Sam Bowers

How to Sell Out Your Improv Show or Sketch Show, Part 1

Improv Nerd director Sam Bowers recently co-produced the first-ever 24 Hour Sketch Comedy Competition at The Second City. The 24HSCC pitted 10 sketch teams against each other to see who could write and rehearse the best sketch within 24 hours, ultimately putting them up in a rapid-fire revue for an audience and panel of industry judges.

And the best news? The show was completely sold out. Pretty impressive for a first-time event.

So how did he sell it out? Here are some of Sam’s best tips on how to promote your improv show or sketch show to make sure you get butts in the seats.

1: Promotion
People won’t come to your show if they don’t know you’re having a show. Using physical promotion, such as posters or postcards, is only effective if you already have a brand, like Chicago sketch queens Spookie Dookie (Maureen Monahan and Claire McFadden), as they have an audience that already recognizes them. Spending money on posters without an existing audience will result in a lot of posters in the trash.

I highly recommend the use of consistent and diverse Facebook video. Nothing filters higher algorithmically on Facebook than native videos that are uploaded directly to Facebook, not linked via YouTube, which means more people will see a video post than any other. This method has proven quite successful for my team, LL Cool Beans, as it allows us all to remain in the communal zeitgeist. Even if you’re not a video editor, programs such as Adobe Spark and iMovie make it super easy for anyone to just get something out there.

2: Choose a highly visible venue
In Chicago, the most recognized name in comedy spaces is The Second City, followed closely behind by iO Chicago and The Annoyance. It will be easier to get audiences to come to these spaces because they are familiar with them and have a favorable opinion of them already. These institutions also typically have an effective infrastructure for marketing and ticket sales, giving your show a sense of legitimacy and allowing your audience to develop respect for your product before even arriving at the venue. These venues will likely take a bigger cut of ticket sales (unlike a smaller space where you may be able to pay to rent the space and make all of the money after the rent is paid), but it’s worth it to make less money if you can draw bigger crowds and make a bigger name for yourself and your group.

3: Create a High Quality Product
In regards to ticket sales, The Improvised Shakespeare Company is the most successful improv show in Chicago. This is because they are, without question, the highest quality improv product in the city. Improvised Shakespeare performs five shows a week at iO Chicago, consistently selling out the Friday/Saturday 8 p.m. shows, and often selling out the other, later/Thursday slots as well. Creator Blaine Swen has designed an artistic infrastructure from casting to rehearsal to the damn bow at the end of the show that is designed to consistently create an A+ improvisational product. Audiences return every week not because they care about Shakespeare or improv, but because it’s the best product in the market every night.

4: Get As Many People On Stage As Possible
People invite their friends and family to see them perform. The more people you put on stage, the more people will get invited to buy a ticket. For the 24HSCC, for example, we featured approximately 40 performers. Structuring how you utilize this high volume of bodies is essential to creating a good product, but if your only goal is to sell tickets, invite 100 people to perform and let me know how it goes (please send footage).

Another common tactic for getting more bodies on stage is to book an opening act for your show. Remember, the goal of an opener is not only to build energy for the main event, but to also bring people to watch them perform and fill out your house. While a highly talented opener might do well at pumping up your crowd, they also might be less incentivized to invite their friends and family to watch if you don’t give them a decent time slot. I recommend bringing in newly established teams that don’t have regular runs and giving them at least 12 minutes to perform. They will be more likely to bring people to watch.

5: Select a Smaller Venue

It’s easier to sell out small theaters. The 24HSCC would not have sold out The Second City Mainstage (295 seats), but we did easily sell out Judy’s Beat Lounge (58 seats oversold to 65 people). Don’t be afraid to play to a physically smaller room, because playing to a sold out space, no matter how small, makes everyone happy.

Check back in next week for the rest of Sam’s tips about how you can make sure you sell out your next improv show!

(Photo by Dave Audino, DEA Photo and Film)

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