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Musical Marketing Muse

June 15, 2011

A fact I’ve always found interesting is that these days more is generally spent on the marketing budget of a musical than anything else except the odd (sometimes – in fact mostly – very odd) star’s wages.

You’d think that a flying witch / dragon / Minton tea service would consume the big bucks but no – it’s the flashy website, the huge adverts in the Sunday Times Culture section and the TV ones between singer and, er, singer in the “X Factor.”

Then there are endless leaflets, press releases written by sometimes brilliant / hopeless / always expensive press agents, preview CDs and DVDs – stuff that many see and probably ignore unless trying to flog them all later on Ebay.

Finally, some get guest tickets with attached drink coupons (notably only valid before the show and on the most intoxicating beverages, to ensure the recipient is chemically relaxed from the start). 

With all that expense, you can rather see why the internet, that bastion of free pictures of ladies proving they literally have nothing to wear… sorry, bastion of free speech, royally annoys shows when it circulates damaging stories about a new show. The often repeated preview review of “Love Never Dies” by the fantastic WestEndWhingers  bloggers probably represented the pinnacle of their achievements – topping even the accusation that they single-handedly closed another musical the previous year.

My own feeling is that what has really happened is that amid all the cash, the industry marketing professionals have lost sight of the single most important – and easily the oldest – assest of all… simple “word of mouth” by those who have seen the production.

The third most frequently asked question I get when introducing myself* as somebody who ‘is involved in West End Theatre online’ is, “What is worth seeing?” In line with the old research about “you’ll tell more people you are happy with something than annoyed” I’ll sing the praises of “Legally Blonde,” “Wicked,” “Love Never Dies,” and “Shrek The Musical” – and not refer to other shows I may have seen but didn’t much like. Nothing works like face to face conversation, so why the empty seats?

There are companies who specialise in filling unsold seats – The Audience Club being one, and others like ShowFilmFirst who do the same for cinema. The biggest asset, though, is ‘group sales’ – the coach load of visitors, let in on a discount, who fill 50 seats and then tell around 200 more to ‘go see.’ I have a private crowd who love to do just that, and know several others who also convene such visits for love not income. The late, great Harold Fielding pioneered the ‘groups’ concept with “Charlie Girl” at the Adelphi Theatre in 1965, and it is something marketers seem to ignore… now at their peril.

I’m finding it increasingly hard to find anything at a reasonable price to take a group to in the first place. The average group ticket has shot from £29.50 to £39.50 in a year… and one big show didn’t offer a rate at all for the first 6 months. I could have filled 50 seats with folk willing to advertise the show by ‘word of mouth’ afterwards… I ended up taking only 20, who had an amazing time, but couldn’t match what an extra 30 could do in circulating good news. Oddly, the same producer did something similar with another show some 15 years before. The result was similar – unexpected empty seats early in the run and too few folk to drown the tiny minority of detractors.

I guess all I’m saying is, “don’t forget the audience” – and perhaps use the marketing budget to subsidise groups a little more. They’ll at least look at the show for 3 hours, rather than the advert for 3 seconds… that is all.



*I’ll be offering a prize for anybody who can guess correctly what the top 2 are – and also the top 3 questions Mr P is asked when he introduces himself (slurring, usually) as ‘something in publishing.’ Clue for him: the 1st question is not (usually) ‘Animal, vegetable or mineral?’ Answers on a post card to the North Pole by Christmas 1987, please.

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