Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

Getting out of a rut

(This is just my ideas and what’s currently going round in my head, you may disagree, but please let me know your thoughts)

Sometimes it can feel like I’m getting in a rut with theatre marketing.

There, I’ve admitted it, I’ve said what arts marketeers should never say and I fully expect to be spurned by them all from now on. But it’s a fact of life, when something goes right you continue to do it, but then when it seems to stop working it can be hard to get out of the habit.

I was talking to a well respected arts marketing consultant recently who lamented marketeers for not changing in the past 20 years. You ring a venue and talk about their plans for the show and they bring out the same list of things to do, the mailing, the e-mail, the press release, and it can all seem a bit formulaic. It is, but I appreciate that for some venues it can work.

I’ve been feeling quite disheartened recently about my theatre’s sales. We had an Autumn season in 2011 where every show sold out but that was followed by a rotten Christmas period. Then Autumn 2012 was pretty slow but was followed by the most amazing Christmas period ever. For a while I got pissed off with audiences, why can’t they just make their mind up!

I looked at our audience figures after a load of database work and saw we have a big group of repeat attenders, disproportionally big compared to other venues I’ve worked in. That’s great for having a core audience, but the influx of people joining them seems to have slowed and we’ve had some drop off as well.

  • Question 1 – where can the marketing be developed to change this
  • Question 2 – how can programming strategy help develop new audiences
  • Question 3 – how can the organisational strategy help sustain and woo new audiences once they’re through the door

It’s not purely a marketing problem – it’s a collective problem to be solved and one that requires engagement (i think) at every level of the organisation.


Firstly marketing. I have the feeling that we concentrate too heavily on current audiences on our database but not enough on new audiences – one of the inadvertent byproducts of having a great CRM system.


We also have time eaten up by unnecessary crap and admin work. The budget I suspect reflects this. We have very dense programme (120+ shows a year) and this invariably means less time on individual shows (we are a very small team) and lots of bundling and doing things manually like mailings (with a small budget). Once we look at the spend targeted at current attenders I’d suspect it’s higher than non attenders. Of course it’s partly to do with budgets (new attenders are more expensive to aquire) but also time, why waste effort on a broad advert when you can target the exact people you want. Of course short term that’s fine but it needs balance.

What we need to do is focus on developing the relationship with our current customers away from the purely transactional and make it deeper and more loving, make friends essentially, allowing us to spend less money on them in the long run. This could be a membership scheme or a loyalty card or something, i’m not sure, but they need to feel like valued members of the theatre – loved if you will. We need to cut the crap, identify the stuff that’s eating our time and kill it off, but also develop efficiency so that admin work is quick to do freeing up more time – investment in systems and changing long held ideas of how we work to free up that valuable commodity, time. Chart2We need to have regular investment in internal development, improving the experience people have when the arrive at the building – this is a challenge as it’s cross-departmental but is essential for getting collective aims and ambitions. We need to invest more in new audiences and lost audiences – try and actively engage them and that might mean more traditional advertising, it might mean loss leading products to bring them back, it could even be introduce a friend who’s not been before.


We need to look at how our shows and seasons are structured – what are the shows that we will aim at the different new audiences, what can the progression be? This sounds snobby perhaps but the aim is to get people who aren’t currently engaged with theatre and the arts engaged.

It’s about accessibility of pricing, marketing and communications but also content.

If for example I wanted to take my friend Joe and introduce him to Ibsen then how could I do that? He has no previous knowledge of theatre and finds it all a bit intimidating. Well… You might start with a comedy night or a light comedy, maybe an Ayckbourn? Something that’s, in the nicest way, a good victoria sponge – light tasty but with not huge depth of flavour. Then perhaps move to Chekhov (maybe done in a modern way?) – they have similarities, they’re both cake, but one’s more matured and has more complicated flavours. But how to get to chocolate (Ibsen)? Use other shows as stepping stones to the harder and less accessible work.

We also need to be honest perhaps – not every show is life changing – if we mispromise something people won’t trust us as much any more…

It’s about finding balance – people dislike it – say it’s selling out – but those easy access shows play a vital role in breaking down the barriers of theatre, getting people comfortable with the venue and the environment and all the surrounding elements of the theatrical experience.

We also need to have headline pieces of drama – great venues work symbiotically with amazing work on stage – getting a buzz about received work is difficult, especially when it is in a venue for a short amount of time, how do we create a buzz about new work created inhouse when producing is so expensive?


This is about how we question everything – this is about how good enough isn’t a good enough answer – identifying barriers for people when they come to the theatre and sorting them and making people’s experience special. I was stood waiting for a show at a theatre a week ago and one of the other customers was saying how they always have to queue up early to get in the auditorium as they feel anxious that they won’t get the seat they like as it’s unreserved seating – obviously there will be pros and cons, but how do we enhance their experience – “anxious” is not how people should be feeling.

Are programmes free? Should a ‘free’ drink be included with all tickets? Are there enough places to sit down in the theatre before the show? When they receive a mailing letter does it feel like an invitation or a bill? Is the building warm enough or too cold? Is there opportunity to find out more about the show? Are the signs for the toilets clear enough? Where’s the social media interaction? What time is it? What’s the show running time? Is the music nice? Are the seats comfortable to have a drink after the show? What keeps me in the bar after the show? Have the staff been friendly and warm?


That’s the ultimate question – would people defend you at all costs.

My favourite cafe in the whole world was recently threatened with closure and in less than 6 hours they had thousands of signatures to save the place – how can we inspire that loyalty and that sense of community.

And this is what’s on my mind at 1:12am.

Night Xx