How to cut through the noise when you don't have a budget
One of the most common questions we get is how to increase event attendance when marketing dollars are limited. We know how much work goes into producing events, from venue logistics to collaborators to outreach, and how disappointing it is if your audience doesn’t show—not to mention the organizational challenges that arise from low turnout. Arts marketers often feel they need to cut through the noise of other events or compete with their fellow arts nonprofits for the same slim audience. We’ve been there; we get it. So here are tried-and-true strategies any cash-strapped organization can use to build its audience.
Before we get to those strategies, though, a quick note:
If you want your marketing dollars to really work for you, your event needs to entice people, and you need to be ready to receive whoever shows up if you want them to come back again.
Many event managers, executive directors, and marketers focus so much on the idea of the event that they forget the most important part: the audience. Rather than just selling the event concept or the plot of a show, think about what the audience will experience. What themes or emotions will they encounter? What will entice them to get a babysitter or grab a friend, spend some money, put on real clothes, and leave their house and other priorities?
Let’s take Theater of the Mind for example. There’s a lot that could be said about this piece: that it’s from the minds of David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar, that it’s a new immersive experience, that it’s about how we see and create our worlds. And that’s all great, but it’s not enough. The Denver Center gets this. So they lead in bold, all-caps text: “A gentle, thoughtful rumination on the vagaries of memory and perception. It feels like absolute magic.” Then they bold: “Caution: the brain may wander. Side effects may include a distrust of your own senses, disorientation of self, and a mild to severely good time.”
“It feels like absolute magic.” We want to go; don’t you?
In addition to this emotion-driven marketing, you need to make sure that you remove or lower as many barriers as possible. That includes providing clear information about on-site logistics, accessibility and available accommodations, food, drink, and many other considerations.
Theater of the Mind has this handled, too, with one of the best approaches to proactively sharing information about advisories and accessibility that we’ve ever seen.
And hey, we aren’t telling you to be the Denver Center. You don’t have their resources and you don’t have David Byrne. But this is a great example of marketing that is compelling and audience-centered, and you don’t need the Denver Center’s budget to do that.
We could write a whole blog just dedicated to having a more holistic, strategic, audience-centered approach to your events and marketing—and we probably will. Until then, suffice to say that all the marketing money, strategy, creative, and copy in the world can’t make up for a poorly conceptualized event that prioritizes the needs of the organization over the desires of its supposed audience.
4 No-cost Event Marketing Strategies
1. If nothing else, make time for event listings
Event listings are a valuable, and often overlooked, resource for getting the word out. Focus on 3–5 of the highest-profile events lists in your area (these are usually hosted by local media organizations) and specialize for family-oriented events or other niche audiences where possible. Some of our favorites for Pittsburgh are the City Paper, Artsburgh, and WESA. You’ll need to gather some collateral before you begin (a short event description, compelling creative, ticket info, etc.), but once you do, these are pretty easy to knock out. Plus, editors often use them as a source for those “best upcoming events” roundups.
2. Be creative with your social media strategy
You’re likely already posting on social media, but we have a secret: there is more to event promotion than just posting about it. Use social media to connect with potential audiences by following this event content strategy: start with the buildup (tease the next show/event/season), then announce when tickets are live, then continue the hype by sharing behind-the-scenes clips, profiling featured performers/artists/musicians, and highlighting on-site logistics. Finally, wrap up with reviews from patrons or media so your followers know what they missed. (PS - here’s a bonus tip: boosting a post on Meta is not the same as running a paid ad. If you’re doing everything in-house, know the difference. If you’re hiring out, be sure they do.)
3. Activate your network with a marketing toolkit
This one takes a bit of work, but it’s one of the best ways to show your community connections and reach a much wider audience. Prepare a short marketing toolkit that includes sample post copy, images, links, hashtags, and suggested timing to guide your network while they do event outreach. Make sure you share this document with featured creatives, staff, host committees, board members, and volunteers—basically, anyone who cares about the event’s success and has a public profile. And give them enough lead time to actually use it!
4. Pitch media and build relationships with reporters
Press coverage is a fantastic way to not only give your event that media halo effect, but also to encourage potential attendees to make the leap. And while press coverage is not guaranteed (even when you do lots of outreach) it is definitely worth pursuing. As you continue to build relationships with local reporters and outlets, you’ll learn how to tailor your pitches and secure more coverage.
What if you actually have a budget but you don't know how or where to spend it? Lucky for you, Emily has been advertising arts and culture events for over a decade. Reach out for one-one training or full-service advertising support.