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Theatre Is Not a Fridge: Reflections On 'Product-ing' Theatre In Arts Marketing Practice

Arguably the most intriguing session title at Spektrix Conference 2018, we were delighted to have Emma McDowell join us and share her research, key findings and experiences as an arts marketing consumer and creator, on how we make meaning from our cultural experiences. Emma is currently working towards a PhD in audience engagement and arts marketing, after recently receiving a White Rose College of Arts and Humanities Doctoral Studentship Award.

As an ex-arts-marketer-producer-now-quasi-academic, I was delighted to speak at Spektrix Conference 2018 and share my thoughts on how we articulate and communicate the value of live theatre, and my research approach to better understanding the interactions within it.

First and foremost, there is some value in admitting that, on the whole, arts marketing and marketing theatre in particular, is really hard. Any audience member’s experiences of theatre make for a complex web of interconnecting value-making processes that, frankly, are pretty difficult to capture in a line of copy or a thumbnail image on the website. So, it’s understandable that as theatre marketing and fundraising teams are under increasing amounts of pressure to deliver return-on-investment, it’s tempting to hedge bets and offer guarantees of an ‘off-the-rack’ experience or alternatively, sit back and let the art ‘speak for itself’, for fear of being too didactic and telling audiences what to think.

As arts marketers, making space for reflection, not just on what we do, but how (and why) we do it, is not a purely academic exercise. The fervency with which Spektrix Conference-goers joined in with a round of ‘arts marketing bullshit bingo’ when we shared our marketing campaign ‘pet hates’, clichés, hyperbole and vacuous persuasive language demonstrated clearly how, even as arts professionals, we are becoming increasingly impervious to sales pitches, increasingly wary of the inauthenticity of persuasive language and increasingly aware of the hypocrisy of any company or public organisation saying one thing, and then doing another. If we can see through ‘The highly anticipated, critically-acclaimed superstar returns for a one-off, super-special one-night-only extravaganza’ as #fakenews, then we can be 100% sure that potential audiences do too.

Emma's Arts Marketing Bullshit Bingo

Of course, persuasion can work. To market a show is to communicate an idea that is attractive enough that it gets people to buy tickets, and of course, there’s a lot of very sophisticated and clever marketing wizards out there, wielding their algorithmic wands to peddle what you want before you want it. When marketing a product that has a defined purpose and form; a car, a bottle of perfume, a fridge – persuasion is often enough. Get the product sold, and we can all move on.

Not for culture or for theatre. Once you are in the performance space, you are still a thinking, breathing human being, who is constantly making meaning and forming value judgements The product is your embodied and active engagement with the cultural experience.

Reframing engagement in the arts

Arts marketing has focused too long on ‘the sell" and solely getting bums on seats. At risk of sounding naïve, of course, we can’t afford to run empty theatres, but surely at the very least, some sort of engagement is needed. It happens more often than we’d like it to do, but how do we respond when ticket-buyers walk out of a theatre going ‘meh’ and get on with their day? When there is no sort of engagement, if the audience is literally ‘disengaged’ and underwhelmed, they will lose interest, that loss of interest becomes a risk that might last a lifetime. Frankly, losing people’s interest is bad for business and I would suggest that this is why many people don’t see theatre as their ‘thing’ – the potency of one underwhelming experience can do long-lasting or even irreparable, damage to their relationship with the arts.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a love/hate relationship with the term ‘engagement’ – it’s so deliciously vague and can be wheeled out at any moment to describe any sort of connection, especially when we’re not really sure about its nature. Engagement can be used to describe a wealth of responses, and engagement with any one theatre experience could be: the opportunity to see someone famous up close, to appreciate the welcoming smile of the volunteer usher, to learn something new about another culture, or to spend some quality time with loved ones. But beyond those examples, what about the artistic engagement itself? Where does that lie? And how is that framed or influenced by the expectations and reflections before and after the show?

However we define it, I don’t believe it is solely the job of the artist to engage or connect the audience to the art within a theatre experience. If the communications about a show are persuasive to the point of being misleading, audiences lack the tools, information, and the context of how best to orientate themselves towards the experience. Sometimes, the genre that is picked to describe a show does a lot of the work – for example, with a comedy show you expect a broadly amusing experience, brought on by the complex interplay of tension and release and subsequent laughter. Pantomime too is a clear brand in itself – so families rock up in their hundreds every year for this slightly bizarre, curiously culturally UK-specific Christmas ritual. Yet, theatre (and contemporary theatre especially) has too many possible forms to rely simply on a brand. Even though it’s not classed as posh as ballet or opera, theatre still has a clear image problem.

Arts organisations by now all agree that offering their customers good service and accessibility is a no-brainer. My argument is that marketing and communications professionals play a key role in crafting the invitation, in aligning those expectations and getting the ‘right audience’ in who are ready and prepared to take part. This lays the blueprint for the interactions to take place and gives theatre the opportunity to do what it does best – to connect people in the same space at the same time. This touches on who is in the room and what expectations they bring them, as well as how people are brought in. All of these things feed into the craft of the invitation.

Identifying the Interaction

Theatre can be so many things, but at its very core, it’s the possibility for interaction between audience members, between audience and artist, between venue and artist, and between venue and audience. As this excellent article by Kirsty Sedgman points out, theatre may be ‘the ideal laboratory for capturing the meaning-making processes in action’. Humans make meaning through an active perception of their environments and crucially other humans, and if live theatre is anything, it’s the opportunity for that particular type of interaction.

So, what does that mean for marketers, or for practitioners who are under pressure to deliver value to their customers, and align that with the artistic promises made by their organisation? To be frank, there is no right or wrong way to market the arts and theatre, and there is no right answer or one-size-fits-all solution. For me the answer lies in revisiting the artistic exchange – what is the nature of the interaction? If we reframed marketing as the beginning of the artistic process, what would that mean for our campaign activity? Exploring why the art has been made or at the very least, why has is been programmed?

Challenging the use of copy is an excellent way to begin to pick apart the assumptions we make on behalf of our audiences, and this also includes the way that we code our data too. Marketing the arts is hard, and the people doing it have a wealth of experience through which they have honed their craft so most importantly of all, I think it’s about finding the balance between questioning and reflecting, and trusting your instincts when you need to make tough decisions. Arts marketing and theatre marketing is complex and I would argue that ignoring this complexity completely is much more dangerous than building time for reflection and rethinking into our practice, which can only help to ultimately become more effective practitioners and to have more productive conversations with artists about their work.

Get in touch

My research is concerned with the meaning-making processes that go into the creative production and the reception of three particular theatre productions at a contemporary UK theatre. I’m still in the early stages of my research, but I would love to hear from you, whether you’re an artist, academic, audience member or theatre professional, who might be interested in continuing this conversation further.

Researcher/Marketer/Producer – get in touch with me at artsmarketingemma@gmail.com or @emmamcdoofus