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Last week I relayed my travails trying to find an article on TheNew York Times Web site. The article I was trying to reference was about the marketing efforts of one Ken Davenport, an off-Broadway producer who has been using the Internet in innovative ways to market his shows. The ever-connected Davenport got wind of my article and sat down for an interview with me yesterday.

Before setting out on his own, Davenport worked as a general manager for many of the top Broadway shows and producers--trying, with limited success, to introduce new marketing channels like the Internet to a very traditional and archaic world. "Theater producers are 10 years behind," when it comes to marketing, says Davenport.

But not completely behind the eight-ball. E-mail is an established tool in theater marketing, although its use is limited to promotional e-mail blasts that companies such as Telecharge and Playbill offer customers. These e-mail blasts are "quite successful, " says Davenport, providing a 3x return on investment. But list rental costs are going up and stats like open rates are not taDavenport into consideration when purchasing these types of lists.



When Davenport stepped out on his own, he decided it was time to take his own advice and leverage the power of Internet marketing to fill seats. His first venture, the "Awesome 80's Prom," a "Tony and Tina's Wedding"-type show, needed special handling to be successful. It ran only on Saturdays and appealed to a niche audience: women's bachelorette parties. He started advertising on wedding sites and doing general e-mail blasts. Sales were good for the first six months, but not where Davenport wanted them to be. "The problem was lag time," he says. "It took time for the women to coordinate when they could all get together to come to the show."

So Davenport developed a new strategy geared to striking while the iron was hot. "Audiences were going crazy during the show, and I wanted a way to recapture that feeling." The solution was the "Thank You for Getting Footloose With Us" e-mail that went out the Monday after the show. Davenport studied e-mail sending and open rate patterns and determined that the best time to send his blast was a few hour after the women got to work and had had time to catch up on their day's activities. He learned that peak e-mail usage was at lunch time, which was when he sent his blast. "The idea was to capture that feeling they had in the theater that weekend."

The result? Open rates were off the charts, and Saturday reservations started to climb.

"Altar Boyz," the next production, required the marketing to be taken up a notch. "Altar Boyz runs during the week as well as Saturdays, so we had a lot more tickets to sell," he says. So Davenport hired development firm Affinitive to develop a highly interactive fan site, which not only helped create a community around the show, but also provided a strong network in cities around the country--helping to set up the national tour of the show, something Davenport calls "connecting the dots."

To really fill the seats, Davenport began sending out his Monday morning thank-you e-mails, adding a discount coupon for fans of the show to pass along and invite their friends. In addition, the site is designed much like a video game where fans can accumulate points (communion wafers) that can be redeemed for T-shirts, coffee mugs, dinner with a cast member, and even two all-expense tickets to see the show on the road. The discounts generated a 10 percent conversion--and many people didn't even take advantage of the discount card. Just receiving it was enough to generate a reservation, with many forgetting to apply for the discount at all.

So as it turns out, my runaround with the Times has given me not one, but two columns. When they give you lemons....

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