Yes, We Need to Change the Theater Experience

This article originally appeared on ArtsHacker.com.

If you have not yet read Terry Teachout’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the California Symphony’s new efforts to bring in millennials, you must read it immediately.

Like, right now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Ok, now that you’ve read it, let’s talk about two major points that every arts administrator should take to heart:

  • “What the California Symphony discovered, in short, was that “almost every single piece of negative feedback was about something other than the performance.””
  • “Another important discovery was that it’s single-ticket buyers, not veteran subscribers, who are most likely to use the orchestra’s website.”

I would argue that these things are true not just for millennials, but for EVERY new or inexperienced theater-goer so we’ll look at things through this lens.

We as arts organizations ask a lot of people when we try to get them in the theater.  We ask them to spend a (sometimes sizeable) chunk of money on a ticket to an event that contains loads of nuance and requires quite a bit of experiential knowledge to understand all while sitting in silence in the dark for up to 3 hours.

Now, when we DO get someone new to take that leap of faith, it is baptism by fire because we don’t generally make an effort to prepare them for what they are about to experience, both on stage and off.

And we wonder why we have such a hard time getting and retaining new ticket buyers…

The current modus operandi is to gear everything from the front of house experience to the marketing communications to the existing ticket buyer/subscriber/donor.  I’m not saying that these groups aren’t important because they absolutely are.

However, if we want to truly attract and retain new ticket buyers, we simply must change our mindset and make some changes.

Let us ask ourselves these questions:

  • How would a new person perceive the lobby experience at my theater? Would they feel welcome? Would they know what to do?
  • Are we sending anything to new or inexperienced ticket buyers before the show to help them appreciate and understand it more?
  • Is the messaging we are using understandable to someone who is new? (I expand on this in this ArtsHacker article.)
  • Are we just telling people about the show or are we making a compelling case as to WHY they should come to the show?
  • Are we answering simple questions that new people might ask about seemingly mundane things like parking, dress code, when to clap, etc?
  • Are our show website landing pages optimized with the full information about the performance so that everything can be simply seen on one page? (For some guidance, check out these articles on what web design mistakes not to make, attributes of an awesome landing page, and why you should get rid of your homepage slider.)

Making changes is not going to be easy; it is going to be hard work and it will take time to see the effects. But it is work worth doing.

Let’s get to work.

Ceci Dadisman is a multi-faceted marketing professional with over 10 years of experience successfully marketing the arts, nonprofits, and small businesses utilizing innovative and cutting-edge initiatives. She is nationally recognized as a leader in digital and social media marketing and specializes in the integration of digital marketing and technology into traditional marketing methods. She is on the National Arts Marketing Project Advisory Committee, the Arts Midwest Conference Professional Development Committee, is the Immediate Past President of Femfessionals West Palm Beach, the Immediate Past President of the South Florida Chapter of the American Marketing Association, and served for many years as the OPERA America Marketing Network Chair. She was recently appointed to the West Virginia University College of Creative Arts Visiting Committee. Ceci was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA and graduated from West Virginia University with a music degree in vocal performance.