Are we ignoring our audience’s experience? Go back to the beginning. . .

great-experienceToday’s edition of You’ve Cott Mail (an invaluable arts marketing newsletter I love) focused on an issue I actually feel pretty passionately about: the customer experience at theaters.

Now, when most theatre types discuss “giving the audience a great experience” they are talking entirely about the art. They want the play to be a great experience for the patron. Of course! That is the primary mission and should never be ignored. That is the first and foremost.

But audiences don’t experience our plays in a vacuum. They associate everything they experience of the company with the play. And that can either help or hinder their experience.

Recently, I attended a play where the experience surrounding the art palpably diminished my reception of the art. When I arrived at 15 minutes before curtain, the lobby was in a bit of disarray, with company members sprawled on couches and talking loudly on cell phones. The lobby was a bit of a mess and lacked a welcoming vibe. I headed toward the box office desk where I saw someone, but there didn’t seem to be any programs anywhere or any place to clearly check in. The hallway to the theater was closed off, so I took the cue that they weren’t yet ready to seat people for the performance.

After chattng and waiting for 15 or so minutes, at 4 minutes past the curtain time, I realized that there still wasn’t an announcement or signal that the house was open. Peeking in, we saw a few people sitting in seats and thought perhaps we could go in. Turns out, they were also members of the company. We were finally allowed to settle in for the play, but the curtain speech was delivered with no light on the speaker and it was a tad awkward.

The play itself was humorous and showed potential. But I was thrown off of my experience by the confusion in getting to it!

I certainly don’t expect theater companies to do audience experience perfectly. Most of us are dealing with very limited resources in less than ideal venues. Lots of leeway is helpful. But I don’t know of any reason why the customer experience should be arranged with absolutely no thought to it at all. These are the people you are asking to pay money for the experience you’ll give them.

We have to remember that the customer’s experience of our art and our company begins LONG before they settle into the seats (although the seats are a HUGE part of the customer experience!). Let’s work this backwards to think about most of the things a customer might experience in the process before the show begins:

  • The curtain speech, if you give one (this is an art, in and of itself and must be thought out)
  • The preshow presentation of the set and lighting in the audience (does the preshow whet their appetite? Is there enough light to read a program?)
  • The program. Is there one? Is it easy to read?
  • Their comfort in the lobby area. Is it neat, inviting, organized?
  • The transaction at the box office – did it go smoothly? Were problems quickly resolved? Was the box office person friendly?
  • The signals about where things are. How do they know when the house is open? Where are the bathrooms? Where do we check in? Is there someone who can answer such questions readily available?
  • The signage outside the theater- can newcomers spot it?
  • The parking situation – there may not be much that can be done about this, but if it can be made a little better or safer, try to do it! It is appreciated!
  • The directions given to the theater on the website. Is the address on the poster complete? Can you give cross streets?
  • The ticket sale– this is a BIGGIE. How easy is it for your patron to understand your online or phone reservation ticketing? Do you OFFER phone reservations? How would your patron likely feel IMMEDIATELY AFTER they’ve confirmed their payment for your show based on the process of buying a ticket?
  • The Website – another BIGGIE. Information management on a website is a big deal. Do you have too much or too little information on your website? The key is- what are the most common or prominent questions people may have about our company? Can they find that information in 0-1 clicks? 1–2 clicks? The more clicks you require to get to vital info, the more likely they are to give up. Too many clicks to get to the description of shows, times, dates, and ticket link is a SHOWSTOPPER (and not in a good way).
  • The Phone-– If they cannot find the info they want on your website (or don’t use the internet), they will call. Is your phone number on everything? Do you check for messages and call people back in a timely manner? Does your outgoing message give vital info about the show?
  • The Poster or Handbill – does it set the appropriate tone for the play? Is the vital information on it clear and correct?
  • The Newspaper and Calendar listings. I know, I know. . .how can you CONTROL that? It’s actually pretty easy: Send out press releases and calendar info well in advance. Also, make your press release interesting, PROFESSIONAL, and full of correct and relevant info. This helps the writer do their job better, so your potential audience gets a better idea of what your show is about. Yay!
  • Photos– are your promo photos poorly lit, static, or awkward? Do they capture an action or a mood for your show? Words are awesome for communicating to the customer, but good photos go farther and work faster.

This list could go on and on for more established companies. How we talk to our patrons, potential new patrons, sponsors and volunteers is all part of their ongoing experience. The audience experience could go back a few days from when they attend, a few weeks, or maybe even a few years. And there are innumerable little ways we give them an experience.

Again, we can’t be perfect all the time. Some of us work in less than comfortable venues, we can only afford a free website or a disposable cell phone line, our programs are in black and white and on plain paper, we depend entirely on volunteers who are sometimes unavailable (all issues I have with the front of house experience).

But we can make sure that the information is clear and consistently delivered, that patrons feel welcomed when they arrive, and cut down on any confusion they may experience along the way. Say “Yes” to everything you can in terms of customer experience. Only say “no” when you have a very good reason.

Theater is about communication. And that communication has to be everywhere when we are engaging with our customers.


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