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5 Thoughts on Social Media and Theatre

A couple of weeks ago Julie Burt Nichols of the Bailiwick in Chicago popped up on Twitter and asked for pros and cons of social media in theatre marketing… I got volunteered.

My answers weren’t needed for the eventual post due to my non-Chicagoanity but spurred by Dave Charest’s repurposing of his answers I’d like to share mine as well.

grungy-social-media-icons(1)What role is social media playing in regional theater?

It is playing a very small role thus far. Like any good business Regionals are waiting for smaller, nimbler companies to create best practices and proofs of concepts around social media that ensure some stability before they risk time or treasure on it. 

Is social media a valuable use of resources in this sector, considering the time and effort it takes to build these kinds of relationships with patrons/artists? 

The time and effort is comparable to a large traditional print/mail campaign. It feels more time intensive because it is every day, but re-aggregated I think you would find that social media consumes about the same or less time than a week of folding and peel and stick. The benefit of crafting a long term narrative for your theatre? Of creating a narrative around your stable of performers (which you should have or be building) and of creating a Voice for your theatre is quite literally priceless. The ability to have instant access to anyone who has mentioned your show or theatre or is on your email rolls? It changes your customer service role from reactive/negative to proactive/positive. Your customer service staff (whichever other roles they fill) can reach our and make contact with people who are happy with the shows/theatre/staff not simply be confronted with unhappy patrons. 

Is it too easy? What are the dangers of using social media for this purpose?

Is social media too easy? The access is easy. The dangers come in message creep and in simply hiring the wrong person. A professional social media campaign requires the same writing skill as any other and planning like any other with additional gaps filled in with personal reaching out. Using SM software in the vein of Hootsuite you pre-write your campaign and time-release it.  If you simply put a junior intern on Twitter and tell them to talk? The informality will turn off most of your older base and the lack of information won’t draw folks to you. Much is made of the informality of the networks, but the non-stars drawing traffic are those that are either dispensing real knowledge or those engaging in real conversation – in shorter words: authenticity. If your feed or representative is inauthentic you will lose all the time you have put into it. 

Does it have a valuable return in relationship to the demographic it reaches?

Proven authenticity is valuable to all demographics, an extended voice/narrative is valuable to all demographics. Getting out of your building and extending beyond the people who’ve opted in to the folks who are interested in your form but never touched your space? Or who are interested in a topic related to the show or season? It may not pay off with the folks you already have – they respond to whatever you were already doing – but it is a fantastic way to reach out to folks where they already are.

What are the pros and cons of social media in the regional theater market?

Pros? Narrative – I think that going forward Regionals are going to need more than "We’re Good" to carry on, they need a personality around the space, the staff and the talent – they need a narrative for who they were, who they are, and who they’re going to be. In the past you let critics and arts columnists do that for you… now you don’t have to.

The cons? You can’t get away with anything. At all. Ever. That has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not  you (or the theatre) are participating in SM that’s part of the ubiquity of information… but it is a con.

You don’t need magic eyes

I have never been able to see those stupid magic eye images…

Y’know these things:

Never. Not once. Not then. Not now.

“Oh but Travis that’s nothing, that’s a parlor trick, it doesn’t mean anything.” Which is of course indisputably true. But back in their day they were everywhere. Those slots in malls that are selling Twilight posters right now? Or Avatar keychains or Inception dreamcatchers… they were selling Magic Eye posters, keychains, tissue boxes, books, calendars, mouse pads, oven mitts I mean they really were omnipresent.

Maybe you don’t know how foolish being beaten by an illusion you fundamentally understand is. I’m a pretty smart fella and this stupid optical illusion defeated me. I hated it. HATED IT. When you’re smart and snarky (before snarky was even a word) and 18 and you hate something, even something stupid and inanimate, you mock the hell out of it.

This is art.

A more versed human than I would look at this and be able to tell you influences on the painter, and skill level, and objective quality. They could give you facts and context. I can tell you that I like the colours and I like the texture in the spring green spackle.

Most audiences won’t even give you that. They don’t want to appear ignorant.

People have been trained (and are being trained better every day) that if you aren’t an expert in a field that you need to shut up or you’re going to be smacked down by someone else who either is an expert or is loud enough to cloud the issue until you run away. Artists and near-artist experts work so hard to prove how smart they are that they have brow beaten audiences into critical passivity.

Audiences dislike anything that they feel like they may not “get”, and they refuse to believe that they did in fact get it, or how little it matters that they “get it right”. People hate feeling stupid.

So instead of deriding their taste when they go see something that won’t insult them why don’t we meet them halfway? Save your dramaturgy for folks who will appreciate it (email me!) and give a scene after the show. Don’t continue hogging the spotlight, draw out of the audience that remains in your lobby what they saw, what they liked or didn’t. Help them feel comfortable talking about it. We complain vigilantly about the about the dreaded “how did you learn all those lines?” but we hesitate to help give our audiences any more critical vocabulary than they came in with. Be teachers. I understand that you’re tired. But this is a job, not Pretty Polly’s Tea Party.

The North American population has been mainlining short and medium form storytelling since they were infants. They know a ton about it, they just don’t think that they do. Show them that they don’t need magic eyes to see your art and you’re halfway to making a fan out of them.