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Creative Ways for Theaters to Attract Younger Audiences

by Jenna Kunselman

It’s no secret that theater companies have always struggled to engage and entice younger audiences to become arts attenders. In today’s economic climate, it is quite a challenge to win over the Millennial and Gen Z generations who were raised in the digital age, as there are an infinite amount of other entertainment options that likely cost less. The audience in most theaters is topped with hair either gray or graying, with the art form presented as more of an elitist luxury. The good news is that people usually age into an appreciation of the theater. Arts organizations should strive to curate that process by interacting with people in the community from grade school all the way through their elderly years, with hopes of making some of their fondest memories.

While it seems obvious to work toward captivating audience members throughout their lives, this can be tough to accomplish with the diminishing arts education programs in schools combined with the busy schedule that arises with starting a family. In order to withstand these two seemingly inevitable and uncontrollable variables, organizations must stand out to the desired new audience members. To achieve that acknowledgement, create and take opportunities to plant a seed by building strong relationships early on with youth programming. Find out about what kind of arts education is offered (if any) at schools in the local area and budget for a way to offer arts programming to those schools wherever it is lacking. Teach children that live performance is more exciting than TV or film because it is undeniably authentic, raw, and sincere. As the local youth are becoming well-rounded members of the arts community, use this time as an opportunity to train future artists and performers. Open auditions to student performers and integrate them into shows with professionals. Facilitating the relationship between students and professionals fosters a mutually beneficial dialogue that sets a secure foundation for an organization’s future.

Organizations seeking to attract more young adults must think outside the box. In this high-tech fast paced world, young people are looking for meaningful, positive, thought-provoking experiences. Make sure younger audience members don’t feel like oddities in a sea of older patrons. They want to feel a part of a community where their opinion is valued. Special events such as post-show talkbacks and opening night cocktail parties yield favorable results because they attract people that have constructive conversations, allowing them to dissect what they just saw. This fosters new friendships, strengthens relationships with regular patrons, and encourages word of mouth marketing when the event is over.

Social media marketing has become a staple for most organizations because it’s cheap, easily accessible, and time efficient. There are some fun ways to interact with audience members as well as add artistic value to the shows you are putting on stage. Include interesting behind the scenes footage showing the process of how the shows are made. Post interviews with artists to educate the audience and get them excited about who will be performing. Invite audience members to share their opinions and facilitate healthy conversation about performances, programming, or community development. This instills a feeling of strong customer service skills, builds audience engagement, and serves to strengthen community relationships.

While social media marketing efforts can seem practical and enticing, the playing field is awfully saturated and it can be difficult to stand out. To combat getting lost in the social media sauce, put up flyers at your local bars, coffee shops, college campuses, bus stops, etc. If you can afford to, advertise certain shows on billboards nearby. The print ads will spark conversation and interest within groups of your target audience in a natural way, rather than the forceful, sometimes annoying online ads.

The most effective way to attract new audience members is to diversify your programming. Produce shows written by and about the target audience, with progressive ideas and relatable conflicts that build emotional connections between artist and audience. Don’t be afraid to include controversial subject matter because the performance the audience members see on stage should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end. While the younger generations’ interests are fluctuating and unpredictable, the real challenge is to successfully integrate diverse, distinct, and eclectic programming that appeals to the target audience without driving out your loyal patrons.

While focusing on diversifying programming, it doesn’t hurt to budget for some discounts to create incentive that will likely increase ticket sales. For example, student matinees, artist discounts, bundle discounts, radio giveaways, offer kids a free ticket with the purchase of an adult ticket, or offer patrons an annual rate for a few shows of their choice.

Organizations seeking to attract younger generations can use the advice above as a basic model to help modify their decision making, while catering the process to their specific organizational needs and goals. The most important characteristic of an organization is its programming. Offering community arts programming along with putting diverse content on stage increases accessibility, fosters new and stronger community relationships, and sparks interest in unfamiliar audience members. Every marketing tactic is a little sprinkle of seasoning that contributes to the complex recipe for intentional, thoughtful programming. The goal is to create an environment that cultivates the support of a new generation of patrons and volunteers for the prosperity of the future of the organization and its community.

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