TCG is holding a monthly teleconference for marketing directors from their member theatres. It seems that everyone is talking about how major daily newspapers are losing power with their declining number of subscribers. Lately, I have been noticing something similar in the Washington, D.C. area. The major daily paper is The Washington Post, and according to our sales reps, it is the fifth largest newspaper in the world when looking at circulation. So, you would think that a strongly positive or negative review could potentially determine the success of a production (much like how New York City waits for Ben Brantley to send his word from on high).
To be honest, I have seen the exact opposite since I have been at Arena Stage. Arena Stage opened its season with Moises Kaufman's world premiere 33 Variations. The show got a lackluster review from the Post critic but was an immediate hit with our audiences. The second show of the season was Lisa Kron's Well which got an amazing review from the Post critic, but didn't seem to have the word-of-mouth that 33 Variations did. From a financial point of view, even with a not-so-positive review, 33 Variations performed very well. In years past, I have heard that if a show didn't get a positive review from the Post, it was very unlikely to succeed at the box office. However, that isn't the case today. So if potential audiences are no longer being influenced by reviewers from the major dailies, who are they listening to?
30% of 0ur audience when asked states that their decision to purchase a ticket was influenced by word-of-mouth from a friend. That is way above any other factor. So I have started to concentrate on how word-of-mouth travels, especially as it relates to new technology. New technology allows discussions to happen instantly. Audience members can text their friends from intermission, giving either a thumbs up or thumbs down. These are the people who have the real power -- the audience members themselves. And that is how it should be. Empower your audiences to be your advocates and sales will increase.
I would also pay attention to a relatively new website called Yelp. Yelp.com allows the average person to experience an event and then review it online (much like a travel website). However the Yelp community is growing very rapidly. Recently I invited several "yelpers" to attend a performance of a show and asked them to honestly review the production. We treated them exactly like a member of the press. I would encourage you to do the same. The power now resides in the hands of "citizen reviewers" instead of the reviewers from the major dailies.