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Theaters are taking social networking to a new level

June 4, 2009 |  4:00 am


Now that practically every new stage production has its own Facebook page and Twitter feed, what's the next step for theater companies in the realm of social networking?

First, an obvious but crucial point: In the theater world, just as in any realm of showbiz, social networking is really just a glorified marketing tool, a cheap way of building word-of-mouth buzz. But for a marketing campaign to be really useful, it has to bring in information (in that creepy Orwellian way) in addition to putting out the word.

To that end, theater companies are starting to up the technical sophistication of their social networking sites, tricking them out with complex metrics tools that are designed to collect fan data, which in turn can be used to sell, sell, sell.

And it's happening everywhere, from stage productions on the West Coast to Broadway, from nonprofit companies to blockbuster productions.

The La Jolla Playhouse recently launched a new campaign titled "Your Life, Our Stage," in which the company is inviting everyone to submit ideas for a play based on their own lives by uploading videos, photos, artwork and written descriptions via the social networking vendor Brickfish.

The winning entry will have a scene from his or her life story written by Doug Wright, the playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for "I Am My Own Wife."

So what's in it for La Jolla Playhouse?

The ability to use the contest as a marketing research tool was key, according to Michael Rosenberg, the company's managing director. Brickfish allows the Playhouse to collect user data such as how people arrived at the site (through Facebook? Linkedin?), as well as demographic and geographic information.

That data will then be used to plan and launch future online campaigns, said Rosenberg.

Wright's participation in the contest came through his friendship with artistic director Christopher Ashley. "I thought it was an amusing idea. I said yes in a fit of enthusiasm in the back of a cab," the playwright recalled.

On Broadway, where the marketing dollars are exponentially larger than in the nonprofit world, productions are pouring significant resources into social media.

The team behind "Shrek the Musical" on Broadway launched the Shrekster site around the time the musical was in Seattle for tryouts. The faux Friendster site is intended "to bring the characters from the movie to life but in a musical context," according to Sara Fitzpatrick, director of interactive for SpotCo, which runs the show's advertising campaigns.

But the Shrekster site is also expanding as the musical evolves. This Sunday's Tony Awards (for which the show is nominated in the best musical category) has occasioned humorous for-your-consideration ads on the site. The musical's national tour (set for 2010) is another opportunity for technical enhancement, with the advertising team planning to target specific cities along the tour route.

One new Shrekster application in the works is a set of online ad banners that users can copy and insert into their own Facebook and MySpace pages. A similar DIY ad campaign can be found on the social networking sites for the current Broadway production of "Hair."

These ads have the potential to track who is clicking on them and to relay that information back to the show's producers.

"We're going to keep expanding Shrekster as the show continues to grow," Fitzpatrick said. "It's the most effective way to reach as many fans as possible."

-- David Ng