Thursday, November 13, 2008

What's with your Website?

This week, one of my co-workers was trying to check on a show date. In frustration, she finally asked me "if you have any influence at all, can you get these theatres to fix their damned sites?"

I don't know if I have that kind of influence. But what I can do is tell you how your website should work for you; the elements that should be there, in the order of importance. Website 101, if you will. Here's the thing: I look at everyone's website every week. And I got to tell you, for the most part, your websites suck. You leave stuff out, you put useless crap in, you forget to update, your updates are confusing, and it's hard to find anything at all.

So here's the very basics: the things that should be most important on your pages:

1. What's playing.

Well, I did say it was "basic."

The first thing we need to know is what show is playing at your theatre NOW. It should be very prominent. Of course, this seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many theaters have websites that don't feature the current show front-and-center.

Sometimes, it's a matter of updating the page. The Naked Stage tells us that its current show is "Coming Soon." Same for the just completed 24-Hour Theatre Project. (I know the webmaster for TNS is recovering from an accident {not to mention opening weekend AND the aforementioned 24-our Theatre Project} but old news doesn't tell us current events).

Women's Theatre Project tells us their "current show" closed two weeks ago. But it offers links to buy tickets for it. Clicking the link for their "2008-2009 Season" brings up an error message. Contrast this with Mosaic, which tells us they are currently dark, but that their next play is Seafarer, with a link to that show's information.

AAPACT's home page is three years out of date! You can't even tell that they currently have a play running unless you decide to click through to buy a ticket.

But if you're not running a show, why would we do that?

Would you buy tickets if the show being advertised closed three years ago? I hate to say it, Teddy, but the Miami Times has done you far less harm than you have done to yourself. Your website is your first opportunity to pitch your show to the public, and you didn't even bother.

Actors' Playhouse uses up about a third of the page with a banner that's full of confusing drop-down menus (eleven menus? What are you people sniffing?), a distracting moving image, and the first listing isn't even a show. The second listing is a children's show, and you have to scroll down in my viewer to see the MAINSTAGE show. It's worse when you try to SEE their Mainstage Season. The shows are mostly "below the fold".

No one cares about the press release from six months ago announcing the plays you are doing now. What maniac decided you needed not one, but TWO links to subscriptions? (Actually, THREE: these links are additional to the menu at the top of every page!) We don't even know what's playing, and you're shoving the rest of your season down our throats? Get real! Most of us aren't interested in "high school matinees, " whatever those are, and auditions do not generate revenue, unless you're a scam artist. We want to know about those plays! Tell me what's playing! You present plays, right? Tell me about them!

2. When is it playing?

Everyone puts up the run dates, but knowing that it plays for the next four weeks doesn't help us plan which night we can see it. For example, here's a snippet from the website of a prominent South Florida company:

Are we supposed to use our psychic abilities to know which Saturdays are "selective?" What does "selective" even mean in this context? Do you have to draw lots to attend? If you can't set it up definitively (i.e. '2nd and 4th Saturdays'), you're better off leaving it off.

You can never assume that we know what you're trying to say, so be as specific as possible. You can't assume that we know you run shows Wednesday through Saturday, and we won't assume that its the same for every show - unless you state it exactly that way!

Florida Stage is ahead of the curve: if you're running the iCal or Sunbird calender programs, you can save the play's schedule to your computer. by clicking a link on the show's webpage. You can also open the calendar in Google's online calendar. They are a step away from taking advantage of services like iCal Share, where you can post your calendar and interested parties can subscribe to it. As you update the calender on your website, users see the updates on their desktops!. (actually, it would if it weren't broken: the link is one listing extending 24 hours a day for the duration of the run. Not very useful, really. But that can be fixed; the idea is cool.)

3. How to get there.

This is one that frustrated my co-worker. She was trying to figure out how to get to New Theatre. The directions are there, somewhere. It turns out it was tucked away in a sub-menu.

It should be in a prominent, easy to find location, not buried in a menu somewhere. Again, while it's obvious to you why you put in under "About Us," GableStage found it just as obvious to place it under "Contact Us." Don't bury it, put it up on top. It's important.

And then make sure it's complete: there are four compass points, but New Theatre only give you directions if your are coming from the North, or from the west along Bird Road. I guess you folks in Kendall are outta luck. Take a lesson from Craig's List, and offer a link to a map service like Mapquest or Google Maps. It doesn't cost you anything to do, and it's easier for the patron to use the "get directions" tool for a custom set of directions that takes them door-to-door.

Palm Beach DramaWorks pulls it together nicely:

4. Help 'Spread the Word!'

The internet is the most powerful means for sharing information that has ever existed in the whole of human history. It's the best and cheapest means to spread the word.
And yet, most theatres barely put any useful information about their current shows on their sites. I can always find pictures of past productions: but finding promotional material on your current shows is extremely difficult.

Every theatre should do exactly what the Maltz Jupiter Theatre does: it puts its media packages on its site. And the link is right at the top of every page. I can find a collection of articles about the theatre, and I can find out about the cast, and even download pictures of the current production! EVERY THEATER SHOULD DO THIS.

Florida Stage goes a step further with its FurtherMore page:

This one is more for an audience member than the press, but that audience member can learn more about the plays, and send links to his or her friends about the play. "See? This is what I was talking about!"


With newspapers cutting back on coverage, it's getting harder and harder to get the word out. Each theatre must take the initiative in making sure information about their companies and about their productions are both easy to find and easy to distribute. That means that every effort must be made to keep your website current. If you don't care enough about your production to do something as basic as keeping your website current, you don't care enough about your production. It's as simple as that.

In communications it is the responsibility of the party trying to get the message out to make sure that the party receiving the message understands it. If we can't learn what we need from your website, the fault is yours. And you are the only one who can fix it.

Promotional photos are not to be treated as closely-guarded secrets. People are attracted to pictures. You want them on your website, your MySpace, Facebook, and even on blogs like this one. Pictures put a human face on your production, and that's what will draw people in. I got a news flash for you: the Sun-Sentinel doesn't give a crap about the arts anymore. And most people only page through free weeklies to clip the coupons. Your best press is going to be patrons emailing or blogging your show: so promotional materials need to be available on your site so they can spread the word.

Make your shows the most prominent part of your website, and then remember that sales follow interest: so before you pitch tickets or subscriptions, you have to tell them about the play, when it is, and where they can see it. Once you have our interest, you can sell us tickets. But it has to be in that order.

You're already paying for your websites; it's time to make them work for you.

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