Know Thy Customer: Playbill’s Remarkable Digital Transformation

There’s no business like show business, like no business I know.
Irving Berlin

There may be no business like show business but, sadly, there’s currently no show business either (sorry, Mr. Berlin). For theatre junkies (like me) this is particularly troubling. How do we get our regular entertainment fix with Broadway dark and theatres closed for who knows how long? Fortunately, Playbill has an answer.

If you’ve ever seen a Broadway show, you’re intimately familiar with Playbill. The yellow-bannered magazine is distributed free as you walk in to almost every theatre on Broadway, and nearly 100 other theaters across the country. It’s simultaneously a magazine, a memento, and a souvenir. I’ve saved my share of them, and still have a few tucked away in a drawer somewhere. They’re a staple of a night out on the town.

The Playbill concept is simple: a generic section with articles and advertising, wrapped around a central dozen or so pages specific to each show. The printed magazines are distributed to over two million monthly unique visitors.

So, what happens when Playbill’s entire reason to exist evaporates? What happens when theatres across the country close? For Playbill, the answer was obvious. You adapt. 

The New and Improved Playbill

Playbill is no newcomer. It was first printed in 1884, the same year the Washington Monument was completed and construction of the Statue of Liberty began. It’s older than barbed wire, matchbooks, and Coca-Cola. It’s older than the zipper. The venerable publication has lived through world wars, the great depression, and natural disasters. They know how to survive.

In March (of the year that shall not be named), New York theatres closed for a month. Then a year. Someone needed to step up and fill the gap created by all those dark theatres. Who better than the publication that has produced content for thousands of Broadway productions? With their printing presses idled, Playbill turned their focus online. 

Playbill online isn’t new. In fact it’s almost as old as the web itself. This enabled the Playbill team to quickly pivot from paper to pixels. Playbill transformed from a theatre souvenir, to a theatre substitute. 

The editorial team created custom content to keep theatregoers informed about their favorite Broadway stars. They culled their vast photo archives to build slide shows. They developed contests and quizzes straight out of a Buzzfeed playbook. And they created a Virtual Theatre Festival and a Social Selects program.

Theatregoers were still hungry for entertainment content. Fortunately, Playbill recognized that they’re not in the publishing business — they’re in the theatre information business. Their customers aren’t clamoring for printed content, at least not specifically. They want theatre news and information, they want inspiration. They want a connection to the shows they love. None of that requires ink on paper.

It’s certainly not a perfect substitute for a live show. But it’s a worthy effort, and a deep dive into Playbill’s online content certainly scratches the theatre itch. The print version will return. Someday. In the meantime, fans are lining up to get their theatre fix online.