Social media doesn’t start the fire, but it can help fan the flames

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Recently I've seen a couple of forthcoming London shows – at somewhat opposite ends of the size scale – both do good, but very different, jobs of promoting their productions on social media.

It can hardly escape anyone's attention that The Book of Mormon – the Tony award winning Broadway musical created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, along with Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez – has started previews. Parker and Stone have been doing the rounds of the media, including an interview on Radio 4's Today Programme and a Culture Show Special. Not opening a substantial number of tickets to Monday's first preview until last week generated lots of media-friendly images of fans queuing round the block, and you can't use any form of public transport in London without seeing some form of advertising for the musical.

Online, though, the social media activity around the show started months ago, building anticipation for the show and demand for tickets that has helped guarantee high sales well before the British critics get anywhere near it. That must be good news for any show's financial backers – even if the reviews are fair to middling, ticket sales are substantial enough to guarantee a lucrative future for the show. (Not that advance sales are a universal remedy for bad reviews, as I imagine the producers of Viva Forever may be discovering.)

Of course, being a transfer of a successful Broadway show meant that the marketing could piggyback on existing success. Indeed, you could argue that one of the challenges is to ensure the West End production lives up to the reputation of its Manhattan progenitor. The London production's Twitter stream and Facebook page has been doing a great job over the last year of trickling information about the show and its transfer. It's also helped that the sheer physical size of the Prince of Wales theatre meant that a Facebook competition could offer a substantial number of tickets for Saturday's final dress rehearsal (disclosure: I was one such winner).

It's perhaps also a measure of the size of the gargantuan promotion involved that said competition ran back in August 2012. That gives you some idea of the length of time that the show's social marketing team have been active. And that's one of the key facts to remember about social marketing: it can seem like a cheap method of promotion, but the real expense involved in successful campaigns is time.

Just round the corner and in a much smaller venue, next month sees the Arts Theatre a revival of Jonathan Harvey's best known play, Beautiful Thing. Billed as a '20th anniversary production', marking two whole decades since it first debuted at the Bush theatre, the cast is headed by Suranne Jones, known for her numerous TV roles (Unforgiven, Scott and Bailey, The Secret of Crickley Hall and some soap or other) as well as a string of theatre appearances. A couple of weeks ago, I went along to the press launch, with a photocall as well as several round-table Q&As with the cast, Harvey and producer Tom O'Connell.

It's not the first such event I've been to, although it's not always usual to host such an event for a small play. But previous press launches have tended to be just that – put on for the press, to get the advance interviews done as quickly as possible and generate some photography that can accompany them. But this was the first one where, along with the now ubiquitous Twitter account for the show (in this case, @beautthing), we were encouraged to use a dedicated hashtag (#beautlaunch) to talk about the launch itself.

The show's account was tweeting pictures and commentary from the launch event for a wider public audience. It was a simple approach that helped promote the revival to a wider audience – helped by a number of actors who had appeared in previous productions of the play tweeting their good luck wishes.

That launch coverage on Twitter was a remarkably simple idea, done well. But as with The Book of Mormon, Beautiful Thing's social media activity is spurred on by pre-existing affection for a piece of theatre. And that's where the strength of social media discussion helps, in building word of mouth and helping it spread quickly. What's much harder is to create such word-of-mouth from scratch, which is the challenge new productions must face.

You can't assume that social marketing will always produce results: its effectiveness depends on many things, most especially your target audience. An equally important factor, though, is that social sharing requires followers and fans to feel personally invested enough to pass on your marketing messages to their friends – and if you don't have that to begin with, no amount of social spend will help you.

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