cup of tea’ – to support those who need a helping hand?

#5 – Making a plan and planning to think

I’m a big fan of flexible planning (we use this very nifty programme for planning – – I’ll put in the big structural pieces of a communications campaign – brochures, mailings, e-mails, bus sides – but then the other pieces I’ll tend to leave fairly loose or add in a month, fortnight or week before it has to be done. It gives a base from which to build. It’s Vincent Kompany – solid, dependable, rock solid, and when he’s then paired with a flair-filled midfield, and Sergio up front smashing in the goals, it gives winning results. Without the base though things are much, much trickier – much more, well, Newcastle (my beloved Toon Army).

It’s also useful to think about how to keep lead times as long as possible. The longer you have to sell the better you can use your resources and, usually get better audiences. It’s important if you hit a wall on lead times to question any received wisdom about when programming can be done – it absolutely can be done early but you have to recognise that early programming comes with a price (often that you might miss out on the last minute unexpected events) – that said you gain time, which is, as we all know, a huge asset when planning a campaign. It’s also possible to plan in such a way that lets you exploit the best of both worlds (although this is trickier if you do multibuys and subscriptions).

However, and this is a big however, the big, large, strategic planning, beyond simply brochures and programme deadlines is the stuff that tends to get left out in the cold. I’ve been really bad and guilty at times of not doing the big picture things, of not doing the strategic planning that will make fundamental long-term difference, rather than simply fill a short to mid-term gap. That thinking time that is beyond marketing and is more conceptual about what theatre is and how we change and grow how we sell it. I’m looking at how I can plan in that time a little more – with the same certainty that I would a brochure.

#6 – Being Digital-First but not Digital-Exclusive

I keep chatting to people who proudly tell me they’re working 100% digitally – everything they do runs online, like Amazon or Sports Direct**** – they remarket, acquire, segment and target like there’s no tomorrow.

And I get it, it feels cheaper than doing something on paper, and it feels more environmentally friendly than printing something out, and I hate carrying boxes of print too, but… And this is a big but (almost as big as my big however), what about the people who don’t engage with social media actively, or who lack the ability to get the information via the internet. It may seem like a Byzantium notion, that people might not be digitally enabled, let alone digitally savvie – but loads of people aren’t and we can exclude them by not offering alternatives.

Also… the cheaper thing comes down to attribution – how certain are you that facebook ads are smashing in the audiences – 100%, 50%, 10%?

Also… the environmental thing… How environmentally friendly is your website… or facebook ads… or the twitter memes of that guy whispering into the girl’s ear in a nightclub, and she’s looking bored, and he’s saying “I do all my marketing digitally, it’s the future, I’m saving the planet”.

It’s not black and white, it’s 50 shades of grey*****.

#7 – Think About Programming (Free/Pay What You Want)

I’ve been pondering how we programme our venues recently – stemming from a very good provocation from a colleague that “there must be a better way to sell, group, market, the more challenging work in our programme”.

It’s a really valid question and one where I’ve been pondering the very nature of the work we programme and produce. There is, it seems to me, clearly work that is commercial and has a financial impetus, but with work where that commerciality isn’t there, or there isn’t the financial impetus, we tend to price it in the same way just, well, cheaper.

I think there’s probably more thinking that I need to do about how various strands of work, are priced and marketed in relation to their target audiences. How do we broaden audiences, maybe using non-conventional theatrical spaces? Maybe making things free or pay what you want, or maybe even philanthropic pricing?

And finally…

Just to say that everything is still hard right now******. I’m frequently feeling exhausted, frustrated, disheartened and sometimes just plain sad. There’s a stress that comes with any sales role, a regular and burgeoning pressure that builds over time and can break you a little. I’ve a friend who keeps reminding me of the following:

8 months ago we’d had to close because of Covid halfway through panto.
12 months ago we could barely do shows indoors.
18 months ago we were in the midst of wave 2.
24 months ago we wondered if theatre was done for good.
We’re still here, but that damage takes time to heal.

P.S. I have a new show, posts will start being about that in the next month or so.

*All three of you
**Apart from the theatres who’ve come into your head right now who’ve probably got a red and white logo.
***This isn’t a real show from my work btw, genuinely made up
****Other comparisons are available. But I chose not to use them.
*****By which I mean that Arts Marketing is both complex and incredibly sexy.
******Unintended Carry On vibes there.




2 responses to “Arts Marketing: Winter Is Coming”

  1. Paul von der Fecht Avatar
    Paul von der Fecht

    Another subject that we often discuss is the transient, ephemeral nature of theatre. The latest Netflix or Amazon Prime shows will still be there in six months, but that production, with that cast and stage crew will not. A great night of theatre is a unique experience, which should encourage people to find more of them. Could an element of FOMO be an incentive?

    How many people see shows more than once? Everyone has a favourite album, movie or book that they can return to again and again, so why not theatre? Could there be incentives for multiple bookings for a run to encourage more early sales?

  2. Paul von der Fecht Avatar
    Paul von der Fecht

    As a theatre-goer what I would like is more information. How long is a show? Are there any intervals? How long will they be? The pandemic has aggravated anxiety issues for some, and not having to worry about when the next comfort break is one less thing to over think and stress about.

    You have a show in promenade? That sounds wonderful! Will there be places for people to sit? How far will they have to walk? Are there steps or stairs? Not everyone with mobility issues is in a wheelchair, but they still cannot stand or walk for extended periods. If there is an easy access performance, make it obvious when it is. Also consider visual impairment if your route involved reduced lighting or effects.

    Live theatre is an amazing shares experience, but sometimes the numbers of people can be overwhelming. Just because someone had worked up the courage to go, don’t expect them to embrace every aspect of it.

    I could ramble on more, and probably will when I next have you cornered. 😉