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Free Night Or Free Nights?

October 16, 2008

Today is a special day for the U.S. non-profit theatre world: It's the 4th annual Free Night of Theatre. Organized by the Theatre Communications Group, the Free Night aims to attract new audiences to the theatre by offering no-cost tickets to a wide range of performing arts events in many different cities across the country.

San Francisco (alongside Austin and Philadelphia) piloted the event in 2005. Since then, at least if the propaganda is to be believed, the Free Night has grown exponentially. On the first Free Night, held on Thursday, October 20, 2005, more than 150 theatre companies ushered close to 8,000 theatre-goers through their doors to see more than 120 performances.

In 2006, Free Night expanded to include an additional 13 communities such as Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, DC. On October 19, the 2006 campaign offered 35,627 free tickets to 522 performances presented by 387 participating theatre companies from coast to coast.

Last year, the program was expanded to previously unrepresented parts of the Midwest and southeastern states. TCG presented Free Night 2007 in more than 70 cities. The event gave away more than 30,000 tickets to 600 performances that were presented by 398 theatres nationwide.

This is all very commendable, but I'm puzzled by one thing: the Free Night doesn't seem to be a one-night stand anymore; theatre-goers can now get free tickets to see shows over several weeks. In the Bay Area, for instance, free tickets can be used to see events from October 3 to November 7.

While the generosity is admirable, I'm wondering if it might dilute the punch of the campaign? There's little point in declaring October 16 2008 a Free Night of Theatre if every night between October 3 and November 7 is equally free. From a marketing perspective, I wonder if extending the dates in this way is a good idea? If people know they only have one night to see shows for free, they might jump into action more readily than if they're able to say, "well, I can go anytime over the next few weeks, so I'll just wait and see how my schedule pans out before organizing a trip to the theatre."

And how does offering free tickets on multiple evenings affect the economic situation of the theatre companies involved? It's not like any of these organizations are rolling in money.

I'm also curious to find out whether handing out free tickets over the past few years is really helping to build new audiences or whether people are just taking advantage of the free offer and coming to see plays just once rather than repeating the experience at other times during the year. I've contacted Theatre Bay Area's executive director, Brad Erickson, to find out if his organization has any information about the audience-building acumen of the Free Night program. When I hear back from Brad, I'll post his thoughts here so stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you're in the U.S. and happen to get out to see any shows as part of Free Night either tonight or at any other point during the "run", feel free to drop me a line to let me know what you saw and whether the free ticket program will keep you coming back for more.

This news in from Brad at TBA in regards to the rationale behind expanding Free Night beyond a single date:

"The whole month aspect is one of our local innovations as implemented this fourth year of Free Night in the Bay Area. Nationally, Oct 16 (the third Thursday) remains the focal point for the campaign. We found that focusing on one night didn’t help us communicate the real scope of the initiative, with performances laid out over several weeks. But one of the fascinating aspects of Free Night nationwide is how individual communities are free to tailor-make the campaign to work best in their own regions. So there are now dozens of different ways to implement the initiative. All of which we will be studying and reporting on at the TCG conference in Baltimore next June."

Brad is deferring to a colleague of his, Clayton Lord, to get back to me about audience-building facts. I'll post again when I hear from Clay...

54 Comments:

  • Great questions, sir.

    At New Leaf, we're participating in this program in a big way as part of the League of Chicago Theaters & TCG cooperative pilot program. Here's how it's working for us:

    1) We choose how many tickets and what nights we want to give away as part of the program, then the tickets are made available to participants. That lets us strategize our word of mouth campaign by giving away lots early in the run, or on the unfortunate Halloween night performance we have coming up.

    2) The way the rules work, recipients of free tickets MUST be new patrons to our theater. Most of them are already theater goers, but that plus the fact that they've never seen one of our shows make them VERY high-value. That's important to us, because we obviously want our existing patrons to continue to support us rather than get in for free, and so far, there has been no observable overlap (we are one of the few theaters of our teensy size that HAS been tracking patrons for several years). But we are watching this closely, as should any theater that participates.

    3) Right off the bat, the results have been amazing for us. We gave away about 25% of our opening weekend houses... those tickets were gone in about 2 days. We've added more performances and tickets strategically when we've needed stronger attendance... 95% of all the tickets that we made available were claimed within 24 hours.

    Now, we think that we have a quality show and a good reputation, but there's no way that there's enough buzz out there to get several hundred strangers to snatch up our tickets like it was a Ben Folds concert - so TCG (or potentially our League of Chicago Theaters) has got to be doing something right in that regard.

    4) Of course, guaranteeing show ups is one of the big risks of the program. A lot of the data suggests a 30% no-show rate, our internal company data so far in the run has been running more around 20%, so that's fairly good.

    5) TCG did VERY little to prepare theaters to really connect with these audiences other than capturing some basic contact info and marketing data for them. We've been supplementing this with a welcome package, including information on the rest of our season, a welcome email, and 2-for-1 tickets for the rest of the season. We'll know more about how successful that program is in January when our next show goes up and we can track how successfully the free tickets were translated into repeat patrons.

    Ultimately, the program is designed to build audiences by reducing the perceived risk of attending theater. Even in Chicago, which is a very theater-savvy town, that risk is a major hurdle towards building new audiences even among existing theater goers. In terms of sheer numbers, most theater goers seem to have the experience that theater begins and ends with LORT houses, or Broadway touring shows. When they find out about intimate houses that are doing artistically strong work, our experience has been that they get really excited, but that rarely happens since storefront theaters don't have the infrastructure to efficiently connect with those patrons. So TCG stepping in is actually quite fortuitous.

    I'm going to continue tracking this program and post results as we compile them. More on:

    http://nikku.net/blog/street-vendors-make-the-best-lemonade/

    By Blogger Nick Keenan, At October 22, 2008 at 11:58 PM  

  • thanks for your thoughts, Nick
    hopefully more small companies will take your lead and monitor the progress of free night more carefully. are you going to approach TCG about doing more to support companies through the Free Night process?

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At October 23, 2008 at 7:55 AM  

  • thanks for your thoughts Nick. Sounds like more small companies should be monitoring the impact of Free Night like you. Are you going to approach TCG about improving their support?

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At October 23, 2008 at 7:57 AM  

  • We might... we're a relatively small company, so what we are definitely starting with is engaging the more local League of Chicago Theaters directly, who we hope will be able to take our data and best practices, collect our results with the rest of Chicago Theater (I'm sure the big participating theaters in town are able to be much more systematic and historical with their patron data), and provide a survey of results that actually would make TCG take notice.

    Until then, I find just being nice and public with the results and the strategy - even with our audience - might be the best method of getting the word out quickly in a way that gets heard. I mean, there's nothing to hide here - we want a relationship with our newfound patrons, and we want them to know that they're valued. And we want our existing patrons to know that we're approachable. And we want TCG to actively support and calibrate more initiatives like this (For a theater of our size, this is truly the first TCG program that we've heard of that has been scalable enough that we could capitalize on, so that says something right there.) And we want the blogosphere and the press to continue to think critically - there is a LOT of doubt about this program but not a lot of data yet - but also fully support/give props to TCG programs that are working for us.

    So thus we share our data and process. We're hoping to do a run down about the specific feedback we have from our Free Night patrons on our New Leaf company blog, after we've done another week or two of Free Nights. Transparency breeds trust, and add a good show to that mix, and we've got our soup on with a new audience.

    The Chicago League is definitely trying to spread these and other words on ways to work the program to best serve its member theaters, and their recently launched blog (yesterday?) merits some attention...

    http://chicagoplays.blogspot.com/

    By Blogger Nick Keenan, At October 23, 2008 at 10:13 PM  

  • Thank you Ms. Veltman for taking the time to explore what I believe is the latest and currently most trendy fix all plan to fill empty theatre seats: giving away free tickets. Theatre is a powerful art form, capable of healing, expression and change, but none of this is possible if no one is there to see it. You write specifically about The Free Night of Theatre, which I think is a great example and sort of “test event” to review the results and deem whether or not the program is effective. The statistics you give for the Free Night campaign are very helpful. Including them makes your writing more credible, giving the reader the sense that you have invested time and research into your writing. You make a good point when questioning the extension of free tickets to more than just one night, but I think it could be a good thing. It gives potential new theatergoers flexibility that might be just what they need to actually make their way to the playhouses. Plus, instead of one night, theatre is on the brain for nearly an entire month. The most effective question that you asked, which concerned the basic principle of giving away tickets, was “how does offering free tickets…affect the economic situation of the theatre companies involved?” Name a theatre, and they probably need money. So, if they are giving up some of their earnings as a marketing ploy, is the investment paying off? If it is not, what is your insight on what could be a good strategy in packing out the theatre houses of America? Is there a way, or is theatre really a dying art that the majority would rather let die? I wonder if the right plays are being produced, maybe people have a need to see something different. The US is becoming more and more diverse, and I have to ask: are we telling the right stories? Today’s target audience is composed of various ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and cultures. I believe that the body of work being produced in the United States should reflect that. Whatever the answers to all of these questions may be, it is my great hope that more people will realize what they are missing and head to their nearest theatre to get their latest fix of what should be their new addiction.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 4, 2008 at 7:09 AM  

  • thanks for your insights, Ms Arangua
    I wish I knew the answers to the questions you ask. the American theatre certainly reflects the diversity of this country's people in my opinion. But the problem is that most people in the US perceive theatre to be nothing beyond Broadway, shakespeare and community productions of Neil Simon plays. they think it's passe and boring and reflective only of white, middle-aged, middle-class values. a big shift in perceptions is what's needed. not sure to what extent Free Night helps in this regard. it's certainly a move in the right direction.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At November 4, 2008 at 11:03 AM  

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