I set out to find some truly dreadful arts marketing copy for this post, so I picked a respected LORT theatre at random, went to their website and clicked on a show.
BINGO! Struck gold on the first try:
“Friendship and betrayal, love and jealousy. Once Othello’s most trusted confidante, Iago’s envy-fueled passions unleash a betrayal with catastrophic results for Othello and his beloved bride Desdemona. Shakespeare’s profound tragedy is an enduring story of race, love, envy, and repentance. This stripped down retelling is the portrait of an unraveling mind amid a society engulfing and destroying its very best.”
Oh. My. God.
How does this happen? Who approved this for publication? Who the hell would want to go to this show? And who was the focus group respondent who said, “I’m just aching to see a portrait of an unraveling mind amid a society engulfing and destroying its very best.” This would be absolutely horrifying if it weren’t typical of the way arts organizations have been talking about their products for the last forty years.
Wait a minute… It is horrifying. Theatre audiences are disappearing. How can professional theatre companies afford to do such incompetent marketing?
This language is supposed to make people want to see the show. The copy is there for a reason. It has an important job to do. It’s purpose is to anticipate the customers’ desires and describe how the show will make them happy. When people read it, they’re supposed to think, “Wow. This sounds like a really fascinating story and a richly rewarding night in the theatre.”
But this copy fails painfully on all counts. At best it suggests an unsettling experience watching nasty people do disturbing things to one another. I’ve been researching ticket buyers’ desires for decades and have yet to come across pent up demand for this sort of thing.
The fact that a respected professional theatre would endeavor to sustain itself by speaking to customers this way is an embarrassment to the entire industry. One can only hope that the quality of work on the stage is better than the quality of work coming out of their executive offices.
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If you write copy for your arts organization and you’d like to avoid producing this sort of mindless drivel, here is a simple, no-cost formula that will put you on a more professional track.
Get a young person from outside your organization to join you in some role playing. Have them ask you the following questions and audio-record your answers so you can transcribe them later.
What’s the next show at your venue?
What’s it about?
Why would someone like me be interested in seeing a show like this?
Sounds like a big commitment; what do I get in return for my investment of time and money?
Go through the process several times. Keep it light, conversational and informal. Try having the questioner play different roles and answer the questions honestly as if you’re really eager to convince them to see the show. Keep going until you’ve landed on the most naturally persuasive conversational answers. Afterward, listen to the recorded dialogue and isolate the language that was most effective in motivating the questioner. [Hint: It will be the language that recognizes your questioner’s desires and describes how the show will make her happy.]
Now here’s the important part: Take the material you isolated and edit it into a potent little nugget of fresh, engaging sales copy. Don’t change it. Don’t make it sound like a regional theatre blurb. Don’t formalize it or, god forbid, “punch it up.” Just ‘speak’ to your customers plainly and honestly as if they’re thinking, feeling human beings who you know would enjoy a night out in your venue watching a really good show.
And one more thing. Get someone who wasn’t sleeping through 7th grade English to check the grammar.
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People who run performing arts institutions have no right to complain about diminishing audiences when they publish idiotic nonsense like this in their marketing materials. Professional theatre should be marketed by professionals. If the regional theatre industry and its support systems (i.e. foundations and major donors) think this is an acceptable way for the arts to talk to tomorrow’s audiences, they’re just engulfing and destroying their very best.
Whatever the hell that means.