Theatre Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations: The Total Guide

Hi, y'all! I'm Alex Johnson, Tina Johnson's daughter. I was her theatre student throughout childhood and high school. I was truly born and raised in the theatre but ventured out of the drama world in college. I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Public Relations with a minor in Business. I now work in digital marketing and have continually craved the creative haven that is theatre. And lucky me! Mom has this fabulous blog on theatre and I get to join in the fun. So I'm guest blogging on marketing for high school theatres! Don't hesitate to comment below or reach out for advice and help. 

So we'll begin at the beginning, as you do. Whether you're looking to boost ticket sales, build your theatre's reputation or raise money for your department, marketing can solve a world of problems. While we all know parents, cousins, grandparents, church friends and other teachers are probably coming to the show, you have to stop and ask yourself: If I put a little time and effort into promoting this amazing show we're producing, how many more people would get to experience it? 

From years of seeing, producing and performing in high school and community theatre productions, I feel I have a unique perspective for marketing (or lack thereof) in high school drama. In this blog post (which is probably the longest one we have on this site so far!) I'm combining my love of theatre and marketing by covering:

  • What marketing is
  • What it can and can't do
  • How to define goals
  • How to utilize your awesome students
  • How to create useful marketing materials
  • And more tips and tricks for you fabulous theatre people!

So let's get going.

Basics, Lingo, Foundations of Marketing

We'll start with the basics of marketing. For the most part, I want to go over this so we all are on the same wavelength with lingo and context. Let's start with breaking down the difference between marketing, advertising and public relations.

I think this image sums it up pretty well. 

A simple breakdown of the different types of communication a brand can have with their audience.

A simple breakdown of the different types of communication a brand can have with their audience.

Let's dig in a little deeper

  • Marketing is creating a product and sales plan based on what you know of your audience. It encompasses the 4Ps: Price, Promotion, Place and Product. You work to strategize these four Ps to create the optimal experience for your customer
  • Advertising is pushing your own message to an audience through a tangible medium. Imagine it as a one way conversation. You are talking at your customers. That isn't to say advertising is wrong or not useful, but it does its job the best in specific settings.
  • Public relations is strategizing someone else's voice to say you're a worthwhile product. This is a two-way conversation. Knowing where your audience is, talks, thinks, shops, experiences your product and having a third party endorsement there waiting on them. 
Advertising is saying you’re good. PR is getting someone else to say you’re good.
— Jean Louise Gassee

From a general, big-picture view, this means you have three options. Think of it as a menu. You can have just marketing, PR and advertising or all three in tandem. It's your choice. To help you make a decision, here's a few examples of each. 

Marketing

Scenario 1: A high school theatre department invests thousands of hours into their spring competition show. This is the big contest for them, earning students awards and scholarships down the road. The department decides it wants to raise money by putting on a crowd-pleaser musical. They team up with the community theatre facilities to put on the show in a bigger venue, allowing more people to see the show. They collaborate with the high school band to have an orchestra for the musical numbers. They price the show after careful calculations to make sure they turn a profit in this show. They choose Grease, a well-known family favorite. The shows goal, besides creating a relationship with the community and furthering arts education, is part of a marketing plan. 

Scenario 2: A high school theatre department has noticed that few to none of the fellow non-theatre students attend their shows. They ask around and realize most students cannot afford a ticket to the show. They decide to promote their Drama Club through their shows by offering options for tickets: pay full price or bring three canned goods to donate to the Drama Club's charitable program. Student attendance grows as well as the Drama Club's donation to the local food bank. Win-win!

The conclusion? Marketing is about taking what you have and looking at what your audience needs and marrying those points into a strategy. 

Advertising

Scenario 1: A high school theatre department wants to promote the upcoming show. They design posters, flyers and invitations to hand out at other school events and in the hallways at school. The student attendance grows and the advertisements prove to be a success!

Scenario 2: The high school students and parents have a lively community on Facebook. Between teachers, administration, students and parents, the school Facebook group has constant discussions. The theatre group decides to promote it's show with a Facebook ad. They dedicated $50 to target anyone within a 15 mile radius of the school. The ad is interacted with thousands of time and ticket sales grow within hours of launching the ad. 

Advertisement takes a tangible investment. That could be money, time, creativity and energy, but executing it correctly can lead to great return on investment!

Public Relations

Scenario 1: The town's Chamber of Commerce is honoring the high school theatre director with an award for adding to the cultural progress of the city. The department has a show coming up and decides to arrange for the award to be given at the opening night of the show. The school sends a press release to the local papers, promoting the award ceremony which will be held at a performance. The Chamber of Commerce then contacts its members, inviting them to the show to support local art as well as attend the award ceremony. Through the press and talk between local business owners, buzz grows and opening night has the highest ticket sales in years. 

Scenario 2: Your theatre department is doing The Man of La Mancha for its musical. You want to promote it as a dinner theatre, since these events typically raise the most money. You partner with your school's Spanish club to host the dinner theatre. They provide authentic food, facts on Spanish history and the inspirations for the story. In return, they get a portion of fundraising and a platform to recruit members to their club. On the flip side, your theatre department has a great culinary selling point, gets to integrate an educational spin on the show and markets the entire school through collaboration. Two audiences merging creates a bigger crowd and a journalism-friendly storyline to pitch to local media. 

 

So now, let's talk about how you position yourself and craft your messaging in your marketing, advertising and public relations. 

Messaging, Strengths and Your Campaign

While it seems pretty easy to say "I want more people to see my show-let's make a poster!," it actually entails a little more than that to get the desired result. You have to know what you're saying, tangibly and intangibly, in your campaign. This is called messaging

Here's a little example. Say you want to increase ticket sales. On the aforementioned poster, you wouldn't say:

hey! buy a ticket to my show so I can buy more costumes next year for a different show and hopefully have enough left over to fix that broken light that glitches when it's set on a blue wash.

You instead you create a message like this:

Support local art and students! Every ticket purchase ensures another student gets an arts education-completely free! 

Can you feel the difference there? That's the magic, science and biggest frustration in marketing, advertising and PR. How do we get the target audience to do what we want without being forceful, obnoxious or crazy?

The answer? Let them know how their time, eyeballs or money benefits them, not you. 

Customers, whether they're a random person in your hometown that might see a show or a potential customer for Nike, American Airlines or Target, are looking to see what they can gain from an interaction with you.

You would NEVER see a big billboard from Target saying "When you shop with us, we get your money!" It just doesn't happen. Instead, they tell you what you, as the consumer, can gain by shopping at their store: "Save 20% when you shop at Target!"

See? It's all about explaining how you can benefit your target audience. 

Keep this in mind when you begin crafting the messaging that will shape your marketing, advertising and PR efforts. 

Now we need to decide just what that benefit is. 

You could easily say "We educate kids in the arts!" And that should be enough to sell people on supporting you. But sadly, this is not the world we live in. Most, if not all consumers, want tangible evidence of their purchase benefits. 

Here's a quick little activity from Advertising 101. It's called a SWOT.

This stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It's a simple visual you will fill out to help you decide on your messaging and campaign.

 

I can hear you thinking "I'm a grown adult with years of experience deciding what my department is good at. I don't need a silly chart to tell me what to do."

Here's my answer to that: You need this chart

Account managers, marketing directors and VPs of Public Relations out in the real world use these simple little strategies every day to make incredible campaigns. People crafting the next multi-million dollar Super Bowl ad are using a SWOT right now. So just do it. 

Great. Get out your free download and follow along with me. 

In the context of this chart, strengths and weaknesses are things you can control. They are internal matters that you can change, update or create. On the opposite side of the coin, opportunities and threats are things out of your control, typically in your environment. They can and will have an impact on your product. 

Here's an example from a fictional high school theatre department. 

 
Get your free (and blank!) version of this worksheet by clicking the button below.

Get your free (and blank!) version of this worksheet by clicking the button below.

 

Let's start at the goal.

I want more people to see our show and to raise money for education tools.

See how straightforward and simple that is? Here's a few goal statements I've seen in the past and why they don't work.

Goal Statement 1: I want my target audience to really know what my brand is about and get the feel that I get when I think about it and I want to make more money by selling my brand to everyone and get more people to know about us through advertisements and social media

Why this is awful: Let's start with the word count. It's at 51. That's way too much. (Also, the writing! Ugh. Where are my fellow grammar nerds?!) What they seem to want is the branding of their department to be clear. Selling a brand doesn't make money. A brand is the abstract idea of a product. Selling tickets makes money. Selling sponsorships makes money. Selling merchandise makes money. Selling brands is like talking to a brick wall. And the tactics (i.e. advertisements and social media) has no business in your goal. For all you know at this stage, ads and social media campaigns could be the most ineffective tool for you! Get straight to the point with your goal, y'all. 

Goal Statement 2: More Money

Why this is stupid: Why do you want more money? What are you going to do with it? Why do you need money from your audience? This is so vague that it just seems lazy and silly. No real plan can be developed from this. 

Here's a few examples of great, succinct and clear goal statements

  • I want to increase my sponsorship program
  • I want to strengthen the relationship with my community
  • I want to engage students from multiple departments through theatre
  • I want to raise money for a theatre field trip
  • I want to educate people with this show

Now, onto the meat of this worksheet. We're going to work through this one together. Let's assume this fictional high school is planning to do Grease for their fall musical. Alright, let's go!

Strengths- They have a fabulous booster club, great singers and are their department has been to state. My first idea would be to utilize their strong vocalists and booster club to push their latest show. 

Weaknesses- They have a small budget and the director is the only school employee involved. This means they should take advantage of supportive parents in the booster club and find cheap or free ways to promote themselves. 

Opportunities - The high school reunion for this show is right around the corner, as is the car show. We know how vital muscle cars are to the plot of Grease. This means they should try to collaborate with one or both events, which would be basically free to the department. 

Threats- The football team takes precedence (big surprise) and the community theatre did Grease last year. They will have to push the difference between the shows (adults/pros vs. students) and push the performances on nights besides Friday. 

Conclusion: Based on these notes on their internal and external environment, the theatre department should volunteer themselves as an entertainment act at the high school reunion to sing a few songs from Grease. They should also dress in costume and volunteer to help host the car show. Booster club parents can help promote all these events via (free) social media and the director can take advantage of her creative students to write a press release about their community event appearances. 

See how it works? If you want a little help or a few ideas, comment on this blog below! I'd be happy to help. 

So now, after completely you super-duper important SWOT, you have an idea of what your strengths are. These are the most important points you can focus on. Use your strengths to take advantage of opportunities. Also use them to work around the threats and weaknesses. Even better, turn those weaknesses and threats into strengths. Each persons' SWOT will open up a variety of ideas. In doing your SWOT, you need to be honest with yourself. This will make developing a successful strategy even easier.

So, you know what your strength is. Now what? I'll tell you!

Communication Tools

And by communication, I mean any and everything that falls under marketing, advertising and public relations. So just keep that in mind as we talk about all the possible communication tools you could use in your campaign. 

Here's a great visual snapshot of all possible communication tools you might have and use. 

 
This is just a brief list of all the possible communication tools you could use in a campaign. But you get the idea 

This is just a brief list of all the possible communication tools you could use in a campaign. But you get the idea 

 

The above is basically a menu for you to pick and choose from. What from the above list do you already have?  What on this list can you create? What tools would have the most impact based on your SWOT analysis? 

Think about these questions and narrow down your menu to a handful of things. I would recommend 3-5 tools, but you can also go bigger or smaller. Within that range, you can typically maintain control while still reaching a wide audience. 

So now I'll dive deeper into what I feel are the most important tools for high school departments. 

The Top 4 Most Important Communication Tools for High School Theatre Departments

  • Press release
  • Organic social media
  • Paid social media
  • Email

The Press Release

Here's where you take advantage of your high school journalism department or even your writers in the theatre program. This is a high ROI medium, meaning you put in effort once to create the press release and it can be sent to dozens of outlets. 

If you know a thing or two about journalism or have a friend that can help you write it, take them up on it! If not, I've created a downloadable guide to help walk you through it

DOWNLOAD GUIDE HERE

Wanna go even deeper? Here's a guide from my own personal marketing blog about creating a full-scale media kit for all journalism outlets. 

For more help on creating the perfect press release, here's a few of my favorite blog posts on the topic:

Organic Social Media

This will be the easiest way to disseminate information. When I say organic in this context, it means what is naturally generated by social media users. So when you post about your kid's birthday party or the latest movie you saw, that kind of content is organic. Think about it this way: if you pay to have it disseminated through social media, it's advertising. If you post it yourself with no promotion, it's organic

This is another chance to use your network of friends, students, co-workers, administration and community to create buzz about the show. My biggest piece of advice for organic social media is USE IMAGES.

The engagement levels for visual content vs text-only content is about 400%. That means that sharing an image of your show, your students, even just the program for the performance can get up to four times the likes, shares and comments that a text-only post can. 

Here's a few ideas for what to share to garner likes, comments, and shares:

  • A backstage shot of your tech crew at work
  • A picture of your actors prepping for the show
  • A picture of the playbill
  • A short video teaser of the performance
  • A photo of costuming
  • A teaser of the set
  • A graphic of the program's logo
  • A graphic of the invite to the show

You see how this list could go on forever? Parents and administration want to share things about their kids. Take advantage of that network of support!

Paid Social Media

Because the crowd a theatre department would reach is largely in its immediate area, Facebook and its geographic advertising options are the best for you. So when I talk about advertising here, I'm referring to Facebook. 

This is a bit more technical of an approach. If you aren't very Facebook-savvy, I would suggest getting a student to help you walk through this. 

Here's what you need to know about Facebook advertising:

  • The targeting is amazing (it's kind of crazy how well Facebook can target people). What I mean by this is you can narrow down your audience by age, income, area (country, state, town, zip code), interests, sex, race, education, job type and more. So targeting the exact crowd you want is very doable.
  • The graphic requirements are specific. Facebook has set a limit on the text you can include in an advertisement. This is mainly to block spammers from crowding images with codes and offers and things consumers won't like. So this leaves you, the advertiser, with little room to write in your imagery. Stick to the absolute basics in the image - leave the text to the actual text portion of the ad.
  • The cost for Facebook advertising is insane. When compared to other advertising mediums, the price for this type of advertising is incredibly cheap. From my experience with Facebook advertising, I would estimate a 3 week campaign, targeting an average town and/or suburban area surround a school, would cost less than $50. 

For the ultimate step-by-step guide to running a Facebook ad, read this blog post about it from Buffer

Email

This is another high ROI medium. One email can be sent to literally thousands of people. It's a great creativity and time "investment" in your marketing. 

Stage and Craft uses MailChimp for our email marketing. This has worked great so far and has an easy interface to conquer. You don't need to be a programmer to create an email! But if it would make you feel better, I would suggest getting a tech-minded student to help you. 

Email communication can serve a lot of purposes. You can communicate with parents, your booster club, you sponsors or your community. It's a fantastic way to start a conversation with your audience.

First, you'll need to gather emails. Here's a few ideas on how to do this:

  • Require parents emails when students join the program
  • Gather sponsor emails as you develop those relationships
  • Ask for audience emails at all performances 
  • Talk to your school about tapping into their email list
  • Partner with community arts and theatre programs to offer a cross promotional emails with their list and yours

Once you have people to email, content should be your focus. Here are a few starter ideas for email content:

  • Pictures from your latest rehearsal
  • Sketches from your costume design
  • The first exclusive announcement of performance dates
  • Headline sponsor announcements
  • A Q&A with your lead actors
  • A brief on how your team researched their roles
  • You favorite local theatres to cross-promote with

Think of the email content as blog content for an exclusive list of subscribers. You want content here to be proprietary, so subscribers feel special and that they are gaining something by signing up. 

For a few design inspirations, head on over to this Pinterest board with all the email layouts, tips and tricks you could dream of. 

Did you stick around for the full marketing presentation we created?

Download it here! 


Last chance!

Download the full theatre marketing brainstorming kit

it includes:

  • A SWOT analysis template

  • A press release guide and formula 

  • A marketing menu