Friday, January 6, 2012

So Long and Thanks for All the Tweets

The British sci-fi author and humorist Douglas Adams may seem an odd starting point for a National Alliance for Musical Theatre blog post (he never wrote a musical, as far as I know, though this is one of my all time favorite musical numbers ever filmed), but bear with me.  I'm reading The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumously published book of Adams' miscellaneous writings. He was a technophile and a notorious early adopter, and in an article about how computers use "real world" models for their interfaces, he compares the web to a brochure:

What does a brochure prevent us from doing?
Well, first of all its job is to persuade people to buy what you have to sell, and do it by being as glossy and seductive as possible and only telling people what you want them to know. You can't interrogate a brochure. Most corporate websites are like that. Take BMW for instance. Its website is gorgeous and whizzy and it won't answer your questions. It won't let you find out what other people's experience of owning BMWs is like, what shortcomings any particular model might or might not have, how reliable they are, what they cost to run, what they're like in the wet, or anything like that. In other words, anything you might actually want to know. You can email them, but your question or their answer – or anybody else's answer – will not appear on the site....
Same with British Airways. It'll tell you anything you like about British Airways flights except who else is flying those routes. So if you want to see what the choice is, you go instead to one of the scores of other sites that will tell you. Which is bad news for British Airways because they never get to find out what you were actually looking for, or how what they were offering stacked up against the competition. And because that is very valuable information they have to send out teams of people with clipboards to try to find out, despite the fact that everybody lies to people with clipboards.

Sounds familiar, right?  Adams wrote this in 1999.  More than a decade later we're still having a version of this conversation about theatre marketing. Of course, while actual brochures haven't changed much since the printing press, the web — or at least the technology behind it  —  has changed dramatically in just the last decade. I suspect that's part of why we still struggle with this. Adams died in 2000 and never knew Twitter or Facebook or Yelp (I suspect he would have loved them), but later in the piece he does cite the still-new Amazon as a place that sells you a product and lets you review it and knows what you searched for but didn't buy.  That's worked out pretty well for them!

Social media has made it easier than ever for us to connect with our patrons and fans.  How many of us are opening up to these conversations, and how many are making a 140-character brochure?  And what, of course, do the patrons themselves want? Do they want to have a conversation with you, or do they just want to see a show? Do they want your website to be a basic brochure...or do they actually want (need?) a paper brochure? Adams made it sound so simple in 1999, and maybe it seemed then like it would be. But the 21st century has provided us with many moving targets, combining old art forms (Adams himself originally made his name in radio plays) with new technologies, older generations of audiences and staff with younger ones.

I don't have an answer to any of this. I wonder if Adams would have. But I hope and believe we can find some answers  —  multiple ones, no doubt  —  together when we discuss marketing at the Spring Conference in March. We won't have to speculate; we'll have some of the top experts in musical theatre marketing in the room to share what's worked and what hasn't worked for them.  Just no one bring a clipboard so we know we're getting the truth!

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