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Broadway Theaters are Savvy Net Marketers

NYTimes reports that 'word of mouth' has always been the ideal way to promote a new show. But the Internet has provided a new and, some say, vastly improved set of tools to generate it: not just e-mail blasts but also Web sites, banner ads, search-engine pop-ups and blog coverage. In the last few years these tools have reshaped the way the theater reaches its audience.

The most obvious change is in ticketing, which the Internet makes simpler for customers and cheaper for producers. During the 2004-5 season the portion of Broadway tickets sold online more than quadrupled to 29 percent from 7 percent; this past season it continued to creep up, to about 33 percent. (For non-group ticket sales, the figure is more than 60 percent.) The remaining tickets were purchased via phone, group-sales brokers, the TKTS booths and the old-fashioned box office, which now accounts for only one-quarter of purchases, making lines around the block mostly a thing of the past.

But that's just technical, a change in how people buy what they were going to buy anyway. A much bigger change involves tapping audience members' social networks to bring in entirely new theatergoers.

This summer "The Color Purple" is rolling out a Web campaign called "Organize Your Group" to help families, schools, gospel choirs and churches arrange theatergoing "reunions"; an earlier form of this program has already referred more than 100,000 people to the show.

In May "Avenue Q" filled some slow midweek houses by offering discounts to people who had visited its Web site. A single blast to 20,000 e-mail addresses netted $40,000 in sales and cost almost nothing.

These new tools can be even more valuable for smaller shows, or those just finding their legs. Take "The Wedding Singer," which opened to mixed reviews in April but has gradually been gathering steam. A major campaign aimed at the show's youngish demographic not only through more or less traditional ads on theater, newspaper and wedding Web sites but also through "viral" marketing.

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