Why it’s time to stop waiting for “Word of mouth”

Kermit the Frog’s whisper campaign didn’t work and neither will yours

We’ve all said it.

“Well, we may have low attendance at first, but word of mouth will spread about how good this is and then we’ll have full houses.”

And it’s time to stop. Stop relying on it. Stop deferring to it. And stop, stop, stop putting it in marketing surveys to find out how people heard about our shows.

Don’t get me wrong. Word of mouth counts. If people are enjoying your show and telling people they know to go see it, then that’s great. But we have to be more specific when we talk about it, and we have to invest our energy in strategies, not just waiting for others to do the work for us. Right now “word of mouth” has become this amalgam of a variety of ways that information spreads, relied upon in the hope that thousands are discussing your show over brunch and tickets will disappear as soon as the news of your artistic brilliance hits the streets. I hate to break it to you, but regardless of how good our shows are, we’re probably not going to be the talk of the town. So it’s time to get smarter about how we use this tool.

Let’s break this down into three parts.

Why we should stop relying on it

Why should we stop relying on word of mouth to sell productions? Because we have no control over it. Why do we put so much confidence in a marketing tactic we have no power over? In word of mouth, we have no oversight on the messaging, the audience targeting, or even that the correct information will be shared!

Perhaps more importantly, as marketing guru Seth Godin pointed out in this post, for something to generate word of mouth, it has to comfortably come up in conversation. So your play about, say, an army wife struggling with the meaning of loving a soldier, or a composer recovering from a brain tumor (examples from my own experience), however great, may just not be topics that arise easily.

In a series of great points about word of mouth, Godin also states that making a recommendation has personal implications. What if Person A recommends something to Person B, Person B watches it, and they don’t like it? Person A feels bad. So it’s not as foolproof of a method as we make it out to be.

Why we should stop deferring to it

Waiting for word of mouth encourages marketers to be complacent. I hear it in Madison all the time. I’ve even done it myself. “Why spend all this time marketing when everyone who comes is just going to wait for word of mouth anyway?”

There are two issues with that: 1) People have to be there in the first place for word of mouth to spread and 2) The people who are consciously waiting for word of mouth are very likely to just be your local community’s “theatre people.” And if you’re only marketing to “theatre people,” you have a whole other problem.

The research I conducted for my master’s thesis indicated that people who attend theatre semi-regularly (5–10 shows per year) tend to be fairly ingrained in the local theatre community, at least somewhat formally or informally educated in theatre practice, and likely somehow involved. The data I collected also indicated that those people rely on recommendations from trusted sources an average of 40% more than those who go to theatre very rarely (1–5 times a year) or very often (15+times per year).

So what does that mean? It means that the word of mouth we look for often spreads within our own communities of regular theatergoers, and not necessarily to the general population. Those who don’t attend often may not know whom to talk to or where to look for reviews, and those who go often, my research found, are going because they love the theatre and will go as much as they can. (They do NOT tend to be people with a lot of money, which was another interesting find. More on that another time). When we rely on word of mouth, we’re often thinking only of a very immediate community of people who are comprised of our friends and colleagues.

We want…no, we need to be getting audiences in our doors beyond the usual suspects. We’ve got to cultivate interest among a different population of theatergoers. And we can start by not assuming that word of mouth is going to do the work for us. We have to create new “theatre people,” not just keep catering to the old ones.

Why we should stop putting it on our marketing surveys

Are you tracking how people heard about your shows? Good! Now stop putting “word of mouth” and “know someone in the show” as options.

If we’re going to be looking at strategies, we have to be specific. What does “word of mouth” even mean when someone selects it on a survey? Does it mean direct referrals from people the patron trusts? Or perhaps seeing a Facebook post from some friends? Or do they know someone in the show? Those are three different things. Lumping them all into “word of mouth” does us no good when tracking our marketing strategies.

Furthermore, eliminating the option of “word of mouth” will make the purchaser think about what actually motivated them to take the leap and buy the ticket. Many will defer to “word of mouth” when they can’t remember how they heard about a show. Not having it there will give you more accurate data.

Finally, “word of mouth” could come from someone who didn’t even see the show and isn’t recommending it due to its quality, but because someone told them to help publicize it. It’s the equivalent of sharing articles on Facebook because we like the title but didn’t actually read it. (Come on, we’ve all done that too.)

Include as many options on your marketing surveys as possible. If you believe word of mouth is really driving your sales, then specify with options like:

  • Recommendation of friend or family member who saw the show (Categorize this as true word of mouth. It can come through varying mediums, but it needs to be from someone who actually saw the thing)
  • Customer testimonial on company website (Categorize this as website)
  • Facebook post or comment from friend (Categorize this as social media)

…etc. Understand what kind of word of mouth is happening and how the recommendations are being shared. (I’m working on an audience survey for an upcoming show now, which will include some of these options. Trying to keep it from getting too long is also key. I will share what I come up with).

And please, I beg of you, don’t put “know someone in the show” on your marketing surveys. We are in tiny, tight-knit communities, regardless of city size. It’s as true in New York City as it is in Madison or anywhere else. Once you’re in a place for awhile, if you go to enough theatre, you know someone in the show. But that’s probably not the reason you went. In the theatre community, if we all went to things where we knew someone, we’d all be at everything. We’re not. Something is driving those people to go to YOUR show over some of the others. And while we do want to bring in those new audiences, we need to understand why our frequent patrons and local theatre insiders attend. So don’t give them an easy out. Make them help you understand why they chose to buy a ticket.

Caveat: Yes, the buyer might be someone’s Grandma who is only going because her little Toby is playing the lead, but let her put something else. The number of people who are truly only going because of their family member or friend in the show is probably less than you’d think. Plus, truth be told, Grandma is less likely to be a return patron. The audience members who only come because they know someone are going to be the hardest to retain. You might get a few that have their eyes suddenly opened to how awesome theatre is, or who really enjoy themselves and think they want to come back, but those are not the norm. We should never discount an audience member. But at the same time, we should focus our efforts on the people who are coming for the experience.


Word of mouth as we often characterize it is too broad and unreliable a tactic to truly be relied upon. While we can count it, we have to be more specific about where it’s coming from and how much influence it actually has.