Sales Tips from…The Nutcracker

Last night, with several thousand others, I attended The Washington Ballet’s performance of the Nutcracker.  While the show was very good, what most impressed me was their use of grassroots communications strategies to pack the house.

Set to the music of Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker has been entertaining audiences worldwide since 1892.   Each year, one can find multiple dance companies performing it in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  One reason is because The Nutcracker is a proven money maker.  Because many dance troupes rely on it for the bulk of their funding, strong ticket sales are vital.

Last night’s performance at the Warner Theater was packed, as were most of the 20+ performances.  How did they do it in a down economy?  Artistic Director Septime Webre will get much of the credit.  And The Washington Post’s stellar review certainly didn’t hurt.  Without a good product, no amount of marketing or salesmanship can help.

But I have a feeling that a grassroots marketing tactic is the real reason for the crowds.

Each year, The Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker relies on local schoolchildren to fill secondary roles.  From toy soldiers and mice to clowns, Chinese dancers and mushrooms, young dancers are constantly on stage.  And because they cannot perform their cameos in each performance, multiple dancers are needed for each role.  How many?  The program listed approximately 300 “Alternate Cast” members performing in this year’s Nutcracker.

Any idea who is filling all those seats?  Proud parents and siblings.  Beaming grandmothers and grandfathers.  Aunts, uncles and cousins.  Friends, neighbors and schoolmates.  Not to mention me and my family, who attended largely to see a friend’s daughter perform.

This is a real stroke of marketing genius.

The biggest challenge in grassroots marketing is engaging consumers.  By involving a large amateur cast, you automatically engage 300 dancers, their families and friends in the performance.  Not only do they each buy multiple tickets, they become “evangelicals” and spread the word in their community.  You just can’t buy that kind of advertising.

The end result?  A crowded house.  More specifically, if each “Alternate Cast” member is responsible for selling an additional 10 tickets (our little friend “sold” at least 14), that means an additional $150,000 in sales and invaluable word-of-mouth exposure about the performance.

Talk about a real Christmas present.

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