What Really Happens on Broadway

Is there such a thing as a creative corporation? Of course. Like the Googleplex. They’re notorious for offering employees flex time, projects with creative control, a fun campus, and eye-candy.

But there’s a difference between a corporation that is creative, and a creative industry run by a corporation. I just left my position at a Broadway marketing company of nearly two years. And despite working on creative initiatives and taking our Facebook Fan Page from 0 to nearly 7,000 in my tenure, I discovered the industry is very corporate. I was surprised by the structure involved, and the tiers of approval processes and a small group of people controlling most of the industry.

And because of that control, there’s a saying in my Broadway circle, “Everyone wants to be first to be second.”

It means people want to be innovative and be a leader but wants someone else to go first to test the waters. Then crush that person who went first and do it even better.

Broadway ran itself for a very long time within a specific framework of rules. A show had previously, worked out the kinks, the show opened, and the same reviewers came to show after show. And often yielded complete power over that show’s fate. They could close a show within days. If the show sustained; soon the theater elite and Bridge and Tunnel group from New Jersey and Connecticut showed up and told all their friends at cocktail parties and relished in their good taste.

The world of Broadway was largely a mystery to the outside world. And still is. Broadway is a tiny, incestuous industry where many companies share vested interests and stock in other theater companies. You learn that the same people control much of the industry and find how entangled they are across so many projects. You learn what they will and won’t do and how that trickles down to the rest of the industry. You learn how much they can do just with their verbal backing. You learn no one wants to look like an asshole. And everyone wants to look brilliant and well-connected.

And you learn what the industry is afraid to do. Like getting into new media and marketing. Taking leaps in an industry that largely relied on print reviews and word-of-mouth to the viral marketing age can feel insurmountable. But it’s also incredibly exciting to be at that threshold. Less than five years ago many of the shows on Broadway didn’t even have a Facebook Fan Page. I would bet that not all of them even do now, and if there is one, it’s probably still a Profile Page instead of an optimized Fan Page with FBML tabs and a newsletter sign-up. Why? Same reason as above.

The same people have been running Broadway for years. And they were brilliant at it and it worked for them. So they were resistant to the changes happening around them and wondering why the same rules didn’t apply today that did 10 years ago. But they’re trying to change. There are the ones who drag their feet on setting up a social media campaign thinking it would all just work out.

They ended up with a Groups Facebook page and 60 members (the show will remain nameless, and their page is still this bad). And on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who simply spend money to get their own social network developed with absolutely no strategy in place or way to attract fans. No one cared. It crashed and burned. But society started to change.

The economy faltered and tourists wanted to spend money on a brand they were familiar with. Shows based on films like Legally Blonde started opening. In fact, the lead was cast through the MTV reality show “The Search for Elle Woods” and the entire musical was aired in its entirety.

Shows also started using FourSquare and looking for partnerships with area restaurants. Check into the venue, and get a free drink next door. Touring markets offered patrons the chance for ‘Tweet Seats’ where they could Tweet live during the show and in turn drum up the press. Shows started to notice social media was largely free. Casts started making viral videos and tour blogs and took over Facebook Pages to answer fan comments for a half-an-hour. U-stream and mini-documentary webisodes, and walk-on roles won through YouTube auditions were suddenly the rage. Spring Awakening found one of its leads in their Facebook moderator.

The company I worked with represented a large roster of shows, which could make it difficult to speak to all shows to our entire fanbase. So I started geo-targeting posts to specific areas where a show was on tour. I asked specific questions to our fans on what they did and didn’t like about the show. Or I would develop a discussion question doused with humor: “What is the greatest Broadway love story of all time? My vote is for Xanadu. The greatest 1980 roller-disco love story ever told.” The fans found our presence approachable and likable. I studied our fans and what voice worked for them. I looked at what comments spiked an interest. And I paid attention.

Most of our fans didn’t even live in New York. And most weren’t entrenched in Broadway knowledge. They just wanted to be part of the magic of the industry. So unlike most companies who were still talking to their fans as if they were part of the inner circle, or worse, ostracized from their inner circle – I gave them what they wanted. Access. I posted photos around Times Square, I took footage at free Broadway events in the park during the summer. I told them stories.

We included them and made them feel like they were part of it all. I also took polls and discovered that through our Facebook Page alone, we were changing fans minds about specific shows they previously had no intention of seeing. But it wasn’t our press clippings, videos, or discussion questions posted that made them change their minds. It was eliciting a response from our audience and allowing them to talk to each other. They don’t necessarily trust us, but they trusted what everyone else was saying.

And do you know what eventually happened? It bridged the trust. And when we got complaints directly on Facebook about issues largely out of our control like a snowstorm or show being sold out; fans actually took our side and defended us to the complainers. I was proud of them. And was moved by their stories of what theater meant to them. So I told them we were moved. I let them know when their comments were being circulated through the company because they were so useful or inspirational. I remembered their stories, their kids’ names, and followed-up on comments some months later. I told them we appreciated them.

They knew we cared. If my job had offered me a full-time career of interacting with fans, blogging, and pulling press clippings instead of so many meetings and spreadsheets; I would have stayed. I love the inspiration it created, and the one-on-one interaction it provided. In the end, it was their downfall that I ran with their social media and turned it into a community. Because I saw that I craved it. Needed it. And could do it. And do it better without limitations right here with you. What I realized in my tenure on Broadway is that marketing is relatively easy. It’s focused ideas + psychological look at your audience + testing + implementation to a specific group that needs your product and services.

When you market to everyone or market to the wrong people trying to convince them your product is something it’s not, you fail. The process of convincing Gatekeepers to push initiatives through is what’s difficult. They stall. They take meetings that don’t really matter. They never get to the point – to connect with fans. The industry players who provide access, or change the rules, are typically the ones who succeed.

More importantly than what the industry is afraid to do, it’s about what they’re afraid not to do. Shows will hire the same videographers to shoot for them and purchase their same webisodes or material because they’ve figured out they need to be in the viral space. But they don’t really know how. Or what to do differently. Or what’s even working. And they want someone to tell them.

That’s the secret. That is how you can gain access into a tightly closed industry like Broadway.

You do it by looking at the shows online presence. Seek out their YouTube channels and Facebook Pages. Look at their content. Can you do it better? Can you get into their heads and see what they really need? Maybe present options between talking head interviews and develop a behind-the-scenes series? Can you create all-encompassing modules that lead from social media to blog to video to an offline scavenger hunt to ticket sales? Do they market to Broadway tours in Middle America, which is a whole separate kind of culture than New York, or on Broadway? Or both? Can you measure your results?

Because many people out there who are making a living selling services to the Broadway industry can’t. You’ll be surprised at how quickly companies will take a meeting, even with someone new, if they can promise a remarkable product and deliver. There’s more. Do you know the rules of their industry and how to get around them? How to come with a self-contained camera and not plug-in or violate Equity rules? Who needs to approve what? Who to contact directly? It’s not the stage manager. You’re better off researching industry publications to find out what companies are marketing what show. And then find out if their lead players have their hands in other Broadway companies. Do more research. Do you know what kind of budgets they have?

Because if you think Broadway has a large budget with money to burn, you’re wrong. So very, very wrong. In my experience, their marketing budgets haven’t really increased over the years even though the cost of media has increased and expanded into costly video banners, social media platforms, and online assets. The industry has to be more creative with their marketing, and more discerning with what they spend money on. Marketing to an old and established creative industry takes ingenuity.

It takes a deep understanding of their industry culture. It takes a passion to infuse the magic back into the industry. It takes confidence to break down their walls. It takes courage to put yourself out there to a crowd that is known for its elitism. There is a gate. But the access isn’t through the front, but underground. In a way where you’re rallying what they need most – their true fans. And what do the fans need? Education and appreciation for the show along with a voice they feel are heard.

Bring the industry access to their true fans, and they’ll unlock the gate and welcome you with open arms.