Legit producers try viral marketing

Mark Blankenship

NEW YORK — Shows on the Rialto and off are logging time on YouTube.

While the video-sharing service has provided legit fans with access to “Dreamgirls’ ” Jennifer Holliday wailing at the 1982 Tonys, “Carrie” clips or Judi Dench deadpanning “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” in a Rodgers & Hammerstein tribute, YouTube also has opened producers‘ eyes to a new marketing angle for current productions: Though the platform’s potential is still being tested, online video is gaining traction as a theater branding tool.

For instance, a YouTube or MySpace search for “Spring Awakening” quickly reveals an official music video for song “The Bitch of Living.” And besides YouTubers performing their own versions of numbers from “The Drowsy Chaperone,” there are skits of star Bob Martin wandering around Times Square, playing his narrator character, Man in Chair.

Marketing gurus behind the upcoming William Finn revue “Make Me a Song” also plan to take advantage of viral advertising. The Off Broadway show, which bows in April, hopes to get the word out by uploading interview clips of Finn himself.

Producers hope these clips will go viral, meaning Internet users will forward them to one another. If a video breaks out, a production can milk valuable word of mouth.

“I know people who still call it ‘The Drunken Chaperone,’ ” notes “Drowsy” producer Kevin McCollum. “We still need to get the word out.”

Of course, just making a video doesn’t guarantee it will be seen, nor does emailing a link to everyone on a theater’s mailing list. But there are already rules for making online videos succeed in the nascent field — which has factored seriously in legit marketing for less than two years.

One cornerstone: Don’t make clips seem like commercials. Damian Bazadona, president of digital ad firm Situation Marketing, which reps both “Awakening” and “Chaperone,” says a hard sell can turn off Web viewers who want short bursts of entertainment, not a marketing pitch. “We’ve had producers say, ‘Let’s put in a discount, save $20 if you mention this ad,’ and I say, ‘Now you’re making it feel commercial,’ ” he explains.

But aren’t the clips supposed to be commercials?

Surprisingly, there’s a strong sentiment that ticket sales should not be the primary concern of online videos. Instead, their key function is as perpetual profile-raisers that can introduce auds to a legit title for the first time or provide added bonuses for obsessive fans eager to absorb every new offshoot of a favorite show. If they’re well executed, these clips can bounce around for years, drumming up familiarity as they go.

Jim Glaub, whose Web marketing firm Art Meets Commerce reps clients including the Finn revue, says: “Even if viewers aren’t immediately buying tickets, they’re getting a raised awareness of the show. It’s a greater amount of impressions, and in marketing, that’s everything.”

Auds also get a chance to eye not-so-public creatives like Finn. These clips give them a chance to see the person behind the work.

“I think patrons want that kind of access,” Glaub says. “It’s like a DVD extra.”

The challenge still remains to make videos people actually want to see. Bazadona says successful clips are not just filmed excerpts from a stage show, but a new entertainment product conceived for the Web. That means being brief, memorable and, most of the time, funny.

But videos also need to stay on message, somehow capturing the spirit of the show they represent. “You’re communicating the energy of what you’re getting when you buy a ticket,” Bazadona explains.

Take those “Drowsy” nuggets, which also can be found on the show’s official Web site. When Man in Chair stands at the TKTS discount booth explaining his strategies for purchasing tickets to musicals, viewers get a taste of the production’s self-referential wit. They also get a 23-second gag that stands on its own.

But — and this is a very big but — it’s incredibly difficult to quantify an online video’s impact. Recent numbers show “The Bitch of Living” has been viewed more than 50,000 times on YouTube, but that doesn’t mean 50,000 different people have screened the clip. And it’s impossible to say how many already knew the show when they watched.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the format’s momentum.

McCollum adds that legiters must embrace new techniques if they want to reach new auds. “We’re willing to change and develop with whatever platform we’re using,” he says, explaining the “Drowsy” strategy. “We’re not sticking with one thing, saying this is our tagline, now and forever. Pun intended.”