Saturday, July 18, 2009

Borrowed interest.

In one of my first college advertising classes, they introduced the concept of "borrowed interest"—getting attention for your product, service or company by bringing something appealing or sensational but completely unrelated into its marketing.

I've inferred from a fellow improviser's comments on my facebook page that he sees Spite's makeover blitz as borrowed interest. (Or he might just be bored. Sometimes it's difficult to tell.)

Mmmmmaaaybe. But I don't think so.

A lot of things make it tough to market an improv troupe or show in KC. Let's start with:
  • Getting attention
  • Helping people understand—better still, appreciate—the difference between your group and others
  • Convincing friends to come to your show next time, instead of some time
Getting attention

The KC Improv Festival originated years and years ago not only as a way to meet other people who did what we did, but as a media hook: It was news. Thunderdome has a hook.

Besides the "they're guys, we're girls" thing, Spite's shows with Loaded Dice don't really have a hook. And not enough people know our groups do quality work to seek them out—especially since we don't have regularly scheduled performances.

We paid part of the rent out of our own pockets last time, and I don't think any of us were interested in doing that again.*

The idea of going public with the makeover we'd planned for months just kind of happened. Makeover shows are ridiculously popular—who doesn't love to see the duckling to swan transformation?—so we thought we'd make a fuss about ours.


Dude. There are a ton of improv groups in KC. KCiF has expanded to four nights, and even with more spots, some of the newer ones aren't playing.

Even with it comes to the older ones, people can't always name the group they just saw. They might know they saw an improv show at the Flea Market or the Coffeehouse, but names? They don't always stick.

And newspaper blurbs don't help much. Your format and your reviews are about the only helpful ways of writing a differentiated descriptions. Saying you're fast-paced, funny, topical, intelligent, character-driven...OK, let's play a game.

Guess the troupe from this snippet from the first sentence or so of their description on the KCiF site. More importantly, try to figure out why you should go see them. (I've let some go longer because they eventually get to a point. Makes me want to go back and rewrite some shit.) Click to find out who it is.
  • This group formed in March, 2007, as the house team of (a theater), and has performed nearly 100 shows all over northeast Kansas since that time. (The group) never fails to deliver with its blend of fun, memorable games as well as a series of one-act plays made up completely before your eyes.
  • This group has entertained Kansas City since 2000, and in the last four years the group has been featured in improv festivals in Chicago, Dallas, and the Twin Cities. It is the only group at KCIF to regularly perform short-form improv games as well as more artistic long-form sets, often in the same shows.
  • Ever since being established in October 2007, this group has quickly become the only longform improv group in (their city). Comprised entirely of University of Kansas students, they bring a fresh-faced enthusiasm to the grizzled Kansas City improv scene.
  • This group is Kansas City's original and longest running Improvisational Comedy show. has been producing shows every weekend for over 22 years!! That's a lot of laughs! Their...format pits two teams of "actletes" against one another in a fast paced improvised competition where every game is based on different suggestions from the audience.
  • This group is a four man improv troupe that has a history in short form games and expanded their rapid fire wit to the long form arena. Their style is fast paced, character driven and relatable.
  • This group is an experimental comedy group that works in sketch comedy, short and long form improvisation, stand-up and dance. ... (their) mission is to explore, invent and produce live comedy shows which combine a unique blend of performance styles while providing audiences with an entertaining experience.
  • This group formed in part because we wanted to compete in Improv Thunderdome and mostly because we never seemed to get enough stage time together playing with our co-ed troupe...
  • This group, an animated short-form improv comedy troupe, is bringing their HOT NEW SEXY comedy to the KC stage. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some of your favorite games... Or jump up out of your seat and join them onstage for some wild new ones!
  • Intriguing characters. Hilarious scenes. No scripts. Seven players fuse experience and wit, normalcy and absurdity, the real and the surreal. This group brings together seven of Kansas City's most experienced, critically acclaimed improvisers...
  • As the origin story goes, four improvisers were exposed to a liquid mutagen during a traffic accident. The mutagen caused the improvisers to become more human-like in intelligence and dexterity. Also exposed to the mutagen is one member of this group, an improviser once owned by a improvutsu expert named Hamato Yoshi. As a fantastically talented improviser, taught himself the art of improv by mimicking Yoshi during his practice sessions. much are we helping the audience here? Some are better than others. (I put together two of them, and am kicking myself for not getting to the point earlier. At least their [aaagh—I meant "there," obviously] are no grammar, punctuation or capitalization errors...)

Sense of urgency

Part of the reason Tantrum invites guest monologists is to give people a specific reason to see that show. Our benefit for the Feisty Devils MS 150 team with Scott Sjoberg last month not only blew his personal fundraising goal out of the water—it drew a bigger-than-average crowd of people who'd never seen our show.

Other than the fact that there's a looooong time between shows, there's no real reason you should see one Spite show over another.

Until now.

Friends who've always said, "I'd love to see you play some time" are planning to see this show to find out what Daryl & Amy and Monique , our wardrobe and hair and makeup stylists. (Of course, whether they show remains to be seen...but there's more interest than usual.)

The videos are showing up on our stylists' facebook pages, and their friends are interested to see what they've done—so we have a chance to expand our audience base.

The videos show a little of our personalities, which turns us into real people and not just another clump of comedians. And because no one else has done anything like this, it helps us stand out.

The makeover videos posted on our site have driven traffic up 1,364.71%.

Exactly how well will this work? Who knows. But it's been an interesting experiment. Not to mention a hell of a lot of fun to do.

*Another question: Is the show all of a sudden about Spite and not as much about Loaded Dice? Not at all—we get equal stage time in the show. Both of our logos are on the poster and the promotional materials. But we're producing this show, and we can't force other players to send e-mails, hang posters and invite people to facebook events. Besides, we're not about to tell the guys what to wear.


  1. I got 10 out of 10!!!! WooHoo!!!!

  2. At least their are no grammar, punctuation or capitalization errors...

    Was that on purpose?

  3. Oh--and I think any improv troupe does itself a disservice by using the terms "short form", "long form", or "Chicago-style" in their descriptions. Improv is a niche by itself. Don't break it into subniches, especially in a city where people don't know anything about it.

  4. "Their?!!" AAAAAAAAGH! No, that was wine and no proofreading.

  5. Part of the problem is that since we don't plan much in advance, improv really defies description. This is part of the overall problem with marketing improv.

    So, what's your show about? We don't know.
    What will it be like? Hard to say.

    You wouldn't buy any product with such vague descriptions, so we all try to make ourselves sound fun and smart, and end up sounding like the widipedia entry for improv.

    We all know what differentiates our groups from one another, but then again we're the experts. Our audiences probably don't know much detail other than whether they like it or not.

    If we were all cola drinks, we'd have the same problem. All cola drinks are basically the same to the average person. You know you usually have a preference, but don't know exactly why. There are about 150 subtle categories the experts use to describe the differences between Pepsi, Coke, RC, Sam's Choice, etc., but we novice tasters are stuck with... "I don't know why, I just like it."

    And what kind of marketing do we get from the colas? "Look, we're fun, hip, cool, intelligent..." The same thing as you get from improv.

    When the qualities that make something good are hard for the average person to define, maybe that's what's left... positive generalities.

  6. *wikipedia

    Didn't want Trish to feel she was the only one with random errors.

  7. The cola analogy is a good one.

    Actually, that gives me a much better handle on things. I've been marketing us like improv is a commodity and can be sold by hyping is more of an emotional branding campaign.

    Hmmmmm...this could change everything.

  8. The analogy that insiders might know and be able to describe the subtleties of cola/improv better than the average consumer is valid.

    The difference, of course, is that one only needs to invest $1.50 and five minutes of their time to try a cola. If they don't like Coke, they'll eventually try Pepsi by default.

    When we're asking them to invest $8-$10 and most of an evening, it is imperative that we entertain them. There is no Pepsi challenge when it comes to improv--if they see a dreadful show at WCH, they're not going to try the Imp to make a side-by-side comparison.

    That's why we have to sell a good time, not the reasons we're different from the other troupes. No one cares about the words "short form" or "experimental". They just want to have a good time.

  9. While I agree that no one outside the improv community really cares whether our shows are "short form" or "experimental", I don't know that you can or should exclude such descriptors from show pressers. There still needs to be a delineation of what you're going to see, but I agree that selling fun or entertainment is more important.

    I had a discussion with a non-prover (although she is very familiar with the scene) awhile back that surprised me and validated the above (I know, one person does not equal empirical evidence). When providing her with a show poster and asking her thoughts about how to portray the troupe better, she replied, "Why do I care?". Sure, within the community we know the differences in formats and troupes, but the general public doesn't and, for the most part, they don't care. It's possible that titles like "Pitch's Best Funny Performer of 2008" will sway someone's decision to see a show, but I would posit that number is low.

    I think it's safe to say that everyone who is currently performing with a troupe wants to be the best they can be, wants their troupe to be viewed as the best. Our egos are at stake here. However, until we can achieve a level above D-list celebrity, the general public won't really care who is in a show. We should be promoting what the show has to offer them.

  10. I agree 100% with Pete's comment.

  11. I should elaborate on that. I agree with the comment that the general public doesn't care. They don't care what's on the poster or how awesome it looks. The don't care what format you will be presenting or how you will be dressed. The don't care how often you rehearse or how long you've all known each other. If we were in Chicago, New York or L.A., then maybe.

    95% of all audiences are there because they either know someone performing or came with someone that knows someone performing.

  12. Exactly. It is not about an "emotional branding campaign" or any sort of marketing-speak. That's forest-for-the-trees stuff. Too many improvisers have lost touch with what the average person really thinks of improv...let's just say D-list celebrities is probably being generous. WE DO NOT REGISTER on non-improvisers' radar on any sort of regular basis. If we're lucky, someone we work with will ask if we're still doing this or if we have a show coming up. And they're probably being polite and making small talk, not making plans to come see us.

    Jared is absolutely right. Michael makes really eye-catching posters for Tantrum...and they might draw two people a month on average.

    And yes, you can absolutely exclude "short form" and "experimental". It means nothing to anyone but us.

  13. And therein lies the rub, Josh. We need to address the average audience member by not just promising an entertaining evening, but making good on the delivery of said. However, we shouldn't restrict ourselves to only catering to that strata of patronage since there are other audience members who, having seen a few shows, begin to understand the differences. I believe both messages can co-exist, but with more emphasis on the fun & entertaining.

    Consider the hell we went through with ComedyCity/Too Much Duck shows. We had such difficulty marketing the show because no one really understood the difference between the two. Certainly, there were other issues, but remember the comment cards that were left behind that said "Not enough improve"? They were expecting a show much like CC's normal show, just dirtier even though we never promoted such an entity. We did a very poor job articulating our show (even from within the CC ranks) and paid the price for it.


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Now c'mon. Pick a fight.