Sunday, November 29, 2009

Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Lovely Spam!

Boy, this social media thing is tricky for marketers.

I get to deal with it in my improv life and my work life, and here's the thing—everybody is equally new at this and wondering how to do it. Some of the complicating factors:
  • You have to use Facebook! You have to use Twitter! You have to blog! But only a tiny percentage of marketers actually know what they're doing!
  • It's nearly impossible to ease your way in or try it out in private. It's like trying on a new outfit while you're standing next to the rack: Everybody sees what you've got.
  • It's easy and free—and the temptation to abuse it is strooooooong.
Twitter and Facebook give every company, brand, product and improv troupe the opportunity to try permission marketing—without the need to build or maintain your own database, or the requirement to pay printing/postage costs or the upkeep on a website. It's a relationship marketer's dream come true, but can turn into a nightmare for your most loyal customers if you're not careful. Group and fan pages and Twitter, especially, force you to walk a tricky, thin line:
  • Pro: It's easy to invite/collect friends and fans and followers—and presto! Dozens, hundreds or thousands have "opted-in" to receive your information.
  • Pro: It's easy to send messages to or invite the whole group to events.
  • Pro: It's easy to engage fans in a conversation and put information (videos, photos, links, show info) where they can access it.
  • Con: It's easy for friends and fans to ditch you if your updates are too frequent or infrequent, too long or irrelevant—or for any other reason.
  • Con: It's not easy to restrain yourself—when ticket sales are slow, or you're bored, or you're putting your needs before your consumers, it's tempting to send just one more update.
  • Con: It's downright hard to know what to update and when you should update it—and even harder to make the time to do it.
Everyone's got a different idea of how to do it. One improv pal shot me a message before a show and said "don't forget to send an event reminder the Monday before the show—and hit 'em every day until Friday." Another said "quit telling me to spam my friends."

The workable answer is somewhere in the middle. To get closer to it, Tantrum/Spite actually surveyed our audience base (and some additional consumers in the right psychographic/demographic set). The survey asked everything from "where do you look for information when you're planning your weekend" to "how far in advance to you make plans" to "how often would you like to receive reminders about a specific show?"

Now we make very specific choices about where we promote our shows and how often we talk to our consumers. It's not easy—it requires advance planning, detailed calendars and self control. We keep an eye on our fan/follower lists to make sure people aren't dropping off, and try to figure out what we've done wrong when they do.

That's the easy part—the "push" marketing. We're still figuring out how to start conversations. You have to do more than just promote—if your messages do nothing but sell, you're missing the point. But we've seen some good examples: Click here (and here) or here (and here) for two very different groups who are doing Facebook and Twitter right.

Oh, and speaking of complicating factors? What happens when many of your most loyal consumers are members of a special interest group who are likely receiving similar messages from others just like you? Stuff like this.

I'm looking at you, KC Improv Community.

Here's what you're likely to get in a week:
  • Event invites and reminders for every troupe whose group/fan page you've signed up for. (Double that if they've got a group AND a fan page.)
  • E-mails from every troupe who has you on their list.
  • KC Stage reminders about those same shows, if you're on that list.
  • Tweets about the same stuff, with tiny urls that link to the website.
  • Blog updates about the same stuff.
  • Dozens of notes, status updates and wall posts from every improviser in every troupe you know.
And if you're crazy enough to let Facebook send updates to your e-mail address, double that.

Personally, I want to know what's going on. Even if it's not for me, I get questions for show info from my high school kids and sometimes from out-of-town visitors. I'm curious about what other troupes are doing and how they're marketing shows, so it goes beyond entertainment to professional curiosity.

I recognize that I am not your typical improv consumer.

Based on what I've seen, and in my opinion as a consumer, an improviser and a relationship marketing geek (I ghostwrote a book, even), here's what I think we're doing right—and wrong. And no, I'm not naming names—but I think we know who we are (I include myself and my troupes in the list).
  • Yay: Post photos of your troupe (with proper photo credits, please, because photographers deserve props, too). Thoughtfully edited (short, funny, easy-to-understand) video, too.
  • Yay: Timely event invites, based on your consumer base's needs (which might mean setting it up a month or a week in advance).
  • Yay: Meaty, interesting and/or funny blog updates and Tweets and status updates that express your voice and your brand.
  • Yay: Status updates that attach individual players to events and troupes in an informative, charming and personal way.
  • Yay: Q&As, responses to wall posts and other real-time conversations with audience members. (If someone compliments you on your wall, say "thank you.")
  • Yay: Consolidated messages—about multiple events from one troupe, or one show from multiple troupes. Plan ahead so we don't hate you.
  • Boo: More-than-weekly event reminders. Once we accept, it SHOWS UP ON OUR WALLS. It's ON OUR EVENT LISTS. We may need a nudge, but constant poking annoys the crap out of us. You don't need to tell us a show sold out. A thank-you is nice, but if you've already sent us a bunch of messages that week, we're probably going to find it disingenuous.
  • Boo: More than daily status updates demanding that we see your show. Especially bossy, bitchy ones in all caps. ESPECIALLY if that's all you ever update about.
  • Boo: The same message everywhere—Facebook, Twitter, blogs, e-mail, press releases. Yes, repeat the basics. But we come to your blog for more in-depth, insider info than we expect on a release.
  • Boo: Keeping quiet until you have something to sell us. Talk to us when you're not doing a show—and keep it engaging, charming and consumer-focused. Otherwise, you're like that semi-hot guy who only comes around when he needs money or sex.
  • And a great BIG boo: Using other troupes' events or groups or walls to promote your own stuff. "I won't be attending because my group has a show that night at the coffeehouse. It's at 8pm and only $5!"
This stuff isn't easy—but it's not that hard, either. The biggest thing to remember is that, at least on Facebook, we call each other "friends." If we're not self-centered, self-promoting asshats, this social media thing can really make a difference in our audiences.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Technique vs. creativity

I can't watch American Idol and have no interest in dancing celebrities. Watching real-life families struggle or people compete in races or survival contests? Meh.

Give me a show where people cook or design something: Chopped. Top Chef. Project Runway. The Next Food Network Star.

And The Next Iron Chef. (For which there will be serious SPOILERS in this post.) I was bitterly disappointed that my chef-crush John Besh lost to Michael Symon in the first competition, but Symon has won me over (it's mostly the giggle). Then there's this, from his evaluation of the competitors in last night's show:
"If you're creative and you fail, are you creative? Or are you a failure?"
It was all part of a bigger conversation—OK, argument: The show's regular judges dinged the guy they thought executed beautifully but played it too safe. The Iron Chefs dinged the one who took more risks but failed more often.

Because the chefs couldn't respect the guy who may have all the imagination in the world, but screwed up french fries.

I won't gas on about obvious links to improv—or any other art.
Creativity and imagination are vital. But you don't get far without knowledge.


Speaking of technique, my fabulously talented writer friend Bryn Donovan has a great post up on creating characters for novels that has lots of fodder for improv exercises.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lunch hour brain dump.

So Hallmark brings in terrific outside thinkers—marketing folks, artists, branding experts, writers, even improvisers—to tell us what inspires them and share what’s new in the outside world.

Today, it was Jason Rohrer. From an article in Esquire:

A naked kid and a freakishly tall man walk in a meadow. The meadow is their front yard. It pokes up from among the sheared lawns of upstate New York's Route 11B like a Mohawk, purposeful and defiant. The kid's hair is long and blond and, on first glance, feminine. He wears orange rain boots, his uncircumcised penis free in the breeze. The tall man wears military-style cargo pants and a red T-shirt that says MONTREAL INTERNATIONAL GAME SUMMIT. He's barefoot. His dirty-blond hair is spiky from not showering.

(I assume he showered before coming here, but was far enough back in the crowd that I can’t be absolutely certain.)

He’s a video game programmer whose most famous game, Passage, presents a lesson in mortality in five minutes. I downloaded it for my iPhone while he was talking and played it at my desk—and though it didn’t make me cry, a lot of what he said got me thinking.

To sum up: There’s a lot of discussion in the video game world about whether it can be art. They’re compared to movies as if that’s the standard—if a video game seems almost like a movie, that must be good, right?

His definition of “art” is tight enough to mean something but “weak” (his word) enough to open up the discussion (paraphrasing, here): Art explores the human condition, leads you to insights about your life and the world around you, and makes you think about it after you’ve experienced it.

He wonders why video games should want to be movies when they grow up—why they can’t be their own thing. Why would you want to invent a movie? They already exist.

Talking to my friend Amy on the way back from his chat, we both admitted that Hallmark’s creative resources are often just as inspiring to us in our outside worlds as they are at work. In our day jobs, we’re cogs in a much bigger machine, so our contributions can keep things moving—even influence the direction they go in—but we’re not big or strong enough to affect holistic change.

But in my improv life (and in her jewelry-making world, Applescraps), I can change things. Whether it’s bringing an idea to a group or adjusting the way I communicate or deciding what kind of projects I want to be involved in, I can use new information immediately.

And I want to do something with this idea of not trying to be something that already exists.

For our show, Erik and I have talked a little bit about more theatrical work—something beyond toilet-paper, something worth writing down. OK, hang on…

A quick aside to say I’m past the days of any interest in self-indulgent experiments with art-for-art’s sake. Improvisation, as I use it, is about entertainment—that means it should offer SOMETHING to an audience. And if it’s advertised as a “comedy” performance, that something should be laughter. But I think there’s a middle ground between trying to put on a show that makes a statement and playing Spelling Bee.

…and we’re back. Now I’m interested in pushing in a different direction. There are folks who take “that scene was so good it seemed like it was scripted” as the best improv compliment you can give or get.   

But if what we’re doing is improvised, that means it can be affected—from moment to moment, scene to scene—by everything. The audience. The environment. The mood. We talk about that a lot in terms of work within the scene, but not the form or the show itself.

The closest we get here (there’s more organic work going on in other cities) is suggestion-heavy, audience-participation driven shows. But is there something else? Something that taps into the energy of the room and the space and the crowd?

How do you create work that truly exists only on that night, for those people?  

OK. Lunch hour’s over. Time to get back to work. 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Be careful what you wish for.

I set this as my goal on 11/23/08: At least one rehearsal a week, and at least two shows a month.

Uh...done. Up to three or four a few times this year, even. So now, just like last year, I'm looking at my schedule for the first quarter or so of 2010, and it goes something like:

  • Sundays with Erik
  • Tuesdays with Exit 16 (shows monthly, too)
  • Monthly with Omega Directive
  • Pre-show with Tantrum and Spite
  • A few before Thunderdome with Team #9
  • And coaching Nifer, Julie and Chante's Thunderdome team with the ladies of Spite
Sustainable? Who knows? At some point, I'll probably want to have a weekend that doesn't involve improv at all (or, say, lets me see improv in another city). (If you listen, you can hear Josh giggling.) December will give me enough of a break that I'll miss it, though, so I'm not too worried about the first three months.


Got to play with Erik again tonight.* We're getting to know each other better and better, and pushing each other out of our comfort zones more and more. Random notes:
  • My characters all have had the same diction (sentence length, word choices) and reactions to things; tonight, I tried higher status, more confident and, less asexual characters. Not necessarily all at once.
  • As we get more comfortable with each other, we're willing to make our characters more vulnerable and more interesting things are happening.
  • We're having fun goofing around with forms (french braid/stripped-down Harold, La Ronde) and different ways into scenes. We're tending to play longer scenes, but it's hard to know if we're finding the turns or missing the beats.
  • So yeah, we're ready for a coach. We'll have one more session without one, then bring in the fabulous Nikki DuPont, who we're confident will call us on our bullshit. (And, we're hopeful, not have to find a way to explain that we're only funny to ourselves.
  • Playing at home continues to force us to play some level of appropriateness. We can get weird, but not loud weird. So characters are typically grounded enough that no one calls the police.

*BTW, if you haven't seen a CounterClockwise Roast, go when they come back next year. I giggled all the way through their take on The Bodyguard last night. Erik is surprising and smart and goofy; Ashley is highly observant and absolultely adorable; and Bess is hilarious when she revels and rolls around in the pop-culture muck.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Two down, one to go.

This week started with Erik, and a rehearsal for our as-yet-unnamed duo.

Jill had given us an assignment—a positive-fixation exercise—which worked incredibly well to help us get at characters who actually like each other. Along with some mirror-your-partner's-character scenes, we used it to continue working on grounded characters. As we work together more, we're starting to see some patterns/bits/habits/outs to work around; my take is that they mostly tend to be defense mechanisms. When characters get to the point where something interesting might happen—you know, they might have to reveal something or be vulnerable—we have our go-to devices to lower the stakes.

So it's time to bring in a coach. We're 95% comfortable with each other (if we were 100% there, there'd be no stake-lowering) and we know the basics of what we want to do with our show. Now it's time to start crafting it into something performance-ready. I'll admit, I'm going to kind of miss the pure exploration; without a show scheduled or a director involved or any kind of results-orientation, we've been able to just play. Which, not surprisingly, is kinda fun.

Rehearsal #2: Exit 16. After a lackluster show and a great rehearsal (thanks again to Jill), four of the 10 kids played a ridiculously solid show at the Corbin last Saturday. A 90-minute show by four kids could be a scary thing, but they were fired up and ready and playing in front of a friendly crowd. They used everything we worked in rehearsal, hit the stage with huge energy and sustained it for the whole show.

Tonight we worked on some new games: Character swap and Evil Twin. We played three versions of Character Swap:
  1. Girls in one line, boys in another—everyone takes turns continuing the scene in the same character
  2. Two teams of four, swapping out all at once to continue the same thing
  3. Same as #2, but with a Talk In Turn adjustment (they could only talk in a pre-determined order) to help focus
Notes from the session:
  • Make your character distinct enough that someone else can take it on
  • Add new information with every switch
  • Heighten the emotional connections/interactions/reactions with every switch
  • Watch details—environment, character traits, dialogue
Evil Twin was interesting because I've never seen, coached or played it. It's always interesting to try to figure out the games within a game in rehearsal—and learning to coach it while the kids played it adds a twist. They count on me to know what to say, so I have to adjust their expectations when I'm figuring it out with them.

Rehearsal #3: I'll be taking Tantrum through the same stuff we did with Exit 16 last week. As much as it'll suck to (mostly) not play, it should be a whole lot of fun. Every now and then, I'm just fine with stepping out of player mode and just being the coach.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The answer is "yes."

At the end of last week's Exit 16 show, I just wished I could make them feel better.

And that's where being a workshop whore gives me power. Yeah, taking workshops every chance I get makes me a better improviser. But even more than that, it gives me toys to pass on to the kids.

Two weeks ago, I had a refresher course in Jill's Fireball Theory—which turned out to be just the thing they needed. I told them her theory about Boomer and outrunning the voice that says "you suck." And we did some of her exercises, some of Dave Razowsky's, some Annoyance stuff....and we talked about exactly what the voice was saying. And I asked them questions and let them talk even more than usual, because Jill reminded me that's how people learn.

Sometimes this stuff is so obvious I look right past it.

When I've been new or haven't been comfortable in troupes, I've either felt like the giant gas-guzzling steamroller that crushes everything in its path or the idiot newbie who really should just sit down and shut up and maybe learn something, moron.

And, as it turns out, those feelings are the ones getting in the way of the kids making strong choices. The experienced ones are afraid of being stage hogs. The new ones are worried about staying in their places. So they're being incredibly polite.

All the trust falls in the world are no substitute for telling each other everything they do is right. We forget to tell our partners...

I need you to be confident.
I love it when you're fearless.
I want you to be big and loud and powerful.
I won't judge you when you try something different.
It's OK when you grab me, push me, poke me, climb on me, and do all that stuff we wouldn't do to each other in real life.
If you edit my scene, I won't resent you.
If you change my idea, I'll have another one.
If you don't get what I mean, it's no big deal.
If we step on each other every now and then, it's just because we're going somewhere.
I've got your back. I'm going to play like you've got mine.

Tonight, I think the kids found out all this stuff. It's more than a toy or a tool—it's truth. I can't wait to see them play this Saturday.

Comedy On The Square
Featuring Exit 16
The Corbin Theatre, 15 N. Water on the Historic Square in Liberty, MO
8pm $5