Ashley Smith-Hammond

A case study of Dundee-based Poorboy’s simple but brilliant method to gather email addresses after the performance of their show 'Pirates and Mermaids'.

Pirates and Mermaids is a one-man show that tells the story of the romance between Cameron (who’s based in New York City) and Eilidh (who’s in Scotland). It unfolds through texts between the two main characters, shared photographs, and good old-fashioned storytelling by the fire. Playing on stages and in an intimate site-specific version for a small group (usually about 15 people) the audiences get personally invested in the characters and the story. The team at Poorboy tested the format out on audiences in Prospect Park, Brooklyn in 2012 and the show premiered at the 2013 Fringe. To date it’s been performed roughly 150 times in different venues around the world.

For our purposes here, what you need to know is that Pirates and Mermaids ends on a cliffhanger – will they or won’t they stay together? After the show finishes, audience members are offered a postcard where they can share a message about the performance and share their email address with the production team. Those who opt in receive two follow-up emails from Cameron that lets them know what happens next.

It is a creative and fun way of engaging audiences beyond the performance by building the story into the marketing. Plus, it’s a smart way to build a mailing list because it encourages people to opt in to email communications by giving them something more than a marketing message that they can really to look forward to. The messages that come back from audiences give an insight into audiences’ emotional investment in the story.

Some hold a bit of emotional distance while being complimentary to the team and the show.

feedback postcard "AWESOME"

But others are like this – a message to the character who over the course of the show has become real to them.

feedback on a postcard "Chase your dreams Cameron"

And this one.

feedback postcard "Good luck Cameron!"

I’d known Poorboy was interested in digital work since their participation in AmbITion Scotland, so I was interested to to learn more about their continuing digital development and the impact of this creative digital engagement for the company’s audience development. I spoke with Jeremiah Reynolds, Poorboy’s Associate Director and star of Pirates and Mermaids to learn more.

How many email addresses have you gathered this way?

We started from zero and have built up to a list of about 800 people, mostly through this show.

Is email your primary channel for communicating with audiences?

Initially yes, but in the way that social media has evolved we’ve transitioned out of email and onto Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

How do other channels fit?

We use different social channels for different shows as we develop them. We choose the right channel based on the story, the characters and the type of audience we expect to connect with each show. So for example, a lot of the work around Damned Rebel Bitches (a story about older women kicking ass) was on Facebook. Whereas, we used Twitter and Instagram more for Monstrous Bodies, which is a story about young people. In the latter we invited audience members to hold words from a key line in Frankenstein, which sets the tone for the show: “Beware for I am fearless and therefore powerful”. These were shared on social and then individual audience members could tag themselves in the photos and share them across their own networks.

people holding signs that say "beware for I am fearless and therefore dangerous"

Here’s the nerdy impact questions on uptake, open rates and how your subscriber numbers compare to the company’s other shows?

About 75% of our audiences opt in to share their email address with us after the show. Our email open rates tend to be about 75-80% and as I understand it the industry standard is closer to 20%. It’s because we offer them as a gift, rather than as an ask. It feels personal, not corporate. Other Poorboy shows don’t generate the same numbers for our email lists but they have contributed a lot to the growth on our social channels.

Have you had any notable feedback from audiences in response to the emails?

People email Cameron back! They respond in kind with advice and sympathy as though they’re friends or family. The emails feel like they’re part of the show because so much of the story is coming off a phone.

After they’ve received the series of post-show emails continuing the story, you transition people onto your newsletter list. What kind of marketing content do people receive?

We send two to three company emails per year about what we’re working on, what’s coming up.

I think you should be as creative with the marketing as with the show. We’ve really made a point to build the production of multimedia content into our production schedule. Each show gets a one-minute teaser filmic trailer and bespoke photography. It can take a lot of extra time in addition to all the other production demands but it just feels more and more important.

I think you should be as creative with the marketing as with the show.

What’s the bigger picture for the company?

Our tactics shift while our goal remains the same. Connect with audiences right where they are in unexpected and playful ways.

We’re currently developing a new show, Bangarang, which has a whole online narrative strand as part of the production. It’s going to unfold across an entire city, and social media will be a big part of how the story plays out. We’re experimenting with technology collaborators. This year we worked with makers at Abertay on digital models and gameplay based on proximity. It was exciting and interesting but there’s a challenge in that the wages that game developers command are beyond the capacity for a small theatre company. We also want to be able to hand the reigns of the social media campaign over to the local venues when the show tours, and that’s likely going to mean working in really different ways than their routine marketing. Technology and social platforms are changing so quickly – we need the backbone of our company to be as creatively flexible and adaptable as possible.

Main image credit: Photo by Calum Weir with kind permission from Poorboy