Starting that Viral Fire!

This post was written by Robert Gore, Social Media Manager at the Theatre Development Fund and producer of The Ohmies.

Since the introduction of social media into our daily lives, word-of-mouth marketing allows us to provide our biggest advocates with the tools they need to spread the word. Through the use of video clips, pictures, blogs, online games, and even text messaging, we can get our fans talking about our products in a way we never could before.

Building a strong word-of-mouth campaign is much like building a campfire. With the proper resources and a spark in the right place, your campaign can ignite a viral fire that spreads naturally throughout your market. But as with any fire, you need to continue to add new resources to keep the flames going.

Here are some general steps to prepare, make, and maintain a viral fire!

1. Research where you want to build the fire.

Identify the broadest market you want to reach. Study that market’s buying habits outside the performing arts. Where do they shop? How do they shop? How often do they shop? When do they shop? What helps them decide what to buy? This will help you identify how this market makes spending decisions, identify local partners, and identify best sites to include in an online ad campaign.

When I was working on a children’s show, the broadest market we decided to reach was “moms.” We decided that “moms” were better than just parents and caregivers because our research showed they ultimately made the entertainment decisions for the family.

Once we identified our broad market, I began to identify sites, blogs, and stores where moms congregated, on and offline, to shop and/or make decision on what to buy. I signed up for countless email lists to study how big-money marketers were speaking to moms. I studied the language moms used to talk to one another. I visited the neighborhoods where moms lived in New York. And to my wife’s dismay, I even watched children’s television for months.

Through this extensive research, I quickly identified two subsets of moms who were more closely aligned with my product than the broad market. The two subsets were yoga moms and soccer moms.

We also researched moms by age demographics — i.e., boomer moms, Gen X moms, and Millennial moms. We learned that each group has its own qualities, beliefs, and most importantly, buying habits. According to , Millennial moms spend almost 40 percent more time on social media than boomer moms. Clearly, digital marketing would not have been the best strategy when we wanted to target boomer moms.

Research and preparation help to identify and avoid pitfalls that could be both catastrophic to marketing budgets and keep your “viral fire” from starting.

Extensive research can also help to identify early adopters, allowing you to concentrate your initial marketing push on this focused key market, which will act as kindling to start your viral fire.

2. Gather fuel.

Ask your staff to create and harvest content that will keep your market engaged and sharing.

Content Ideas

  • Blog posts written by the director, an actor, casting, playwright, etc. that provide insight into the creative process or the themes found in the production. Berkeley Rep asked the poster art designer to take a look at her creation of the poster for Chinglish.
  • Backstage photos or videos. The Signature Theatre uses rehearsal photos to introduce audiences to cast, the creative team, and staff.
  • Photos of the design process. Sketches, building, costume parades, etc. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival created a video for Two Trains Running by August Wilson, allowing the audience to see the design ideas come to life.
  • Live video chats with key members of the company.
  • Editorial content discussing themes of the production. The Wooly Mammoth in DC asked this question of its local community: Is your neighborhood Clybourne Park? The question resulted not only in online content but also live discussions with community leaders. These offline conversations led to online blog posts from community blogs in the DC area.

3. Pile some of the fuel in an appropriate manner, ready to be lit.

Now that you have the content ready, begin to distribute it through several channels.

  • Direct Mail — Don’t count out this tried-and-true distribution channel. Customers still respond to analog marketing, especially during fundraising appeals.
  • Email — By far this is the quickest, most cost-effective way to reach your market.

Most companies have established email lists, so it is important to remember to segment your list to maximize the impact of your email. Just as with your overall market, there are different types of email readers who respond differently to emails. Segmentation allows you to craft language that speaks specifically to your segment. For instance, why send a season highlight email that focuses on musicals to a ticket buyer who favors plays?

 If you are just building your list from scratch, think about the segments you may want to look at in the future. The sooner you begin to examine and test your segments, the quicker you can begin to really understand your buyers. Some early segments you can create are new subscribers, buyers who prefer matinees, buyers who prefer evenings, buyers who prefer musicals, buyers who prefer plays, and — my favorite — donors.

The amount of segments you can create with your list depends on the amount of data you collect. The more data you collect, the better you can hone or segment your list to create that spark you need to start your viral fire.

  • Website — This is the platform you have the most control over. You can make sure people see exactly what you want them to see. Make sure you provide your market with the tools, such as ShareThis, which enables your users to share and engage with your content with ease. (Please note: Limiting your users’ ability to share videos or pictures from your site stops the online word of mouth, making sure your fire never starts.)
  • Social Media — Identify two to three networks where your audience lives and start there. Not every network is right for you. Start by listening on the top social media sites — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc. — to see if your audience is engaging on these platforms.

Second, determine your social goals.

    • Do you want to increase web traffic?
    • Do you want to reach new audiences?
    • Do you want to increase buzz?
    • Do you want to provide customer support?

Once you have determined your goals, you can begin to jump in and measure your impact on each network. This will help determine the best networks to focus your attention.

  • Ads — Purchase both online and offline ads if your budget allows. Your research phase should help you to hone your keywords when placing online ads.

4. Ignite some material, usually tinder.

This is usually the most difficult (and critical) step.

Make sure you provide your key market with the tools to become your word-of-mouth ambassadors. Provide them with content and language to clearly talk about your brand. Engage bloggers who write for your key market and provide them with material that will help them write about your show. Place ads on the sites your markets visit. The purpose of this step is to make sure your content gets in front of the eyes of your key market.

Once your market has been exposed to your content, monitor how they begin to morph your content into a language they use. Let this guide you as you create new content for the next step.

5. Build up the fire by adding fuel.

Create more content: backstage shots, cast videos, blog posts about/by cast or creatives. Use statistics to identify which types of content engage your market. If you stop creating content, your fire will die — so keep adding fuel to the fire.

6. Maintain the fire as needed.

Remember, a good fire requires your attention. Establish metrics based on the goals of your campaign and monitor weekly, if not daily. If you are not reaching your goals, reassess and try again with new content, language, and/or frequency. Once your fire has started, you can keep it burning forever by continuing to set goals, providing it with fuel, and monitoring the outcome.

Now that the fire is going, grab a bag of marshmallows, some chocolate, and a few graham crackers and listen to the buzz you have created. What you hear around the fire might help you find new ways to engage, inspire, and encourage your audiences to continue to be a part of your company.

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