How can theater companies use communications tools to engage with their audiences? Shonali Burke, CMO at Arena Stage, shares some nuances of theater PR and how other types of brands can benefit from the practices. Shonali also emphasizes the importance of understanding data and using active influencers to elevate your brand.
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Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: SHONALI BURKE
DOUG: If you’re watching this, you probably already know Shonali as being at the forefront of helping brands and organizations understand social media, use it to build their business, as well as understand the power of influence. Now you’ve turned your attention to theater. Why is theater so important?
SHONALI: Doug, first of all, thank you for that very kind introduction. And theater for me is very close to me because in my first career, I think you know, I was actually an actress, a director. My master’s is in theater. And at this point in my life, when I decided I was going to come back into the conventional workforce and rejoin a mission-driven organization to really help a tell stories better, this opportunity at Arena Stage couldn’t have been more perfect for me because it allowed me to bring my experience in PR and marketing together with my love for and affinity for theater to tell really important stories, because that’s what we do in PR and marketing, and that’s what Arena does. Arena, in its 70 plus year history, has been at the forefront of creating safe spaces where we can explore through the galvanizing power of theater what it means to be an American. And that’s why this is so important to me.
DOUG: I mean, you’re definitely a great proponent of that. So, what are some of the approaches you’re using to help the Arena Stage engage with its audiences?
SHONALI: One of the things that Arena is really blessed in is that we have an amazing audience base, an amazing patron base who are very, very loyal and who’ve with us not just for years, but in some cases decades. So, they’ve seen Arena grow and evolve, and they’re very encouraging of those changes. Of course, as you know, when social media came into play, we have to learn how to engage with audiences in an entirely different way. So, especially given that we are still coming out of or we hope to be coming out of the pandemic because really, who knows how long anything is going to last, but at this point, as we’re recording this, we’re about, what, two and a half years almost into the pandemic. And as you’ve seen around the country and around the world, life performance is just one of the sectors that has suffered so much, so through the pandemic, Arena made sure to stay in touch with its audiences through digital and virtual programming. We still have a level of that that continues, but also we’re extending our outreach to be much more active in social platforms, engaging with influencers, and really extending and growing our communities of influence to be more than in the good old days, you know, just traditional media.
DOUG: So, what are some of the approaches you’re using that might benefit other types of businesses?
SHONALI: I think one of the approaches that we’re using that is very effective and this is relatively new because, you know, as we’ve been staffing up, you have to have the capability to do everything or anything, right? You have to have someone to actually do it. So, that’s the first thing that I would tell any business owner or people working in organizations who are dying to do these things, you know, don’t beat yourself up because if you don’t have the staff, the capacity, it’s is really hard. There’s only so much you can do, right? But once you start to build that capacity, really spending time in doing the research on who you’re trying to engage with and what about your story is going to appeal to them. So, for example, for the opening of Catch Me If You Can, which was a big musical directed by Molly Smith, our artistic director, in the spring of 2022, we looked for online or digital influencers who are really passionate about theater. It didn’t matter necessarily if they had large followings. We wanted to see if they were active in telling of their experiences, talking about what they liked, what they didn’t like, how authentic were they, how real were they, and reached out to them to invite them to opening night. And they loved it. You Invite them early, and then we had a couple of the team walk them around and give them a tour of the Mead Center, which is at our location in the District. And they just loved it because a lot of them hadn’t actually been to the Mead Center in many years or perhaps ever. So, anything you can do to find those really human touch points and give people a little something extra that they wouldn’t otherwise get, I think really helps elevate your brand and perception in their eyes.
DOUG: So, how are you using social media technologies to help with this? I think you touched that you reached out to them. Did you use any of the technologies to help you do that and do it effectively?
SHONALI: Nothing particularly earth shattering, I would say, you know, good old either using the native platforms or in some cases some of the dashboards. I don’t want to go into names because you know me, Doug, if I name one, then I have to name all the other 500. So, really not anything very different than, you know, many businesses would have access to.
DOUG: And so, without naming names on this, can you maybe talk about the role data and analytics does play in what you’re doing? I’m sure you would be at the forefront of that, definitely aware of the value it can have.
SHONALI: You know, as you know and as you said, I love it. I’m a complete data nerd. We do have our own, not just our, you know, Senior Manager for Web Analytics and Innovation. I hope I’ve gotten the title right. But if you and I geek out over data, so we’re looking at Google Analytics, but looking to see on a weekly basis, what were we, what were our outputs, what were our marketing and outreach and perhaps other initiatives as well? And by that I mean the entire media spectrum. So, from paid media to earned, to organic, and social. What was happening and what was resulting from that? I mean, you know, I’ve talked a lot about correlating outputs to outcomes. So, that’s what we try to do. And it does help inform our decisions. We do a fair amount of A/B testing with our email marketing, we hope to be doing more in the future. We have a lot of source codes and tags that are kind of linked to, you know, different patrons or different promotions so that we can see when one performed better than the other or when we had a promotion that went out perhaps to different audiences. As long as we’ve set up different segments of that email, for example, we can see, okay, when we had this promotion, there were four segments, but segment one was able to perform really, really well and segments two and three didn’t. And then over time, if you kind of just keep monitoring and tracking, you’ll start to see trends.
DOUG: Sure. As being something that many people in communications aspire to be a cool nerd like yourself. Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to leave with us?
SHONALI: Make friends with data. Data’s your friend. Doug, you and I have talked for years about how a lot of PR professionals say, “I’m scared of math, I didn’t go into PR to do math,” and no one’s asking you to come up with the next, you know, no one’s asking you to be the next Einstein or come up with the next theory of relativity. But you must be able to get over that fear, it’s a valid fear, I understand it, and to be able to look at numbers and say, what are the stories these numbers are telling me? Because we always come back to the fact that PR is about telling your brand story, but if you don’t look at the data to see where those stories are, or, you know, we happen to see because of social media monitoring that one of our staff who works in kind of in the artistic sphere actually does amazing things on TikTok. But if we hadn’t been monitoring that and looking at the data around her content, we would not have been able to say, hey, my gosh, you’re so great at this, do you want to come and do an Instagram takeover for us? So, that’s a very small example of why it’s so important to pay attention to what’s going on. But then as you start to get numbers, make sure it’s not just a data dump for you, but you’re really trying to make sense of, okay, if this was my return, what does that mean? If somebody tells you that you had a click through rate of .25%, think about what that number means because it’s not really as big as it sounds.
DOUG: Right. Well, that’s awesome. And hopefully the click through rate on this posting will be really high. I’m sure people would benefit from hearing what you had to say. Thanks so much for being part of the show.
SHONALI: Always, Doug. Thank you so much.