Several months ago I took several of my grandkids to the circus for the first time.
I had stuffed their heads full with tales of my own derring-do while working as a clown, ringmaster and publicity director for many different circuses over a period of 25 years; I felt confident that they would enjoy the wonders and glories of the big top as much as I had.
I was wrong.
The show was rich in clown gags, motorcycle stunts, breath-taking high wire feats, and fantastic juggling – but at intermission the grandkids begged to be freed from the tedium so they could return home and play on their iPads.
So we all hopped back in the car, leaving behind one of the greatest marvels of childhood I can ever conceive of.
I have given much thought as to why my grandkids, even after being encouraged and tantalized by my (somewhat exaggerated) stories of the big top, turned their back on this historic form of entertainment.
I don’t believe my grandkids are prodigies of sloth or arrogance; they are the normal run-of-the-mill type of boys and girls. There was nothing to frighten them at the show, and the show itself was carried on at a good clip.
I did notice that the matinee we attended was also attended by the dreaded “Mr. and Mrs. Rose”, meaning there were plenty of empty seats. And I also noticed that quite a few of the families we came with also left at intermission along with us.
So what’s wrong?
How can the big top compete against iPads and DVDs?
I offer the following surmises only as helpful hints, not as any form of criticism:
- Traditional forms of publicity, such as posters, advance clowns, and media ads, need to be supplemented with savvy social media marketing. When I went to this particular show’s website, it was apparent that the webmaster had not done any updating since the previous season. The information and the photographs were all from the 2012 season. In today’s social media-addicted world, a circus needs a strong and constantly updated presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a readable and engaging blog that is refreshed at least several times a week. Before parents spend their money on family entertainment, they want to be informed, they want to be sold. And social media is what they depend on. Not word of mouth or newspaper ads. Hiring a marketing/publicity director who knows how to use and maintain the above mentioned venues is not that hard, and will pay handsome dividends in free publicity and increased attendance.
- Shows have got to remember to engage the audience early on in the performance and keep that engagement going until the very end of the performance. When I worked as ringmaster we always had a spectacular peanut pitch that kept the crowd glued to their seats during intermission. And the only prizes were several balloons handed personally to the winners by one of the clowns. Get the kids interested early in the show with any kind of gimmick you want, so long as they know they are required to stick around to the end of the show to collect.
- I currently work part-time with a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) government grant program that pays me a stipend to work with school kids, Cub Scouts, and other children’s organizations to give science demonstrations. Do show owners and managers understand the amazing kinds of knowledge a professional circus with its staff can make available to ‘children of all ages’? And that there is good grant money available to provide school tours and other kinds of kid’s tours of the circus? Just look at how the Big Apple Circus has parlayed the educational aspect of the circus into generous corporate sponsors and government grants. Any other show can do the same, if they are willing to use a professional grant writer. If you can sell your show as an educational experience, you can collect grant money and corporate sponsors. The key is to START NOW. The end of the financial year is coming up for many grants and corporations – they need to unload whatever funds they still might have left before the new financial year starts and they have to return their surplus funds.
(Tim Torkildson currently resides in Provo, Utah, where he works in social media. His twitter account is @torkythai911 )