By An Uong
When something as intangible as art or performance has to be publicized and advertised, the challenge lies in convincing the community that a valuable experience is being offered. More often than not, marketers are thought of as sauntering employees of big brand companies, looking to paste billboards along highways.
However, this is far form true for those who work for arts organizations. Brandon Milardo, who is the marketing director at Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP), has to navigate through the process of building a relationship between the company, its audience, and the surrounding businesses. We met up with Brandon to discuss his position at ASP and his thoughts on reaching out to the community.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH THE ASP AND WHAT IS YOUR ROLE THERE?
I’m the marketing manager at Actors Shakespeare Project. I report to the executive producer and I manage all the marketing activities for the company. I started almost two years ago in Sept 2012 as the marketing assistant part time then about a year in they hired me full time. Before this I had worked with the Boston Opera Collaborative as their marketing director.
DID YOU STUDY MARKETING?
No, I actually studied music, which seems totally random. But when I auditioned for the Boston Opera Collaborative, since they’re a member-run organization, they asked us what things would we’d be interested in doing and I had no idea so I think marketing was one of the things I wrote down.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH THE TASK OF MARKETING FOR AN ARTISTIC ORGANIZATION?
It’s different from and it’s also similar to for-profit marketing in the sense that for both you have to know your audience. Our audience is made up of a smaller, much more “niche” interest. What’s funny is that we’re a Shakespeare company, but we share more audiences in common with classical music worlds, such as symphonies and opera companies, than we do with traditional theater companies in Boston. So in a way even though it’s a different product it’s the same kind of people that I saw when I was working for the opera company. But it’s in knowing whom those people are, what interests or drives them to come to a theater for a whole evening or weekend with us. We have a lot of people who have been with us since our start ten years ago and part of my job coming into the company is to keep that relationship alive.
IN A SOCIETY WHERE THE AMOUNT OF MONEY SEEMS TO AFFECT THE LEVEL OF EXPOSURE, HOW DO YOU OVERCOME FINANCIAL RESTRAINTS WHEN REACHING OUT TO THE PUBLIC?
It’s true, the more money you have the more exposure you get. In the Boston theater scene you see places like the Huntington Theater and American Repertory Theater. They’re the large theaters in Boston and they’re the most visible. You see them on the T, or on the buses. So the mid-sized theaters, where we are, it’s tougher but I think tools like social media have been a huge equalizer for us. Even though Facebook is about ten years old now, it’s kind of a Brave New World situation where you’re still trying to figure out a way to reach potential customers with these new digital channels. It’s a lot cheaper to send and email than to print out a flier, have someone go post it, and rent the space out for the flier.
HOW EXACTLY DO YOU USE SOCIAL MEDIA FOR MARKETING?
That’s one of the things that I’ve been improving myself. Everybody knows how to use Facebook, but how to leverage it effectively as a marketing tool isn’t something that you come in knowing how to do. I think it’s a learned skill.
Our big social media outlets are our Facebook, Twitter and our Instagram channels. We use a lot of those sites to show interesting things that you traditionally wouldn’t spend advertising dollars on. We share what rehearsals and the behind the scenes process look like. Through that the audience gets to know the actors and the people working on the project. It’s stuff you wouldn’t get just from a poster or a piece of mail.
For theater especially, or any arts, there’s a relationship established between the creator and the audience that’s much more personal than marketing and branding efforts for McDonald’s Cheerios. Those behind the scenes snaps really invite people into the world that we create, and give them perspectives other than the one from the house looking at the stage. It all helps to humanize the people that they interact with in the theater, from the house team to the people on stage, all the way to the people behind the stage.
All of that helps to create that relationship that I hope to can carry on, especially in Boston, where there’s so much art that people want to have the personal connection to the places they visit. Making people part of it through social media is a really big aspect of it all.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHER ORGANIZATIONS AROUND ASP?
My boss is the master development and fundraising person, so that’s something I’ve been learning form watching her. I was recently working on ad trades with other theater companies and organizations around the city and there are a lot of mutual benefits that are shared advertising-wise. There’s a lot of collaboration between companies who are working for audiences because there’s that crossover. One of the best things about working in Boston is that the artistic staff by and large doesn’t look at cultivating audiences as a zero sum game. It’s been really encouraging to see that there’s so much cross-collaboration.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ARTS AND BUSINESS?
I think from a broader point of view, the arts are so relatively poorly funded by the government in this country, as opposed to in Europe where there are very good state-funded programs from schools all the way to companies themselves. The backing of businesses, of for-profit companies, is for better or for worse a part of the non-profit business model. But beyond that I think the relationship is important because businesses are made of people and individuals in the community, whether or not they need us, they need the arts. Strong individual organizations help make a strong community and that’s where I fall in the business. I want to make sure we exist for them as much as much as they exist for us.
SO IN YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MARKETING FOR A SMALLER COMPANY AND MARKETING FOR A LARGER COMPANY WITH MORE DONORS?
When I was with the Boston Opera Collaborative, our entire marketing budget equaled my marketing budget the first year I came into Actors’ Shakespeare Project. It was quite a big leap. With that money there’s more you can definitely do but really even with that kind of jump, that huge leap in resources, there’s never enough. There’s always more you can do or spend money on.
The toughest part of having a limited budget is that you’re so limited in what you can try. There’s no backup for failure, or if you want to try some new channel or a new form of advertising. If you don’t have the funds set out for it, it’s very difficult to be able to try it and see it fail and still walk away in sound position.
BASED ON THAT, WHAT FORMS OF ADVERTISEMENT HAVE WORKED FOR YOU, AND WHICH HAVEN’T?
At ASP there are two different broad term goals that we look at when we are marketing: Ticket sales and brand exposure. Ticket sales are very easy to monitor. When an email goes out or when a poster goes out or when the mailings go out, usually you’ll see a bump in your ticket sales. Branding however is much harder to judge especially since we have only have seven full time employees so we don’t have the kind of resources to analyze data that some larger businesses would do.
Last year, it was our 10th anniversary season so we did a big blow out campaign. We did taxi tops in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston for the fall. We did different T advertisements in the winter and spring. We also did the recycling units down in Downtown Crossing all the way through to South Station. People responded to all of that. It’s harder to see a direct effect from those things but when people come up to you and say “I saw your ads on the T” or “I saw your adds out in Downtown Crossing” — it’s exposure you otherwise would not have had.
That affects not just company recognition, brand recognition, and ticket sales, but it also affects donor organizations. For the foundation grants that come in, they see that you are out there and visible, that the work you’re doing is being recognized. It’s being seen. That helps form the larger fundraising price too. I don’t think we’ve had something that’s a definite failing but that’s because it’s so hard to quantify our goals and state of marketing.
SINCE THERE IS NO SPECIFIC OBJECT THAT YOU AE MARKETING, HOW DO YOU ADVERTISE FOR AN EXPERIENCE?
In the world we live in, and in the culture we live in, it’s easy to forget about the arts. It’s something that’s there for people enjoy. We’re trying to show that there’s more to Shakespeare than high school reading. That’s a difficult thing to communicate.
The only physical thing you get from us by the end of the night is a program and a ticket. It might be because I came into this because from an arts background rather than a business background but I think this is why I look at our advertising as creating a relationship. People go to shows for a reason. Whether it’s to be entertained, to learn something or to be moved by something, there are lots of different reasons behind why people go to see shows. My job is to remind the audience that already exists why they come to see what we put on.
For new audiences you have to create the relationship before you can say “this something that can entertain and move you.” There are all these kinds of models but you don’t just ask somebody for $100 dollars. You have to make sure they know they’re donating their money to something that’s worth seeing and supporting. It’s much harder to assign value to something that’s not tangible. So it’s all about proving to people that what you do, even though it’s not something they can touch or pick up, is still worth value.
HOW DO YOU BRAND THE PROJECT AND HOW DO YOU SHAPE ITS IMAGE?
One of the nice things about having a dedicated graphic designer (Sandra Cohen) is there’s a sense of continuity through each season. We look at the project part as collaboration between our actors and artists. We don’t look at it as a necessity. It’s an artistic decision to have a graphic designer on the staff. Sandra makes these very inventive, very unique poster deigns. It’s very different than what I see some other places doing. Huntington Theater for example, they have a template that they use for every poster and when you see it you know it’s the Huntington because it’s very big, bold, and graphic based, but it’s also very simple.
We go in the complete opposite direction. It borders fine art in a way. Sandra comes from a fine arts background, at Parsons and MassArt. We do something different, but we try to keep a sense of continuity, at least within a season. For this past season and our upcoming season, our font treatments have been all the same. It is hopefully recognizable from our brochures so that by the end of the season people will recognize it as the Actors’ Project Shakespeare aesthetic.
WITH ALL OF THE DIFFERENT SOCIAL MEDIA OUTLETS, HOW DOD YOU KEEP CONTINUITY OR BALANCE BETWEEN THEM?
It’s difficult because there’s a lot of crossover. It’s one of the reasons that I haven’t branched out as much as I would like to. There isn’t necessarily a single social media user who uses every platform but limiting what we use makes it a little bit easier to post content. Twitter is the quick stuff. It’s all the quick, text-based information. On Facebook, you can expand a little more, or maybe add some images. Instagram is only photos.
One of my projects for this upcoming year is to clean up our YouTube channel, so we’ve got more video as well. Even then, the way that Facebook and Instagram have integrated video into their platforms has resulted in some crossover that blurs the lines between each channel. You can try to keep up with everything or pick some outlets and try to be really good at those first. Then, once you’ve mastered those, start branching out more.
COULD YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THE PROCESS BETWEEN THE WEBSITE AND HOW THAT REPRESENTS THE COMPANY?
Sandra does all the design work, and we try to stay as consistent as possible. Right now we’re working on our designs for next season’s shows in the meantime she’ll do placeholder stuff that we can keep up. There are so many platforms for making websites. They allow you to post your content through fast and easy means.
For us, we did a complete rebranding three or two years ago before I joined. We’re already talking about what we can do to have something more relevant and up to date. The site has actually shifted over the course of this year from the being a more static platform to a more dynamic one. Obviously you need to have all of your relevant information, for example what shows you’re doing, ticket prices, and so on, but you also want to keep rotating through new items. The website is almost another social media site. When you’re driving traffic to your site, once they get what they want you need things there that will keep people looking around and stay there.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE ON WHO TO ADVERTISE WITH?
A lot of that is through the tried and true process. You find who the heavy hitters are in Boston after a while. Beyond seeking out those heavy hitters, I have the flexibility here to take the financial risk and try new things. You have to think about where your target audience is, or where potential audience members might be, and reach out to them.
ArtsBoston is the aggregator of all the arts organizations in the greater Boston area and they offer an industry discount with TRG, which is a data analysis company. So, when I say we have more people in the classical opera vein than we do in the theater vein there are actual ticket sales data to back that up. Looking over those trends there are a lot of people that we bring in from the classical audience but we also reach out to those who haven’t found us yet and try to get them interested. It’s not like there’s a magic silver bullet for every audience. Or I would be out of a job.
WHAT TIPS WOULD YOU WANT TO SHARE WITH BEGINNING ARTS MARKETERS?
The biggest thing I would suggest is be willing and open to listening and learning. With the Boston Opera Collaborative, we had done fairly successfully and I thought I had things figured out. Here, as ASP, it’s like playing with the majors. There’s been a lot of learning and watching what people both inside and outside of the company do
Every year the Shakespeare Theater Alliance does a conference and one of the best things about it is that all the companies in attendance bring their marketing materials I haven’t gone yet but when people come back they bring back folders full of brochures, programs, and cards so you can see what people all over are doing and it gives you different ideas.
(The Actors Shakespeare Project’s 2014-2015 season begins with Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” which will be performed September 24-October 19 at Brighton High School, Brighton, Mass. For more information, call (617) 776-2200 or visit HYPERLINK “http://actorsshakespeareproject.org/”http://actorsshakespeareproject.org.)