The most common responses I get from people who haven’t yet adopted social media into their lives is, “I don’t get it,” “Who cares,” or “How do I know if I’m doing it right?” Some have gone as far as creating a Twitter account, but have abandon the effort because the 140 character limit per tweet seems too limiting.
But for theaters who are not only in the business of putting on shows, but in the business of audience building (all of you, right?), social media is a miracle for anyone little to no PR budget. Social media offers free, direct access to the audience you already have as well as to the potential audience members. Like actors to free food, theaters should flock en mass to social media.
The microblogging site now has about 190 million users worldwide. As of last year, 6 percent of the total population of the United States was on Twitter, which breaks down to about 318,000 people in Minnesota. Of course, that percentage is rough -- a number of people on Twitter start an account but never use it. But, then, there are also a large number of so-called "passive users" of Twitter: people who never start an account, but regularly check Twitter users they like, and make use of the Twitter search engine to see what people have to say about a subject -- there are 19 million Twitter searches per month, which is more than any other single online search engine but for Google.
Getting started with Twitter
It is great how many people are concerned with “doing Twitter right.” It shows, in a way, that Twitter is important, but some of us just aren’t sure why yet.
It’s good to be cautious, because performing badly on Twitter can damage your image, or your theater’s image, quite quickly. Do not treat social media as a sounding board to loudly and impersonally sell your wares. Enter Twitter as you would enter a friend’s party. Find the people you already know and say hello so that they know you’ve arrived, then observe for a while to get the feel of the place.
On Twitter, it’s likely many of your fellow theaters are present, and probably a few actors that have graced your stage. Follow them, interact with them as friends and acquaintances. Relax knowing that you’re not on the clock to sell sell sell, but to hang out -- casually interacting here and there, and occasionally sharing theater information. Only rarely use your presence to sell or promote: mention an opening night is coming up, or that there is a special discount. Heck, have a special on tickets for anyone who mentions Twitter, or engage your followers even further by, say, having a trivia contest; the first person to answer correctly gets free tickets for that evening’s show.
What information should you share? I recommend sharing behind-the-scenes information and any amusing anecdotes that will help your audience feel included as an insider. Share candid photos. Is an actor working on designing their stage makeup for an upcoming show? Snap a pic and (if it’s okay with the actor, of course) share it with the folks on Twitter and Facebook -- it's easy to share photos on Twitter by using a service like Twitpic. Doing a show by a famous playwright? Share some of their famous quotes. The Walker Art Center is great at maintaining their online presence. They share tweets such as “That went fast. Your last day to catch the Yves Klein exhibition is Sunday. Let's see if I can dig up a few more awesome archive photos... ” and “4 propane heaters. Check! And 6+ hours to go for Walker After Hours: On Ice." These serve both to give Twitter followers a sense of being privy to some behind-the-scenes information and spark curiosity about whatever the hell they have going on.
Be sure to announce to the world your theater is on Twitter and Facebook and any other online media, such as Youtube or Flickr, by having badges on your website’s landing page -- Facebook, as an example, has code for a badge that shows who follow you on Facebook, which can encourage others to do likewise. There are a number of services that make it possible to take your Twitter feed and place it on your web site -- talk to your webmaster about this. And, if you're especially bold, you might also run a scroll of any Tweet with your hashtag attached, although you can't be certain they will all be positive.
Hashtag? Some of you are already scratching your heads, wondering what that is.
For beginners perusing Twitter, you may have seen some tweets concluding with a hashtag (#). This enables people to search for all tweets containing that word or phrase. Include a program note encouraging tweets and reminding patrons to use, say, #YourShowNameHere. Encourage your audiences to tweet before, during intermission, and after the show. This will help in getting feedback for the theater as well as in promoting the show. The Minnesota Historical Society is a great example. They are currently promoting their King Tut exhibit and George Washington exhibit, so they are using the hashtag #TutVSGeorge and sharing tweets such as “Washington not only defeated the British & became our 1st Prez, he did it w/out real teeth. His dentures: #TutVSGeorge.”
They are good at including other local businesses’ relevant tweets, too, for example, “Going to see Ma Rainey's Black Bottom @GuthrieTheater? Learn the bite-sized history of August Wilson's time in St Paul.”
There are ways to search for tweets that mention anything relevant to you, such as the theater’s name or show name. If someone mentions the theater or the show, for instance, follow them! Respond to them! Is someone raving about the current show? Be sure to thank them and retweet (RT) what they’ve said. All of this will solidify the good relationships you’ve already made and encourage others to check you out. This is how you will find and keep a devoted audience -- by genuinely befriending them.
Learn more about Twitter for beginners on Twitter 101.