Sunday, August 8, 2010

One message. ONE.

Here's a conversation my team at work—and every group of advertising creatives on the planet, probably—has at least once a week:
CREATIVE TEAM:
You're asking for a lot of information to go into this ad/mailer/e-mail/etc.
What's the most important message?

CLIENT:
All of them.
No. No, no, no. The answer to "what's the single most important thing" cannot be plural.

Why? The other thing I hear at least once a week is "nobody reads the copy" (yeah, thanks for that validation of my career choice). We have very, very little time to get people's attention—we have to hook 'em right from the start.

Same thing when we promote improv shows, theaters, workshops, etc. We rely on free-to-cheap marketing tools—Facebook invites, show posters, e-mails, press releases, etc.—but that doesn't mean the rules for big-money marketing don't apply. In any marketing tool, you get one main message, and everything else is there to support that one message.

That message might be:
  • Your troupe name, if you're talking to people who want to know specifically when your next show is.
  • Improv comedy show/festival/event, or some version of that, if you're talking to a general audience of people who want to see comedy.
  • Something that makes you sound good, like a review blurb ("Brilliantly funny!"), kudos ("Best Comedy Group 2010") or a super-short description of what you do ("improvised musical").
  • The famous person (or even the well-known-to-the-target-audience person) in the show.
  • The other specific thing that makes this show cool, if it's not one of those four things. It might be that you're family friendly or supporting a cause or playing in a certain location for one night only. But it is the thing that makes this show worth seeing.
If you don't have much space, the rest of your copy should let your audience know when and where the show is and how to make reservations. If you have a little bit more space, you can provide more detail—but it should be more support for what makes the show cool.

Here's what doesn't work:
  • Confusing names of things—shows, formats, etc.—that don't make immediate sense to the audience.
  • Information-free witty or catchy phrases or taglines that don't provide a reason to come see the show (besides, of course, our extreme cleverness/adorableness/quirkiness/geekiness).
  • Complex messages that require them to think too hard or make a decision more complicated than "that's interesting."
  • Layers of show names, producer names, troupe names and taglines.
We might even have to tweak the message slightly for different audiences—general audiences vs. troupe fans, for example—which means keeping the primary message even simpler. Fleeting individual impressions can work together to create the burning desire to attend an event...but only if you can remember what the event is.

Who's on top?

Friday night, I was lucky enough to be part of an extremely fun show: a KCXRC production featuring Spite, The Trip Fives, I-A and Babel Fish.

The best things about it? Four confident, experienced, talented, mutually respectful groups were excited to be in the same show—and had absolutely no ego about running order.

As more shows (Thunderdome, KCXRC, Roving Imp, KCiF, Comedy on the Square) throw two or more troupes up on stage in the same night, the same question keeps coming up: What's the running order?

And suddenly there's talk of hierarchy. Who's the best? The most popular? The most experienced? And in whose eyes—the audiences', the producer's or the improvisers'?

If you see enough local improv, you know who the reliable groups are—and the kind of shows you can count on them to do. You know who kills nearly every time...puts up solid scenes even on an off-night...has at least one player good enough to make even a weak set worth watching...features up-and-comers doing increasingly strong stuff...can experiment and still entertain. And with a few exceptions, local improvisers have a pretty good idea of how they compare to other players and groups.

One thing we all have in common? I haven't met a single improviser who enjoys being told where they are in the pecking order—whether it's low or high—particularly by anyone else in the improv community. It's one thing to hear, "You're up first." It's another to be told, "You're opening for _______."

Yeah, there's some ego there. But it's also about the source and the motivation. Just like getting a face full of unsolicited feedback, being "rated" by another improviser just seems to rub us the wrong way. Every troupe in a show has an equally important part to play, and the implication that you're less because you're first...not helpful.

Because here's the thing: Creating a strong running order for a show has zero to do with putting the "weakest" troupe first and the "strongest" troupe last. What really matters:
  • What time the show starts
  • What time the show ends
  • How many troupes and breaks there will be
  • How the energy of the show builds
  • What each troupe's approach, content and format will be
  • How the forms complement each other and flow from one to the next
  • How the audience's patience, energy level and understanding of the work will change as the show goes on
  • Who the audience is coming to see—if it's anyone in particular
  • And every now and then some random stuff, like "this troupe has another gig across town later that night" or "a member of this troupe is pregnant/sick/elderly and won't survive a late set"
So before every show, producers should know:
  • How many will be in the cast
  • If we're intimately familiar with the players and their styles, who is in the cast
  • Exactly what the form will be
  • And maybe how they'll be promoting the show
It's this stuff that should help us, as producers, feel less self-conscious about telling groups what the running order is going to be.