Fans: Cultivating a fan base, and using that to grow your audience from the bottom up. If you have "patrons," then you're using an old model. There are lessons we can learn from rock bands and politics about grassroots marketing.

What are you doing to improve your "patron experience"? What is the size of your mailing list? Do you use social networking applications?

These are all typical theater marketing questions, asked by consultants, seminars, boards. The problem is, each of these questions has a fundamental flaw. And they all point to an old-school (and not in a good way) model of theater marketing. They're questions that assume that everything is basically fine, but it would be nice to do a little better.

If you agree with that assumption, you can stop reading now.

I don't think everything is basically fine, but then again, I'm not fully immersed in arts administration. As long as I spend part of my time in other industries, I find I can look at the theater business as an outsider. And that's actually kind of cool. There's a lot that can be learned from that perspective.

But, you ask, what's the problem with the questions at the beginning of this piece? Yeah, I got distracted.

The problem with the first question is the word "patron." Hate it. Evokes all the wrong attitudes. We should be looking for "fans." And it's not a mere issue of semantics: "patrons" pay you money to do your art, either to their specifications (a la medieval panel painters) or at your whim. There's nothing in that word which indicates they like what you're doing, let alone love it. I spent much of the late 80s and early 90s in the music business, working with indie bands, and we never talked about "patrons." Rock bands have fans—adoring, passionate folks who eagerly await your next piece of work, put up posters in their dorm rooms, will travel to other cities to see you perform, want to be your friend.

As much as you might protest, that doesn't happen in theater. Really, it doesn't. Not on a scale that can make a real difference.

But I don't believe it can't.

This could be an entirely separate sub-article, and I'll address some strategies in later posts, but there are three starting points that can help us move from "patrons" to "fans."

  1. Keep in front of your audience. If they like you, they want to keep seeing your work. Three evenings in a year is not enough to sustain this; they'll find other things to interest them.
  2. Give your audience (and audience-to-be) many points of access. You can hear a song on the radio; if the only way someone can see your work is through a $20 ticket, then they're not going to see your work very much.
  3. Focus your fan-dom on the things people can get into. Venues rarely have fans, they're empty vessels. Companies (if they have a strong artistic vision and mostly have the same people in all productions) are more "fan-able." Actors are best. Few theatergoers can tell direction, so advertising "directed by" is mostly either tradition or vanity. Writers are eminently fan-able, but most newer playwrights don't have a body of work that can sustain fandom. Let's take a clue from the movies: people go to see stars. Not scripts, not production companies.

Second wrong question. Yes, it's good to have a lot of names on your mailing list, but if you don't know anything more about those names than an address, then you're pretty much stuck in the dark. Do you know what shows your mailing list names have seen? (For those of you who think this is obvious, it's not as common as you'd think.) Do you know what they like about your work? Do you know how much they like your work?

When I'm not doing theater work, I'm working in politics. For all their flaws (and there are many), political campaigns pay a lot of attention to data. Yes, they know who votes, but they also know (if you tell them) whom you supported last time around, how strongly you feel about their candidate (on a five point scale), and what issues matter to you. They know how old you are, whether you vote in primaries or just the general elections, whether you go to your caucuses. When it comes to targeting marketing, message, or get-out-the-vote efforts, they have the data they need.

There are fairly few ways in which political campaigns are like theater marketing, but the fundamental of grassroots organizing can still be applied: have a good list, with lots of relevant details; know how much people on that list care about you, and what they're willing to do to advance your "cause"; and don't be a stranger. The quickest way to kill a grassroots movement is to stop communicating. People are busy, and if you don't keep them engaged (in a way that works for them), they'll be off to the next thing.

As for the last wrong question, it should be clear at this point in this post what my complaint is. It's not enough to use Facebook or Twitter, it's how you use them. Are you using them to advertise your performances, or to bring your fans closer to your work? Just like with political campaigns and indie rock bands, Web 2.0 allows you to speak directly to the people who care most about what you're doing. Don't squander that. Think hard and objectively about what you do that people can be fans of (and what is really only of interest to a few theater geeks and other artists). Communicate with substance; give people more art, not more advertising.

Next time: Getting people to talk (without resorting to torture).