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CASE STUDY: Greater Sudbury’s Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario: An Innovative Leader in Audience Development

Denis J. Bertrand, Audience Development Expert for the Arts and 50 Carleton Associate |

The Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario (TNO) is Greater Sudbury’s 42-year old French-language professional theatre company. It presents new Franco-Ontarian, French-Canadian and Canadian works. In 2005, Geneviève Pineault, its new Artistic Director, noticed that TNO season subscriptions were down, as well as its overall attendance. She felt that more people should be interested in the TNO’s offering and, as such, enjoy greater support. After all, the company had a rich history and many of its productions and associated artists had won prestigious national awards throughout the years. TNO productions toured the country and even went to Europe. So why weren’t there more local subscribers?

To remedy the problem, Pineault called upon 50 Carleton, a Sudbury-based marketing firm, to develop a new brand and communications plan. As a result, the TNO undertook new audience development strategies that have paid off ever since.

The first step the company took to reach new consumers was to target individuals and groups most likely to be interested in its product instead of trying to reach the local francophone community as a whole.  These potential audience members were identified through their shared professional, personal or civic interests with the TNO. The organization also invited its loyal patrons to spread the word about the TNO to like-minded individuals in their entourage who were familiar in some way with the company or interested in the arts, but who didn’t subscribe to the TNO’s seasons or attend its performances regularly. Those loyal patrons became the organization’s ambassadors in the community. TNO Board members were asked to recruit four new subscribers each annually. Aided by a marketing campaign that presented live theatre as an accessible and more interesting alternative to “boring” television programs, attendance at the TNO went up by 19% as early as the following season.         

The TNO continued to innovate by becoming one of the first francophone arts organizations in Canada to use a nascent social media called Facebook to promote its activities. It even started its own blog to give detailed information on its events and programming.

The theatrical experience provided by the TNO to its patrons wasn’t confined to the stage. As soon as theatre lovers walked through its doors, they were immersed in the universe of that evening’s performance through the use of thematic music, drinks, food and embellishments to its foyer. Pineault is almost always on hand, every night, to personally welcome her guests. On one memorable occasion, TNO staff members handed out cretons sandwiches to departing patrons because the food item was featured in that evening’s play. Although used only sparingly, such post-performance handouts act as reminders of the good time patrons experience when the go to the TNO. Now, spectators look forward to what the company has in store for them when a new production opens.

More recently, the TNO created a Web site to introduce children, their parents and teachers to theatre. Called Oh ! Théâtre, the site features games and information on what to expect when you attend a play.

The company has also reached out to smaller francophone communities located within a 100 km radius of Greater Sudbury to encourage them to attend its performances. Micro season launches have been held in targeted communities and the TNO has initiated 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays, so patrons coming from within or outside of the radius have time to travel, shop, dine and take in the sites while attending a performance in Sudbury.     

During the spring of 2011 and the following 2011-2012 season, the TNO introduced English-language supertitles for some of the plays featured in its adult series so that English-speaking patrons could discover and enjoy French-language theatre. The company is now developing a whole new market and has garnered a great deal of attention by doing so.

All of these initiatives are but an overview of what the TNO has undertaken to reach new audiences and ensure patron loyalty. And as mentioned, it has paid off. Attendance and subscriptions to the TNO have increased by 98% from 2006-2007 to 2012-2013.  The TNO welcomed some 300 new spectators over a three-year period (2009-2012). With season attendance rates averaging around 95% over the last few years, the TNO added additional performances to its adult series in 2011-2012 and was still able to maintain its 95% average in 2012-2013. Thirty-two per cent (32%) of season subscriptions were sold last year to first-time buyers. Meanwhile, 98% of audience members thought that the 2012-2013 season was either excellent or very good.

To obtain such results, the TNO has maintained some traditional marketing (media advertising, posters, etc.) and embraced social and viral marketing by communicating directly with potential customers. It has targeted specific people, groups and communities by talking to them, by offering them a full experience when they set foot in its venue and by keeping in touch with them through its e-newsletter, social media and repeat visits. 50 Carleton leads an annual brainstorming session for all TNO staff members during which audiences are identified for the whole season and for each production, as well as thematic activities to enhance the patrons’ experience. All of these initiatives may seem mundane today, but when the TNO started using them way back in 2005-2006, it was, without a doubt, as a pioneer in the field. Today, the company continues to reap the benefit of its investments in audience development and seeks new opportunities and means to innovate.

For more information, please contact Denis J. Bertrand at 705 673 7385, denis@dbertrand.com or www.50Carleton.com.

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