Get with the programme – Cantate Print, technology and theatre programmes

Sofie Mason

There is no doubt that theatre programmes can help supplement income but, to use this medium effectively, producers must work at appealing to both advertisers and the audience, writes Sofie Mason

Will there come a day when our customers will receive their programmes in the post as a CD-ROM tucked in with their tickets to the performance? Or will they tune into the little screen on the back of the auditorium seat, plug in their ear phones and play through interviews and biographies before curtain up?

Or will programmes as we know and love them survive just as cinema survived videos and live concerts survived recordings, from LPs to iPods?

These and many more nitty gritty questions were debated at the Round Table discussions I attended as a great fan of and occasional consultant to Cantate Print. After 12 years in the theatre industry, I am obsessive about brainstorming smarter ways of working for arts venues that need every penny. And, with programmes, the pennies can be made by increasing the advertising revenue they can attract and just by selling more.

First of all, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we need to move with the times but we all agreed that we do not need to rush to proclaim the demise of the traditional programme. Just as we in the world of live performance know that no amount of digital technology or modern telecommunications has yet beaten the indescribable magic of being present at an event, so we also agreed that our ticket buyers still value a programme they can touch and feel and take home with them after the event.

So, what can we do to help our programmes make us money? There are all kinds of budget-trimming tricks that a good printer will advise you about but making money on ads has to get smarter. Gone are the days when advertising in programmes was seen as ruining the look. Complaints, if any, largely came from our own boards or senior managements and not from the customers we serve, who expect to see advertising in any publication they buy.

As for the advertisers themselves, we know that programmes have never been on their first media schedule but this could be changing. Modern consumers are increasingly caught up in a drive to express themselves and are statistically more drawn to spending on experiences than on material goods – travel, sport, social clubs, eating out and, of course, going to live performances. Advertisers know they need to find ways to catch our imaginations and our appetites in the middle of these experiences. And we should be bullish in offering them affluent, discriminating, proactive consumers of a certain age, captive by choice under one roof, enjoying one of their favourite forms of entertainment and with only one thing to read.

Our problem is convincing them that we have enough consumers for them to reach, as our numbers are a fraction of those offered by television or lifestyle magazines. However, most companies will understand the value of advertising to niche markets and we can increase the number of readers we offer the advertiser by booking them in across publications.

This may mean that you talk to your colleagues in-house and put together an advertising package that includes other programmes printed in your venue, the season brochure and maybe even a line on the bottom of an online booking confirmation. Think of everything you have that could comfortably carry advertising and see if it can be packaged up into a more substantial proposal.

Alternatively, look around you and see if just beyond your doors there may not be a natural partner who could work with you. For example, last year Cantate Print and five orchestras on the South Bank got together for the first time and pioneered a cross-orchestra consortium, where one printer printed all five programmes and sold advertising across all five. Instead of each orchestra competing against the others for advertising with a few thousand readers each, they now collaborate on one pitch that offers hundreds of thousands of readers to the paying advertiser. All programmes need to be the same size but each orchestra retains its own look, its own editorial content and, best of all, keeps printing costs down and advertising revenue rising.

Collaboration is key to survival but what about content? We need more of our audiences to want to buy our programmes. On a pragmatic note, shouldn’t we offer clients the possibility, as some venues now do, of buying the programme at the same time as they buy their tickets online? Psychologically less painful and, on the day, less hassle.

But the main concern was attractive content. There have been experiments with magazine formats that have failed, perhaps because somewhere along the line the ‘soul’ of a programme was lost. However, this is not to say that we cannot learn from magazines. Should we play around with magazine-style interviews? With provocative articles about the meaning of the piece? With a contents list on the front cover so that our clients know what they’re buying? What do our audiences want to see in our programmes? Let’s ask them. As a result of this discussion, Cantate Print are devising an audience survey across all live art forms to find out the expectations of today’s audiences. If you would like to take part then do get in touch with Ben Turner at Cantate Print (020 7622 3401) and we can all learn from the findings.

* Sofie Mason is founder of Theatre Partnerships

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