How influential are online theatre reviews, like those that UTBA publishes? Do people actually choose whether to buy a ticket in response to an online play review? Are online critics “just bloggers,” or do they carry some weight with their readers and the public? Some of these questions are answered in a new study that I conducted with the help of my student co-author, Malisa M. Drake-Brooks (currently a student in the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Utah).

Comedy of errors advertisement - Utah Shakespeare FestivalBackground

In UTBA’s six and a half years in existence, I have heard anecdotal evidence of people using UTBA when deciding whether to attend a play. But most of these were from friends or acquaintances—people who already know and trust me. Being a social scientist in my day job, these anecdotes weren’t enough to satisfy my curiosity.

These questions came to the forefront when I got an email from the Utah Shakespeare Festival in July 2014. The email was an advertisement to patrons for their production of Comedy of Errors. The subject line in the email read, “The Comedy of Errors Strikes Gold,” almost exactly the same title as the UTBA review of the production. So, I was surprised when the advertisement in the email (pictured here) didn’t include a quote from the UTBA review. A similar email advertisement for their production of Henry IV, Part One also included quotes from newspapers and none from UTBA, even though Andrea Gunoe’s review of the production was positive.

This wasn’t bitterness. Theatre companies are free to quote (or not quote) UTBA reviews in their advertising materials, and many have done so since UTBA’s earliest days—including the Utah Shakespeare Festival. But it did strike me as odd, and I wondered if newspaper sources were preferred because bloggers may seem less trustworthy than newspaper critics. So, I decided to conduct a study to learn whether the source of a review (i.e., newspaper or blog) would impact the perceived level of trustworthiness or persuasiveness. The results were just published in the scholarly journal Arts and the Market.

There isn’t much research on the influence of theatre critics and even less about online theatre critics. A few studies examined the relationship between critics’ reviews and ticket sales on Broadway (e.g., Reddy, Swaminathan, & Motley, 1998; Simonoff & Ma, 2003). These studies show a correlation between how positive the reviews are and a show’s success. However, the cause-and-effect relationship is not clear. In other words, it is not clear whether critics gave positive reviews to good shows that would be hits anyway, or whether a critic’s positive review would cause a show to last longer on Broadway. Outside of Broadway, I could not find any studies on the impact of theatre reviews, nor could I find any empirical research about online theatre critics. This study was designed to fill that gap.

Study Design

Participants were invited to be part of the study via online channels (e.g., Facebook, Twitter), and participants could enter a drawing for a $30 cash prize. 318 people completed the survey, which took about 10 minutes and was entirely online. The survey had four parts: (a) an advertisement for a well-known play, (b) an advertisement for a new play, (c) a play review for a Shakespeare production, and (d) demographic and background questions.

Photo used in the advertisement for Candle Underground, a fictional new play. Photo by Amber Peck.

Photo used in the advertisement for Candle Underground, a fictional new play. Photo by Amber Peck.

In the advertisements, a publicity photo for a production was paired with three positive quotes about a play. The quotes were randomly attributed to either three fictional newspapers, three internet sites, or three social media quotes. The first advertisement was for a fictional production of Les Misérables. The second advertisement was for a fictional play called Candle Underground, which we created to simulate the work of marketing a new play (compared to a well known play). For both of these advertisements, participants were given a ticket price (randomly selected by a computer to range from $15 to $60) and were asked how likely they would be to purchase a ticket and how persuasive they found the advertisement.

The next section of the survey presented a 248-word review for a fictional production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The review was designed to be mildly positive, but not a rave. For half of respondents, the review was randomly attributed to an online critic, and for the other half, the review was attributed to a newspaper-based critic. Again, the price of the play was randomized to be a value between $15 and $60, and participants were asked how likely they would be to purchase a ticket to the play. They were also asked to rate how professional they thought the review was. Finally, in the background section, participants reported their gender, age, whether they were a member of a professional entertainment union, the number of plays they had attended in the previous two weeks, and their annual household income.

Photo used for the Les Miserables advertisements. Courtesy of SCERA.

Photo used for the Les Misérables advertisements in the study. Courtesy of SCERA.

Results

Some of results were surprising for me. First, the advertisements using newspaper or online quotes were seen as equally persuasive. Also, the Merry Wives of Windsor review was seen as equally professional, regardless of whether it was attributed to a blog or a newspaper. The source of the quotes in the advertisements also did not have an impact on participants’ willingness to purchase a ticket to the play. Of course, as an online critic, I was pleased to see that online reviews were as trusted and persuasive as newspaper reviews. However, advertisements for Les Misérables were seen as being less persuasive when they used quotes from social media. Although future researchers should try to replicate this finding, it may indicate that Facebook comments or tweets from fans of a well-known, beloved play may not be as persuasive as quotes from reviewers.

There were some other interesting findings that are worth recapping here. One was that ticket price did not have an impact on people’s willingness to purchase a ticket to Candle Underground. In the study we said,

This should provide hope and optimism for those who have the job of marketing unknown productions to patrons because it may mean that (within reason), aggressive discounting may not be necessary to sell tickets to new plays.

Additionally, we found that for Les Misérables, respondents said they were more likely to purchase a ticket if the price was lower, if the respondent was female, had a higher income, and had attended fewer plays recently. The last was fascinating to me because it indicated that avid theatre goers might have different tastes in plays than less consistent attendees.

Last Thoughts

What does all of this mean? First, online critics can celebrate. We’re trusted! Second, theatre marketing professionals have more information about how to sell their plays. Especially for new plays, I encourage them to get any positive comments they can find—even from social media—and use those comments in advertisements whenever possible. I also think that many marketers would benefit from strengthening ties with online theatre reviewers, who are more plentiful than newspaper-based critics (Warne, 2014).

But more work needs to be done to understand the role of online critics in the theatre world. First, this study should be replicated because it is possible that these results are not stable in other samples. Second, it is likely that context matters, and it would be interesting to do a similar study with a real theatre company, real advertisements, and real quotes from critics and patrons. On the other hand, a strength of this study was the randomization of the ticket prices and the source of the quotes. This allowed us to conclude that changes in ticket prices or sources of quotes caused changes in people’s willingness to buy a ticket. This is a strength of this study that has not been found elsewhere.

Still have questions? Feel free to email me at russell (at) utahtheaterbloggers (dot) com or at rwarne (at) uvu (dot) edu. I would love to talk about the study with readers. I am a big advocate for using data analysis to help arts organizations, and I have many ideas that could be financially beneficial for companies. If you are interested in reading the full study in Arts and the Market, you can find it here.

References

Reddy, S. K., Swaminathan, V., & Motley, C. M. (1998). Exploring the determinants of Broadway show success. Journal of Marketing Research, 35, 370-383. doi: 10.2307/3152034

Simonoff, J. S., & Ma, L. (2003). An empirical study of factors relating to the success of Broadway shows. The Journal of Business, 76, 135-150. doi: 10.1086/344116

Warne, R. T. (2014). Criticism 2.0: Benefits and challenges of theatre criticism web sites. Critical Stages, 9. Retrieved from http://criticalstages9.criticalstages.org/criticism-2-0-benefits-and-challenges-of-theatre-criticism-web-sites/

Warne, R. T., & Drake-Brooks, M. M. (2016). Comparing the persuasiveness and professionalism of newspaper, blog, and social media sources of information in marketing and reviewing theatre. Arts and the Market, 6, 166-186. doi:10.1108/AAM-03-2015-0004