Nontraditional marketing works for new tuner

Today’s secret marketing word is … “nontraditional!”

With Broadway producers on the lookout for concrete ways to translate new-media initiatives into ticket sales, those behind “The Pee-wee Herman Show” have found some intriguing options.

The production, which begins perfs Oct. 26, has grown into a strong early seller of the fall season, racking up $1.4 million-$1.5 million so far, according to producer Scott Sanders. And it’s done so largely through social networking — all prior to the more traditional TV, outdoor and print ad push, which kicks off this month.

Of course the Pee-wee persona, the alter ego of Paul Reubens, occupies a unique place on the pop culture landscape, which makes the “Pee-wee” production’s marketing model far from a universal one. But the early sales momentum does suggest a handful of tips and guidelines that other shows could follow.

“I don’t think social networking is the answer to our prayers, but it’s certainly teaching us new ways to reach an audience,” says Scott Sanders, the producer of “Pee-wee.”

The biggest advantage “Pee-wee” has over, say, an unheralded original musical is, of course, the hefty pre-existing fanbase. Pee-wee Herman has attained a cult-icon status that grew out of his subversive Saturday morning TV skein and a pair of movies. The show also is benefiting from, as well as generating, media and fan interest sparked by a resurgence of activity involving the character following a long absence from the public eye: A Pee-wee movie from Reubens and Judd Apatow is in the works.

“The Pee-wee Herman Show,” which arrives on Broadway after a run in L.A. earlier this year, is a big step in the return to the spotlight. Based in part on the original 1981 stage show that launched Reubens’ career, the new production features 11 actors, 20 puppets and a loving re-creation of the set of the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” TV show. The production has tapped not only “Playhouse” vets, including John Paragon and Bill Steinkellner, but also such legit regulars as helmer Alex Timbers (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) and set designer David Korins.

Pee-wee comes to the Broadway table with some 750,000 social-network followers on Facebook and Twitter. The show’s producers decided to tap that fanbase when American Express passed on offering its cardholders exclusive advance sales access — the more common presale route for many Main Stem shows.

Instead, Pee-wee followers were the ones granted early access to tickets, which could be purchased only with a secret word of the day, in a nod to a prominent element of “Playhouse.” It worked: According to Sanders (“The Color Purple”), all the tickets sold were at full price, with a surprising number of top-dollar premium seat sales in the mix as well. Half of those ticket buyers, he adds, are from out of town.

“It just proves that if you’ve got a built-in fanbase, you should be talking to those people first and foremost,” says Tom McCann of SpotCo, the Broadway ad agency working on “Pee-wee.”

Media coverage of the Pee-wee resurgence is also helping “Pee-wee” sales, of course. When Pee-wee showed up last month at a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. — a winking reference to a popular biker-bar scene from 1985 pic “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” — the press turned up, too, and all those stories mentioned the upcoming Main Stem run.

A new tuner with little name recognition can hardly expect those sorts of promo opportunities to materialize.

But legiters say that lessons can be learned from Reubens’ constant, plugged-in involvement with fans. Reubens, as Pee-wee, tweets and posts Facebook updates daily and often responds to posts from his followers.

“When he participates, things are much more authentic and much more fun,” says Kelly Bush, Reuben’s manager and overseer of Pee-wee’s PR profile. Tweets rarely tell followers to buy tickets; more often, they attract attention through quirky, in-character questions about, for instance, your favorite jelly.

Marketers say it’s Reubens’ hands-on approach that creates a feeling of “engagement” — the holy grail of new-media marketing. “It’s about it being a true conversation, not a one-way thing,” says Natalie Lent, who works with Bush as digital strategy director at ID PR. “We can’t use social media as a marketing tool unless people feel engaged.”

For other shows hoping to capitalize on social-network success, the important component is the involvement of the creatives, according to Damian Bazadona, topper of Gotham-based marketing agency Situation Interactive. “What I think is emerging is that creators need to become the marketers,” he says.

That was the thinking behind an attention-getting Twitter campaign for the musical “Next to Normal.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning tuner, about a wife and mother grappling with bipolar disorder, saw its online popularity surge when book writer Brian Yorkey began tweeting the storyline of the musical in the voices of its characters. (The Twitter feed now has more than 1 million followers.)

Another of the show’s initiatives solicited Web videos of fans singing a song from the show, which were then compiled into a “mash-up” that could make the rounds of fans and their friends.

While “Normal” producers can’t claim that the online push has generated blockbuster B.O. — which would seem unlikely in any event given the small size of the theater and the show’s challenging subject matter — the Internet effort does manage to keep the production’s fans active, giving them new reasons to post shout-outs that may cause their social-network friends to give the tuner a try.

“A lot of these ideas are meant to be extensions of word of mouth,” Bazadona says. For another show on which Situation Interactive works, “The Addams Family,” auds at intermission are encouraged to text in “full disclosure” secrets — a reference to one of the tuner’s songs — which are then posted on the website to add another social element to the show’s Web presence.

Sanders says the B.O. power of Pee-wee’s fans has prompted him to start thinking much earlier than he ever has about cultivating followers for upcoming productions, including fan-attracting elements such as a star or a familiar title.

“You’re talking about a database of fans that costs zero,” Sanders says.

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