Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fringe Festival Handbilling as Marketing 101

Copyright Pixelens Photography

It's amazing really. I watch people handbilling on the grounds of the Edmonton Fringe Festival and I see a microcosm of all things marketing. Sure, it makes sense. People doing shows have a product and they are trying to find a consumer to pay for that product. But the number of basic advertising tenets that manifest themselves in these many transactions, both good an bad, continues to amaze me.

I know a bunch of people who hate handbilling. Mostly because they hate interrupting someone to thrust an unwelcome, uninvited advertising message upon them. Which is a good reaction to have. Because people hate to have unwelcome, uninvited advertising messages thrust upon them.

Read on to see just a few of the marketing lessons that can be gleaned from watching an earnest actor simply trying to plug their show.

What doesn't work:

Quantity: Many performers simply try to make sure their handbills are everywhere. Thousands of them. Just like Nike putting their logo on everything, the hope is that if it is pervasive enough, it will sink into the subconscious and make an impact. The problem is that others are doing the same thing. Potential audience members (customers) get bombarded with dozens of handbills (advertising messages) every day and they eventually become noise. If you could actually blanket every square inch of the city with your piece of paper this might work. Of course you would totally alienate the environmental crowd after slaughtering that many trees.

Irrelevance: Performers will walk up to anyone and try to convince them to see their show. It doesn't matter if the potential customer would be interested. They try to convince everyone that it's the perfect show for them. This conveys a subtle message that the performer doesn't mean to convey, but the listener picks up on: I'm more interested in your ticket money than giving you an experience that is meaningful. It becomes all about bums in seats, and not about relevance.

I am doing two shows at the Fringe. If you like historical plays about Canadian women and the First World War, check out Firing Lines. If you don't, I have no expectation that you'll click that link. If you like improvisation, are heavily into social media and would like to be able to use Twitter during a show to interact with the actors during the show, check out #YEGprov. I have told very few people about both shows because they are usually very different audiences. I want to make sure a show is the sort of experience that an audience connects with before I try to sell a ticket.

Claims of Quality: If I could teach my clients only one thing, this would be it. Don't say your show (product/service) is the "Best" or the "Funniest" or the "Most Dramatic" or that it's "Excellent." Of course you think that. The listener knows you're biassed. And they tune out that claim. That part of your message gets edited out by the listener. So don't waste time with it. The more you push it, the more they wonder why you have to tell them and - ironically - the less they believe you.

What does work:

Making a connection: I've seen performers walk up to people for five minutes, and chat about all sorts of things that have nothing to do with their own show for most of that time. They have a meaningful conversation and finish it with a plug for their show. It takes longer but each handbill that is given out has a much higher chance of turning into a ticket. (ROI anyone?)

Offering value: I used to stand at the info boards and wait for people to walk up. When they did, I would ask them what sort of show they were looking for. I would share all I knew about the upcoming shows. What I had heard, the good, the bad and the ugly. I would never slam a show, but I would try to assess what they were looking for and try to find the best match for them. I would also, very honestly admit that one of the shows was mine, and that I was understandably biassed about it. If my show was a comedy and they were looking for a drama, I wouldn't plug it, but I would mention it. Amazingly, almost everyone would take my handbill and even if they weren't looking for my sort of show, they would usually buy tickets. Why? Because I had willingly offered them assistance with their needs, regardless of my own. Then, as a fair exchange, they would willingly listen to my pitch. I know that you perceive your show (product/service) as being of high value, but anyone you meet likely does not. If they do, they're already your customers. Find out how you can help them, and they will be willing to help you.

Sincerity: The curveball in all this is that some people push their show hard, against all these rules, and still do well with handbilling. Why? Because they are sincere. Absolutely genuine and passionate about their work. And they want to share it with the world. That sincerity should always be there, no matter how you connect with people. If you don't believe in your show/product/service/widget then why should anyone else.

Head down to the Fringe grounds. Watch people pitch their shows. Take a few handbills. You'll see examples of the good and the bad. Then ask yourself: When I'm trying to sell something, what kind of 'handbiller' am I?


  1. Makes perfect sense, Randy. I particularly like the note about how claims of quality don't work. If you have to tell someone that your work is "The Best", then they won't ever believe it. If your product is genuinely that good, your target audience should be able to see it on their own - by the way you carry yourself, interact with them, etc.

    One of my textbooks actually did this. Its first sentence was something along the lines of "The subject of Operations Management is fascinating". And I remember that, for the remainder of the course, all I could think was "Kind of playing fast and loose with the word 'fascinating' there, weren't we?" Obviously, if you have to say it rather than letting me get that vibe on my own, it's probably not true - you've had to push it too hard.

  2. Trish - absolutely. Quality is all about 'show don't tell.'

  3. John Brisson - 11 year Fringe Volunteer vet.

    This is bang on the nail and there have been times when I've had to turn away from handbillers. As a volunteer and patron I try to stay un-biased when I'm in 'uniform'. Off shift I try to help still in as un-biased a way as possible but it can be hard to do. I wished I could have seen both your shows and was glad I saw "Firing Lines". It's nice to see more of Edmonton and Alberta's past brought into the light. Thank you very much Randy.

  4. Hey John, thanks for coming out to the show. As a volunteer, I'm sure you have a long list of shows you want to see, and a small amount of time to see them, so I am truly honored that you chose to make the time to see Firing Lines! Cheers!