How Customer Development Can Save Broadway

Jeremy Gerard reminds us in an NPR piece the other week that, “You cannot make people see a show that they don’t want to see.” Patrick Healy, from the New York Times, consistently points out this fact as well. Rocky, The Bronx Bombers, A Time to Kill, Big Fish and First Date all thought they appealed to men and didn’t. The Last Ship thought it would appeal to middle aged women who were fans of Sting and I’m not really sure who Side Show thought it would appeal to. Total lost capital from these seven shows is over $60 million.

Gerard’s comment paints a pessimistic picture of a Broadway where neither marketing nor press can impact your sales. This is true if you haven’t proven who your audience is and how to reach them before marketing to them. The current wait for a theater on Broadway (2+ years) and the hectic schedules of creative teams means that you can’t necessarily control when you open your show.

Often your show has to move forward if the answer to huge questions such as, “who is the audience?,” are just assumptions or guesses. If your assumptions about your audience and how to reach them were wrong then you generally have to close the show. It’s too costly to make huge changes once the show is running.

On the other hand, the audience can tell you what they want to see before your production launches if you just learn how to ask them. This is the power of customer development on Broadway. This framework, which has helped startups build audiences worldwide, can guide you to a product that has a proven audience and sales funnel before you launch that big, splashy production on Broadway. Rather than assuming or hypothesizing that your production will have a monopoly over men who want to see musicals you need to apply the customer development framework to prove that fact. Use customer development to prove who the audience is, what they value and how to reach them. If you find your audience and how to reach them while you’re developing the show then the rest of the process, from raising money to launching your marketing campaign, will be a cakewalk compared to launching your production without this information.

To follow is a walkthrough of the customer development process with two contrasting examples, Wicked & Rocky. To be clear, these examples are just thought exercises and suppositions. We weren’t involved in these productions and don’t have any access to non-public information.

Each bullet point contains hypothesized assumptions that each production should have been looking to prove through experiments and interviews. If you can’t validate each item (in order) then you have to change (pivot) your production in someway. This can be anything — who the audience is, how you reach the audience and the value propositions that you offer them. To test each item we use interviews and experiments. Interviews involve sitting down one-on-one using a framework entitled jobs to be done. Experiments focus on getting potential audience members to engage in a certain action — signing up for your email list, attending a concert, etc. We particularly like Allegiance’s experiment of having audience members pay $5 to pre-book tickets. We’ll cover both experiments, interviews and how to implement the customer development process in subsequent posts.

Customer Development Steps:

The show solves a known problem for an identifiable group of people — the problem definition (aka value proposition) would be proven through interviews.

Wicked might have hypothesized that it provides empowerment to young women when they need it most: their awkward teenage years.

Rocky might have hypothesized that men want a musical written for them that they can take their significant others.

The market is saleable and large enough that a viable business might be built — the size of the market can be estimated through research and the saleability can be tested through experiments — actually trying to sell the value proposition to potential customers.

Wicked’s market is the over 35 million women under the age of 18. Capturing 20% of that market is 7 million tickets. The young women’s money is almost entirely disposable and they have landmark events like sweet 16s. You can test how saleable the market is in a low-cost, small impact way like producing a concert and seeing if you can get the target audience to turn out. At this point, your efforts can be very grass roots.

Rocky’s market is the population of men who want a musical written for them that they can take their significant others. While we can’t estimate the size of this market it must by nature be smaller than the number of teenage women in the country. This discovery would have sent the producers back to point 1 — they needed to either change the problem definition, the audience they were reaching out to or both.

The business is scalable through a repeatable sales and marketing roadmap.

Wicked’s audience is currently 12.85 million young women from age 12–17 with another 12 million aged 6–11 hot on their heels. There is essentially a fully replacement rate for the Wicked audience. Assuming that girls still feel awkward then they’re teenagers, that they still have disposable income and that the producers have proven that you’re marketing plan can convert potential customers into actual ones then Wicked could theoretically run forever. The first two items are relatively certain and the third one is what you have to prove through experiments. At this point Wicked might try to roll out a wider sales effort to prove the saleability of the production by selling priority access to tickets — like Allegiance does.

Rocky — In comparison our hypothetical group of men interested in Rocky were to grow at 100% there still wouldn’t be enough to keep the show running forever. In this example the Rocky producers wouldn’t have even reached this step — they would have stopped at step 2 and been reevaluating their value proposition and audience.

You can scale the company — this is that part that Broadway excels at — there are plenty of general managers, attorneys, investors, marketing agencies and press agents that can help you scale from off-Broadway or out of town to Broadway.

In an ideal world Customer Development would become pervasive on Broadway. Instead of theater owners and investors relying on productions having stars, seasoned producers or the sentiment of being a hit they would instead rely on proof that there was an audience. Customer Development takes time and persistence. Luckily, there’s a two year wait for a Broadway theater right now so while you’re waiting, do some customer development.

Over the course of the next three posts we will go into depth over how your production should employ these methods. Stay tuned here, join our email list or follow me on Twitter @CityAstronaut.

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