How to $ell Your $how

I just finished the first run of Porn Minus Porn at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater.  We sold out (or came very close) on three of the four nights.  Here’s what I learned about promoting a show.

1. Get a sticky idea and an evocative title.

Why is your show different from all the others in your city?  How can you summarize it quickly so the idea comes alive in the audience’s mind?

It’s usually easiest if you take something that already exists and give it a new twist.  When Ridley Scott was pitching the movie “Alien,” he described it to studio executives as “Jaws on a spaceship.”  Easy to imagine, right?

James Cameron made an even simpler pitch for that movie’s sequel.  He walked into a room with studio bosses, wrote the word “Alien” on a chalkboard, then added an “S” on the end.  To top it off, he drew two vertical lines through the “S” to make it a dollar sign.  He got an immediate green light.

I think Porn Minus Porn worked because it’s an easy concept to understand: Cold readings of porn scripts without the sex.

Your show can succeed without a sticky idea, but it’s much, much harder.  A show like Improvised Shakespeare or Improvised Star Trek would be an easy sell to anyone who’s read Shakespeare or seen Star Trek.  It also helps that those groups are really funny.

Remember that most people will go out to see just one or two comedy shows a year.  How can you grab the attention of a random person on the street?

2. Artwork matters.

Children as young as 3 years old are capable of recognizing and identifying which logos go with which brands.  Your show deserves something eye-catching to stand out from the clutter.  Maybe you’re handy with Photoshop.  Maybe you’re an artist.  Maybe you’re a photographer.  If none of these apply to you, can you reach out to a friend?  Or if you have some money to spend, it might be worth hiring an artist.

In Chicago, I’m awfully fond of the work of Scott Williams.

If you saw these on a corkboard in a coffee shop, would you move in for a closer look?  I would.  Scott uses old images in a cool, playful way.  The show information is often secondary to the biggest images.  The retro look sets it apart from the slapdash Photoshop jobs of most show posters.

I was also very impressed by this work from Kat Jay.

Wow.  That’s legit original art.  The title of the show may not convey the full idea, but the poster sure does.  You immediately get a sense for what you’d see at the theater.

Here’s a pretty good one from Under the Gun.

If you’re a “Game of Thrones” fan, you immediately know this show is for you.  Good job piggybacking on a pre-existing idea.

Here’s an example of what not to do.

Apologies to the fine improvisers in this photo, but this is lazy.  The title of the show is barely legible and the montage of random Facebook photos doesn’t tell me anything about the show.  It’s the comedy show equivalent of the movie posters showing floating heads.

At a bare minimum, get your castmates in one place for a photo shoot.  Give a random stranger a reason to stop and look at your image online or on the street.

I have doubts that posters, fliers or postcards strewn about your city will actually result in an audience, but I could be wrong.  When I recently visited Seattle, I saw a show by these guys because I saw their poster of an Indiana Jones show taped to a lamppost.

3. Approach established media.

I’m not going to lie.  This is really hard.  It almost never works.  I’ve been a professional journalist since 2001 and I got tons of emails from people who want me to come to their shows.  The worst was having a theater blast me with a list of shows they were putting up.  Would McDonald’s roll out a new sandwich by sending journalists a full menu?

TV news stations have zero interest in your comedy show.  Zero.  Maybe on a very, very long shot, you could get on a low-rated morning show.  But the morning news audience is NOT the late night comedy audience.

Target blogs, magazines, newspapers or websites that actually cover entertainment options similar to your show.  Invite reviewers to come to see the show for free.  If you get a good write-up, look for quotes you can use in promotion.

I know we got a huge crowd for Porn Minus Porn’s opening night because we were listed twice in Chicago’s RedEye newspaper/website – once as a comedy alternative while Second City rebuilt after a fire, once as a highlighted “thing to do” that weekend.

You do stand a better chance of getting media coverage if there’s something “newsworthy” about your show.  Are you an improv team of cancer survivors or military vets?  You might merit a feature story.  Is the show about a local politician or something currently in the news?  A lot of journalists are overworked/lazy, so if you gift-wrap them a story and an angle, there’s more chance they’ll bite.

4. Work social media real hard.

Instagram.  Facebook.  Twitter.  Get on it.  Make sure your friends know when and where you’re playing.

Social media is a jungle these days.  Once again, you need to fight through the clutter.  I made Twitter and Facebook pages for Porn Minus Porn, although I think they had relatively small impact on the audience.

Facebook is a huge audience driver, but Facebook also sucks.  Because of their stupid algorithm, they don’t show everything to everyone.  They track your habits and try to only show you stuff you’ll “like.”  The majority of my show posts were only seen by about 10 people.  After that, Facebook buries it.  If those 10 didn’t like it, surely no one else will.  According to the site, your posts will only reach about 16% of your fans.  Thanks for nothing, Facebook.

That’s why it’s imperative to have your cast “like” everything posted about the show.  Their likes push it to more people.  If they can use the “share” button, your reach goes up exponentially.  You should also tag cast members in any show image, since that widens the net to include the cast members’ friends.

Twitter and Instagram don’t have that stupid algorithm, so everyone can see everything you post.  But they don’t have the same power in driving an audience to your show.  Guess you have to pay for a Facebook ad, huh?  (Sons of bitches…)

Facebook’s algorithm tends to favor photos over text posts, so keep that in mind.  They also tend to highlight videos uploaded directly to Facebook over those uploaded to YouTube and shared with a URL.  They are crafty and evil.

Also, know when to tweet and post to Facebook.  Some times of day are better than others if you’re looking for retweets and shares.  This infographic can help you set up your social media schedule.  Use Facebook’s “publish” button and sites like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck to schedule posts in the future.  (Note that a post on Twitter is only useful for about three hours, so don’t feel guilty posting there several times a day.  Most people won’t scroll back far enough to get annoyed.)  Read this to get a better idea of how/when to post.

5. Think outside the box.

For Porn Minus Porn, I edited this video together and chucked it online.

I also recorded our live shows and turned them into podcasts that are drawing three times the audience of our live shows.

And I shamelessly used this blog to interview myself about the show.  I’m not proud of that, guys.  Sorry.

I went into my city’s page on Reddit and mentioned the show.

I posted on the Chicago Improv Network’s messageboard.

Did any of these efforts result in ticket sales?  I don’t know.  Bottom line, I wanted to use any means necessary to spread the word.  If you believe in your show, you have to do the same.

6. Ticket sites can help.

The leadership at Under the Gun decided to list some of our tickets through a site called Sosh.  I dislike the fact that they renamed my show and used a stock photo of two women I’ve never met in a theater I’ve never attended.  But some people did buy through them.  People could also buy tickets through Goldstar.  Sometimes those sites help draw an audience that might not ordinarily know about your theater.

Those external sites will also take a bite of your sales, so it’s a bit of a deal with the devil.

7. Ignore Steps 1-6.  Just be amazing.

Steve Martin’s advice to performers is to “be so good they can’t ignore you.”

In Chicago, that absolutely applies to the best comedy show you can see, TJ & Dave.  These two men are so ridiculously talented, they don’t need gimmicks or a show poster or Facebook blasts to sell out.  Hell, their show title is just their names.  But they’ve earned it by being better than everyone else.

My guess is, if you’re at that level, you’re not reading this blog.  Someday, I may be able to draw a crowd based on my name alone.  But I’m not there yet.  So I’ll keep repeating Steps 1-6 and pushing myself to get better.

In the meantime, I invite you to join me when Porn Minus Porn returns to Under the Gun.  (See what I did there?)

Got a question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]


2 responses to “How to $ell Your $how

  1. Dan Goldberg’s advice on promotion still rings true all these years later.

    Everyone in comedy posts about all their show shit all the time, and (never minding showgoers having finite time and money to go see shit) everyone in your show doing the same makes your promotion easier to ignore for your potential audience. I know that I personally unfollow people and block invites from people that I find obnoxiously, compulsively spam me with show ads and invites (especially if they don’t ever talk to me otherwise). And I know I’m not the only one. It just doesn’t work anymore the same tired way everybody does it. I also make a point not to ever follow theatres or performers on Twitter or Tumblr for precisely this reason.

    Great advice I got on how to keep promotion fresh: Instead of everyone spamming for every show, assign one or two people to promote the shit out of ONE night (or for multi week runs, one weekend) to *their* friends, family and peers. By making it more of an event for their people, it makes it more likely their loved ones will come out to support *them*, and in turn support your entire show. And they’re not bothering their loved ones more than once a month or two, compared to everyone bothering everybody all the time.

    Also, consider making some 4×5.5 color postcards about your show and put them in surrounding cafes and places. You’d be surprised how well those work.

  2. I think some of these tips, such as evocative title, decent artwork and the use of social media, have relevance to blogging too. I just wish I’d seen your post before I started blogging. 🙂

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