HOW TO SELL OUT YOUR SHOW AT THE EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL

Eight months ago I decided to take our live phone-hacking stage show, The Secret Life of Your Mobile Phone, to the Edinburgh Festival.

I had no idea what that involved.

I’m currently on the train home with a pounding hangover, having sold out our six-night run.

Here’s how I did it, and everything I learned along the way.

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The first thing I didn’t know is that “Edinburgh Festival” is actually three things. There’s the Edinburgh International Festival, an invite-only event for the world’s greatest performers. If you’re reading this, you won’t be playing that, so let’s move on.

Next level down is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: performers hire a venue (which in Edinburgh could be anything from a proper theatre to a disused toilet block), and then charge for tickets.

Then there’s the Free Fringe: performers are offered a venue free (there are exceptions to this, see below). The venue makes money off the audience (usually in drink sales) and at the end of the show the performers pass round a bucket for cash contributions.

My partner described the latter option as “horrible and degrading”, so I went for the middle option: hire a venue and sell tickets.

So venue selection was the next step. The Fringe organisers put out a list of them with locations and audience capacities, but no prices (you have to call the venues to find that out).

This brings you to your first sliding-scale-economics conundrum: bigger venues are more expensive, but you can sell more tickets. Smaller venues are cheaper and easier to fill, but your income is more limited.

How many people will want to come and see the show? I had absolutely no idea. A hundred seemed a lot. Ten seemed petty. So I went for the middle, looking at 50-seat-or-so places.

As you phone round venues you get offered different time slots and different prices. At one stage we were offered a 10pm slot, and I’m very glad we turned it down in favour of a 4pm option: evening audiences are drunk, basically, and our show requires a bit of concentration, and minimal amounts of heckling.

Our show is also reliant on a bewildering array of tech and requires a rock-solid internet connection, so we needed a venue that could help and support us.

TheSpaceUK run about ten venues during the Fringe, which means they have a well-staffed and experienced tech crew, and they wanted to talk through our requirements even before we booked, which I found very encouraging.

So we ended up hiring theSpace On The Mile for six nights, a 50-seat black box venue at the eastern end of the Royal Mile. (Location is obviously a key factor: when I was promoting the show to people in the street, I could point to the venue, which instantly removes a potentially anxiety about attending, ie. how do I find you?) We paid £1500, in installments over a few months.

(Not every venue charges a flat fee, some do a split-the-money system, for example)

Next job was accommodation. Again, I had absolutely no idea what was reasonable, so I booked a one-bedroom flat (which meant one of us would be sleeping on the  sofa, but we could at least cook for ourselves), again just off the Royal Mile (again, good location was essential as I knew we’d be lugging kit back and forth to the venue each day). For 8 nights I paid £1700, upfront. I’m told that’s about right, but paying it still made my eyes water a bit.

Next task was registering with the Fringe, which means you get listed in their brochures and website, where people can buy tickets online. You have to submit your show’s image or photo, plus the name of your show and a description.

And this is where we get to the most important subject you’ll have to tackle: branding.

At this stage, in February or so, the Fringe still seems a distant prospect. So coming up with titles, descriptions and images seems like a drag. But in fact, this is a pivotal moment, if not, the pivotal moment: the show title and image are absolutely vital in getting you noticed at every step of the way, from the paper brochure in February to the flyering in the street in August. You have to get this bit right.

Flick through last year’s brochure and look at what stands out. The image is going to be tiny (whether it’s in the brochure or on a mobile phone), so it needs to be clear, not busy or dark.

Colour is important too: one of the most striking posters this year was Jimeoin’s Green Goblin-tastic effort.

The title needs to contain your unique selling proposition: even if you’re doing Hamlet, you have to add something to the title to tell the punter why yours is different (“Hamlet: His Advice for Theresa May”)

The description is important too (tho not as critical as the title and image at this stage), and needs to be a two-sentence sum-up, front-loaded with your most striking element (“What can Theresa May learn from Denmark’s finest? Find out as Theatre Group X performs Hamlet…” etc)

In a few months’ time your show title, image and description are going to compete with 3000 other desperate performance groups, so now is the time to work out what you’ve got that’s unique and put it front and centre. Frankly: if you can’t answer that question, if you don’t have a novel angle (and no, “we’re really good” is not novel, because everyone thinks that), then this might be another opportunity to consider whether the Fringe is a good idea.

We paid the registration fee, £300, upfront.

Running total paid out: £3500.

We decided to charge £8 a ticket, and £5 for concessions (another sliding-scale-economics decision, but a price that seemed reasonable looking at what others charged the previous year).

So that’s 50 seats, 6 nights, £8 max price – means our maximum income would be £2400. Immediately we’re looking at a loss of £1100 even if we sold every seat at full price.

I know the old adage that no one goes to Edinburgh Festival to make a profit, but £1100 is a lot of money. If you don’t have a plan for making up your losses, you might want to consider whether the Fringe is a good idea.

We were very lucky, because we did a couple of performances of our show for large companies as part of their cybersecurity awareness training, and those fees effectively bankrolled our trip.

Not everyone can do that, but I do think it’s possible for other types of performers to approach companies and offer them something in exchange for funding (improv groups could offer improve classes for sales teams, for example). £1100 is peanuts for a large company, and besides it’ll probably come out of their halo-polishing Corporate Social Responsibility budget.

By the way, in terms of budgets and venues, I’m intrigued by the Free Fringe idea: if we’d gone down that route, we’d instantly cut £1500 off our upfront budget. We’d almost certainly not have got £8 from everyone who attended, but we wouldn’t have needed to: to make the same amount of money as we did from punters at the paid venue, we’d only have needed an average donation of £3 from each person…

That said, it’s not always the case that Free Fringe venues are free to use – we met one performer who told us she’d paid £2200 for a popular Free Fringe venue for the whole four weeks of the festival. So she’d have to make £70 a night in donations just to pay the hire. Christ knows how much of a loss she made in the end.

Anyway, by February our venue was booked, accommodation sorted, registration paid. Then everything went quiet for a few months. Then all of a sudden it was July (our run was booked for August 21-26). We’d sold 20 tickets or so almost as soon as the Fringe brochure came out, now we just had to sell the other 280.

When you’re in a 50-seat venue, every bum-on-seat counts. I started with friends and family, putting the word out on Facebook. Then I used LinkedIn and Twitter (where I have the advantage of 4000+ followers).

Then I went to the computer science departments of universities (Edinburgh and Herriot Watt) and emailed them en masse to invite them along.

Then I started approaching tech companies in Edinburgh, because our show’s tech-themed, and I explained to them that if they wanted to get their staff cybersecurity-aware, this might be a good show (this was where our 4pm slot worked against us, of course, as it’s during the working day).

I have no idea whether any of the above worked: the frustrating thing in Edinburgh is that you rarely get to know how your audience found you (we attended one show where they were surveying people on the door, which I thought was a smart idea).

One of the companies I approached agreed to sponsor our posters and flyers, in exchange for their logo being used.

We paid £100 or so for 5000 flyers, which the printing company said was “about right” for a week’s run. In fact it’s a ridiculous amount, and below is what happened to approximately 3000 of them.

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One of my biggest whinges is the appalling carbon footprint of Edinburgh Festival.

On the subject of flyers: go for double-sided. That way you can put the details on the back, and keep the front cover for your clear, striking image, your title and maybe a one-line description.

Poster choice is another sliding-scale-economics decision. Lots of little ones or a few big ones? We went for a mix, paying £600 for a 2-metre wide monster, plus about a dozen A3 sized ones. I actually saw them around town when we were in Edinburgh, which was gratifying, and once again, having a strong image, a clear title and a bright solid colour really helped us stand out. But I have no idea how many people responded by actually buying a ticket.

There’s a whole bunch of little expenses no-one warns you about: public liability insurance was £100 or so, for example. We had to get our electrical kit PAT-tested, which was the most pointless thing I’ve ever paid £90 for.

As August approached we started to shift tickets, and by the time we went up to Edinburgh we’d sold 40% in advance.

Publicly I was still terrified, but privately I was actually feeling pretty smug, because I figured people who’d seen our posters, tweets, etc would just turn up on the door, and we’d sell the other 60% of tickets easily. I figured we were just about done.

Then I arrived in Edinburgh. Jesus. H. Christ.

Nothing can prepare you for the Royal Mile on a Saturday during Festival week. This traffic-free quarter-mile stretch of road is ground zero for the whole event. Korean modern dance performers fight for space between military marching bands while half-naked men juggle swords over teenagers dressed as elves.

If you’ve ever watched the casino scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s like that, but fuelled by Irn Bru.

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And this visceral, chaotic, deafening wonderland is going to be your sales floor for the duration of your run.

It’s also where you’ll meet the performers who’ve failed to find that all-important novel angle. For example, this year there were at least three improv groups. Just general, generic improv groups. Let’s say for every 1000 people wandering down the Royal Mile, 50 are interested in improv. You’ve now got three teams of people fighting for those punters, all selling exactly the same thing. Not only does that make it incredibly hard to convince a punter that yours is the improv show to attend, but there’s a sizeable risk that the punter might conclude that improv groups are ten-a-penny and therefore not worth attending at all. The sinking tide lowers all boats.

But hey, I thought, I don’t have to care about any of that, because we’re 40% sold and the rest will be snapped up by people who’ve seen our posters, etc…. Right?

Sadly not. For the first night we sold about 40 seats in advance, but only six people turned up on the door. That gave us a 94% audience on Monday, but for the rest of the week’s shows we hadn’t sold nearly that many tickets in advance, and if only six people turned up on the door each day, we were looking at some pretty poor numbers….

(I might seem overly-focused on the whole ticket sales bit, especially because you may have heard people telling stories about performing to an audience of two people at Edinburgh Festival, as though it’s a bit of a fun, like a rite-of-passage experience. It’s not. For a start it’s not fun, it’s excruciating to perform for such a small crowd, and because our show works on audience phone data, we just wouldn’t have been able to do it for that small an audience.

And furthermore, having spent thousands of pounds of your own (or even worse, someone else’s) money to get to Edinburgh, performing to a crowd of two is an unacceptable waste of your time, effort and cash. It might happen, of course, but the idea that it’s an acceptable or entertaining experience is just wrong).

The only way we were going to get enough people into the venue to generate enough data (let alone stoke up our income and massage my ego) was through flyering.

Capsule review: flyering is horrible. It’s a street-based cold-calling exercise, and the only pleasant thing was that it didn’t rain the whole time.

That said, the Royal Mile Flyering Experience is a fascinating case study in sales tactics.

You have a captive population who’ve expressed an interest in buying a product (no-one in their right mind would walk down the Royal Mile if they didn’t want to get pitched a performance), and 3000 potential sellers. The range of tactics on show is bewildering:

  • Stage an impromptu performance (I hated this, as it took up a lot of space and was invariably the tactic used by overwrought school drama clubs)
  • Stand on a little pillar and hold out your flyers (terrible idea: no one is going to voluntarily wander up and take a flyer just to find out what you’re selling)
  • Hand out flyers to as many people as possible (seems like a good tactic, but actually not: if you stand at the end of the street you’ll see people who’ve accumulated a stack of flyers as they’ve wandered along. They then stick them all in the bin, unread)

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Because I didn’t have a team of young attractive thespians to help me, and because I couldn’t stage a performance, and because our show needs a bit of explaining, I adopted a different tactic: the strategic sniper method, with a specific who, how and where.

In terms of where, I’d tend to stay in the less crowded bits of the street, so that I could walk beside people a little way, explaining the show. I’d hand them a flyer and say the following:

“This is a live phone-hacking stage show. We take an audience of people, we hack their phones, and we show them live and in real time where all the data goes, who gets it, and how it can be used to track and target you. It’s terrifying and hilarious all at once.”

I said those lines hundreds of times and I never really changed them. The reason it works is because within the first 20 words you’ve got something shocking: “we hack their phones”. As soon as I said that, I had their attention.

I put the last sentence in after someone asked me (not unreasonably): “why would I want to come and see that? It sounds terrifying”.

In terms of who I targeted, we had a really surprising change of tack. Before we started performing the show, I’d figured we’d appeal to young tech-savvy people, perhaps young families. So those are the folks I targeted on day one.

But on our first night, we were pretty surprised to see a lot of older folks in the audience (in their 50s and 60s). So the next day, I very cynically targeted exactly that demographic.

And all those hours of flyering produce results: each night we’d see folks coming in whom we’d flyered in the street.

We also used some guerrilla marketing tactics, thanks to Glenn, who created a series of WiFi hotspots advertising our show:

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Then Glenn’s partner turned up with a secret weapon:

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NEVER underestimate the appeal of a puppy, if you happen to have one, I highly recommend deploying it.

We also got a chance to promote the show on a tech security podcast the week before we went up, and did another podcast whilst there for Fringe Review, who gave us a good review as well. Again, no idea how many tickets these things all sold, but every little helps.

Day two sold out, with about 20 sold on the door. Then day three sold out as well. The momentum built and by Saturday, our last performance, we took the day off from flyering confident that we’d fill the room again, which we did.

The only disappointment was Thursday, which had been weak sales from the start (by Wednesday we’d only sold six tickets for Thursday, and we’d begun discussing how to reformat the show to cope with the lack of data. In the end we sold a respectable 79%)

Our full numbers are as follows:

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One other thing no-one tells you about: venues pay you in cash. The sales from the central box office go into a bank account, but the on-the-door takings are handed over in a little bag, like something from the 19th century. So you end up with wads of Scottish banknotes, adding to the surreal nature of it all.

One last thing: in terms of being a punter at the Fringe (as opposed to a performer) it’s an absolute gorge-fest of every type of live event: I saw a Korean modernist reworking of Medea; a psychic exploration of CIA mind-control programmes; a one-man show about Bin Laden; and of course lots and lots of comedy. And most of it was free (or donation-based). I can’t imagine where else you could see this amount of inspiring, engrossing and entertaining live performance. If you haven’t been, take a long weekend, and an umbrella, and get yourself up there.

In all, here are the five key things I learned about taking a show to Edinburgh Festival Fringe:

  • Get your novel angle established at the very start
  • Get a clear, striking image and a title that crisply conveys your novel angle
  • Contact companies and institutions who might be interested
  • Get your sales patter down to a sentence or two, and front-load it with an attention-grabber
  • Pay attention to who’s turning up to your shows, and target that demographic

Good luck! Email/tweet me if you want to chat.

 

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