Put words in their mouths (Marketing meta-idea)


Thesis: If your productions aren’t getting the word-of-mouth support you hope for, you may be able to take action to shape the word-of-mouth.

Most companies who survey members to learn why they chose to attend a show find that recommendation from friends, often called word-of-mouth, is a high frequency response. Many then look at that part of the data with mixed feelings.

“Word-of-mouth works well and costs us nothing.” Hurray!

“We have no control over word-of-mouth.” Boo!

I don’t believe either of those statements is entirely true. This post is intended to introduce and motivate the idea of shaping word-of-mouth. Future idea posts will give specific tactics.

In order to effectively promote your production to others, an audience member needs:

Inclination – This is mostly driven by a favorable experience of the production. My general assumption in all of this work is that each production is worth seeing, even thrilling; so I’ll continue to keep that as read. Remember, though, that a given person’s inclination to promote can be affected by the entire arc of engagement with the work, from first awareness of the production to thinking about the production days afterward. The minutes someone is in the seat do not represent the only opportunity to create inclination to promote.

Motivation – Making a recommendation to another person about how to spend time always puts social capital at risk. Audience members need some positive motivation to move from leaning towards promoting to actually doing so. An audience member might be motivated to promote out of a sense of obligation to the people who just gave him a tremendous artistic experience, if he knows that promoting the show would to some extent meet that obligation. An audience member might be motivated to promote in order to gain social capital – by being a discoverer of a valuable experience and therefore a tastemaker in his social circle.

Messages – People want to sound smart and articulate when talking to friends. An audience member who can only say “I really liked it,” may be less likely to recommend than someone who feels he has a clever way to recommend the show. Producing companies can help provide messages to audience members to equip them to better promote.


Capability – persuading others to take action is a skill (how well am I doing?) Some audience members may feel they are not competent to persuasively promote an experience to their friends. Since theatre producing companies are to a large extent in the business of helping people getting better at speaking compellingly, there may be opportunities to help audience members build capability as promoters.

To the extent that companies can take action to increase inclination, motivation, availability of messages, and capability they can improve the effectiveness of word-of-mouth.

I want to dance out on a fairly well known example of big advertising applied to an effort to create word-of-mouth. Faberge Organics ran a series of ads in the 1970’s all on the theme of ‘I tried the shampoo. I told two friends, then they told two friends, and so on.’ There’s an example available at the link below. Clearly, if people were already recommending their shampoo to each other at such a geometric rate, they wouldn’t have bothered to run an expensive campaign to convince people to do so. You can exert some control to improve word-of-mouth for your productions, and it can cost you a lot less than it cost them.

Thoughts always welcome.

  • December 18, 2012