Indianapolis is an incredibly lucky city. We’re home to the Indy Fringe Festival, a ten day celebration of theater in all its myriad forms: comedy, drama, mime, dance, music, storytelling. You name it, somebody was doing it at the Fringe.

I’ve spent the past week practically living in the Mass Ave theater district, taking in as many shows as humanly possible. Besides taking in some exceptional theater, I’ve also been watching how the performers are marketing themselves.

Make no mistake, this is an incredibly cutthroat industry. In order to break even on the cost of performing at the festival, every act needs to have at least nine paying customers at each of their six shows. Sound easy? Not when you’re competing with six other performers in the same slot, more enticing acts in other time slots and alternate entertainment options like the beer tent or staying home. I sat in more than one performance with less than nine paying customers.

As a small business owner, you have overhead to meet, too. You have to keep your employees paid and the lights on. What marketing lessons can you take away from avant-garde theater?

  • Bill yourself appropriately. Every Fringe performer gets a little blurb in the official Fringe program. You have about 100 words to tell people why they should drop $10 to go to your show. That’s it. 100 words which can make or break you. For a business owner, that might be your website home page. It might be your direct mail piece. It might be your business card or elevator speech. Are you giving the right information to intrigue people to learn more?
  • Set appropriate expectations. Hyperbole is stock and trade in marketing. “The most amazing show ever!” “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry!” “Unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.” If your show/product/service is that good, people will say those things about you. If you set expectations too high, there’s no way you can meet them. Under promise and over deliver. Rather than swearing to people that you’re awesome–really!–prove it. Share testimonials or reviews and let other people brag for you.
  • Hustle. If you step onto Mass Ave during Fringe, you’re likely to be accosted by postcard wielding performers pleading with you to come to their show. The most clever ones find a hook: they dress up in their outlandish costumes, they perform tricks. They stay in character and draw people in to their world. If you want to be successful in your marketing, you need to do the same things. You need to constantly be working to reach new audiences and introduce yourself to new people. But you have to do it in a way that’s true to your brand.
There are lessons all around us, if only we’re willing to look. Theater is one fantastic way of expanding our minds, jumps tarting our creativity and even picking up a couple new marketing tips.