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Coming attractions: A better digital marketing approach for your movie theater

How to implement first-party theater data in personalized ads

Movie theaters are struggling in today’s digital marketing landscape. Streaming options make it easier than ever to watch content from the comfort of our own homes, which requires less time, effort and money than going to the theater.

Consumers also generally see these theaters as a commodity, where an individual’s buying decision comes down to which location is closest to them. As a result, theaters have shifted their marketing focus to amenities, like more comfortable seating, and offerings, like full dinner and wine service.

Most of the money spent marketing movies comes from the movie studios, not theaters. And most of the studio’s budget goes to mass-media awareness campaigns—running trailers on TV, outdoor signage and other splashy messaging about what is “now playing at a theater near you.”

That means the theaters, with their more modest marketing budgets, are on their own to convince moviegoers that they are the best “theater near you” to attend, and to remind them that the time to attend is tonight at 6:40 pm!

Theaters also have a short window to get people to choose a specific location, as movie times are often released on Tuesday or Wednesday each week for the upcoming weekend. This leaves theaters with little time or budget to orchestrate a complex, data-driven campaign.

Many theaters are nascent in their digital marketing approach, focusing primarily on social media and search advertising. Spending on search or ticketing platforms means bidding high dollars to appear above competitors. The key is reaching people before they even decide to go to the movies.

If you’re an individual theater doing search marketing you’re stuck competing with other theaters to reach the people who are thinking, “I should go to the movies; I wonder what’s playing.” Instead of getting into a bidding war with your competitors over the most popular keywords, you should give the right people a nudge in the right direction.

By reaching and converting people who had not been thinking about going to the movies, you’ll get more frequency of return visits, and your digital spend will be more efficient than high-CPM or CPC bidding for the people who are already actively searching for movies.

It may seem like you can’t do much to advertise your specific movies and showtimes, but there are ways to drive people to your locations using smart, data-driven marketing. Theaters can create demand and uncover new moviegoers by serving ads to relevant individuals on their preferred channels and devices when they’re making weekend plans.

The importance of first-party data

As a movie theater marketer, you have a lot more valuable first-party data than you may realize. Your point-of-sale system can see what customers are buying, including title-level ticket data, concessions, and gift cards.

Those credit card purchases can be mapped back to each person, so you can see when they purchase tickets and what locations they visit. You know who’s part of your loyalty or movie club. You can even identify web page visitors and online purchases. The question is: How are you using that information?

The simplest tactic is to email your newsletter subscribers or loyalty members, but that’s table stakes for all businesses in this era of digital marketing.

The next level is onboarding all of that first-party data onto a social media platform or DMP/DSP solution so you can reach customers across social and display or video ads. Of course this comes with pitfalls. The lack of transparency within social media walled gardens means you won’t have verifiable insight into what works. And the low match, recognition and reach rates when onboarding through stitched together solutions means you’ll lose most of your audience.

The final stage of this progression is customizing 1:1 conversations with that data. Are you sending the most relevant message to each person? Are you reaching them at the right time and on the right device so they’re most likely to convert? They may not immediately convert online, so you’ll want to track each touchpoint through to offline purchases at the theater.

Activating first-party data is a great first step to move through the stages of digital marketing, but that’s not all you will need.

Identifying lookalike audiences

First-party data can make it easier to reach existing customers. But how can you reach movie fans near your theaters that haven’t been to your theater yet? It’s all about marrying first- and third-party data to create actionable lookalike audiences, where brands can model their current audience to find people just like them online.

Then, you can reach those new people where they engage most across channels and devices and message them. In doing so, you can extend your local audience outside of your first-party data, allowing you to reach and influence people before they’ve made up their mind about going to the movies.

Third-party purchase data even makes it possible to limit your audience to people who buy movie tickets (which avoids messaging the roughly ¼ of the U.S. and Canada population never goes), or even to customers of specific competitors.

Bringing individuals relevant messages

Using first party data to find people you already know—as well as those lookalike audiences—online through people-based profiles is a great start. But to drive ticket sales, you need to bring together attributes of people you know with creative and messaging that resonates with each person to drive action. What ads are people actually seeing and how do they influence ticket sales?

One way to approach this is through personalized display advertising that highlights a movie a specific individual would likely want to see, and then offering them movie times for that film at their local theater. If that sounds complicated, take a look at a few ways simple data points can be plugged into templatized ads.

If you know popular films by location…

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Some theaters have fairly sophisticated customer insight tools that allow them to analyze sales data on a theater-by-theater basis. This can highlight which movies are popular at a given location and allow theaters to create dynamic ads.

By reinforcing a movie that locals may have likely already heard about, you can convince them to come to that movie even if they hadn’t been thinking about going to the theater at all. If you see that your particular theater has a lot of Elizabeth Taylor fans, for example, you could highlight showings for The Last Time I Saw Paris.

If you know what movie genre someone likes…

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With the right POS system, you can gather title-level purchase data from customers. Based on this past transaction history, you can serve up showtimes to individuals in the genre that they have watched before. For example, if they are a science fiction enthusiast, let them know about this weekend’s showtimes for a movie in that genre.

If you know what they’re buying at the theater…

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Loyalty programs are growing in popularity for larger theater chains. To drive sign-ups, you need to focus on what matters to each potential loyalty club member.

If someone has high transactions for snacks, they should receive an ad that talks about discounted concessions for loyalty members. If they over-index on the number of transactions, the ad should highlight the low fee for x amount of tickets per month. If they tend to purchase their tickets online versus at the box office, show them that loyalty members don’t pay online fees.

If you know someone has been browsing your website…

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With the right site analytics, website tagging and identity matching, it’s possible for keep track of who has visited (and abandoned) your web pages. You can remarket film page abandoners with the showtimes for the specific film that they were researching online and drive them to a specific theater.

In this case, someone who was looking to take their kids to a showing of Gulliver’s Travels will receive ads with those showtimes, while a classic film aficionado who was looking into attending a marathon will get ads for His Girl Friday.

Final thoughts

Activating your data is possible with the right partner. By putting individuals at the center of location-based theater marketing, you can reach current and future moviegoers across channels and devices with creative treatments that are personalized based on their unique interests and preferences.

Learn more about all of our solutions for media and entertainment.

All images used in the above examples are creative commons-licensed films.