Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On Purple Cows and Sneezers

Tom Loughlin over at Poor Player finds himself daunted by Don Hall's (Angry White Guy in Chicago) recent post "The Shit Hitting the Fan." Tom, who harbors a desire to start his own theatre, wonders whether anyone would come. Don's post draws our attention to the closing of many storied theatres around the country, and concludes that "The 'business' is kicking the crap out of the 'show.'" Tom worries that Buffalo is already over-supplied with theatres, and that they are "essentially split[ting] the traditional theatre crowd: upper-middle-class educated aging baby-boomers and beyond." Don proposes a series of measures to make the theatre more financially viable in the areas of real estate (tax breaks for those who rent to arts organizations, rental vouchers for artists to use to rent performance spaces, and a NEA grants for living museums), marketing (less money for rent means more money for marketing), and education (all artists should provide free performances for schools). All valid worries, all interesting proposals.

To my mind, though, the most important sentence is Don's quotation from a story about Lisa Kron, where she says: "We keep working at something that's become totally economically unworkable." The tendency, when reading this sentence, is to nod dourly while focusing on the final two words of the sentence. On the other hand, I think we should look at the first part of that sentence -- "we keep working at something" -- and add in another phrase to clarify it: "We keep working at something in the same way we've always worked at something..." We haven't changed the way we do things in decades (I had to stifle the urge to type centuries). Our business model is old fashioned, and we seem to unwilling to risk imagining a different way of doing things, much less putting a new way into effect.

Take marketing. As Don says, less money for rent would lead to more money for marketing, which "
will simply be easier because marketing takes dime." And this is most certainly true: advertising prices go up and up, whether it is newspapers, radio, television, or posters. But as Seth Godin says in Purple Cow, "we've now reached the point where we can no longer market directly to the masses. We've created a world where most products are invisible. Over the past two decades, smart business writers have pointed out that the dynamic of marketing is changing. Marketers have read and talked about those ideas, and even used some of them, but have maintained the essence of their old marketing strategies. The traditional approaches are now obsolete."

He goes on to discuss the periods before, during, and after advertising:

Before advertising, there was word of mouth. Products and services that would solve a problem got talked about and eventually got purchased. The best vegetable seller at the market had a reputation, and her booth was always crowded.

During advertising, the combination of increasing prosperity, seemingly endless consumer desire, and the power of television and mass media led to a magic formula: If you advertised directly to the consumer (every consumer), sales would go up. A partnership with the right ad agency and the right banker meant you could drive a company to be almost as big as you could imagine.

After Advertising, we're almost back where we started. But instead of products succeeding by slow and awkward word of mouth, the power of our new networks allows remarkable ideas to suffuse through segments of the population at rocket speed. As marketers, we know the old stuff isn't working. And we know why: because as consumers, we're too busy to pay attention to advertising, but we're desperate to find good stuff that solves out problems.

He concludes, "Among people who might buy your product, most will never hear about it. There are so many alternatives now that people can no longer be reached by mass media. Busy consumers ignore unwanted messages..." He proves this by running an experiment with the Wall Street Journal, where a full-page ad "costs more than a house in Buffalo" (Tom, you'd know how much that is). "One morning," he writes
with time to kill at a fine hotel, I interrupted a few people who were reading the Journal over breakfast. I waited until they had finished the first section, and then I asked them if they could name just two of the companies that had run full-page ads. Not one person could." For me, this rings true -- I rarely pay attention to the ads in my morning newspaper. Now, if people can ignore a full page ad, what chance do our 1/16th-page ads have of getting attention? Well, what about direct mail advertising -- that's better, right? Think about how many solicitations you dump in the garbage unopened every day of the week. Which ones do you open? The ones you already were committed to anyway, usually."

Godin's solution is to focus efforts on creating a remarkable product (a "purple cow" -- something that is "worth talking about"), and then put that product in front of what he calls "sneezers" -- sneezers are "the key spreading agents of an ideavirus. These are experts who tell all their colleagues or friends or admirers about a new product or service on which they are a perceived authority. Sneezers are the ones who launch and maintain ideaviruses. Innovators or early adopters may be the first to buy your product, but if they're not sneezers as well, they won;t sperad your idea...Finding and seducing these sneezers is the essential step in creating an idea virus."

Theatre sneezers are not "the traditional theatre crowd: upper-middle-class educated aging baby-boomers and beyond" -- those are the early and late majority who will not attend your theatre without it being recommended by a sneezer. Sneezers are people who are on the lookout for something new, something different, something cool, something remarkable. Most theatre are none of these. We create very few Purple Cows. We think the safe way to make money is to be conservative, when actually that is the most dangerous, because sneezers have nothing to talk about. The old theatres have already snapped up all the traditional audience members (Tom's concern), so if you are a new theatre you need to focus on the new audience. And if your theatre isn't cool, isn't remarkable, it offers nothing to the sneezers. No wonder our audiences are greying -- they're the early and late majority that was motivated by some sneezer years and years ago and, typically, just stayed afterwards. Is this the audience we want to attract? What about people who aren't middle class, white, educated, and Baby Boomers? How do you reach those sneezers? What makes a play remarkable to an African-American working stiff in his early 20s? How do you reach those sneezers? (Hint: I doubt that it is by using the same marketing methods as the traditional theatre crowd.)

The point is that we need to wipe the slate clean and think about this from the ground up. It's a new world, and we can't do things the way we've been doing them for the last hundred years. We have to know our audience, and then take the risks necessary to create a Purple Cow. Risk doing something different.

Because if we don't, then there really is no point to opening yet another theatre, in Buffalo or anywhere else, that will just go ignored. And if we don't, other theatres like those that Don lists will close their doors. And it will be sad, and we will blame it on the Great Unwashed who don't appreciate Good Art. And we'll never see that these theatre have stopped being remarkable, and consequently have stopped being sneezed into coolness.

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