Creative marketing watch – web edition

creativity-mantra

Image courtesty of Nick Keenan Artketing Inc.

When it comes to getting the brand and the message out to the people, there is no industry that has such a perfect inversely proportional equation of cash<creativity as the Independent Stage. How can we plug this equation into our marketing operations to tip this see-saw back the other way a little?

Obviously, I spend a fair bit of time among the internets, and it’s no secret that I hold the firm belief that Stage has to cozy up to the Web more and more as on-line resources continue their transition from ‘trend’ to ‘new media’ to ‘media’. So I’m always scanning like a vulture for fun and creative uses of the medium to sell live performance. Here’s a few recent samples:

  • I caught a tweet from Chicago’s Urban Theater today that pointed me to a new posting on their Vimeo page. It’s a quick clip of their Artistic Director inviting his community to come out and see their new show, Broken Thread. The production quality of the clip could be better, but it offers a direct connection to the AD himself, tells you it’s a low-cost affair and how to buy tickets. And if you follow the link to their web site, there’s more video all over it, including an interview with the playwright of the show. Simple and effective, and personal. Actually, that sounds a little familiar…
  • Another Twitter-related hit: a few weeks ago I casually answered a theatre trivia question tweeted by New York’s Playhouse 21, and within minutes they sent me back a congratulatory tweet asking me where they could send the prize. At this point I know nothing about this company (I’ll follow anybody on Twitter that claims theatre), nor that they were even offering prizes for trivia tweets. I just tripped over the question and happened to know the answer. But I sent them my address anyway and pretty much put it out of my mind. Until a week later when a package arrived from West 19th Street in NYC containing my swag: A personal letter from the company’s founder and a packaged DVD of one of their productions. How cool is that? And remarkably pro-active, the letter contained information about their upcoming projects, their budget requirements and a sponsorship request. Brassy. I don’t have any money to give them, but I can sure plug them to my online community (that’s y’all). This is a great lesson: you never know who is going to be responsible for bringing in money, so target your best-bet demo and scattershot your Social Media marketing. (Incidentally, Playhouse 21 also has one of the most unique mandates I’ve ever heard of: they adapt classic “Golden Age” television from the ’50s into theatre. Now that’s niche.)
  • This one I’m deeply in love with: New York’s MCC Theatre (yuh-huh, also on the Twitter) holds on-line auctions for memorabilia from their plays once they’re over. Right now the available items seem to be signed playbills and music and lyrics, which is cool, but as someone who has left some plays wishing I could get actions figures of the characters and playsets for those action figures, I’m thinking: how about auctioning off redundant props or costumes or set-dec after the run, and making sure everyone in the audience knows about it? I may be in the minority here, but I flip out when I see a merch table outside a theatre. Cater to nerds like me, I’ll make it worth your while.

How about you guys? Anybody seen any kick-ass Creative Marketing Solutions lately that they’d care to share?

25 thoughts on “Creative marketing watch – web edition

  1. These are all great ideas in terms of what theatre companies, or rather, arts companies can do online, though I will mention that there are Canadian companies tilting in the same direction:

    @TorontoSymphony (Toronto Symphony Orchestra) has been establishing relationships with new and existing patrons for a good amount of time now, from directing people to heavy discounts and free events they might not be aware of to sharing the experience of the symphony in conversation.

    @CanStageco (me for The CSC) has offered free tickets in contest through twitter for answers to simple opinion or trivia questions, along with communicating with patrons, spreading arts news

    @theatreUBC tweets cultural news (including this article) and raises the profile of Canadian theatre online in general

    @CanadianOpera (Candian Opera Company) spreads the news about some FREE concerts, RT’s other news, connects with patrons

    Separate from that point, in my personal opinion as a freelancer and as a member of the arts community, I think there is potential for real-time search platforms and social media tools to expand the profile of arts and culture across Canada.. and I do think its important to expand our often insular communities to include those beyond artists/administrators and traditional audiences.

    Trivia Contests, auctions, spreading news, etc are currently using channels that reach out to a limited audience – those already interested in a certain topic. Yes, there is value in establishing new relationships and reinforcing or expanding pre-existing ones, but I would argue that currently, the greatest untapped resource of social media in the arts and culture sector is its ability to reach across divides to build relationships with non-traditional audience demo/psycho graphics.

    Instead of advertising a new classical concert by reducing ticket prices, new/social/search media tools allow us to draw connections between say, classical music and rap. Anyone remember the YouTube video of Pachabel’s Cannon? Or, in the case of our company.. Doubt, a Parable is a movie, a book and has been staged a number of times before. Why should someone who has never come to see a theatre performance before choose us above these other mediums? Why might a sports fan be interested in, say, Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll (other than politics being the original blood sport ;) ?)

    These are the conversations I believe we should be establishing, the questions we should be asking and the people we should start connecting with in addition to reaching out to our contemporaries, cultural partners and others.

    Anyone else?

  2. Hey J.M., thanks for this. I love that the civic/funded arts orgs and the independent crews have the playing field leveled through social media, they both have equal opportunities to turn it to their advantage. And they certainly are, as you’ve pointed out.

    I love this notion of using SM to reach beyond the choir. What do you think, should we be following other sectors on twitter and conversing with them, leaving comments on blogs outside our niche, that kind of thing? Trying to create viral content a la that Pachebel youtube clip? What opportunities do SM platforms offer us to expand our conversations beyond those looking for us?

  3. The thing I love about your props resale-as-memorabilia idea, Simon, is that it’s just plain cost-effective (helps with strike and load-out) and green on the scale of independent theatre . New Leaf has had some luck reselling or more often reusing really choice props & set-pieces like the restored Dining Room table and hutch from The Dining Room and the simple but sense-memory-imbued rocks from Touch. So far we haven’t made a big stink during the run that these objects are available for resale after the run, but man… if we had, I wouldn’t have a pile of rocks in my theater right now.

  4. And hey, Nick, how great would it be if there was a huge community warehouse full of props and set pieces like these for the indie theatre community, a library of stuff, as it were.

    Damn, that’s a good idea. What would it take to get that started? A space and a librarian and a bonding of the community, I guess.

  5. This has been one of our big long-term wish list items in Chicago (see this post from last year’s lead up to World Theatre Day, Item 2 – and I wasn’t the first to talk about it) and we’ve done some exploring about the logistics of what would make something like shared prop, scenic, and costume storage possible. It’s probably more possible in Chicago than anywhere else on a large scale because the economics are as close to right as possible, but they’re still a ways off. We found that we could probably cover operational costs (3 full-time employees to catalog, repair, sort, etc. & a truck, security & utilities) through a system of small usage fees, rental brokerage and sales, but the problem is that nasty need for the warehouse free of charge.

    The library idea is I think much more achievable through theater-to-theater partnerships and (great minds think alike) Dan and I have some plans for such a library / audition and season planning space in Chicago to roll out – hopefully this summer, since we may already have the location on board.

    I do have plans in the works for a pretty interesting online database / clearing house of said items… that would not be limited to a single locality. It’s my dream project (I can’t believe I’m talking about it online, actually) but I’ve told myself that I ain’t gonna do it until I know something like the CTDB and backstagejobs.com can really catch on on their own steam – basically, I need a wider user base first. I’ve got BSJ.com rolling with heavier traffic, but CTDB needs more work and more buy-in before I can break ground on that one.

  6. See, I’m hitting the wall where we’re gonna start needing grants and grantwriters and investors, because we need to buy our own time… Always a tricky hurdle to cross. Think it’s possible to sustain with a long tail user base across the north American continent… but launch? Not sure. I’m looking at other businesses that are ubiquitous in the theater industry… mostly tech stuff like lighting companies and sound software companies. They struggle too and they cost a lot more money than I’m willing to charge.

    I think I’m hitting the point where I need to insert money into mouth. We’ll get there.

  7. At the risk of pulling the thread further from the original topic:

    I love the idea of a common stockroom used by every theater in a city. Could it be simplified to cut costs? For example:

    – Instead of paying someone to keep things repaired, operate like a rental car company: return it in the same condition or pay to get it fixed.

    – Do you really need a permanent truck? Tell people to BYOT.

    – The software doesn’t sound like something that would appear in a first-iteration. For one thing it seems like you’d learn a lot from actually managing a communal stockroom that would be important to know before writing any software to aid the process. How about if it was crazy super simple to start: give the stockroom an email address, a phone number, and a twitter account as its three connections to the outside world. Let people send in a tweet to check on inventory… Internally there would be some other catalogue of materials that could be developed before it is codified into a custom software solution.

    – Let theaters feed their materials back into the stockroom. The goal would be to get them in the habit of doing it after every production. To encourage re-use, give them credits for giving new inventory to the common store. (Credits would be connected to some kind of accounting of receipts that demonstrated the rough monetary value of the donation.) These credits could be used to “check out” material from the stockroom, so there’d be incentive to give old stuff into the system, and there’d be incentive to structure production construction so it would go to the stockroom instead of the land fill.

    It just kills me to see how much money drains out of the system. This kind of project plugs a money hole, which is a lot easier than getting *new* money into the system. Keep the money you’ve already got!

  8. Guys, this is gold. I totally agree with you Chris, it’s a common-sense idea for a common problem. And I love that it’s accessible to both established companies and first-timers evenly. When I think about all the great props and set pieces that I’ve chucked in a dumpster for lack of storage over the years! The mind reels.

    This all seems like a part of a greater whole to me, as in establishing a central hub of indie theatre resources that provides cheap or free options for a small administration fee.

    Props, set dec, costumes, playscripts, all in one convenient location (preferably donated)…is this as easy as it sounds?

    The civic theatres here have it already. They have insane warehouses full of great stuff that they’ll let us rent for too much money…it’s time to recognize that we (indie theatre) are part of a separate industry and organize as such.

    Thanks guys, the wheels are spinning like mad.

  9. Chris – yes! The fundamental idea here is the same kind of efficient systematizing that engineers did when they built a better steam engine… basically, if you see a bunch of exhaust from the system that still has energy in it, find a way of feeding it back into the engine. Stockroom: Yes. After and Before every production: Yes. The goal here is to make efficient sharing of resources a HABIT. I do think that the way to create a better system is to use that as the fundamental test for each program: This energy is being lost and is this aspect of the program really converting it into momentum and savings?

    And what I haven’t told you is that yes: We HAVE tried this on a small scale. And boy oh boy did we learn from it. The Side Project in Chicago for a time served as a small-scale storage facility for about four companies – TSP, New Leaf, Livewire, and a couple others who had a relationship with TSP through the visiting artist program.

    The fundamental problem is the trend towards lack of institutional knowledge in independent theater. In the past, this problem gets plugged within companies as they expand to the $4 million/year club – we get trained staff who know how to organize props and scenery, we get warehouses and shops and storage, we get institutional knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

    Without that institutional knowledge, the credit system for donated props & scenery (other than obvious stuff like stock platforms) falls apart: The common storage area inevitably becomes a trash heap unless there is someone trustworthy who can say: “That is useful, it deserves a home here, or: that is your useless trash, let’s find a green way of disposing or reusing it that ISN’T putting it into storage.”

    The problem that creates the lack of institutional knowledge in independent theater is huge rates of turnover and burnout, which happens when bummers outweigh awesomes. That’s the first hole that needs to be plugged. Organizing props and stacking scenery is a bummer, and in our little experiment we realized that volunteer forces – even when they had cheaper storage as an incentive – just didn’t do the maintenance work. A huge bummer: Broken props, a choked basement storage area which quickly turned into a nightmare. We’re talking only about 1000 square feet and even with monthly clean up parties with dozens of people helping, the storage was always a disaster.

    I could go on and on about how we learned to create a better system, but yeah – this is turning into a blog post series.

    – I think lighting / tech / prop rental houses already exist and work like rental car companies in this market… repair and maintenance costs are built in at mostly reasonable rates. (since those rental houses usually make all their dough off corporate events) But as experience tells us, that model ends up being too expensive for most theaters to want to buy in… They need a way to easily convert their abundant volunteer labor into savings. It won’t catch on unless it able to reducing costs and wasted energy – I think we’re looking for a model no less innovative than fuel injection was to the auto & oil industries in the 70’s.

    – BYOTruck doesn’t work, at least in New Leaf’s case. We’re in a city with great public transportation! Why would we have a truck? We could be willing to RENT a truck, but renting a UHaul for a day adds an expensive pain in the neck into the system. That said, I agree… that’s a service that only makes sense if it makes business sense. If the maintenance costs of owning, maintaining, and scheduling a truck that gets rented out is more than say $75 a day (the cost of rental truck plus mileage for a day in Chicago), let ’em rent their own truck.

    So yeah. As far as props, sets, and costumes are concerned, I feel the more you invest in a full-time staff, you’ll get that money back in not breaking shit – and not storing things that are pointless to store. I do strongly believe in a volunteer ethos, however – the staff should be there for the purpose of knowledge, not labor. To keep costs low, I personally like the model of a training program: Make it easy to use, have great communicators and trainers in your staff positions, and have them help lead and coordinate the volunteer labor of the member theaters. But experience tells me that you need those salaries and that mission there to retain organizational talent and knowledge.

    Final thought: We’re all project-oriented people, and this is definitely something I’d like to develop at length with you and anyone else reading this, though probably on a 50,000ft level for a time. You know, in our *spare* time. I think it might be worth some on the ground investigation to see if there is any history to learn from here. Also, given the number of variables a model like this would have to consider, it might be nice to map out pilot programs (like the library idea) that are easily achievable that can then build steam into the more complex programs. Kinda what you said, right, Chris?

  10. Yeah, thanks Nick. Should have know you’d have been ahead of the curve. Thanks for sharing that. And you’re right, this is an idea that requires a strong business schematic before we start stockpiling *stuff*.

    And most definitely a blog series. Let’s get this conversation started…

  11. In lieu of space, cash and institutional memory is there room for figuring out how to use less stuff in the first place?

    How much do we need to tell a story?

    I’d like to figure out how to spend less time/money on stuff and use it more wisely (imo) on creating connections and building audience.

    Load-in day vs. get out and connect day?

  12. Definitely a good point to add to the “best way of doing things” book, Tony.

    For example, we tried to strip down, strip down, strip down for Long Count, and it still ends up “feeling” like one of our most produced shows. We of course use lights and sound as our set whenever possible, and when we do need sets/props we went for easily obtained reused and repurposed stuff … the script was written for about five props (that then achieve more significance), and the set was a bunch of borrowed mirrors from the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Amadeus set. We’re unusual in that we have access to the larger theaters’ inventory since our company members work at Goodman, CST, Ravinia.

    Making Load ins and Strikes more of a community gathering and cultural event in themselves is definitely a way of converting a bummer into an awesome. Having a wide net to get more available and interested hands in as volunteers is another thing I’d like to add to the list. Twitter: yes.

    Speaking of ahead of the curve, I have a twitter account that I have reserved for this purpose, but was waiting for the right impetus. it’s called “TheaterMob” and it has the dubious benefit of already having 105 followers who have no idea what it’s about. Tony, since @JessHutchinson is coming to play with you guys, maybe we can break this idea open in in support of your show?

  13. @Tony: It seems like doing both is a good goal. Theaters are going to use materials to some degree, so there will always be *something* to stock.

    @Nick & thenextstage: I spent a gorgeous Saturday afternoon at an Eco-Fair near my apartment today. I found a table there for these people:

    http://loadingdock.org/

    They’re a non-profit organization which does…well, basically exactly what we’re talking about, except for construction materials.

    I scanned their flyer and put it here:

    http://chrisashworth.org/temp/loading-dock.pdf

    They’ve been around since 1984. They must have SCADS to teach anyone trying to do something like this: organizational structure, costs, pitfalls, etc. There’s a ton of interesting information available from the website alone.

    If anyone is getting serious about making this happen, these people seem like folks you should ask for advice.

  14. Whoa. How weird is that? Uncanny. What a great idea in its own right, especially now.

    I feel in my city right now that indie theatre has to get more organized and comfortable with collaboration before something like this can work. I think the optimal model is a full-service resource sharing organization, with a membership model similar to the Loading Dock.

    Share everything from cheap printers to costumes to promotion and keep the process and work unique and individual.

    Of course, this requires a big ol’ industry ego check to make it work.

  15. *Awesome.* I was hoping Mr. National Jetset would have come across something like this in his USITT travels… who knew it would be right in the backyard, eh?

    I am putting this in the playbook, for sure. And in general, I like the idea of intelligently using models from other industries where there *is* a lot of data rather than trying to make something new bubble up from within theater.

    Simon, I think the way that WTD after-party came together may provide some insight on how to make those kinds of umbrella programs work through the egos – a system where individual achievements and contributions can be featured while also feeding into a greater whole. That is to say: I think ego problems get ironed out when collaborative programs are framed as an inclusive and participatory system and the leaders of the program ensure that all participants continue to get something – not all that much, just something – out of the program through check-ins.

  16. Woah, Loading Doc should totally hook up with Architecture for Humanity.

    I think the way to override ego is to ultimately prove it’s successful. (I know easier said than done.)

    When sharing, is there a way to enforce people having to clean up when done without sounding like the owner or a dad? ‘Cause I’d agree the problem with most sharing systems I’ve been apart of is someone always gets stuck cleaning up after folks or it’s always a mess.

  17. My theory of how to not get patronizing about maintenance *COUGH*AthaeNEUM!*COUGH* is tied in with that theory of balancing bummers vs. awesomes. At TSP, our current theory is that means setting up accurate expectations of the work in the people doing the work and connecting the work that needs to be done with people who will innovate and lead with that work. That means: Don’t hire a director to do a technical director’s job, and don’t hire an actor who just wants to be an actor to head your marekting efforts. Find people who kind of wants to get better at both, who get the idea that multiple skills leads to multiple jobs and team them up with people who have done both that they can have a kind of apprenticeship with.

    Every group of people will establish some kind of company culture, and I don’t subscribe to the belief that culture is unshapeable – and will necessarily devolve into chaos without some rigid authoritarian structure. If you want that culture to be one of ongoing mutual support, you have to make responsibility exciting again by getting people excited about the experiment itself (and let those who don’t want to put in to the experiment walk away). Over time that also means re-visting the experiment, reshaping it, and making sure everyone you need continues to have the support they need to continue to reinvest in the system.

    I think the word you used – “enforce” – is the wrong verb to use if you want different results. I’d try “engage.”

  18. Oh my god, sorry to be sucking up all the oxygen on here, everyone, but:

    Takeaways from the Loading Dock Story (so helpful that they posted the big points online)

    1.) Self-sustainability is the key to their success, and the key to self-sustainability meant owning rather than renting their own building. This is consistent with our exploration of the idea in Chicago: One of the initial steps to the project would likely be a civic donation of space to the project, which is not without precedent: Lookingglass Theatre rents their home from the city in the Watertower in the heart of Chicago for $1/year. Municipalities often have unused space where it is best for everyone if the space gets regular use, heat, security, maintenance, etc.

    2.) They have an educational tie-in (DIY classes). For me, this is also a no-brainer. One of the ways to attract and pay for the right kind of scenic and props specialists that you would need to make good decisions for shared storage is to use the space and their time to create an educational platform where companies could learn best practices and professional skills.

    3.) They established themselves as a natural hub of the DIY and low-income housing communities. The fact that Chris found them at an eco-fair means that “hubness” is actually working. Their “community days” program sounds a lot like what Tony is talking about.

  19. Thanks for tweeting me this thread, Chris. We’re trying to do this exact thing at my organization, the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, which is a coalition of about 70 theatres, the vast majority of which are non-union and community theatres. I’m passing this link on to the Chair of our Warehouse Committee. I’ll be following this blog as well.

  20. Nick, your last puts it all together in a neat little package. Getting civic/fed space donated or subsidized is absolutely the key to the start-up of this, and maintaining it as a rehearsal space for cheap is what would keep it humming. The stock room would be the icing on the cake. Companies – theatre and dance – are dying for affordable rehearsal space here.

    The question for me now is (and I realize it’s pure conjecture at this point): would a hub creative space like this generate enough verve in the indie arts community that it will become a central, shared resource, supported by the hive? Could it become that space we always talk about where we go to gather as a tribe and bolster our energy and creativity a la WTD? That’s what I wonder about when I talk about ego-killing.

    Do companies want to remain inclusive or become mutually supportive. I’ve heard so much of both sides. It’s as Nick said:

    “The problem that creates the lack of institutional knowledge in independent theater is huge rates of turnover and burnout, which happens when bummers outweigh awesomes.”

    To start this you have to be prepared to tackle the BvA index with the crews that you’re selling the idea to.

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