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When Mad Avenue Meets Broadway: A Twitter Story

  |  September 17, 2010   |  Comments

One Broadway show's online marketing provides inspiration for small to medium-sized organizations with limited budgets.

The Broadway musical, "Next to Normal," has been showered with accolades for its social media savvy. And rightfully so.

The production's Twitter initiative, which won a ClickZ Marketing Excellence Award this summer, can offer inspiration to marketers working with small to medium-businesses on a limited budget.

Twitter Performance: The Backstory

"Next to Normal" tackles an unlikely topic for a musical: a family struggling with a mother's bipolar disorder. Featuring a cast of six and 30 original songs, the musical opened April 15, 2009 at the Booth Theatre on Broadway after an off-Broadway run and an engagement in Washington, DC.

Situation Interactive, an ad agency with an office four blocks away from New York City's theater district, was tasked to build online awareness for the show's Broadway debut.

"It's an emotional show and the music is more modern [than traditional musicals]" said Tom Lorenzo, creative director at Situation Interactive. The audience skews younger than the typical Broadway show, he said.

Situation Interactive's challenges:

  • How to connect with people online before and after an event that essentially remains unchanged - night after night, week after week, month after month. "Musicals cost more to produce than plays. Most have to run a couple of years before they turn a profit," said Joe Meyers, entertainment writer and blogger at the Connecticut Post.
  • How to reach a younger demographic that typically doesn't attend Broadway performances. The average age of a Broadway theatergoer was 42.2, according to a Broadway League survey published by Playbill.com. Yet, Meyers pointed out that musical productions, such as "American Idiot" and the upcoming "Spider-Man on Broadway" are hoping to capture younger audiences.
  • How to avoid using a new technology for the sake of using it.

As planning for the "Next to Normal" marketing initiative got under way, Twitter had emerged as the social networking darling for celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher.

"It was a great time to use Twitter to reach a new audience," Lorenzo said. Mindful of how an earlier generation converted radio programs to TV, the creative team started to brainstorm about how best to approach Twitter.

An idea was born - perform the show on Twitter and see what happens.

"I wasn't sure what form the show would take on Twitter at first. It's fair to say I was skeptical," said Brian Yorkey, who wrote the lyrics and book for "Next to Normal."

To create the Twitter script, Situation Interactive senior copywriter Aaron Coleman broke down the show into tweets.

"That was a huge task. It's not really as simple as taking dialogue from the show and turning it into 140-character tweets," Yorkey said. Instead, the script for the Twitter performance expanded upon what happened in the original performance. "Twitter let us look at every moment in the play from five or six different points of view. It's an expansion of what's on the stage."

At that point, Yorkey said he "got" what Situation Interactive was trying to achieve. He provided an assist to Coleman's efforts by tweaking each character's voice and adding jokes to the script. Like the on-stage performance, the Twitter performance ended with the song, "Light."

During the four weeks leading up to the Tony Awards ceremony on June 7, 2009, characters from "Next to Normal" tweeted about 10 times a day from the account, @n2nbroadway. One week into the effort, "Next to Normal" had 30,000 followers; by June 7, that number totaled 145,000, according to nytimes.com. That number reportedly climbed to more than 550,000 more than two months later, after cast members exchanged messages with followers.

Encouraged by the audience's response to the Twitter performance, Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the show's composer, had another idea - and it, too, involved Twitter.

n2n

Yorkey and Kitt invited @n2nBroadway followers to collaborate on writing a song related to the show. "Stephen Sondheim always says that a song in a musical should be its own 'scene' or like its own 'one-act play,'" Yorkey advised in a tweet. "So the first thing to do, before writing any lyrics or music is to outline that 'scene.' What happens in this song? Tweet us ur ideas!" Kitt wrote in a follow-up tweet.

As part of the experiment, participants were asked to vote on Twtpoll for the characters that would sing the song. The result: a song titled, "Something I Can't See." It was performed at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, though it wasn't added to the musical. (It's featured in this free podcast.)

Twitter Performance: The Results

More than 16 months and 1,100 tweets later, @n2nBroadway has more than 1 million followers, as many as a big-name brand like Southwest Air. The cast album also reached the top 10 on iTunes and Amazon.com, another feat for a Broadway musical.

What Can Businesses Learn From "Next to Normal"?

Producing and promoting Broadway shows is not the same as running and marketing less flashy enterprises. Still, there are takeaways for businesses looking to become more social:

Understand the medium. The team working on the "Next to Normal" social media campaign grasped how Twitter worked – and realized the difference between a good online campaign in a social context and a good social media campaign, said Dave Evans, author of "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day" and a ClickZ Experts contributor. "A good ad campaign on Facebook - that's traditional media in a social context. A social campaign has to be participatory and engaging," he said.

Don't abandon your community. That is, unless you want to follow in John Mayer's footsteps and disappoint your fans. Advertising campaigns in TV, radio, and print typically have a start and end date. When businesses set up websites, they began to realize they couldn't abandon their online presence, said Evans. Participating in social networks takes even more effort. "That's one of the catches when you create a community and build a relationship: when you are in a relationship, nobody likes to get dumped," he said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.

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