I joined Facebook in May 2008, in order to market my production of the moment, the third annual Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood Festival. Apparently, much of the rest of the world discovered the site at approximately the same time. As of August 2008, Facebook had one-hundred million users. In early April of this year, its membership hit two-hundred million.
MySpace, founded in 2003, pioneered online social networking. However, over the course of 2008 Facebook sped past MySpace in terms of both overall number of users and average time spent on the site. Adult users, in particular, appreciate Facebook’s privacy controls, which are easier to use and more finely customizable than those available to MySpace users. Facebook was also the first social networking site to open itself to applications created by external software developers. Twitter, founded in 2006, has also grown quickly in popularity.
Much has been written about corporations and marketing companies using these websites to build brand loyalty, interact with consumers and advertise their products. Curious about what New York theater organizations have been doing with these new technologies, I spoke with Carleigh Welsh of P.S. 122, Rebecca Sheahan of Prelude, Rebekah Paine of New York Theatre Workshop, and Karina Mangu-Ward of HERE Arts Center about ways their institutions have been using social networking sites.
According to Mangu-Ward, HERE joined Facebook in early 2008 with the goal of appealing to a young, internet-oriented audience. “We hope that our Facebook marketing helps us to overcome the main limitation of live performance: the need to get people to attend an event at a specific time and place,” she says. “On Facebook, they can also find out 24/7, from any location, what’s going on with our organization.”
NYTW joined Facebook in 2007 and simultaneously phased out its use of MySpace. For the past two months, it has also been using Twitter. “Our goal of the moment for social network marketing is to offer a bird’s eye view of how our current production, Things of Dry Hours, is coming together,” Paine says.
For the first time, NYTW has been posting photographs of rehearsals, costume creation, load-in and other behind-the-scenes events; previously, posted images were final production photos taken after their shows opened. On Thursday afternoons, it has been holding contests that Twitter followers can enter to win free tickets. While some Facebook and Twitter posts concern current productions and other NYTW events, others reflect trends or discussions in the larger theater industry, such as links to articles or other theaters’ websites, followed by comments.
P.S. 122 joined both Facebook and MySpace in 2007, and plans to start using Twitter in June. According to Welsh, P.S. 122 views its social networking marketing as an outgrowth of the physical social events often attached to its productions, such as artist talkbacks and opening night parties. “As we feature such a large number of productions with relatively short runs,” Welsh says, “one of our goals is to build word of mouth for P.S. 122 as an organization and destination for exciting, unusual work.”
An advantage of the social networking sites, she continues, is the ability to quickly add or update information tailored to each site’s particular audience. For example, P.S. 122 can better highlight productions that feature music on MySpace, which has many music-lovers among its membership.
Prelude began to use Facebook in July 2008 to promote its October 2008 conference, and recently has also developed a presence on Twitter. Since the Fall 2008 conference, Prelude has been using Facebook and Twitter to support the theater companies that presented at Prelude ’08 by promoting their productions. It hopes to continue building an online community with a shared interest in cutting-edge theater in between its main annual events. Sheahan views Facebook as an outlet for relatively detailed information, like a miniature blog, and Twitter as a destination for links and quick, comparatively simple news.
How successful is social network marketing? Have these organizations been able to reach their goals? Sheahan contrasts Facebook and Twitter favorably with print advertisements. Social networking sites make it easy to view the number of fans or followers Prelude has at any given time and learn, through comments and thumbs-up (on Facebook), what they think of the posted content, she says. With print materials, it’s much more difficult to gauge response.
HERE reports a recent experience of soliciting applications for its Summer Sublet Series primarily through its Facebook page and receiving fifty proposals in the eight days between the initial posting and the deadline. P.S. 122 uses codes to track ticket purchases through each site, and notes that these codes are used on a regular basis.
In March 2009, Facebook changed the format of its fan pages, essentially providing them with options that had previously only been available to individual users, such as status updates that can feed directly to fans’ profile pages. Since then Prelude, NYTW and HERE have been working to migrate their group members to their new pages, where they can take advantage of the new features.
The main challenge to using these new marketing strategies, mentioned by all four interviewees, is having the time and personnel to update them with quality information on a regular basis. Welsh feels that it would be ideal to have a separate person for each platform, in order to tailor postings more specifically to each site’s individual audience and atmosphere. HERE is in the process of applying for funding to hire a Media Manager to be the point person for its online outreach efforts. Incorporating video content and longer, blog-length Facebook entries are other recurring goals.
In sum, it seems likely that the ways New York theaters use social network marketing will continue to evolve as the platforms themselves do. Over time, it will undoubtedly become clearer which strategies are most effective and how to use these new technologies to their fullest potential.
Valerie Work is a NYC-based playwright and Editor of www.offoffonline.com