A Theater Wins Over Audience With Replicable Engagement Strategy

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"Whoever posts a selfie of themselves here and tweets it or posts it on Instagram with hashtag Woolly Mammoth will be eligible to win 2 free tickets to our next show."

That sentence was uttered loudly and often last night by an energetic young man addressing about 150 people in line for a Pay What You Can (PWYC) performance of a play called Two Guards at the Taj at Woolly Mammoth theatre. Immediately after the first callout, three attractive, diverse young professionals in front of me posed and primped for the best selfie imaginable.

This theater attracts more young people, by far, than any theater in the Washington, D.C., area. Occasionally, the content—the plays—might be called a bit out there. But overall, including last night, it's standard fare, some productions better than others. Yet, everyone seems thrilled to be there, and the two performers received a huge ovation—one you wouldn't see at another play of that ilk.

It's worth examining, but not from an attracting-Millennials viewpoint. We're not all that different. So let's look more from a gaining-any-new-audience perspective.

1. The PWYC format. This is obviously an attractive promotion. It allows people to sample content for a small price. From Woolly's viewpoint, they're getting new audience who will probably share their experience with friends, see other events there, and may even turn into subscribers.

Takeaway: PWYC can be tried for an e-book or report, or maybe even a webinar. There's a good article on Quora about it. "By selling a PWY[Want] product that could be sold at a wide range of prices, customers get a lot of choice at what a 'fair price' could be. The individual who would have never paid $19 for your book, may be willing to part with $5. As a result, both you and the customer win." The author also suggests language like: "If you pay more than $10, you'll receive a bonus 45-minute audio file where I discuss this topic in-depth."

2. Network with your queue-mate. Woolly benefits from young people knowing that there will be other young people there. Any group wants to see people like them. They also make the PWYC the most fun of any theater in town. The line winds around so it's good networking and people watching. It moves fast because they only accept cash. (Yes, young people pay cash!) And they have a captive audience to promote other stuff and do shout-outs.

Takeaway: Add on one more networking segment to any live event that you're doing. It might be a new-person dinner, a breakfast discussion, or happy hour speed networking, something to get folks interacting even more.

3. What's your Taj Mahal? The selfie thing may be more geared to young people, but quizzes and games appeal to everyone. Woolly gave a discount off tickets last week for every inch of snow we got in the blizzard. They're asking staff and customers, "What's your Taj Mahal?"—an amazing place you've visited. Onsite, they have interactive games, and you can post on a giant screen.

Takeaway: Gamify something you do—a discount price could be based on the Super Bowl score, promote your next webinar by asking 5 quiz questions based on things they'll learn, sponsor a contest that gives away an author book, etc.

4. House Lights Up events. In addition to the PWYCs, Woolly has scheduled talks and concerts around the current play—called House Lights Up events—so you're not just coming to see the play and leaving. I go back to our 120-person strong, speed networking event at BIMS last year (where demographics were mixed), or Lynn Freer from SIPA member Spidell telling me the success of their in-person training is as much about the camaraderie than the content.

Takeaway: If you have a popular webinar, maybe you schedule another hour so people can talk more. Meetup.com also can be a successful tool for local business networking events.

5. Find your social media. Of course, Woolly is tweeting (9,710 followers), Facebooking, Instagramming and YouTubing away. A video from a production they hosted by Chicago's Neo-Futurists has racked up 9,430 views. They also strongly encourage their audience to join them on those platforms. I will post this article there.

Takeaway: Video may be the key here. Cabot has increased their engagement tremendously with their weekly videos. Try something short and sweet.

6. Seek partnerships. Woolly is partnering on their events with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the United States Capitol Historical Society, the Atlas Intersections Festival (another theater), and the Wilson Center (a non-partisan policy forum). Think of all the extra eyeballs they're bringing to the conversation.

Takeaway: Think of other businesses, arts venues, sports teams perhaps that you can bring into your conversation. If it is a different demographic or group, all the better because they may bring you that new audience you've been coveting.

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…