Marketing in a Pandemic: How We Do It

Thursday, 21st January 2021

Leo Doulton, Marketing Director


This part of our Learning From 2020 tools for artists and producers.


As we start another year of lockdowns (though with a vaccine in sight), my colleagues and I at Tête à Tête are going to be sharing what we learnt over the past year in a series of blogs. We’re also going to be thinking about what lies ahead as we work out what the future of opera looks like.


We’re starting with marketing, because it was my idea so I get to take the plunge first. Here are my lessons from Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020, and a prediction for 2021.


Plan stories, not dates


In the Beforetime, you might want a schedule saying something like “announce show on the 13th of March, tickets on sale 17th May, ramp up campaign 3rd July, show 3rd August.”


Amid all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, none of those dates are certain (unless you’re doing an online show). It’s not even certain that your show will happen with a live audience. While you need to have marketing assets ready for those key events, you can’t pin down when you’ll release them.


Instead, you can use your social media to build a narrative around your show. As always, think about what’s truly unique about your work and its creators. Tell the special, exciting stories that help build your audience.


When your tickets go on sale, they’ll hopefully be excited enough to give you their money. But we tell different stories to children than our friends over Zoom, so we need to know who we want to listen.


Know your audience


Some shows cross all boundaries. Disney spends a lot of time doing market research to try and make the perfect all-family entertainment experience.


If you’re reading this, you’re probably making new opera. Your show will appeal more to some people than others. These people are your target audience.


Who is your audience? Does your show have a campaigning focus, or draw on particular folklores and traditions? A great question is “who goes to the shows that inspired you?”


When we divide audiences in this way, it’s important to remember that we’re not saying that these attributes are the only things that matter, or that only people with these attributes will like the show. An audience of elderly new opera lovers who like grand love stories might be hugely diverse in its politics and favoured composers. The same show might (surprisingly) appeal to a [insert modern equivalent of ‘emo’, I’m out of touch] teenager.


However, with limited resources, we do have to make predictions about who’s most likely to respond to our marketing efforts. That way, we can make sure that the chance someone responds to an advert (online, on paper, or via word of mouth) is as high as possible.


Is it safe? What if it’s cancelled?


It’s obvious, but: audiences for live theatre want to know that they’ll be safe. I’d say that 20-30% of any posts about a live event should tell people what you’ve done to make the experience safe. Pictures of your social distancing measures and blogs about the behind-the-scenes work help. The best thing is making sure that everyone who’s been to your show feels safe when they go home. They’ll tell their friends.


A truly live experience


In the UK, the pandemic and its lockdowns have dragged on long enough that people are emphatically bored of recordings and pre-recorded streams.


From a ruthless marketing perspective, the two things that seem to be drawing audiences are things that are able to help educate people (especially children), and actually live events.


The first category is obvious – with schools closed, people want support for homeschooling, or to learn something themselves. However, with big players like the Scottish Opera and English Touring Opera already offering lots of content for free, you’d need to find a niche.


The second category is dominated by comedy and comedy-adjacent things. The comedy sector has pivoted to online in ways that the opera sector… has not. People who did standup now do streams (often mixing it with other activities, such as comedians making a Zoom panto, improvising songs, or being the Divorced Aussie Dad of thousands of weekly viewers).


All of the above shows feature the streamer interacting with people posting comments in the chat. They make a community for isolated people. Opera is pre-written (mostly), and is technically difficult without multiple people in one space, so it’s harder to pull off. The Opera Geek and Madame Chandelier are interesting examples of artists crossing the line between forms.


My hope is that the year ahead will reward people who use online streaming in interesting ways. For example:


– A composer doing live chats with audiences, introducing them to how new opera developed from the old ‘canon’ (say, 1945 onwards).

– A singer going ‘under the bonnet’ of how to prepare different kinds of new music.

– A serialised podcast opera that trades production value and musical complexity for frequency and audience fandom.


Going forwards


How do you monetise these things? Nobody’s quite cracked the formula for opera. Based on other genres, sponsorship and small-scale patronage might be the way forwards. The key to that is telling stories and building communities.


However, I hope that some of the above is helpful as you plan your new opera adventures in 2021, and work out how to share them with the world.


TL;DR: when the world is unpredictable, be flexible.