How To Make Theatre Contagious

A Guest Post by Laura A. Shamas

With so many entertainment options available now, the question is: How can we encourage interest in theatre so it will thrive in the twenty-first century?

Recently, I read a bestselling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On. It’s written by Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Although Contagious is written as a marketing primer, I was struck by how much of it was applicable to theatre and to the arts in general.

It’s hard to determine what makes things popular today. Berger writes that it’s not merely the quality, the pricing, or the advertising of the projects/products that catch on. He reports that although we spend a great deal of time online, only 7% of word-of-mouth happens via Internet-related channels: “We tend to overestimate online word-of-mouth because it’s easier to see.” Social media may display the interests and activities we’ve chosen to share, so the record is available at a glance, but the activities we have offline are just as important and are just as influential. Most of us do not have the time to respond to every update or tweet. When Berger polled his college students, he found that less than 10% of their friends responded to a message they’d posted online. He reminds us “that Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies.”

So what does work? Berger has found six principles that make things “go wide.” Berger describes the anatomy of virality, although not all components are necessary for each and every case of a popular share. These ideas are easily remembered in the acronym “STEPPS”:

1) Social Currency.
2) Triggers.
3) Emotion.
4) Public.
5) Practical Value.
6) Stories.

1) SOCIAL CURRENCY. Do you know insider info that makes you seem cool? Can you share something that you know will be considered “remarkable” or unique? If so, you will share it; it’s human nature. Berger underscores that we find it “pleasurable” to talk about our interests and attitudes. This makes us “look good,” Berger says; it gives us social stature.

Breaking patterns that others have come to expect also gives us social currency, like doing something in a novel, unexpected way. Leveraging game mechanics (by allowing others to see how well we do in a points system, as with airline miles or Foursquare) is another way to gain currency because games motivate us via “social comparison.” We measure our scores next to our friends’ tallies.

Making people feel like “insiders” also boosts their social currency; this is done by giving scarce, unique, exclusive offers to customers or clients.

Berger’s thoughts on social currency made me think about current theatre practices. Theatres have long used “special pre-show receptions,” a chance to preview a show, or even an opportunity to attend certain rehearsals to give subscribers “insider” cachet, such as in Arena Stage’s Theater 101 class.

But what more could we, as theater professionals, do to promote “remarkability” and innovation? Mixed Blood Theatre’s egalitarian Radical Hospitality is a recent idea that breaks previous patterns related to how theater is “sold” to an audience. Or how about doing a play in one’s living room for only twelve people at a time? What else can be done that’s surprising to change the ways in which theater is experienced today?

What can a specific play do that is “remarkable,” completely surprising, or new?

2) TRIGGERS. Daily, we each share about 16 or more opinions about an organization, product, or service, Berger says. That’s a lot of “word-of-mouth.” Why do we do it? Timing is everything.

Something in the environment “triggers” our need to share. Did you know the sales of Mars bars escalated during the 1997 NASA Pathfinder’s mission? Or that Rebecca Black’s 2011 hit song “Friday” always got more YouTube hits on that actual day of the week than any other? These are examples of “triggers” that resonate in our everyday lives.

Berger explains that even negative reviews can be positive for business, if the reviews introduce a project’s existence by giving it press.

If you want to lay the groundwork for triggers for your product, you can “grow its habitat,” according to Berger, “by creating new links to stimuli in the environment.”  This can be done by directing attention to related messages or associated ideas in your project’s arena. The more often you can make a project come to mind, the better.

In this chapter, Berger notes that movie theaters depend on immediate word-of-mouth, as weekly box office reports convey.

But it is also true that ongoing word-of-mouth or “repeat business” helps to drive entertainment sales. So I wonder: How do we “grow a habitat” for theatre? Is it related to the DNA (or identity) of a specific theater or should it always be more play-specific? Or both? How do you grow a habitat for a new play? What are the environmental “triggers” needed? What is the relationship between the cultural zeitgeist and the community in terms of “triggers” that may need to be seeded and tended?

3) EMOTION. Theatre artists already know this axiom: “When we care, we share.” But Berger attaches a component to emotion that goes beyond empathy/sympathy: awe. This was my favorite part of Berger’s book, as he discusses our love of mystery and “the experience of confronting something greater than yourself” which enlarges one’s own “point of reference.”

This section reminded me of works in depth psychology, where awe is seen as part of the numinous or “mysterium tremendum,” the transcendent spiritual force that both attracts and repels.

Berger cites Albert Einstein’s idea that the mysterious is the power of “all true art and science.” I’ve been in “awe” in the theater many times: in awe of excellence of artistry and aesthetics, in awe at the brilliance of execution, in awe of the communal act of artists joined together onstage to produce drama. Berger’s emphasis on the importance of “awe” as an emotion really rang true for me as an artist. Yes, awe-inspiring projects catch on!

We feel affinity for those with whom we’ve shared emotions and secrets, but also with those who make us laugh, according to Berger. If you can crack me up—well, now we’re connected.

The science of “physiological arousal,” an active state in which we’re ready to move or react as needed, is at the core of why emotion matters in virality. Berger uses the image of “kindling a fire” as a metaphor to express emotion as a marketing force. He also reports that exercise (jogging, walking) promotes more emotional sharing.

In theatre, we’ve long known that emotion is what drives human beings. Berger’s exercise discussion made me think of interactive theater like Sleep No More. There’s always a lot of well-deserved buzz about shows that require the audience to move. Does walking around or being physically active while viewing a show contribute to the audience’s desire to spread the word post-show?

4) PUBLIC. Is your project publically visible? We imitate the behavior of others. Can we observe other people supporting your project? Berger reports that we mimic the behavior of others because it provides information about how to live: “social proof.” If others are eating at that restaurant, it must be good. (I wonder if it’s also related to the idea of crowd-sourcing.)

Where do most people put their theatre tickets? Away, in pockets, purses. One idea that Berger suggests directly about theatre is intriguing: “…if theater companies and minor league teams could use buttons or stickers as the ‘ticket,’ instead, ‘tickets’ would be much more publicly observable.”

Berger also explores the concept of “behavioral residue,” something that lasts after the experience. That made me reflect further: certainly, shirts and swag promoting a show should be categorized as part of this.

5) PRACTICAL VALUE. Berger calls this component “news you can use.” Is your project part of a money-saving “deal”? Is there valuable information to impart? Can it help get a discount? Berger suggests that the precept of “practical value” may be the easiest to apply.

To apply “Practical Value” to theatre-making: we certainly award discounted tickets for Student or Early Rush, or preview sales. There’s a financial “deal” aspect to that, as producers have known for a long time.

But is there another way to explore the concept of “practical value”? Can we make the case for the necessity for the arts (art, music, theater, dance, literature)? Can we show it’s not practical to live without them? Is there a way to impart to twenty-first century audiences that art is “fit for action,” as the etymology of “practical” shows?

6) STORIES. Berger begins this final chapter by relaying the story of Odysseus and the Trojan Horse, a Greek myth that has been retold for thousands of years. It has a message; it’s a good narrative. Berger then uses that myth as a metaphor for the function of story relatable to products and brands: a good story may contain valuable information more entertainingly told, and thus, is more memorable, more sustainable.

Berger believes that a product should construct a “carrier narrative” shell that will get people talking, like the Trojan Horse itself. He also cautions that this narrative should be embedded to the plot, so that it’s directly related to the product—not tangential.

The element of story is easy to connect to theatre-making. Writers certainly know something about “story as vessel” for information, since we often struggle with how to artfully hide exposition in a good tale. We know about the value of story, whether for a one-person show or an ensemble.

But what is the story of a specific project? Often, we limit promotional narratives to the bios of the creators, or an issue that brought the creative team to the project. What if you can create “the story” of a play in performance in order to attract an audience, as a meta-narrative? Should the show have its own origin story?

Berger ends Contagious with an epilogue and a checklist, and the good news that you don’t need a big budget to apply these steps to make your project “go viral.”

As we seek audiences for our art, perhaps some of Berger’s ideas can point the way towards imagining a more “contagious” future for theatre artists and audiences.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger, published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 2013.

To see author Jonah Berger discuss Contagious: Why Things Catch On and each aspect in detail, click here.

Laura A. Shamas is a co-founder of LA FPI and currently volunteers as an Outreach Agent. 

4 Comments

  • By Nancy Beverly, May 13, 2013 @ 9:32 am

    I loved this, thanks for sharing it!!

  • By jenniewebb, May 13, 2013 @ 9:38 am

    Could not be hotter – sending out to all of the Women on the Fringe!

  • By Mary Alice Kier, May 13, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    Terrific post…it entertains, enlightens and empowers!
    Well done and I’ll share it with others!

  • By Robin Byrd, May 15, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

    Couldn’t hardly read it for taking so many notes. Thanks for the seminar. 🙂

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