[We asked some local experts for their top tips on promoting improv shows. The first to reply was renaissance man Max Sparber. He's a playwright, the lead singer of the band Ultramod, a blogger for MinnPost He was editor in chief ofThe Omaha Reader, but we first met him during his three years as the theater critic for City Pages, where he was one of the only local critics to ever review improv. Thanks for these great tips, Max!]
People underestimate the importance of promotion. I worked for years with an Omaha theater company that put up posters and hoped for good word of mouth, and, as a result, got small audiences. I find it helps to think of promotion as being similar to sending out invites to a party. If you haven’t bothered to tell anybody about the party, there is a good chance they won’t show up.
With this in mind, the first step is to get the word out in as general a way as possible. And so here’s tip one:
1. Make sure you’re on events calendars. Most newspapers have them. Some community websites have them. Other online sources have them -for instance, Minnesota Playlist here in the Twin Cities lists performances. Make sure you’re on all of them. This is a bit of a time sink, as you’re probably going to have to enter every single piece of information about your show on every single site, line by line, and they’re all idiosyncratic and a bit buggy. But a lot of people use events calendars when they’re fishing around for what to do, and with online sites, they’re going to make it a lot easier for people to find out where and when your show is if they just type in a query on an online search engine. And speaking of search engines …
2. Have a good online presence. You should have a webpage that at the very least tells the public a little about you and is updated regularly to let them know what shows are coming up. Have the same information on a Facebook page. If it’s your thing, Tweet, or post videos to YouTube, or have a podcast. These provide both creative possibilities and the opportunity for ongoing interaction with your audiences. People may discover you through your online presence, which can lead them to seeking out whatever you do elsewhere. All but for one group: The press.
3. Have a good press list, know how to write a press release, and have a good press photo. A lot of people write casual emails about whatever they have going on and then sort-of randomly send it to whoever they can think of on the off-chance that they might pick up the story. This goes by the rather naughty name “spray and pray,” and is just about guaranteed to anger people in the press, who view it as spam. If you’re going to send out a press release, it should be targeted — you should be certain the recipient is somebody who actually might write about you. If you’re not certain, email and ask — they’ll be happy to tell you “yes, go ahead or no, don’t bother.” If they don’t get back to you, don’t bother. They’ve expressed their disinterest.
But don’t limit yourself to arts writers. If you’re working on a show with a political theme, a political columnist might be interested. If you’ve started using technology in a surprising way, a tech journalist may want to hear about it. If you’re going to write to somebody like this, you have to write a press release specifically explaining to them why they may be interested in the story.
A press photo helps. Have it available for download on your site, and don’t lock it up behind a password — who cares if somebody from the public can download it as well? What are they going to do, make it a screensaver? The easier you make things for the press, the more likely you are to get a story, and many print and online publications prefer not to go to press without a photo. A good picture can literally be the difference between getting a write-up and not getting one. And get new photos whenever the old one has been printed once or twice. Publications don’t like printing the same photo over and over again.
But having said all that ….
4. You may have to forget about the press. Firstly, even longtime theater writers are often hesitant to write about improv, because they’re used to summarizing a show and then commenting on its good or bad qualities. That doesn’t work with improv, because its likely the show will be significantly different from night to night. These writers are left writing a feature column about a troupe — and you’ll probably only get one of those per paper in the entire lifetime of your troupe. Or they could write about the process of creating improv, except they can’t, because they have no clue how it’s done. If you’re lucky, you may get a paragraph or two in the calendar section, recommending your show, but, in general, there is a good chance the press won’t show. This is where you have to go guerrilla.
5. Bypass the system. There are all sorts of tricks to this, and there are dozens of books. You can give away free tickets through a local radio station. March in a neighborhood parade! You can perform PR stunts, which are likely to get you the attention of whoever witnesses it, and may actually get you some press attention. Find somebody with an audience you want and create a cosponsoring agreement, where they can promote themselves as whatever you do and vice versa. Create shows specifically for conferences — if you go over well at a sci-fi convention, you may find yourself with more audience members than you know what to do with, although you may occasional have to placate them with Star Wars jokes. And once people start getting interested, make use of what is still one of the world’s most powerful promotional tools:
6. Have a mailing list. Get the addresses of people who are interested in your shows and send them regular mail about whatever you have going on. This has always been theater’s secret weapon, and it may work better now than ever. Most people have moved their mailing lists online, sending out emails and Facebook invites. But everybody is so thoroughly swamped with these that they have just become white noise, and we ignore them. In the meanwhile, when somebody receives a flier for a show in the mail, they have something they can put on their refrigerator to remind them of the event.
In the entire time I have been reviewing theater and writing my own plays, the success of a production frequently comes down to one question. It’s not how good to play is, or whether or not the company has a street team to leave postcards at coffee shops. It’s not if the theater got a lot of press, or if they have won awards. Instead, it always seems to come down to how good their mailing list is. Find the people who like your shows, get them to sign up for mailings, and make it easy for them to unsubscribe if they don’t want to get them anymore. You can probably get a bulk mailing rate from the post office, and make a party out of folding and addressing mailers. Then sit back and reap the rewards, and enjoy the scorn you can heap upon others who just send out Facebook invites and can’t figure out why, when 80 people said they would show up, only 15 actually did. Suckers. They haven’t learned the power of the U.S. Mail.