Theatre: wake up to the digital age!
Whether we're talking about Twitter, Facebook or the blogosphere, it's high
time theatres used social media properly – and not just for free
One of the interesting statistics to emerge from research by the Society of London Theatre (Solt) into the effect of internet and social media on theatregoing, recently reported by Arts Professional, is that Facebook, Twitter and blogs are increasingly the means by which
ticket sales are driven, rather than reviews or traditional forms of
advertising. Sixty-five percent of the people surveyed said it was
social media that helped them decide whether to go to the theatre, and
which show to choose. And they're more likely than ever to book online.
Yes, all those tweets really do make a difference.
Back in January, at the State of the Arts conference, Marcus Romer of Pilot Theatre pointed out that while radio took 38 years from its inception to reach
50 million users, and TV took 13 years, Facebook achieved the same
coverage in just two. The Solt research shows that 41% of UK
theatregoers are already Facebook users – a surprisingly high figure
given that theatre audiences tend to be older. Facebook has more than
400 million users, which effectively makes it the third-largest country
We already see theatre embracing pervasive media to make new works, with initiatives such as Theatre Sandbox (places for which have been enthusiastically taken up at the pre-application workshops) and the RSC's current Such Tweet Sorrow project. Companies such as Coney and Pilot have long understood how social media can help the theatre
experience begin before the show does, and continue after it has
But, on the whole, theatre seems to be waking up rather slowly to the massive shifts going on. Anecdotal evidence, particularly
from regional theatres, suggests that the practice of booking tickets
weeks in advance is becoming outdated. In spite of this, large portions
of marketing budgets are still spent on advertising in traditional
outlets – a method that is nowhere near as effective as it once was,
and expensive to boot.
At last year's Shift Happens conference (the next one is in early July), I was struck by how many people
– particularly those working in marketing – were asking what digital
could do for them rather than what they could do with it. Beyond Live, Nesta's research on the National Theatre Live experiment, suggests that those who saw a play streamed live in cinemas were more – not less – likely to want to go to the theatre.
The answer is clearly for theatres to embrace social media in all its
forms, and use their natural creativity to do it well. That doesn't
simply mean a website on which theatregoers can see what's playing and
buy tickets, or maybe read a blog (which is often a thinly disguised
bit of puffery written by some poor actor during rehearsals). Neither
does it mean tweeting nice things about your own show. It means
creating sites that are as lively, reciprocal and outward-looking as
any other forms of social media, that draw people in and make them want
to stay and poke about. And it means creating a relationship with
audiences: allowing them to understand what you are trying to do, and
being transparent enough for them to comment both favourably and
unfavourably. In this way, theatres can genuinely share thinking,
promote discussion and look beyond the boundaries of the individual
The recent Andrew Lloyd Webber outburst over bloggers and Facebook groups is a reminder that no producer or theatre company,
however powerful, can control what is being said on Twitter or in the blogosphere. The answer is simple: if you can't beat them, join them.