Theatre marketing 101: how to promote your show on a shoestring budget

You’re a theatre company, which means all you know is shoestring marketing budgets. And it’s not just money that’s always short. Time, resources, staff, focus, rest. There’s never enough of any of it.

In my experience, theatre people aren’t clueless about the marketing opportunities at their disposal.

You just want to know what’s worth spending your time and money on.

Also, the margin for error is very thin. So you might acknowledge that what you’re doing now for marketing might not be working great. But trying something new means there’s a risk it will flop and work even less well.

So here are my recommendations of where to spend your money and, maybe more importantly, your time when you’re marketing your show on a shoestring budget.

Break Up With Print

What’s the problem with print? It’s not that it doesn’t work. It’s hard to tell how well it’s working.

Posters. Postcards. Flyers. Newspapers ads. Magazine ads. Program ads. Theatre companies LOVE print.

Print is still the cornerstone of theatre marketing. From posters to ads in newspapers and magazines, theatres clutch their print budgets like a mummified hand clinging to cursed gold.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with print. I’m not anti-print, just to be clear. It’s just that if your budget’s tight, print’s not your best investment. There are a couple of reasons for that.

1. Print is expensive

A ¼ page ad in a newspaper will cost close to $400. That’s for a paper that comes out twice a week, which means that $400 will get you through 3-4 days. And that’s it.

A run of posters printed in colour on regular boring paper will cost just as much. Then you have to go and hang them and the number of places that’ll let you do that seems to shrink by the day.

Look, I’m sure you’re resourceful and you know someone and could get all your printing done for like $50. And if you scored a great deal and your print run looks amazing, then by all means, go for it.

But if it makes you look like a $50 organization, that’s definitely not a marketing win.

2. You have little control over print

When you’re placing an ad in the newspaper, you have zero control over who gets to see it. You have no control over how long it’s in market for. You have no control over how much you want to spend to reach that audience.

The newspaper company has a target audience, an advertising rate and you can take it or leave it. The best you can do is if you’re willing to spend enough, negotiate some dealz but that usually means increasing your print budget.

3. It’s hard to measure the impact of print

How many people saw that poster you saw in the coffee shop? How many really looked at it? How many people bought tickets after they saw it?

What about that ¼ page ad that ran for three days?

The biggest problem with spending money on print isn’t that it doesn’t work: it’s that it’s hard to tell how well it’s working. When you’re spending that kind of money, you want to know you’re getting a good return on that spend.

There are a few ways you can track the effectiveness of your print spend, like including a unique URL, phone number or QR code. But when we’re talking about marketing on a shoestring budget, the recommendation is simple: spend your money on digital.

When print is worthwhile

I’m not saying that print doesn’t have a place in the marketing mix. It’s just no longer the starring role it used to occupy. Your strategy should no longer be print first, supplemented by your other channels. So when is it worth the cost?

High Impact

Print makes sense for high impact. Anything that has scale that allows you to provide that impact is a good use of your print budget.

Of course, to get that scale, you usually have to pay for it, and it doesn’t come cheap. However, there are options out there you can take advantage to give your marketing initiatives that little extra oomph.

For example, some cities like Vancouver have initiatives like the Transit Shelter Advertising Program where qualifying organizations can get a full bus stop ad for free.

Building relationships

Digital is an incredible medium that allows businesses to blast past a mass-media broadcasting approach and instead build meaningful connections one-on-one with their audience.

But for all that, because of its intangible nature, our digital landscape has created a vacuum for the concrete and IRL experiences (it’s one of the reasons theatre is one of the most powerful antidotes to our present day condition).

It also makes tactics that were commonplace in the 80’s and 90’s seem extra special.

Like sending your donors or most loyal audience members some form of a print takeaway: a card, a unique ticket, something special related to the show.

Because of the smaller print run and the value of providing delight to your most devoted patrons, you can make this a little nicer than a batch run (quality stock, foil stamping, something).

Take lots of great photos

Okay, so now that you’ve kicked your print habit, where do you spend your money? The first place is photos. You cannot have enough beautiful photos.

If you spend 90% of your marketing budget on a photographer who’s going to give you incredible photos that you’re going to use for weeks and even months, it’ll be worth it.

The reason photos are important is because they’re a form of social proof. Nobody wants to see a show having zero clue what it’s going to be about.

Photos tell a story, but for theatres, powerful photos are the ones that ask questions. What are all the moments leading up to this moment and what happens next?

Finally, good photos speak to the quality of your production. If your set and costumes don’t look like they’re from a church production of the nativity scene, your audience breathes a sigh of relief and knows they can trust they’ll get a modicum of an artistic experience.

So take photos. What kind of photos?

1. Promo photos

You want to get some pictures as soon as possible.

Having some kind of graphic is fine and if it’s gorgeous, you really can get a lot of mileage out of it.

But pictures is never something you regret having.

A close-up of a woman looking straight in the camera. A couple embracing. A hand dangling from the top frame. That’s all you need. Go for dramatic. Bold. Eye-catching. Smouldering.

2. Rehearsal photos

Here’s a secret: people are interested in rehearsals. There’s a natural curiosity about the process, like how we want to know: “How did that cake get made?”

Rehearsal photos do that. Capture every milestone you can: auditions, first read, singing, dance choreo, fight choreo, costume fittings, safety days, tech, dress. Get the story of the rehearsal.

Though the actors in street clothes standing in someone’s living room looking awkwardly with scripts in their hands can be compelling, what’s really interesting is what the actors are doing on the side, the director stepping in, the stage manager’s perspective. What does the whole company look like while they’re working?

3. Performance photos

As soon as you have all the elements on stage together (set, lights, costumes, props, actors), get some more pictures.

Every theatre company knows, to their great chagrin, that the majority of ticket sales happen last minute. Most people won’t commit months in advance. So if you’ve got good promo photos, you don’t have to break your back creating performance photos. Use one of your dress rehearsals or even a preview.

These will provide that social proof that’ll accelerate ticket sales now that your show has opened (or is about to).

Shoot some videos

Video is a great medium to generate engagement. There are a lot of different ways you can use it to build interest in your production.

You can shoot a trailer or a teaser.

You can also create a documentary, providing a behind-the-scenes look and sharing some key insights on the production.

How-to style videos are very popular as well, where the subject is looking straight into the camera and providing some insights. The other advantage of this kind of video is that it’s evergreen, meaning it will still be relevant for years even after this production has closed.

You could talk about how the set design came together, or the process of building the costumes, or have an actor talk about their process… The possibilities are pretty much limitless.

If you’re doing a musical or a play that has a musical or choreographed number in it and your performers are top-notch, shoot a video of the song or the choreography during rehearsals. There are few things more engaging than showing skilled people doing their thing.

Where I would suggest you make sure your photos are always high quality, with video, you have a little more leeway. Of course if you have a skilled videographer that you can involve, that will only benefit you. But many videos perform very well while being shot from a cell phone.

Write blog posts

There aren’t many ways that are more effective at generating traffic to your site than by building a content strategy with a blog.

At the heart of your strategy, you could have any medium, from video to podcasts to a traditional written blog.

However, I recommend that whichever medium you end up choosing, repurpose it in written form on your site, either through a full transcript, quick highlights or simply a summary.

There’s a reason I’m a fan of prioritizing written content: first, it’s easier to repurpose across different channels. It’s a lot easier to take a written blog post and turn that into 12 social media posts and four emails, for example.

Second, it has the edge on ranking. Go to Google and do search: you’ll find some videos and more and more podcasts will be showing in the next few years. But the vast majority of the results you’ll get will be written posts.

A great content strategy through your blog will help introduce new audiences to your theatre company by writing insightful content on highly searched topics. That’s the strength of it. You’re growing the traffic to your site year-round, rather than having to build it back up every time you have a show.

Learn how to write a blog post that will get you found on Google.

Stoke interest through email

Email is one of the highest converting channels out there. There’s a good reason for it: when somebody joins your email list, they’re so willing to hear from you that they’ll give their email addresses.

Email helps keep you top of mind for your audience and that’s what you want. If you’re only sending it once a quarter or once a month, that’s typically not going to be enough. Try to work your baseline frequency up to once a week.

Don’t send email just to checkmark a frequency. Provide value each and every time.

Let your analytics tell you when your audience is tired of hearing from you. Otherwise, assume they’re waiting for it.

Social media marketing for theatre companies

If you’re creating the kind of content on social media that you wouldn’t interact with on somebody else’s page, it’s not good enough.

No list like this would be complete without talking about social media. Unfortunately, social is no longer the green field of free opportunity for businesses to get in front of new audiences.

You no longer can get the kind of organic reach you could expect five much less ten years ago.

That doesn’t mean that social is dead. Far from it. To me, it’s necessary. You just have to make sure you’re working hard to provide content that’s relevant to your audience.

1. Create engagement opportunities

Social media is built on people engaging with each other through content. Create a space where your audience can engage with your brand in meaningful ways.

Get to know them, ask questions, post fun quizzes, run contests, host Ask-Me-Anythings (AMA)…

As a rule of thumb, if you’re creating content you wouldn’t interact with on somebody else’s page, it’s not good enough. Likes, comments and shares have to be earned.

2. Link to your website

Make sure you’re not using social media just as a vanity channel, but connect it to your business goals by regularly linking to your website.

At the same time, don’t just be a pushy salesman or you’ll turn off your audience (because you’re not being engaging—see above).

Best practices suggest limiting explicitly promotional posts to 1 to every 4-6 posts. The actual frequency matters less than your philosophy: focus on building engagement, and from that engagement, provide an easy next best step by linking to your website.

3. Additional tactics

Here are a few tactics you could consider to increase engagement on social media.

Make videos

I’ve already talked about this. Just scroll up half a mile.

Create A Selfie Station

If you can find a way to let your audience physically interact with the elements of the production, you’ll build an incentive for them to amplify your show by sharing on their networks.

Think of the Iron Throne. Every Game of Thrones fan wants a picture of them sitting in it. It not only makes them feel like they’re participating in the world that they love, but the picture has social clout with their friends online, too.

You don’t have to invite your audience onto your set necessarily (though, why not?) or use actual show props or costumes (obviously). But go above your typical arts craft selfie station with cut out paper moustaches and instead invite them into the world of your show.

Go Live

Facebook Live, Instagram Stories, YouTube Live, Periscope…pretty much every social channel has adopted a way for you to broadcast live video to your followers.

Whenever something exciting is happening, consider going live. Announcing a season, a cast, the front of house speech on opening night, actors getting ready to go on stage, stage managers calling the show, talk backs, the possibilities are endless.

And, if there’s an opportunity to go live at a point during the production, do it! Identify a powerful section of the show that asks questions, like the inciting incident, the last scene of act 1 or the first scene of act two…These are moments that are designed by the playwrights to SUCK their audience in.

Facebook 360

360 photos (and if you have the capability videos, though that has greater technical challenges) are a simple way to bring your online audience into your space. Have them experience the set, or put them at the centre of a particular moment in the show.

Facebook 360 is an underused asset to bring your audience on the stage of your production.

Write press releases

You may think that given how hard I came down on print earlier, I wouldn’t have a lot of nice things to say about press releases. But actually they’re great. When they’re used well.

Here are three ways to make sure you’re making the most of your press releases.

1. Frequency

You should be writing and distributing a press release at least once a month, more frequently when you have a show that’s open or about to open.

Sit down at the beginning of the year, identify newsworthy events and plan your releases. Then on a quarterly basis, review and if, need be, update your plan.

2. Newsworthiness

A lot of press releases tend to read like telegraphs. They’re bone-dry, like a crisp cider except nobody likes them.

Don’t just stuff it with variants of boilerplate copy. Your press release should be interesting. Yes, the headline should clearly describe the release, but it should also compel the reader to keep reading.

If all the interesting information is in the headline, it’s not a press release, it’s a tweet.

This is not your opportunity to just share what’s happening, but to explain why it matters.

3. Link to your site

Without getting into the weeds of why links are crucial to getting your website found, press releases are probably your best opportunity to generate quality traffic.

Always include a link to the most relevant page (if your press release is about your upcoming production, don’t just link to your home page.)

Create a simple URL that will work for print as well as online: www.yoursite.com/show

Make the switch to digital ads

Let’s wrap this up with digital ads. It was almost twelve years ago that we started this blog post talking about how with print ads, you have zero control. With digital ads you have (almost) complete control.

You get to determine exactly how much you want to spend. If you just want to spend $10, there’s a way you can just spend $10 and not have it go to waste.

You can determine how long your ads are in market for and even what days and at what time so you’re not spending money on Wednesdays at 3:00 am.

You get to choose who sees your ads, in terms of demographics (age, gender), interests (people who are interested in theatre or Broadway), geographic location (down to the postal code) as well as behaviour (people who’ve visited your website or engaged on social).

Just as powerful, you can also exclude who sees your ads. So if you’re targeting a 60 km radius around Vancouver, you can exclude the U.S., or if you’re targeting people who’ve visited your website, you can exclude those who’ve already purchased tickets.

Finally, you get detailed analytics rather than estimated analytics of how well your ads performed: how many people you reached, how many people interacted with your ad, how many people visited your website, and, if you have conversions properly set up, how many people bought tickets, donated or subscribed to your newsletter (depending on your goal).

The flexibility and ability of digital ads really should be the final nail in the coffin of print when you have a limited budget.

Get your Google Ads Grant

If your theatre company is a nonprofit organization, you are eligible for Google’s Ad Grant, which gives you access to $10,000 of free Google Ads every month.

Before you let your jaw drop too far and fawn over Google’s generosity, let me just temper that real quick: they’re a pain in the ass to manage.

The program is designed in a couple ways. First, Google wants nonprofits to use Google Ads properly rather than spam for clicks, which is fine. But there are some significant limitations to what you can do with Google Ads (you’re pretty much restricted to search ads).

Google is also likely using their ads grant to :

  1. get nonprofits hooked on Google Ads and start paying for full access and
  2. drive up the bids on the keywords.

So Google is really helping out Google the most.

Still $10,000 is nothing to scoff at and even if you’re only able to use $2,000 a month, that’s worth a lot of the hassle.

Take a chance

When you’re on a shoestring budget, every dollar counts. So does every minute of staff work. I hope this gives you some ideas of how to better spend all this budget: money, focus, hours.

Sometimes the biggest cost seems to be in changing the way things are done. But it’s not. Don’t let inertia be the reason you don’t try to do things differently.

What about you? Is there a tactic you’ve used that you found particularly effective for marketing your production? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so comment below.

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