Marketing live performance presents many challenges, especially when the work is perceived as being ?difficult?. Martha Oakes offers some advice.
Last spring, I gave a one-day seminar on selling difficult work, organised by Smart Audiences as part of its programme of training courses for arts marketing professionals. I enjoyed the opportunity to pull together my thoughts about selling ?difficult work?, which I?m defining as a single night?s showing of a new contemporary performance. Sue Lancashire and I work for a small portfolio of dance, live art and theatre clients, either as marketeers or press consultants, or sometimes both. It?s always our job to present our clients as well as we can in the contexts they have chosen and, usually, to help them get as many people as possible to see their work.
Get with the programme
The right venue is paramount. Nothing can sell a show better than a venue with an existing audience for a particular type of show. A good show in a venue without that audience is going to struggle. So the contract between venue and company needs to be right. Effective marketing of a one-nighter starts with the way it fits into the venue?s programming. For instance, how much dance is on that season? Too much and you risk splitting the audience; too little and the dance audience will drift away to other venues. Timing of one-nighters is crucial too, as there is no room for error. Easter weekends, half-term, Bonfire Night, Valentine?s Day ? all leave a non-themed one-nighter stranded. And what else is on in similar venues in town also affects the available audience.
Then there?s the ?good? part of the ?good show?. Touring new work makes this part of the picture difficult. Often a company is booked into a venue and included in the brochure before a show is made. There is always a risk that the show might not work and hard-won audiences may think ?never again?. One way round this is for the venue to book shows they have already seen, perhaps work that has toured internationally. The Dance Touring Partnership is using this technique to attract a new twenty-something audience to contemporary dance in 2005 with Australian Dance Theatre. Protein Dance took their successful dance show ?Publife? to this year?s Edinburgh Festival, performing for three weeks at a central Fringe venue and bringing in a new audience of theatre and performance attenders. But if you want to support artists and companies in the UK, existing funding structures mean that it?s new work that needs to get sold. It?s a conundrum and it makes marketing particularly challenging.
Venue as curator
For now, let?s presume we?re selling a good show at the right venue. But the venue has a full programme that season, which might include theatre, opera, music, etc. How does it sell that one-nighter when good sense says that marketing departments should focus on the longer-running shows with higher financial targets? I think it?s the role of the venue to consider the season as a whole and think about co-marketing similar work within that season. For me, this aspect of marketing is another expression of the curatorial vision of the venue. It?s certainly helpful to know the rationale behind all the events that are included in the programme.
Beyond that, it?s about developing a partnership between company and venue, which begins with early thinking and early planning. Marketing works best when the venue and visiting company plan together and pool resources, and the results can influence future activity in both organisations. In many ways the venue relies on the visiting company to provide the right tools ? photographs, copy, briefing sheets on the company and its work, e-flyers, leaflets and posters, etc. Ideally, the venue and company marketing managers should meet a few months before the event to come up with a joint strategy ? in particular, pinpointing target audiences. Performance events often have crossover potential and this should be identified and included in the plan. Mostly, you can?t think mass-marketing, you have to think on a smaller scale ? occasionally even one-to-one. It?s about positive referrals from trusted sources, good editorial and good word-of-mouth recommendations. Target audience groups need to be identified as early as possible and approached in the best way for them.
For Ricochet Dance Productions (which has recently relaunched itself after a shift in focus), we are working closely with some tour venues to identify and expand their database of contemporary dance attenders and potential attenders. The beautifully renovated and newly opened Drill Hall in Lincoln is keen to programme contemporary dance and to be a focus for dance performance in North Lincolnshire, but it has virtually no data on dance attenders. Ricochet has been able to team up with the Drill Hall to take on a dance ambassador to represent the company. Her role involved talking about Ricochet?s new programme to key players in the region?s dance community, sending out our e-flyers to her contacts and laying foundations for future dance audiences at the venue. Ricochet sold out.
Networking for one-nighters is key. Artistic directors of touring companies are often happy to talk to marketing staff at venues, and this can energise the selling process. This can happen on the phone or be part of joint marketing meetings set up by the company. We have set up several marketing events for Protein where tour marketing managers are invited to see rehearsal, meet the choreographers and dancers and brainstorm marketing issues with colleagues in other venues and with us. Networking events in the venue can also be very effective. The Corn Exchange Newbury?s marketing campaign for Ricochet included inviting local dance teachers to drinks and a video showing of the work that was coming. It helps to build an audience for one-nighters on a foundation of group bookings. Workshops in schools and colleges that are linked in content to the performance extend the effects of the company?s visit and should be organised by the company and venue together. Attending the performance should be part of the deal.
For all marketing communications, though, touring companies should supply strong visual material that incorporates key messages in a powerful graphic image. Last year, we art-directed an image for the Akademi-produced ?Escapade? on the South Bank that was used everywhere in the press and popped up again as a visual for the Lottery 10th anniversary celebrations. Early visuals for Clean Break?s 2004 production, Jennifer Farmer?s ?Compact Failure? featured Jennifer?s arm against a graffiti-ed heart. The Times said, ?It?s a play about healing that hits where it hurts. Don?t miss it.? Hopefully the image said something about that before the script was finished and made a memorable graphic identity for the play.
There is no doubt that selling difficult work is challenging but a creative and strategic approach can yield both attendance and PR successes.