Order Before Midnight Tonight!

I'm lucky to be pretty equally both right- and left-brained, so I'm roughly equally good at both running New Line and creating art for New Line. (Now I just have to learn how to find and develop bigger donors...)

One thing I've always been both fascinated and baffled by, is arts marketing, how we market differently from for-profit companies, and also what we do the same. One lesson I learned stands out among the rest.

It was quite a few years ago. I was late-nite channel surfing, and being a political junkie, I had to stop by C-SPAN. To my great delight, I discovered a program that blew my mind wide open.

American University holds an annual two-week Campaign Management Institute, "to train political activists and campaign managers for participation in local, state and federal political campaigns. Designed and taught by strategists from the Republican and Democratic parties, national campaign consultants, and political scientists, The Institute covers campaign techniques, strategy, and tactics with emphasis on recent technological developments." And the classes are all broadcast on C-SPAN.

I happened upon the the broadcast of a class on marketing and advertising, and I learned an amazing lesson. The speaker talked about a particular commercial that had been running at the time, to illustrate how and why a good marketing campaign works.

In the commercial, a woman who's obviously an executive is getting ready for work, and for an important meeting, while her two little girls are begging to go to the beach. It seems pretty clear this is a single working mom. Finally, she realizes she can take her kids to the beach and participate in her meeting – by cell phone.

So this guy giving the class explains that when cell phones were first becoming popular, men bought them more than women, so this commercial was intended to boost sales to women. And then he "decoded" the commercial, charting the implications of the images, and he blew my mind:

Product Attribute
Result of that Attribute
The Personal Consequence of that Result
The Value to the Customer of that Personal Consequence.

So first the commercial presents a problem: this woman can't be at work and at home with her kids. Then it presents a solution to the problem in one particular attribute of cell phones: mobility. The result of that mobility is that this woman's cell phone allows her to take her girls to the beach and still be at her meeting. And what is the consequence of that result? She can be both do well at work and do well at home. And what's the clearly implied value to this woman? If she gets a cell phone, she can be great at her job, and also she'll be a better mother and her children will be happier. She can "have it all." Quod erat demonstrandum.

Sure, it's a bit simplistic but it's also essentially true. You never want to lie to your customer.

So many of the commercials I see follow this formula, and I started thinking about what I could learn from that for selling New Line tickets.

Following the formula, what is our product, what is one great feature of our product, and what benefits does that feature provide you? Of course the problem I encounter right away is that we're selling an abstract product, an ephemeral experience. How do I translate the cell phone commercial into an approach for us to take?

Our product is the communal experience of storytelling. An attribute of storytelling is human truths. The consequence of that attribute is greater understanding of yourself and the world around you. And the value to you of that consequence is... well... you have a greater understanding of yourself and the world around you...

All that sounds great, but when someone's trying to decide what to do on a Saturday night, deeper understanding of Life might not trump a great blockbuster action movie or a great rock band.

We can't forget the attribute of the communal experience of being part of a live theatre audience. And the result of that attribute is powerful human connection. So what's the consequence and value of that? Well again, that's something people want, but it's not something most people want consciously or even think about.

Working moms know they want to be better mothers. That's much easier to sell.

I'm convinced that one of the reasons people wanted to see Heathers and why everyone enjoyed it so much, is that this show is about one of the central issues plaguing our culture right now. We were able to "work through" this impossible, chronic social problem over the course of our show, to find greater understanding, to recognize our own culpability and responsibility. But most people didn't say, "Let's go see Heathers. I hear it's really relevant." They went for the wild ride and got greater understanding probably without even knowing it.

People are rarely conscious of how and why they need stories, but they do need them. So how do you market to that need...?

I still grapple with this. But this did teach me a side lesson too. I used to write press releases and text for our website all about how important our next show was, how historically significant, etc. And I realized very few people buy a theatre ticket because the show is important. They buy a ticket because they think they'll have a great experience.

So now I try to focus all my marketing text on why you will find the show exciting, not why I do. And I also realized I have to embrace the fact that we sell an experience, not a thing. You can't take our product home with you, except in your memory.

And I'm still working through the exercise from that C-SPAN program. You can watch the program on the C-SPAN website.

I'll keep you posted.

Long Live the Musical!