Non-Targeted Marketing Failure

It has been said so many times that it has almost ceased to mean anything, but we are in fact in show business, and not necessarily in that order. We have rooms full of chairs, and those chairs each need a butt, and it is up to us to put butts in those seats.

The attempts to get a butt in each seat can run a continuum from obvious, through brilliantly original, all the way down to head-scratching. One the obvious side is something like “selling a ticket to the performer’s mom”, where the butt going in that seat belongs to someone who would rather be in that seat than anywhere else in the world. On the other end, you get something like the Montblanc Campaign for the 24 HR. Plays on Broadway.

Yeah, it’s that Montblanc. No strangers to bizarre marketing ideas, these guys created a pen – a writing utensil – that costs $24,000… and then named it after Mahatma Ghandi. So perhaps it’s not so strange that Montblanc should be interested in tapping that giant revenue stream that is off-off-Broadway and their loyal legion of a couple thousand fans, all of whom desperately try to figure out how they can use the Discount Code so they don’t have to pay the full $18 ticket value.

I should say, before I get too deep into this, that I think there is a myth about the differences between Broadway and the off, or off-off worlds. It isn’t simply a matter of celebrity or access, these are very, very different audiences. When one begins working in the world of independent theater, one is speaking to a very different audience than Broadway attracts. I love the site “Talkin Broadway” and their chat room “All That Chat”, but those people are simply un-interested in black box theaters. In a similar vein, I brought one of my dear off-off Broadway friends to see “The Music Man” with me, and at the end of the show, when the cast was inexplicably on stage playing trombones and a 60 foot American flag dropped out of the ceiling, he turned to me and said, “I feel like I’m insane…”

So, while there is a difference in production values between the independent theater world and Broadway, there is also an aesthetic difference between the *writers* of each. Independent theater embraces the non-well-made-play much more so than Broadway would, in fact Broadway simply doesn’t tolerate story-telling that requires a great leap of faith.

And so The 24 HR. Plays are the perfect slice of independent theater. A group of artists gets together at 10 PM on a Sunday night and everyone introduces themselves. The writers pick a cast out of the actors and spend until 4 or 5 writing a script. The producers have an hour to make copies and to start printing the program. At 6 in the morning, the directors come, read the scripts, get their assignments and go over the technical requirements with the staff. At 8, the actors show up, and the cast rehearses all day. At 5 they start tech runs of the show, at 7:30 the audience shows up, at 8 the curtain rises and by 10 the show is over. All in 24 Hours.

I think it’s great that they are raising money by doing a Broadway show, especially since it’s going to charity, and I think it’s great that their profile is being raised by doing it. It’s also hilarious to see celebrities, who normally live in a very protected environment, step outside their bubbles for one day and see if they can’t survive.

This year, for the Broadway Celebrity 24 Hr. Plays, they have filled the playwrighting slots with celebrity playwrights – all except for one. And with that last spot, they’ve decided to invite in a playwright from the world of independent New York theater. But they aren’t gonna decide which one to invite, they’ve decided instead to have a contest.

And here’s where the makers of extraordinarily badly named expensive pens come in. Montblanc has decided to host the competition on their website. I know this because I’ve seen the website. I mean, after it crashed Firefox and Internet Explorer on this computer, I was able to access the site on my wife’s computer, but yes, I did in fact manage to get on the site.

And there we have six playwrights, all of them from our community, duking it out for your votes. These are all people who’ve knocked you out at one time or another, all the kind of men and women that have been interviewed by Adam Szymkowicz on his blog. And we’d love for any one of these people to be invited to be a part of the plays, it would be a great opportunity for them and, more than likely, will give the audience a sense of what a real independent voice sounds like.

But… WHY? The person who wins this contest will win with about 500 or 600 votes, and there will be about 2,000 votes cast for the other playwrights. And every single one of those votes will have given Montblanc a new email address, a new marketing opportunity. And each and every one of those votes will have raised the profile of the 24 Hr. Plays in the minds of the people voting.

On the surface, this seems like a win-win. You get, say, another five thousand people who are all talking about the 24 Hr. Plays and Montblanc, how can this be bad?

Well, several things.

One, when you can win a contest with 500 votes, then it becomes really easy for you to get every single one of your cousins and your parents friends to vote. All those folks in Colorado and Louisiana that want to see Cousin Carl up in New York get a crack at having Wolverine’s Brother deliver their dialogue, they’re all gonna jump in. Not a single one of those people is gonna see the 24 Hr. Plays. Maybe they *will* buy a pen for 20k, but that seems a long route to go to make that happen.

Two, there’s a dirty little secret. The website is such a piece of crap that most people who go won’t go through the incredible pain in the ass to register and vote, but those who do will figure out pretty instantly… you can login with as many made up names as you want, nobody is actually keeping track. So, the 24 Hr. Plays and Montblanc are gonna have a giant stack of emails, and a LOT of them are gonna be fake.

Three, these playwrights are members of a community that has a lot of passion and a lot of drive, but very little capital. I know this because if they had a lot of capital, they’d have their weird plays produced off-Broadway, not off-off. We’re a community that comps our blogger friends because one $18 ticket isn’t gonna save us as producers, and one $18 ticket could break us as audience members. And if the blogs don’t cover our shows, nobody will because we can’t afford to hire publicists.

The tickets to the 24 Hr. Plays are between $200 and $300. THIS IS THE WRONG COMMUNITY FOR THIS SHOW. Besides, if we had $300 laying around, you know us, we’d probably just be making a down payment on a THIRTY THOUSAND DOLLAR PEN.

Four, this isn’t creating good will. It just isn’t. I’m in this community, and we all spend the entire year supporting each other. We were nominated for FOUR New York Innovative Theater Awards, and while we were disappointed to not win any of them, we were honestly ELATED for the people who won, and we’re still huge fans of the NYIT Awards themselves.

So… for whom do we vote? Which of my playwright friends do I think should go? After all, I could spend an hour making up fake emails and voting 75 times for one of them, and since it’s such a small community here, that block could make all the difference. One of my best friends is in the running, AND HE’S FACEBOOK FRIENDS WITH PRACTICALLY ALL THE OTHER PLAYWRIGHTS. What does he do? Does he start posting reminders to vote for him?

This is ridiculous. If you were picking a baseball team and you had 30 guys, would you pick the best 8 and say, “the ninth spot goes to whomever can get the most signatures, BUT you have to collect them at this shoe store!” How do you even know the people in the shoe store care about baseball? Every customer in the shoe store is gonna get pummeled with guys begging for signatures.

I want nothing mo
re than the continued success of The 24 Hr. Plays. It’s a little bit more than that these are a company of people I admire and think are fun and good, they are actually dear friends of mine. One of the producers is one of my oldest friends in the world right now, I’ve known him since 1992. But I think they’re making a mistake with this contest.

Oh and also, nobody cares. This experiment costs nothing to Montblanc or the 24 Hr. Plays. It’s gonna suck for our little community to have this to fight over, and there will be nothing but mild disappointment for the plurality of people who voted for the loser, and for the five losers, but we produce theater in a vacuum, our entire lives have a tinge of disappointment to them.

But I do think this is an example of marketing that hasn’t been thought all the way through. As a lesson, this is just a strange idea with very little upside. If they want a voice from the world of independent theater, then they ought to simply invite someone, getting more votes than the other five finalists won’t prove the playwright’s ability to negotiate the landmines of producing under this model.

The information they are collecting won’t be useful or even truthful, in many cases, and the target for this marketing campaign won’t, in the end, be a part of the group that will enjoy the products being produced. There will be no butts in seats or pens in pockets from this, but our little community will definitely be left with a bad taste in our mouths.