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Selling Out with Joseph Yoshitomi

Geffen Playhouse is one of the gems in the Los Angeles theater scene. Located practically on the UCLA campus, the not-for-profit theater opened its doors in 1995, and has since received more than 40 regional theater awards and hosted a string of award-winning actors and playwrights and acclaimed directors.

Joseph Yoshitomi, Geffen Playhouse’s director of marketing and communications, has been a big part of the theater’s success over the past six years, with accomplishments that include the launch of the first renewable subscription season in the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, selling the highest per-seat and per-ticket income productions and seasons in the company’s history and cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the annual marketing budget to be applied to more art on the stage. Here, Yoshitomi — who has also worked with the Pasadena Playhouse and Orange County Symphony — shares his strategies for reaching a young audience, why Geffen’s Signature Series boosts sales and what makes Geffen stand out in a city with tons of live entertainment choices, plus he distills all of social media down to two words.

Selling Out: The Geffen is in the heart of Westwood, a very young neighborhood. Does reaching a crowd of all ages factor into your marketing plan? And if so, what sorts of promotions do you run to reach a younger audience?

Joseph Yoshitomi: Our relationship and proximity to UCLA offers tens of thousands of new and young audience members who complement a core Los Angeles DMA audience. We have ongoing $10 student rush tickets, invite students from the UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television to all of our season productions and, as part of our not-for-profit education and outreach mission, bring Geffen Playhouse artists into schools to teach literacy and otherwise engage students and youth in the arts. We also reach out to reviewing press from local college publications — UCLA, USC, Occidental, among others — to see our work and introduce it to their readers. In the end, the closest we can truly get to “selling out” to an all-ages crowd is to host artists (actors, playwrights, designers, directors) of all ages.

SO: The Geffen is very active on Facebook and Twitter. Does this activity impact the success of your shows? Do you have a specific social media strategy that you follow?

JY: A very intelligent artist with whom I have worked once distilled all of social media down to two words: “People say … ” I started in arts marketing before social media began and was always frustrated by the fact that I could not measure or otherwise report on this “word of mouth.” Social media allows an increasingly large window through which to view everything that customers are saying about the Geffen Playhouse as a company, our productions, our artists and even our policies and customer service matters. But I think this conversation would be going on without the presence of Facebook and Twitter. Our participation in it allows us to track, measure and engage in those conversations more meaningfully. But the few times we’ve tried offering discounts and things to track sales on social media, it does not really pay off. People aren’t on social media largely to purchase things, they are on it to converse and share.

In a strict response to the question, no, organic social media does not have an added impact on the success of our shows. We obviously pay to advertise where our patrons consume information and those targeted and re-targeted ads drive traffic to our site, interest in our shows and eventual ticket sales. But in a more general sense, if you think of organic social media as I do, it has a huge impact and probably the best ROI of anything else in our campaigns.

My strategy is pretty basic: Be authentic and be relevant. If you can, be funny too — though we haven’t quite started posting cat memes yet. We have been focusing on increasing the number of voices we have on social media (both in our friends/fans/followers and our administrators) as part of our season-long campaign to “Raise Your Voice.” Our social media engagement metrics are showing that diversity of voices is generating further conversation.

SO: Your Signature Series — Talk Back Tuesdays, Girls Night Out, Lounge Fridays, Wine Down Sundays and TGIF — are designed to make the theatergoing experience more fun. How did these promotions come about? Do you think they boost sales or bring in a different audience from your usual performances?

JY: Karen Gutierrez, our advertising director, spearheaded those events seven years ago, and they continue to be a success with our patrons and sponsors alike. Signature Series events differentiate these evenings from other theatrical offerings and are great “added value” to attendees — many of whom are looking for more context for their artistic experience. For example, those in a more cerebral mood may want to stay for a Talk-Back Tuesday performance, have a complimentary Keurig beverage and discuss the show. Others may want to see the play and party afterward at Girls Night out. And they absolutely boost sales — certainly in increased subscriber retention but also in the added promotional value they offer to our advertising campaign and our patrons.

SO: The Signature Series is such a great opportunity for non-theater brands to promote themselves to your audience. For instance, at Girls Night Out you often showcase the latest beauty trends. Do you have companies asking to participate? And, how do you choose your partnerships?

JY: Yes, we do have companies asking to participate, and Karen also reaches out to select partners. Brand alignment, value of the partnership (both to us and for our patrons) and how fun they are at a party all factor into the decision. I’m only half-joking about the latter comment. It’s important that our customers feel they received a value of their experience that matches or hopefully exceeds the cost of their ticket — when they do, they’re much more likely to talk about it on Twitter or post a Geffen selfie on Instagram! I know many patrons feel that way just seeing the show (as a not-for-profit, ticket income tends to only cover about 65% of the cost of production, so even a full-priced ticket can be considered a bargain), but many customers — especially new ones — need more. We’re happy to provide it to ensure they return.

SO: People in L.A. have a lot of options when it comes to theater and live entertainment in general. What are some of your strategies — from the Signature Series to discount tickets — to make the Geffen stand out?

JY: Our artistic director, Randall Arney, continues to program seasons that stand out already. So I consider much of our marketing job to be messaging, adding value and pricing appropriately to our diverse audiences. Goldstar is an excellent resource in that strategy. The great joy of working with our plays — especially over the course of a season — is that there are relevant productions, programs and/or events for what I consider to be an effectively limitless Los Angeles audience. The trick is convincing L.A. of that fact!

[Originally published on]

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