J C’s Note: I’m so pleased to have this article contributed by Clay Mabbitt who runs SoldOutRun.com, a theatre marketing blog & podcast. Bookmark his website as everything he shares on theatre marketing applies to promoting a magic or illusion show.
I requested Clay to write an article for magicians and illusionists. I think his insight as a non-magician but a professional in the arts & theatre arena is valuable and he highlights several key points that magicians often do not understand or accept; especially points 2 & 4. Enjoy!
When J C asked me to share some of my marketing insights with this audience, I was surprised at first. While I enjoy magic and illusion, I have no aptitude for them myself. I couldn’t even convincingly pull off the set of linking rings that I got as a birthday present when I was a kid.
I’m just a theatre guy. I act and occasionally sing. Marketing those type of stage productions is what I’ve been blogging about since 2010. But the more I think about it, the more I started to see a connection.
Whether an illusion show or a play, you’re still asking a roomful of strangers to buy a ticket, sit attentively, and suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy an experience that transcends the mundane world – even if only for an hour or two. The product we put up on the stage may be very different, but the process of enticing strangers to trust us with their money (and even more importantly their time) has some parallels.
With that in mind I give you some valuable principles of theatre marketing, and how (from the outside looking in) I think they might translate to marketing the art of illusion.
1) People are terrified of being disappointed and trapped
When it comes to entertainment, the average person doesn’t like taking chances. There are exceptions, but most people only want to commit to buying a ticket to a performance when they are absolutely certain they will enjoy the experience.
When we carve out a few hours to go to a live event, that time is precious. We got dressed up. We found someone to watch the kids. There’s an enormous pressure to have a good night. As professional entertainers the stakes aren’t as high for us. Even a bad performance is an opportunity for us to observe things not to do, and we can use that to improve. That’s not true for most of the people you want to come see you perform, though.
In theatre a big part of how we reassure people is to communicate in our marketing that the people involved in this production are skilled, and that they are doing their best work. Successful marketing conveys that the team behind this show are competent and committed. I have to assume that’s just as important for an illusionist.
2) Everyone wants to see something unique
Why do I need to see your show? Even if I love magic, why do I need to see your magic? If I don’t buy a ticket, what am I really missing out on?
These are the questions your potential audience is asking themselves, and you better have an answer. When I promote a play I comb through the script, the venue, the people involved, the costumes, the props to find reasons this production will be unlike any other entertainment option someone could choose.
It isn’t enough to promise in your marketing that you will amaze an audience. You can’t just say you’ll show them things that defy their understanding. You’re in the magic business, and frankly that’s just expected. The real question is how are you doing that in a way that no one else is? That’s what people want to know before they buy a ticket.
And if they’ve seen you perform before, what are you going to show them this time that they haven’t already seen. (Read article on evolving)
3) Marketing is entertainment
The second someone’s eyes fall on your advertisement, the show has begun. You don’t even know it’s happening. You could be miles away. But someone’s already being either engaged or turned off by the very idea of your show.
They’re forming opinions about what the experience of seeing your show is like. Now they may not have a sense of what sort of illusions you create or how you execute them, but they are already imagining with the tiny bit of information they have what they would feel like if they were sitting in the audience watching you.
Are you funny? Sexy? Lazy? Unprepared? They already have an answer if you ask them.
Which is more important to an illusion establishing the premise in the mind of the audience or doing that thing that breaks the expectations created by the premise? You can’t separate them, right? Both elements working together is what makes a successful illusion.
What if you thought of your entire show as a single illusion? The performance is where you delight and astonish the audience by showing them things they didn’t think they could see. Your marketing is where you establish your premise. One couldn’t exist without the other.
4) The quality of your promotions is a reflection of the quality of your show
Is that always true? Not always. Do people always believe that it’s true? 100% of the time.
Just like in the world of theatre I’m sure there are illusionists who spend all their time and energy crafting the product that they are putting up on stage. They ignore promotion because it’s somehow beneath them. All they need to do is create an amazing act, and word of mouth will spread. It sounds… almost noble.
The enormous problem with this approach is the false assumption that your promotions and your performance are separate. (See #3 above.) To the general public they can’t be distinguished. Someone who has only seen a cheap, thrown together flyer about your show forms an opinion. Based on that flyer, their opinion is that your act is cheap and thrown together.
Now they’ve never seen your act, but that doesn’t stop them from having an opinion. When their friends are trying to figure out what to do this weekend and someone mentions your name, what happens? “That show doesn’t look like much fun to me. I can watch my little nephew do magic tricks at home. Let’s do something else instead.”
5) If you want press coverage, hand them a story
The fact that you are an illusionist putting on a show is not newsworthy. The world is bursting at the seams with entertainment options, and the mere fact that you are one of them doesn’t warrant a mention in any news outlet. So if you send a press release with the date and time of your upcoming show and a list of places you’ve performed before, expect that press release to end up in the trash without a second glance.
Every publication serves a particular audience. Maybe it’s the people who live in a particular city. Maybe it’s a trade journal for people in a certain industry. Any feature that appears in those publications needs to have an angle that matters to that audience. Are you partnering with a local business? Is your show big enough to have an economic impact on this community? Did you invite local schools to a light version of your show the day before the big event?
I can’t tell you what “newsworthy” angle is right for you. That’s very personal, and it’s certainly different for everyone reading this. What I can tell you is you have to do something unusual and impactful if you want to get covered in the news.
I don’t pretend to know what it takes to create a successful illusion. Truthfully I can’t even claim to know exactly what it takes to market yourself as an illusionist. I promote theatre.
I do know there is a general principle that I believe holds true for marketing any kind of entertainment. People just need to know they’re in good hands. Whatever approach you take to your own marketing, make sure that message comes through clear.
Learn how to book more shows that pay more, check out the Backstage Business Academy, a website dedicated to creating highly successful entertainers