The True Meaning of “Digital” Marketing

We truly live in a digital world …

Sorry. I fell asleep as I was writing the previous sentence. If there’s a more trite phrase than “we live in a digital world,” it’s probably “your marketing should be digital.”* So trite, in fact, many people have forgotten the true meaning of the word.

“Digital” means information that’s represented by a discrete number. “Let’s meet at 10ish,” and “Let’s meet when the shadow of the cathedral spire hits the fountain in the square” are not digital. 10:06:03 is.

Computers think, as you know, in ones and zeros. The reason for this is that if everything is either a one or a zero, it’s either “on” or “off.” A light switch is a highly digital input device because there’s a “one” position and a “zero” position. Dimmer switches, by contrast, are analog. Computers take extremely complicated things and turn them into vast systems of on and off switches, and as complex and organic as Assassin’s Creed seems, it’s the genius of interpreting an insane number of on/off switches that makes it all happen.I want to talk about another form of “digital” marketing. I believe that live entertainment and arts is a “digital” product. For me, that means that a consumer is either basically interested in a show and buying a ticket to it, or they are basically not interested. It’s not really possible for consumers to have a little bit of a show, to borrow the show from someone or take it for a test drive. Sure, they can read and see information about the show, but it’s not the same as tasting the gourmet jam in the grocery store aisle, test driving a car or checking out the picture quality on the HDTV side by side with others in the store.

The challenge for live entertainment and arts marketers is to get the person to be a “one” without really experiencing the product.

Curb Appeal

How can this be done? One way is for the show to have what realtors call curb appeal. This means that it looks good from the outside. Over the last several days, we’ve sold thousands and thousands of tickets to Wicked on Goldstar, so it’s been on my mind. I was just thinking the other day about the tremendous curb appeal of the show. The name is short, punchy, memorable, connected to something familiar and makes you want to know more. The logo and look and feel of the show, and especially the promotional materials, are simple, but very appealing. They walk me one step closer to an understanding of what the show is, and why I want it. The combination of the familiar and the novel is so startling clear that the show gets the full benefit of the power of that.

Over time, of course, it’s also gotten a legion of fans: Its songs have become well-known, and it’s developed a reputation for delivering on the curb appeal. But once upon a time, it didn’t have those things … yet. But what it did have is curb appeal.

Something Special Is Happening

Another way to turn zeros into ones is to convey the idea that something special is happening. Venues and shows try to do this all the time in the least credible way by pretending they’re sold out, because being sold out is a proxy, in their minds, for the excitement that goes along with a real happening. But it’s just a proxy, and if people can’t see in some way why a show should be sold out, for the most part, they don’t believe the hype, and they shouldn’t. Here’s an example from a few years ago that illustrates my point very well: Ten years ago, some Hollywood actors — and others — bought a kit that was sold and distributed by a pastor in Colorado for a Halloween “haunted house” for churches to display. The purpose of the Hell House displays were to warn teenagers away from drugs, alcohol, sex and so forth, but when these Hollywood performers produced the event, it was big news. They vowed to produce the attraction just the way the kit said they should, but everyone knew that the clash of these two cultures was going to produce something worth seeing. The event was a huge success, and people lined up for hours to go through.

In and of itself, the event certainly had some appeal, but as the center of where something was actually happening, it was incredibly powerful. Of course, few things can be happenings in this sense of the word, and faking it won’t work, but events that feel like they’re more than just a “show” can have a tremendous power in getting people from zero to one. Sports sees both the upside and downside of this. Every game is unique, and every game has a recorded result. When it’s an important game, more people care, but just the same, try marketing tickets for the last couple of months of a baseball season when the team is lousy, and their games have become meaningless. This is also why farewell tours work, at least the first few farewell tours.

Secret, Mystery, Twist or Novel Outcome

Events also draw people in by implying that they have a secret, mystery, twist or novel outcome. People hear about something like Sleep No More and get excited at what they themselves personally might discover that others haven’t discovered. I happen to know that a very small number of people who went to Sleep No More a couple of years ago were accosted and pulled into a phone booth (I think it was a phone booth) by an actor who looked an awful lot like Neil Patrick Harris — because it was Neil Patrick Harris, as a guest performer. Part of the appeal of the event is the idea that strange, unpredictable and new things might happen if you’re there. Even a show like Drunk Shakespeare holds the promise that a Shakespearean improviser who pounds shots during the entire performance is going to take the show in a direction that you don’t expect and can’t know in advance.

These are hooks built into the show, and if they’re good enough, people will flip that switch from zero to one and want to come see the show.

Of course, these are just a few thoughts on how to do this, and ultimately, however you draw them in, the show has to deliver as an experience. This is the digital marketing that the live entertainment and arts business should be doing. Flipping those switches of all the people who aren’t going out from “off” to “on” and thinking in terms of doing just that.

*And as to the question of whether your marketing should be “digital” in the other sense of the word, to paraphrase Archer: D’uh and/or hello!

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