Producers and marketers take cues from focus groups

Tracking comes to Broadway

For many Broadway producers, market research is the thing you do when you stand at the back of the house and gauge an audience’s reactions to a show. But for a production’s marketing campaign, a growing number of producers is finding more formally conducted research — via surveys and focus groups — handy in measuring efficacy.

Unlike the opening-weekend blitz for a film, a legit ad campaign can be out in the marketplace hawking a show for as long as that production is on the boards. In success, that can turn out to be a long time, and the same campaign that helped launch a show might not be the one to help it continue to pack ‘em in.

“There seem to be certain key junctures in a show’s life where you need to take the public’s temperature,” says Sandy Block, chief creative officer of Broadway marketing agency Serino Coyne.

The Broadway League, the trade association of legit producers and presenters, releases a recurring batch of studies about Broadway and the road on a regular basis, but these focus on overall demographics or economic impact. Much of the research devoted specifically to Broadway product, on the other hand, is conducted in the form of focus groups, operated either by research-oriented companies like Entertainment Research and Marketing or by Rialto advertising/marketing agencies such as Serino Coyne and SpotCo.

Participants are usually assembled in groups of 10 to 12, broken down by key demo traits such as race, gender and residence, as well as, say, theatergoers with children and those without. It’s what these people say that can influence a marketing campaign in midstream.

Take “Memphis,” the musical that started off slow at the B.O. last season before gaining momentum that peaked with a Tony win. Producers were finding that although audiences seem to respond to the show once they got in the door, enticing them to buy a ticket was harder than expected.

About four months after the production opened in October 2009, producers, including Sue Frost and Randy Adams, tapped ERm to find out what elements of “Memphis” most interested potential ticketbuyers. They learned it might pay to focus not on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, as the ad campaign had been doing, but rather on the storyline’s forbidden romance and the show’s many dance numbers. Around that time, the tagline “Blowing the roof off of Broadway” also was added, in effort to spotlight the high-energy staging.

“We just watched sales go up and up from where we had been,” Adams says.

According to Frost, the information gleaned from the process was crucial for what was, at the time, an unfamiliar new title that isn’t based on a well-known film or other property.

“This kind of research is really critical to a show with no brand recognition,” she says.

According to marketers and researchers, focus groups can especially benefit a production prior to the launch of an advertising campaign, or a few months post-opening (as was the case with “Memphis”) or three to four years into a run, once the show has begun to establish itself as a fixture and target an ever-widening circle of auds from around the world.

Last year, about four years after its 2006 opening, “Mary Poppins” launched a series of ads featuring audience testimonials. The marketing switch was inspired by focus groups — the first time Disney Theatrical Prods. had used them for “Poppins.”

The ads, which are still running, showcase real-life theatergoers touting what they enjoyed about “Poppins.” And those ads worked, according to Disney Theatrical’s exec veep David Schrader, who says year-on-year sales rose some 10% in the wake of the ads.

“Right away, we could tell something was different in the marketplace,” he says.

However, even focus-group proponents acknowledge such groups can be problematic: One persuasive or bullying member, for instance, can sway an entire group’s responses.

Researchers say they take great care in crafting questions that aren’t leading or slanted. “In many cases, you’re testing suppositions you already have,” says SpotCo topper Drew Hodges. “But there’s usually at least one surprise.”

Some producers resist market research entirely, in part because it smacks of marketplace-driven creative tinkering. But those who do it argue they’re only trying to pinpoint a show’s top selling points.

“We’re not trying to get too involved on the creative end of things,” says ERm’s Joseph Craig. “That’s their business.”

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