How to ‘sell’ a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe by not publicising it

(This was also published on the Chortle comedy website)

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards image

In this blog, I have occasionally mentioned Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman’s wise and oft-misunderstood quote from his book Adventures in the Screen Trade – “Nobody Knows Anything”.

This does not mean everybody is equally ignorant.

It is a reference to people believing that it is possible to know how to structure a movie which will be a surefire hit. His point is that it is an art not a science. However experienced, however talented, no-one actually knows what will definitely work… Nobody KNOWS anything.

All the moreso with publicity and PR.

Advertising and PR people charge fortunes to market products, shows and people.

Very often, it is money well-spent.

I spent over twenty years marketing TV shows on-screen, to viewers and to the press. I have also been going to the Edinburgh Fringe since perhaps 1975 – it depends how you define it – certainly since the mid-1980s.

And the Edinburgh Fringe is one of the most intense marketing and PR maelstroms in the world. Too many shows in too many venues to clearly control and differentiate your product.

The Edinburgh Fringe Office itself tends to say that the literally tens of thousands of posters which hit the city for over three weeks do not put bums-on-seats. The big posters are there, really, to say Look! This act has a large, widely-pasted poster, so he/she is important. The large posters are really aimed at producers, other promoters and the media to ‘Big Up’ the act – not primarily to sell tickets to the public.

The most brilliant use of a giant Fringe poster I have ever seen was several years ago, when comedian Tim Vine paid what must have been a small fortune for a single gigantic poster – all glitz and glitter and a big picture of his face – saying he was NOT appearing at the Fringe. The massive cost of that poster was probably less that the cost to him of going up to the Fringe and it did him wonders in PR terms. (It also helps that he is a brilliant act.)

The Fringe Office (which claims to have done research) reckons flyers handed out in the street by the performers themselves (or by relatives of the performers who have a vested interest in the show’s success) have some impact on sales, especially if handed out near the venue in the hour before the show starts.

But they reckon the greatest active effect on sales is the 40-word listing in the Fringe Programme (and its online site). But, then, they would say that – they charge just under £400 to put those words in the Programme.

However, I think they are right about posters, flyers and the Fringe Programme listings.

This year, I am only staging one single show at the Edinburgh Fringe – the two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show, listed in the Fringe Programme as Aaaaaaaaaaaaarghh! It’s the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show with Miss Behave – and It’s Free!

It is titled in that way because…

  • Aaaaaaaaaaaaarghh! is an attempt to be the first show listed in the Comedy section. I think people are more likely to go to a show listed in the A-B-C sections than in the X-Y-Z sections, because punters (and reviewers) read detailed information – and compile their list of shows to see – from front to back. By the time they get to M-N-O, their diary has already got pretty full with good shows and shows’ time-slots clash.
  • The show’s OTT compere Miss Behave has her name in there to show the cognoscenti that it will be more of a variety show than a straight stand-up show,
  • and the word Free is in there because it is a strong selling point.

This year, I did not issue a press release at the point at which the Fringe Programme was published (as most shows do and should) because I thought I would try something different this year.

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show is on the final Friday of the Fringe – August 24th. The Fringe starts officially on August 3rd and actually on August 1st (don’t ask).

So my show is staged over three weeks AFTER the Fringe starts.

Last year, the venue was packed and I suspect most of those people had heard about the show in general, not because they saw posters or flyers – though, perhaps, they had read the Fringe Programme listing.

I suspect occasional press mentions of the show probably did not bring most of them in – although it would have had some definite and valuable effect.

The most effective publicity in Edinburgh in August is word-of-mouth (partly generated by press and online mentions).

So, this year, I decided I would have no posters or flyers for the show, although, one week before the show, I might print several A4 sheets of white paper on my own computer printer – just listing the acts and the show time/location – and stick them up in the venue and similar Free Festival venues. The sheets would look cheap but, for that very reason, might stand-out from the expensive, colourful posters around them and might have a last-minute immediacy about them.

But I do not know that for sure.

Nobody knows anything.

I would also approach the media late, by which I mean very shortly before the Fringe starts and while the Fringe is actually in progress. I think diary items in The Scotsman, other newspapers and Fringe-specific publications have some effect. As do reviews, but my show cannot be reviewed as such: it is a unique one-off staged on one night only.

The Fringe Office research shows that the majority of people who book tickets for the Fringe – no-one knows who goes to Free Fringe and Free Festival shows – live in an EH postcode. In other words, they live in Edinburgh. There is also, I think, quite a large audience from Glasgow and other parts of lowland Scotland.

As for ‘tourists’ there is an urban myth (though probably true) that the average Fringe-goer is only in the city for three days, so will not read or hear any show reaction more than a week before deciding which show to see.

So, this year, I am taking a punt on late marketing, no visible-in-the-streets marketing, approaching the media late and trying, to an extent, viral online plugs for the show – of which this blog is one.

Having said that, when I was talking to comedian Martin Soan at the weekend, I decided to use the back of the flyer he is printing for his Greatest Show On Legs performances at The Hive venue, which is part of the Free Festival.

The late Malcolm Hardee was famously one of The Greatest Show On Legs (known primarily for their naked balloon dance) and any audience attracted to The Greatest Show On Legs will possibly be equally attracted to my free-to-enter two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show (which will include The Greatest Show On Legs).

So there WILL be double-sided (very small A6 pocket-sized) flyers for The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show but I have no idea if they will or will not have any effect on audience numbers.

…And then there is the Russian Egg Roulette publicity.

As I blogged a couple of days ago, I was in the final of the Russian Egg Roulette contest at the World Egg Throwing Championships on Sunday. Three video news reports have emerged with tiny sequences of me performing…

According to World Egg Throwing Federation organiser Andy Dunlop yesterday: “It made the ESPN Top Ten last night, much to the annoyance of some American sports fans.  It has been seen in such places as Armenia, China, Brazil and across the US.”

I thought: Should I issue a press release plugging myself, saying that the ex-Tiswas researcher John Fleming who organised a spaghetti-juggling event at the Fringe last year and who is preparing a 2-hour Fringe show involving naked balloon dancing… was runner up in the final of the World Russian Egg Roulette contest at the weekend?

But I could not get my head round the angle. It is too complicated a story which would lessen any publicity impact; and it would not build-up any publicity momentum which could culminate at the Fringe in August.

But what do I know?

Nobody knows anything.

It will be a bloody good show, though…

Trust me. Would I lie to you?

The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show is in the ballroom of  The Counting House in Edinburgh on Friday 24th August, from eleven o’clock at night to one o’clock the next morning.

More news nearer the time.

Keep watching this space.

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Filed under Comedy, Marketing, PR

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