The unofficial white paper: marketing for independents

More from the SWOT analysis.

The independent community needs much better and more targeted marketing. Some are starting to leverage social networking but much more needs to be done. Collaboration between companies and creating a pool of marketing talent that could be supported by the community as a whole would strengthen this immensely.

There's probably been more discussion on this than anything else in the theatre blogisphere. There was Ian Mackenzie's guest post at The Next Stage and the discussion it generated. There's The Art of the Business. Internationally, I've seen discussions at The Director Sector and at Life's a Pitch. Australia had this great site called Fuel4Arts but has recently broken it out, moving the articles to a research hub and creating a networking site for discussion. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The question of how to promote the work the independent theatre community is doing is a burning one, as budgets generally don't have a lot of room for marketing money. Using the web is attractive as it doesn't require a lot of money. What it does require is time, which is also at a premium. The other major issue is that most theatre artists have never studied marketing. It's not their area of expertise. Nor should we expect it to be.

There are great marketing minds out there, people who keep up with the research. The problem is that they can command large salaries from the commercial arena. Workers in the non-for-profit sector don't make much more than basic living salaries (and don't let certain politicians tell you different), so there's no reason for marketers to cultivate a talent in this area. Yet it's the small companies that most need to get the word out there as they haven't had an opportunity to develop a large, loyal base yet for the most part. I'm constantly amazed at how many people I meet who have no idea there's good, affordable theatre for them to see.

The salon I was at a couple of months ago suggested a marketing pool. This would be a organization like STAF that would be a specialist in theatre marketing. It would pay competitive rates to the marketers to keep them in the industry while still making it affordable to tap into their expertise. If funders buy into this, I believe it can help to address the new directions of thought I saw during the funding debate while serving the independent theatre community. And if independent companies could raise their attendance by 20%, this would make a huge difference in terms of production viability, not to mention audience expansion.

Catherine at Play Anon and I are talking about a conference that would allow for a discussion of this marketing question. I'm thinking there would be sharing of social networking ideas that other companies have found successful, as well as looking at how we as a community can expand our marketing efforts. I truly believe that this is probably the biggest issue facing the community right now. Based on the amount of blogging being done on the subject, I'm not the only one.

Thus ends my series on Toronto theatre. I'm hoping there will still be discussion on many of these points. I don't believe I have all the answers but I certainly want to keep questioning. In the current environment, our survival depends on it.


Ian Mackenzie said…
Terrific White Paper series MK. Nicely done.

"There are great marketing minds out there, people who keep up with the research. The problem is that they can command large salaries from the commercial arena. Workers in the not-for-profit sector don't make much more than basic living salaries (and don't let certain politicians tell you different), so there's no reason for marketers to cultivate a talent in this area."

That's so true it stings. If Toronto's independent theatre industry (collectively) could float the bill on three independent, high-level marketing minds for three years . . . I can only imagine the great things we could accomplish. But realistically, it ain't going to happen like that.

I can tell you with confidence that there are tons of advertising folks out there who would be thrilled to design a campaign for an up-and-coming theatre company. But no one ever asks them, and they don't know enough about theatre to go looking for those opportunities.

Here are three Toronto advertising agencies (just the first three that came to mind):

(Google "toronto ad agencies" for more.)

I'd encourage any independent theatre company that's relatively well organized and presentable but that needs some marketing help to pick up the phone or write an email and ask to speak to the person in charge of pro-bono work. If you're lucky you can make a connection and get some great marketing work done for free. At the very least, you might get some advice on how to find a pro-bono marketing partner.

Ask for a 15-minute meeting with the Creative Director, and then come prepared with copies of your previous marketing materials (posters, postcards, etc.).

Might not work. But it can't hurt to ask.

Advertising. Not just for Coca-Cola anymore.

What do the rest of you think about the idea of independent theatre companies engaging ad agencies for pro-bono work?

Ian Mackenzie
Another great post MK, thanks for all the work you've been doing here. Sorry I haven't been jumping in more, but I've been busy - marketing theatre, actually.

This post hits right to the heart of the matter, the next stage for all of us to actually move into the future that the bloggers talk about all the time: a steady, sustainable audience. Independent theatre is quiet, too quiet, and that has to change. It would be great if we could get pro marketers to help us out pro bono, it would be even greater if more theatre artists realized that their success or failure relies on getting louder, and figuring out how to sell their product beyond the existing audience.

It's in the nature of the artist to obsess on their art, I get it. But surely there are some out there among us who are curious about marketing methodology beyond Facebook? Why wait for the audience to find us? It's daunting, for sure, but the answer lies, as you suggest, in numbers.

We're not selling our play right now. We're selling our brand of theatre with that play. Independent, small-house, kick-ass, contemporary theatre, and it must develop a separate experience brand from the big houses where actors bellow everything to be heard at the back of the theatre. Heck, I say let them have the work 'theatre' if people equate it with that thing. Our potential audience has to somehow know that when we talk about what we do, we're not selling heady, dense, boring noise, we're selling an intimate experience told in their own language.

Indie theatre in each city has got to get on the same page. We have to sell each other's shows, with no judgment on content, for the good of the whole. We have to think beyond the existing audience, and we have to look at each show as a chance to gain new members to that audience. I'm all in favour of starting a marketing pool within my city, and sharing resources like cheap printers and graphic artists and copywriters.

Are all our indie companies ready to form an alliance? No. But these things snowball with time, someone's got to take the leap. There's a new model in here somewhere, I know it...
Great comments. Over at the Mission Paradox blog I found this fairly succinct and interesting comment

Great link OT, thanks for that. And great blog too, by the way, I hadn't come across it yet. Subscribed!
MK Piatkowski said…
Thanks for the comments, everyone.

I've been noticing that a few Toronto companies have been postering in the subway to sell shows - Obsidian, TPM and now Native Earth. Philip, did you do any study on their effectiveness and how did you manage to work them into your marketing budget?

It's these best practices that I would like to be able to consoldate somewhere easily accessible, as well as looking at ways to move forward as a community. This is why I feel we need a conference. So when is a good time for people (month/days of the week)? (Simon, I'm working on a way to get you participating remotely.)
Anonymous said…
Here in Vancouver, we have an organization called See 7. It is, essentially, a marketing pool. A bunch of indie theatre cos got together and pooled their money to create a brochure, website, and a subscription series. I think it's been pretty successful, could be a model to copy...
MK Piatkowski said…
There was something similar done in Toronto (I think it was 5 years ago?) called the Go7 pass. Does anyone know how it went and why it isn't happening anymore?
Theatrefolk said…
I think Simon has hit it - independent theatre is too quiet. Particularly in cyber space. The blogasphere pickings are pretty slim when it comes to theatre people.

I'm sure that the time issue has something to do with it. It takes time to post every day on things that make a blog sticky and make people want to return and want to read. It takes time to build an online audience. And even then when you're putting in the time it's no guarantee that your audience will take that next step toward community and start talking.

But when it comes to marketing, social media seems to be the 'thing' to explore, to try, a door to the future. Sooner than later those using social media extensively will be out in the work place. There needs to be an open forum of communication to reach them...