When new musical Desperately Seeking Susan, featuring the music of Blondie, opened at the Novello Theatre in London’s West End eight years ago, its publicists tried something new to connect with fans unfamiliar with the movie starring Madonna. They launched a Facebook page. It was the first time any London show had even dabbled in social media. Sadly, such forward thinking behaviour couldn’t save the musical from a mauling at the hands of the critics. It closed within one month.
But its legacy lives on. Today, social media is a vital part of London’s Theatreland. Les Miserables, the West End’s longest running show which turned 30 last October, has more than 128,000 followers on Twitter and almost 80,000 on Facebook, while The Globe Theatre has more than 134,000 followers on Twitter.
For some observers, the only question is why Theatreland was so slow to embrace social media. It is a sector that is overflowing with content, including strong imagery and titbits of behind-the-scenes action, lends itself to short film clips and has a host of audiences, ranging from would-be actors to fans keen to engage with their favourite actors and shows.
For Matt Hamm, head of social media at Dewynters, the marketing agency which looks after shows such as Les Miserables, Book of Mormon and Miss Saigon, it is the power to connect and engage that makes social media such a powerful tool for Theatreland.
The Holy Grail for any industry, but particularly the entertainment industry, is word-of-mouth endorsement. ‘[Social media] is a place where everybody shares their opinions on everything, whether they’re wanted or not. Social media is an opportunity to tap into that positive word of mouth, where people are saying something about your brand,’
Hamm explains. ‘The good thing about social media, whether it is Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, is that when they’re reviewing you, they can tag you in – you can be part of their discussion.’
Jon Kennedy, social media manager at Dewynters, agrees. He says that social media ‘includes people in a way that a bus shelter advert or a classified advert could never do’, creating loyal ‘brand ambassadors’ who go on to share the shows’ content on their own pages.
‘If you put effort into social media, it pays dividends,’ asserts Hamm. Putting the effort in means connecting with potential fans months before a show opens, sharing exclusive content and engaging with them, so that when the curtain finally rises, they are more likely to share positive content. ‘Fans do respond better when they know they’ve been given a good social media campaign. They know they’ve been invested in. You’re speaking to people, you can’t forget that,’ he says.
In order to keep the shows’ content fresh, Hamm and Kennedy do not work from a content plan although they always keep important anniversaries and dates in mind. For instance, when Les Miserables celebrated its 29th year in the West End, always keen to spot a moment for engagement, Dewynters launched three Buzzfeed articles as a ‘Community Brand Publisher’ to commemorate the anniversary, including one which asked readers to vote on their favourite songs from the show.
‘Something like that is great for us because we have an opportunity to really celebrate something with the fans,’ says Hamm.
‘By associating a brand like Les Mis with Buzzfeed articles, you’re targeting the people who didn’t go and see the show 30 years ago but are now on the pulse and interested in theatre and who probably do sit on things like Buzzfeed,’ adds Kennedy. ‘It’s bridging the gap between old school theatre and modern technology in a fun way that isn’t trying to throw tickets down their throat. It’s not just Sales, sales, sales. It’s about all the other interesting things as well.’
The Buzzfeed campaign reached 288,000 Facebook users and resulted in 5.8 million Twitter engagements with the hashtag #LesMiz29. Dewynters then tracked users who had clicked on the articles from social media platforms and retargeted them with a sales message. This led to a 650 per cent return on investment.
Such meticulously premeditated content is reserved for special occasions, however, as the day-today service continues, unplanned and ‘off-the-cuff’.
‘I much prefer to look our pages and plan content on that day,’ says Hamm. ‘There’s something about getting a feel for it and the tone of voice. There’s something really uncreative about sitting in front of an Excel document trying to plan three weeks of content. Yes, it gives you a structure, but it actually makes you lazy and you fall into very easy features that aren’t very engaging and bore your fan base after a while.
‘Social media is organic and people nowadays are savvy enough to know when something is overly planned or contrived. The best theatre social media comes from having a feel for the show and you post the content that feels right at that moment.’
‘It keeps it more interesting for us as well,’ adds Kennedy. ‘I’ve done both, I’ve worked from a content plan in advance and it can stunt creativity. It makes it so difficult to manage and you don’t feel that you get to know [the page] as well because you’re not spending time taking it all in. You’re just putting it up and walking away.’
‘Getting to know the page’ might sound like over-the-top PR-speak, but it is something that Dewynters believes wholeheartedly in. Each page has a different tone, with old favourites like Miss Saigon differing entirely from new shows like Book of Mormon, which speaks to its followers with a more ‘irreverent’ tone, according to Hamm.
‘When we first opened, although big theatre fans had heard of Book of Mormon over on Broadway, actually people in London didn’t know what Book of Mormon was. Our campaign started six to eight months before it opened and we had to create content and a tone of voice that showed the UK that we were funny, that we were irreverent and we were going to take the piss basically,’ he explains.
‘It helped, interestingly, in forming the way that fans spoke back to us. When Book of Mormon opened, we put tweets in our advertising – we were the first to do it in the West End on this huge scale. Because our fan base had been spoken to in a certain way, their reviews were a lot more interesting on Twitter. They were like I would totally sell my nan for a ticket.’
‘It was Book-of-Mormon-speak,’ adds Kennedy.
Such was the success of Hamm’s strategy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the church which Mormons belong to) launched a campaign to protect its reputation and dispel any misconceptions that the musical perpetuated.
Other fresh content created freely by Kennedy and Hamm includes shows engaging with other brand Twitter accounts to great effect. For example, Book of Mormon tweeted a picture of its stage asking ‘Who’d swipe right if this popped up on Tinder?’, only to have the dating app reply ‘#SwipeRight for you and me (but mostly for me)’, alluding to a lyric from the show.
The Twitter account of Netflix TV programme Orange is the New Black responded to @lesmisofficial in reference to an episode in which characters sang one of Les Mis’ most iconic songs ‘Do you hear the people sing?’, tweeting ‘You inspire us to greatness.’ This was retweeted in excess of 30 times, whilst Les Mis’ original tweet (‘@OITNB hears the people sing’) had almost twice as many retweets and was favourited by more than 100 people.
Last April, Kennedy launched #MusicalMentions, initiating a conversation between several shows, beginning with Miss Saigon tweeting @lesmisofficial with the question: ‘What’s the weather like over in Paris?’ It was not long before other musicals joined in, including The Bodyguard and Gypsy.
‘It suddenly ended up being this ridiculously fun thing where we have all of our clients talking to each other, other shows talking to each other,’ says Kennedy. ‘It got trending in the UK, from something that started from a bit of a joke.’
Some of the best content comes from these spontaneous moments, according to Hamm, who is genuinely excited about the opportunities that social media offers. He is even an advocate for the implementation of Tweet Seats in the West End, after their use in America in 2012.
The Tweet Seat campaign allows social media users to tweet, and take photos without flash, from the back of the theatre throughout a performance. He tested his enthusiasm by offering 14 social media influencers a Tweet Seat for eight shows of the musical Once. They were seated near the sound desk at the back of the theatre and encouraged to use the #OnceTweetSeat hashtag. As a result, #OnceTweetSeat saw nearly ten million Twitter impressions and the show’s official Twitter account received 2.3 million Twitter impressions mentioning @oncemusicalLDN.
However, despite Hamm’s insistence that this Tweet Seat would affect no one’s theatre experience, much of the industry was at odds with the idea.
‘People were up in arms about phones being used in the theatre,’ explains Hamm. ‘I ended up writing a feature for WhatsOnStage to dispel any myths about it. Obviously we don’t want people to take photos in the middle of the stalls during a show that affects anyone’s performance – that’s not what the Tweet Seat does. That’s not what we encourage going forward.
‘In terms of the way mobiles and social media work and how instant you can be with pushing a message, having something like a Tweet Seat in the theatre will gradually become more and more prevalent. There is a place for that. Obviously that place is respectful of the theatrical experience. Whenever we’ve organised these events, that experience isn’t interfered with. People sit at the back away from everyone and no one can see the phone light.
‘The industry has to keep up with modern technology. We weren’t the first to do a Tweet Seat. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory did it when they first opened, and it’s a great way to spread a message.’
However, Hamm and Kennedy are clear that keeping up with modern technology does not mean adopting new platforms for the sake of it.
‘It depends on the show and the show’s target market,’ says Hamm. ‘We tend to focus on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube, with increasing use of Facebook video alongside YouTube.
‘The only variable would be some shows don’t do Instagram, and some do. We tend to use Instagram for backstage content because Instagram is a smaller platform. Although there are 18 million users in the UK, in terms of theatre, less people use it than the other bigger platforms. We like to use it as a way of giving the loyal fans a chance to have a window into the backstage.’
Both Les Miserables and Miss Saigon use Guest Tweeters to provide this window. Members of the cast take over the Twitter accounts for a week, posting backstage photos of props, make up and occasionally videos of what goes on when the curtain is down. The cast are given guidelines about what to post, but are encouraged nonetheless as resources of untapped content due to their time spent in the theatre. Other shows with smaller casts do not have this capability.
‘Some shows don’t lend themselves to backstage content. It’s not right for them to be giving loads of exclusive content because it ruins the magic,’ says Kennedy. ‘Some casts are really small too. It’s not that they don’t have the time, it’s just not relevant. In Miss Saigon, you’ve got 30 members of the cast. They’re doing stuff backstage, it’s like a family. You’re going to get all of this content come out because there are just so many more people there.’
Advertising on social media is also a factor in what platforms Dewynters uses. ‘On Instagram, advertising isn’t something that’s widely available at this point,’ Kennedy says. ‘Similar to Snapchat, Periscope – there’s the new technology there, but other than just putting content on it, it doesn’t broaden your fan base because you’ll end up just hitting the same people repeatedly.
‘Most of our efforts go into Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in terms of advertising, because their advertising platforms are set up – they’ve been going so long, they know what they’re doing.’
Some platforms plainly do not fit with the show either. Hamm acknowledges that, as theatre fans are unlikely to be early adopters of social media, it ‘wouldn’t necessarily be worth investing time into a brand new social network when we have a huge base of people on the big networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube’.
Kennedy agrees, and adds that adopting too many social networks risks damaging the brand. ‘There are some things that don’t need to be out there and it’s good to have an approval process. With something like Snapchat, it would have to be the cast doing it, because we’re not in the theatre every day. It’s not worth damaging the brand, the show, the production, the people in it for the sake of a social network. Certain technologies lend themselves better to certain industries.’
Nevertheless, Hamm asserts that bravery is key when developing a presence on social media. ‘Good social media managers should look at their feed of content and wonder if they want to see this content and what sort of content would they want to engage with? They are the specialists and the experts and they should go with their gut,’ he says.
‘Trust in your idea. Don’t be scared to gamble and push the boundaries. If something’s original and never been done before, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Be brave when it comes to social media and trust in your creativity.’