The company of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! Photo by Carol RoseggIf you’re embarking on a marketing campaign that includes spreading awareness (and which marketing campaign doesn’t), you might want to take a page out of Arena Stage‘s playbook and look for “initiators” instead of “influencers.”

This is the brainchild of Chad Bauman, Arena’s Director of Communications. Here’s the basic idea:

  • Before the show opens its official run, identify the people you think will help talk up the show
  • When it comes to social media, don’t just look for people with huge numbers of followers, but people who actively engage (hmm, where have we heard that before?)
  • Invite them to private performances – essentially preview nights – that are off-sale, even before “press night”
  • Make them feel as if they’re getting a “behind the scenes” look at what’s going on
  • Encourage them to share the heck out of it

If you’ve worked in the theater business, you’ll recognize this as an updated “concierge night.” But there’s absolutely no reason you can’t take these principles and adapt them for your own marketing campaign.

I found out about Chad’s approach to influencer initiator outreach because I was one of around 40 people his team reached out to via a Twitter direct message, invited to attend the first “initiator night” for Oklahoma!, which just opened its public run and runs through October 2. So by way of disclosure, please know that my husband and I attended a free showing of Oklahoma! on July 7 (our 12th wedding anniversary, thank you, thank you), and tickets are around $75.

How did this work, as far as I can tell?

  • I’m writing about it now, though there was absolutely no obligation for me to do so. And it really is a terrific show (having a theater background myself, I’m very picky about my shows), beautifully-designed, directed and choreographed, if a trifle long. If you’re in or visiting the DC area, I highly recommend you go see it.
  • It did feel like a special event. I mean, we got in even before the press did! And Molly Smith, the director, came out at the start of the performance to tell the audience exactly how special they were, which was naturally well-received, and she pointed out several of the crew who were in the audience… people you don’t often see, but without whom it’s impossible to put on a show.
  • We were encouraged to not turn our cell phones off, but share as we felt like it through the show (with the ringers down, obviously).
  • When we arrived, we were given flyers with “5 ways to spread the word,” such as posting on their Facebook page, following them on Twitter, etc.
  • When we left, we were given coupons with a promo code that we could use, if we wanted to (unfortunately I’ve lost mine, and I think it was only valid until July 17 anyway).
  • A few days after the show, I received a follow-up email that was an electronic version of the “5 ways to spread the word” flyer (makes much more sense than only doing the paper handout).

I had such fun during the show, I did try to check in on Foursquare, upload a couple of photos that I took before the performance started (the set design is really excellent), etc., but I had trouble with connectivity. Even though you could log onto Arena’s wi-fi network, the signal was very weak. So I gave up.

Oklahoma! illustration by Douglas FraserHow does this work, in general?

When I spoke with Chad a couple of weeks ago, he said, “Really well.” Here are a few pointers/nuggets:

  • Their average email open rate is around 18-20%. The average response rate when they approach people through social media is about 25%.
  • They put a lot of work into researching the people they invite, so there is no set percentage of how many they’ll approach through social media. With Oklahoma!, for example, they really wanted to reach the people who can reach tourists. So the bulk of invitees comprised people like concierges, taxi drivers, bus drivers, Metro operators, and so on. For Oklahoma!, the social media invitees were relatively few; for some shows, it can be as much as 50-60% of the invited audience.
  • They use Refollow to segment and identify the Twitter users they want to invite and, again, they don’t focus simply on follower numbers, but on people who are really engaged.
  • They use Vocus to monitor “buzz.” Chad admitted that this part is tough, and I suggested they start incorporating the use of campaign tracking in Google Analytics, just as we did for the Blue Key campaign (client disclosure).

There was something else that Chad said, which really struck me. I asked if he had gotten any push back when he came up with this idea (in 2007), and he said,

“Theaters are story-telling institutions. It’s not easy to market a show if people don’t experience it. These are seats that wouldn’t be sold anyway [since they’re basically dress rehearsals].”

Is that smart, or what? Show that since there’s no financial loss to be incurred, why not use what’s already there to instead try and make money?

I do think this speaks strongly to the faith Arena Stage has in its “product.” If the show and overall experience sucks, there’s a huge potential downside, by the initiators doing exactly what Arena would not want them to do, and discourage people from buying tickets.

In fact, when Molly Smith spoke to us at the start of the show, she said, “If you like it, please tell people. If you don’t like it, don’t say anything!” But it was so humorously done, that no one minded.

Over and above that, when you’ve made a concerted effort to make people feel special, even if they don’t like something they are less likely to complain about it.

So the next time you’re embarking on a campaign, see if Chad’s approach can help you reach the community you need to reach. Because if you can get people to share their experience, they’ll get more people wanting to share that experience.

And isn’t that what you want?

Images courtesy Arena Stage, used with permission