Producers Use the Web to Romance Audience and Bring Them Back


If you were one of the 2,500 people who saw the Off Broadway musical "Altar Boyz" last week, its producer, Ken Davenport, probably has your number. Or at least, if you were among the 40 percent who bought your tickets online, he has your e-mail address. So don't be surprised when a thank-you message ("on behalf of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham") shows up in your electronic mailbox Monday morning, including a discount offer for a return visit or to send to friends, "so that they too can fall in love with The Boyz, just like you have."

"The open rates on that e-mail are off the charts," Mr. Davenport said: more than 70 percent, in an industry where 30 percent is high. But the point isn't just to get you to open the message, it's really to push you to the show's Web site, where you might be tempted to join the Altarholics fan group ("Win big prizes and help spread the word"), take a trivia quiz, find out what your favorite cast member's favorite lunch meat is, sign up for a newsletter, click over to the show's official MySpace page or add to a list of "audience confessions" like, "I hate flan," or, more inspirationally, "I ditched 'Lestat' for 'Altar Boyz' ... again!"

In the old days -- about five years ago -- producers didn't know much about their audiences, who they were and how to reel them in (or back). They largely relied on direct mail and print advertising, communications that were one-way, not to mention expensive, scattershot and impersonal. The old-technology equivalents of Mr. Davenport's Monday morning e-mail blasts were the "bounceback" discount coupons blown into Playbills and usually left to confetti Times Square. The "Altar Boyz" messages are much "stickier": people apparently pay attention to them because they come across as personal and interactive. "When you see a show you love, the moment after you see it is the moment you're most excited about it," Mr. Davenport said. "My job is to capture that feeling, as close to the event as possible, and turn it into word of mouth."

Word of mouth has always been the ideal. But the Internet has provided a new and, some say, vastly improved set of tools to generate it: not just e-mail blasts but also Web sites, banner ads, search-engine pop-ups and blog coverage. In the last few years these tools have reshaped the way the theater reaches its audience.

The most obvious change is in ticketing, which the Internet makes simpler for customers and cheaper for producers. During the 2004-5 season the portion of Broadway tickets sold online more than quadrupled to 29 percent from 7 percent; this past season it continued to creep up, to about 33 percent. (For non-group ticket sales, the figure is more than 60 percent.) The remaining tickets were purchased via phone, group-sales brokers, the TKTS booths and the old-fashioned box office, which now accounts for only one-quarter of purchases, making lines around the block mostly a thing of the past.

But that's just technical, a change in how people buy what they were going to buy anyway. A much bigger change involves tapping audience members' social networks to bring in entirely new theatergoers. This summer "The Color Purple" is rolling out a Web campaign called "Organize Your Group" to help families, schools, gospel choirs and churches arrange theatergoing "reunions"; an earlier form of this program has already referred more than 100,000 people to the show. In May "Avenue Q" filled some slow midweek houses by offering discounts to people who had visited its Web site. A single blast to 20,000 e-mail addresses netted $40,000 in sales and cost almost nothing.

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Monty Solomon
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