Broadway raises the curtain online

New websites reach out to theater audience

NEW YORK Legiters are finding new ways to point and click with auds.

In the next few weeks, several theater websites will emerge to capitalize on trends in online marketing and community building. No one can predict which projects will succeed, of course, but their rapid multiplication indicates a more aggressive move to target young audiences — something to which the film and music sectors have long been hip.

Take social networking, which sites like Facebook and MySpace have expanded into a massive industry. A trend is to create entire networking websites for a single niche community, thereby attracting dedicated fans and advertisers.

MyBroadway.com, which launched a beta version last May and will unveil an overhauled site next month, is dedicated to original content, according to CEO Richard Humphrey.

The site offers a combination of content, such as behind-the-scenes videos and celebrity interviews, show-specific marketing and social networking. Plus, plans are afoot to expand “mobile content,” so that users on portable devices like iPhones can download features especially formatted for their screen.

For the site to make money, it will need to attract enough viewers to woo advertising dollars. The backers’ hope is that the broad range of content will bring in a wider variety of web surfers.

“Just because you build it, there’s no guarantee they will come,” Humphrey says. “There have to be compelling conversations happening everywhere. There has to be compelling content.”

Another way to entice traffic, of course, is to have popular partners.

On Dec. 17, MyBroadway launches a collaboration with Paramount Pictures and Broadway Across America to promote both the film and national tour of “Sweeney Todd.”

“If the film’s fans come to our site, they can learn more about the touring show and then maybe look around and discover something about another production,” Humphrey says. “We can connect several niche communities.”

The allure of the niche is what prompted Ken Davenport, producer of Off Broadway tuner “Altar Boyz,” to found BroadwaySpace, a social network where every member is a legit enthusiast. Individual members — more than 2,000 have joined since the site launched in the fall — can design their homepages around their favorite musicals, visit community forums and enter a monthly contest to win free tickets to a Broadway show.

“MySpace is the Wal-Mart of social networking,” Davenport says. “I wanted to create a kind of online theater club.”

However, the site has no ads, and Davenport, who funds BroadwaySpace himself, says he doesn’t immediately see it as a commercial venture.

“Obviously, whenever you can gather several thousand of your early adopters and multiple-purchase consumers into one area, you have a potential for an advertising model,” he says. “But we’re not going to exploit it until we know we have something that can enhance the user’s experience. I don’t want it to look like MySpace, with a thousand random banner ads.”

Establishing an online connection for those who have an interest in theater will arguably be vital for legit’s future.

“There’s a new generation of theater lovers popping up all around the world, but they have an entirely new way of communicating with each other,” says Doug Motel, president of online marketing company Site Optimized. “I look at the way theater is relating to this generation, and they seem really behind the curve to me,” he adds. “It’s not just about having a website anymore.”

That’s why next month, Site Optimized will launch ShowBuzzOnline.com.

The site will be a hub for Gotham, regional and international shows, providing producers and artists with tools to create online content ranging from video to blogs.

Motel says his goal is to make young theater fans feel intimately connected to the shows they love, which can help them become grassroots marketers. This approach was key to “Spring Awakening” establishing a solid fanbase among young theatergoers when the teen-angst musical moved to Broadway.

“If we allow them to be part of the experience of a show, we can make them into the evangelists they already want to be,” Motel explains.

But can all these websites survive? How many theater-specific social networks is too many? Isn’t there a limit to the number of backstage clips we can see from “Xanadu?”

“Right now, I’d say the more sites there are, the better it is for everybody,” MyBroadway’s Humphrey says. “It will give a bigger reach to this type of content, and that will get more people interested and engaged. Then, once they’re engaged, let the competition begin.”