Be a Smash: Marketing Lessons From a Failed TV Show

I have a confession. Some people love reality shows. Some watch the Food Network all day. Some are hooked on NASCAR. I love “Smash,” the musical drama on NBC about the making of a Broadway show.

I admit I am likely the only person on the planet still watching this show, but I just love it. I love everything about it – the music, the spectacle, the unsung heroism of the ensemble. Even the utterly ridiculous plotline in which up-and-comer Karen Cartwright (played by Katharine McPhee) gives up her breakout role in a Broadway show to take a more “meaningful” part in a downtown production seems romantic in this stylized portrait of life on the Great White Way. As I told a friend who recently questioned my continued loyalty amid the plummeting ratings, “It’s about Broadway and singing? What’s not to like?”

I’m going to be sad when Smash goes off the air in just a few weeks. I wonder what will happen after the Tonys, and whether “Bombshell,” Smash’s show-within-a-show musical about Marilyn Monroe, will keep Ivy Lynn (the perfect Megan Hilty) as Marilyn. I wonder if Anjelica Huston will patch things up with her producer ex-husband or keep throwing drinks in his face. And I will miss the singing. Oh, the singing.

Though Smash’s short-lived run might not be a lesson in production budgeting or showrunning, over the past few weeks I’ve noticed that it does offer us some other valuable lessons – in marketing. So below, a best practices guide and an elegy…

It all starts with a good product. No amount of marketing can make up for a bad product. You can get people in the door, but if the product bombs, it’s over. In Smash, the entire first season was about developing the best show possible. The competition between Ivy and Karen fueled entire episodes, and both are extremely talented (though, if pressed, I am definitely Team Ivy). The show’s writers were ruthless in their cuts and daring in their ambition. Ask yourself and your team if you’re really pushing your campaign’s concept to the next level. Then do it, and then ask the question again.

Don’t forget to tell the story behind the story. When I first joined Google, I remember a marketing exec at the time asking me, “Do great products market themselves?” At the time, we thought they did, and watched as YouTube, Gmail, and Search usage went up, up, up with virtually zero paid media support.

But I think we missed the point – word-of-mouth marketing is make-or-break in show business, and in ours. In today’s market, having a great product is just table stakes. You need to give people a story to tell. Anjelica Huston, who plays Bombshell’s producer, understands this intuitively, using every bit of backstage drama as fodder for the press. In the show, as in real life, Broadway musicals don’t have a ton of marketing dollars, so PR and content marketing are critically important. Ask yourself: what story are you asking people to tell on your behalf? Are you the underdog? The challenger? The market mover? The never-been-done innovator?

Be ready to pivot if the story changes. In Smash, Bombshell’s producers have a marketing plan done and dusted, and then there’s a wardrobe malfunction during the dress rehearsal. The audience thought the mishap was planned, tweeted up a storm about it, and the producers immediately moved to incorporate the slip into their PR buzz machine. In short, the producers pivoted and optimized – not an easy thing to do the day before opening night or a week before launching your campaign. But they did it, and that’s inspiring. So have a plan, but don’t be afraid to change it if you receive new data.

To that end, Bombshell’s writers were forever changing lines, tweaking a word here, moving a song there – even after the show opened. How many launches have you worked on where the day after launch you were on to the next thing? What a missed opportunity! Think of your launch in phases – post-launch is when we get audience reactions, and the real fun begins, since you can incorporate what you learn. “Launched” doesn’t mean “done.”

Social media and reviews are key to any campaign’s success. It wouldn’t be a Broadway television drama if there weren’t a tough New York Times critic who held Bombshell’s fate in his hands. In Smash, the NYT critic is a microcosm of our actual digital world: social media and online reviews drive purchase decisions across categories, for large and small ticket items. Don’t forget to enable reviews and commenting on your site, and respond to what your users and customers have to say.

When the chips are down, that’s the time to invest. Time and again, when the going gets tough, the tough cut marketing. But on Smash, the producers realized that marketing is an investment in future sales. Anjelica Huston’s character buys media (print only, but we’ll let that slide!) when she learns bad reviews may be coming. Lo and behold, the audience comes, they see the show, and they love it. The much-needed ticket sales cover the media’s expense and then some.

Now, this doesn’t always work. Sometimes you need to feed the strong and starve the weak. But it’s worth noting that while the show-within-a-show took a risk and made an investment in a great product, the network took, well, a different approach. As NBC saw that ratings weren’t where they were last year, it dialed back its marketing investment, moved Smash to a dead-end slot on Saturday nights, and made devoted fans like myself watch on DVR Sunday afternoons. Now, of course, it’s a matter of taste. But I love this show, and I’m not alone. Just last week, NYMag put watching Smash on the “To Do” list of top happenings.

There’s always Kickstarter.

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