To commemorate their 20th year, Scarehouse released a completely original collection of spine-chilling sounds and music. This music collection is part of their outreach program, but it doesn’t stop there. Today we’re discussing how affordable ways you can do media outreach for your haunt. You don’t need a large budget, but you need a focus on building allies. John Singh, the owner of PR consultancy firm J2 Communications, works annually with Scarehouse in Pittsburgh. His career includes working with Blumhouse Productions on the Blumhouse of Horrors, 6 years at Lucasfilm and 9 years at the Walt Disney Company. This is Day 23 of our 61 day Hauntathon.
Read more about the sounds of Scarehouse here.
Marketing Is Not Adversarial and You Can Find Allies With a Little Effort
John: There is a really robust and interesting kind of culture built up around haunts and haunt operators. But, I think, a lot of times people approach this whole concept as if it’s adversarial, as if it’s competitive, as if you have to position yourself as the best at the exclusion of others.
And I think that when it comes to making allies and building relationships, it starts both at the local level of understanding who your friendly competition is, being able to appreciate what the others are doing, and to encourage everybody. But also, to look at who in your community at large can help build the word of mouth and build the attendance for you.
It might be a tourism board, it might be a film board that you have locally, it might be some kind of booster or chamber of commerce group, who wants to know what they can do to help build some excitement in the community. Because let’s face it, every single community in the United States is trying to bolster economic activity.
They’re trying to get people out of their houses, especially now, they’re trying to get people excited about things to do. So, if you can turn to them first and say, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re excited about being in this market.” You can start getting them excited. Offer them tickets, offer them to come in, offer them a group night so they can come see what you’re doing, offer them behind the scenes tours as you’re developing.
We’re probably beyond that now for most people, but for next year, and even for the remainder of this year it’s, get people in so they can start talking about what you’re doing, and then start working with your local media. Start proactively getting people excited about having this rare opportunity. Because let’s face it, three or four or five weeks of the year is a pretty rare thing every year. So, build some excitement around it.
Make Sure to Define Yourself in Your Marketing
John: So, it’s really important to make sure that you’re doing the outreach and you’re marketing, first of all, to marketers. Secondly, it’s really important to, and this is what we found out with Blumhouse is it was really important to define ourselves, to talk about what we offered, the experience that we had, what made us different from any other haunted activity.
That was particularly important because, as we found out, Delusion and Haunted Hayride were really big in the market, and how do we come in as somebody new to the market? So, a lot of that came down to media outreach. We had two really big advantages that most haunt operators don’t have.
Number one, we were in LA, and we were in a massive media market. And number two, this was a little bit before Blumhouse had really broken out in entertainment, so we had the advantage though, of having some name recognition with Jason Blum, and the work that he had already done.
Being able to market ourselves to horror outlets. So, they were naturally interested to see what he might do. The element of surprise was huge back then because it wasn’t tied.
Unlike the Purge, the first Blumhouse we did was not tied to any existing IP, as they call it today. It was a completely original idea and went really well after a very slow start. But, one of the things we did really early on was to position ourselves almost a movie or a TV show, positioning ourselves as a piece of entertainment first and foremost, something that people were going to want to experience for themselves.
I think that’s something that a lot of haunt operators forget once they get into the nitty gritty of putting it together and going through the operational stuff, they forget about how do we position this, and how do we talk about ourselves as really unique in the market.
Some Specific Marketing Tactics According to John Singh
John: Some of the tactical things that we did with Blumhouse, which I’ve carried through to the work I’ve been doing on Scarehouse, are things like media previews, and kind of teasers to the media; getting people interested in what you’re doing by promoting yourself and promoting yourself beyond just couponing and flyers.
When you’re looking at building excitement and creating a sense of buzz, so to speak, around what you’re doing, there are a few things you can do that can be as inexpensive or as elaborate as you want them to be. So, number one would be to understand who your target media are, whether they’re newspapers, TV stations, radio stations in your local community. Or, if you’re maybe a little bit of a bigger haunt or you have a little bit more of a regional presence, start building outwards to include people who cover what haunts are exciting, and which ones people don’t want to miss. Then, figure out what you can do to reach out to them both on an email basis, as well as on a physical basis. I think people forget these days that physical, tactile things actually matter.
So, this year at Scarehouse, for instance, we spent a lot of time talking about what we might be able to do to generate some excitement beyond just sending out press releases. This year in particular, we hit on the idea of taking some Scarehouse characters, this is the 20th year for Scarehouse, and over the 20 years they’ve developed some characters who are Evergreen, who come back year after year.
So, we took some of these characters and some artwork that we had created for them, and we blew up their mouths and put them onto face masks. So, we’re sending out a couple of Scarehouse branded face masks with very unique, specific, creepy sort of mouths on them. And we’re sending out a Scarehouse t-shirt, which is a very easy thing to do that most people probably already create for their crew.
This year, we decided to go one step further and take the sound effects and music that have been developed for Scarehouse and compile those into a digital form that we can share online through social, through digital, share with media, and also use that as a way to bring some of what we do at Scarehouse and put it into the world so that it’s not just a one-way relationship. You don’t just go to Scarehouse, you’re going to also bring Scarehouse into your home. Which is very much in keeping with what, a Disney or Universal does to bring your brand into the daily lives of your most active consumer.
This all came up out of the desire to do something tangible, but also to do something that was relatively low cost. We had some, initially, really grand ideas about things that we could send, and we were going to put Scarehouse in a box and have props and all this. And we realized that, A, it was really expensive B, it was really time consuming and C, it was just going to be too much effort. So, it became a question of, how can we narrow this down into something that is fun and exciting that can go out to people, both physically and digitally?
So, in addition to the scores and scores that we’re sending out physically, we’re also going to send out a lot more digitally.
Scarehouse Marketing Tactics Are All Story Based
Philip: What I really like about this too, is that it is story-driven, it is artwork from the characters that people will recognize. So, it’s within the story, and it’s a face mask because the face masks are still required in some areas, they’re useful items. And the sound is tied directly to what there’ll be hearing in the house because it’s an album that was put together, that was designed and produced, just for Scarehouse. So, it’s music that gets people in the mood that they can use for their Halloween parties or whatever. It all is story-driven, which I think is important, because you don’t want to send something that is too divorced from what the experience is that you’re trying to differentiate on.
John: Whenever you’re engaging in any sort of marketing or PR activity, you have to figure out what kind of story you want to tell. Even if your haunt has only the loosest story, or only has a series of vignettes, you have a story to tell about what your haunt is, how it’s created, how it works within the community, how well received it is. That kind of a story is what you can put together and package to go out into the broader world.
How Do You Cross the Two Barriers of Finding People and Getting Them to Respond to Your Marketing?
John: There are a lot of ways to figure out who your best audience is, from a marketing and PR standpoint. Number one is research the media and spend a lot of time doing this. Spend time reading about other haunts, and not just reading about them, but seeing who covers them. The ones that you love, the ones that you get attracted to every year, who writes about them, how do they write about them, and how can you take that information and use it to your advantage? Which is to develop a media list. So that’s number one.
Number two is to figure out who is your audience target and where do they get their information from? So, you’re going to have a lot of radio stations, a lot of podcasts, a lot of influencer media in Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, who you can reach out to, because this is the way your audience learns about what they want to be learning about.
One way to do that is, if you have on already active social media presence, to get to know who’s actually looking at your social media, who follows you, and then start, again research is the key, start figuring out who do they in turn follow in the local community? Or in the kind of specialty world, where do they get their information? You can find out a lot about where you want to reach out to, by looking at who’s following you.
Philip: Your email to me was just like, what’s the address? We want to send you a gift. Joe Pulizzi for his Content Inc launch did something very similar, you know, he sent out cookies. He was like, ” just reply, with what flavor of cookie between these options, and then where you want me to send them.” It doesn’t have to be complicated is my point
John: Who’s not going to say, “yes, I want cookies.”
Philip: Exactly, and that’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be even handwritten invitations, it can be baked goods.
Don’t Forget to Just Ask People
John: One of the tricks that I discovered a long, long time ago in what I do is, the power of asking people. A lot of publicity and marketing people just start blasting out information, they assume everybody wants to know. They don’t start out by approaching everybody saying, “hi, my name is John and I’m working with Scarehouse. Would you be interested in receiving some information about our activity this year?” Once you have people saying yes, even, if you only have a media list that starts out with 10 or 15 people, you have 10 or 15 people that want to receive your information, and that’s way more valuable than a list of 400 people who don’t want your information.
Philip: Like the trust ladder that you hear Pat Flynn talk about, you start with the small asks, and your strategy is right on the mark for that, because it’s, “would you like to receive information?”
“Sure. That’s Fine.” Then asked two, “we’re going to send you like some package, if you’d like to receive the package, what’s your address?” That’s ask two, right? ask three is, “here’s the music that we’re going to be featuring in this year’s show, it was custom made, it’s this 20-year celebration. Would you like to listen to it? Would you like to just enjoy it?” Ask three. Then, by the time you get to your fourth ask, which is the, “would you like to visit the event, or cover the event,” or whatever, the fourth ask will be in the future, you have this ladder built up of increasing touch points.
John: It’s amazing to me how long it can take to get a response from somebody you really want to cover you. I’ve had clients and projects where I’ve spent, literally, two years just sending information, just, “what can I do?” Pitching them on things and hearing that they say, “no, we’re not interested at this time.” And then one day, out of the blue, because they’ve established a relationship with you, they send you an email completely out of the blue, “Hey, we were thinking about doing something about haunted houses and I remembered you. Could we do something?” These things take time.
I think that the other really important thing to remember is that we start talking about Halloween and haunts usually in the middle of summer, we start outwardly talking about it. And people generally, outside of this community, aren’t ready to think about Fall when it’s 103 degrees outside and they’re going to the beach. But that doesn’t mean that you have to stop, and it doesn’t mean that your strategy is incorrect. It just means that you have to be patient and understand that, by the time they finally catch up, by the time it goes below 50 degrees at night, by that time, they’re going to have a whole slew of information from you. So, it’s about having, as you mentioned Philip, it’s about having a really good story and knowing how to package and position yourself, and then giving it time breathe.
Researching Is Year-Round Work, but Always Pays Off
Philip: The research is something you start now for next year, and you look at who posts what about who this year, and you make a spreadsheet, put everything down, and then, you start working on your ideas and your campaigns, making your ladder of asks and outreach that you’re going to do, and you get it all ready because that kicks into gear as you get into Summer and past Summer where everything needs to be scheduled.
John: It is year-round work. You also learn every single time you do this. For example, we just, about three weeks ago, reached out to the Travel Channel, we finally were able to get a contact there, because they’re notoriously difficult to reach. They basically said, oh, darn, we just finished our Halloween planning in July.
So, if you talk to them in April, some places that are looking at a very long schedule, are ready to talk to you in March or April, and some places are not . But, you have to think on those terms and that includes, depending on the market you’re in, could include working for example, with your Chamber of Commerce or working with your local Tourism Board on their magazines they place in rooms, or they send out to potential customers of convention centers and things like that, they’re looking at doing their October issue in March.
That doesn’t mean if you haven’t done this by the time you’re listening to this that you’re lost. It doesn’t mean that at all. It means, think about that for next year, but also start building those relationships now, invite them in, invite your local high school principal in, invite your junior college classes in, spend money on comp tickets and tours and special activities. Understand that you’re not going to realize revenue off of that now, but you will theoretically increase your revenue next year.
Again, you don’t have to get complicated or complex. Start an Excel spreadsheet or a Google doc now and log all of those stories that you’re reading, who wrote them? Spend time Googling. I have a very expensive, very cumbersome media database that I use, and I would say seven out of 10 times it’s worthless, because I can find the same information just by Googling. It takes time, and it takes effort, but that time that you spend pays off.
John Explains Some of the Examples He Used Earlier for Outreach
Philip: The examples you used earlier might’ve sounded weird. It’s like high school principal and these people from high schools? It makes sense if you were looking at it in terms of, they know a bunch of people in the community, and if you are a college or a high school town and they know a bunch of people, that’s what it’s about.
John: Absolutely. It is kind of astonishing how much things like high school newspapers, or high school, newspaper websites, or college newspapers, college newspaper websites, college radio stations, how much they can matter. But also, if you have a local rock station, or a local country station, or a local news station in your market that you listen to, first of all, odds are lots of other people are listening to it too and, it doesn’t take a lot to get them excited. If you offer them a hundred tickets and they can parse it out, whatever way they want to.
A lot of times that makes up for not having a budget, and not being able to spend money with them, and you can talk about, “maybe next year we can spend a couple thousand dollars with you, or spend a few hundred dollars with you, but this year can we offer you these giveaways?” A lot of people overlook this, and I think a lot of people spend time, understandably, focused on the operations and focused on traditional sort of, as I mentioned earlier, couponing, flyering, and papering, and that sort of stuff that they’ve always done, and it’s always worked. And guess what? It’ll probably work again this year. But if you really want to amp things up, there are some things that you can do that don’t take a lot of money, but they do take some time and they take some research. And I think that’s the kind of investment you want to be making.
John Expands on How to Have Media Come Visit Your Haunt
John: Number one is, when you start getting into opening and you start getting into the actual operating days of your haunt, most haunts that I’ve ever seen from small to very large, have some soft opening nights; they have some preview nights, they have some rehearsals. Those are the times to invite your media in, especially to invite your broadcast media. Because your local TV station, who is probably going to want to cover you because they want those kinds of images, they want those exciting sorts of moments of having their reporter gets scared on camera, or having something exciting, kinetic, to show on TV, but they take time.
Having media in is a commitment, and it takes time and patience and understanding of what they’re looking for and working to deliver it. So, from a very tactical point of view, when you start asking local media to come in, try not to schedule a media day, try to give them a range of days to come, and a range of times. It might be off time, if you can bring on the staff to come in, if you can bring on the performers to come in, or you might need to negotiate with them about when you can do this. But, give each crew the space it needs to go through your haunt over and over to understand that they missed something the first time, or they’re trying to get ideas in their head of where they can do a stand up.
You’re talking about a couple of hours, minimum, to have a news crew there. And I think that we’ve seen, over and over, a lot of large, very well-known haunts spend a time focused on the consumer approach, and even when they bring in media, they’re not always prepared to spend time giving media exactly what they need. So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a tiny little haunt, or a really large one, if you can offer your local TV stations something exciting and fun, do it.
Spend time reaching out to them. Start with their news desk, almost every TV station in the entire country who has a news element starts out with just a tips or news desk at email address and believe it or not, unlike most news outlets, those get read every single morning by an intern, usually, who then cascades that up to the right person. But they get read, because they’re looking for ideas and tips every single day. So that’s number one.
How Do You Position and Differentiate Your Haunt to Your Target Audience?
John: There’s also the issue of understanding how to position and differentiate your haunt. Now, a lot of it comes down to who your target audience is. A lot of haunts are very traditional, they have jump scares, and they’re not necessarily meant for young kids, but they’re kind of family oriented, “anybody from 13 or 14 on up can enjoy this,” and that’s one kind of haunt. Then there’s the intense haunts, the ones that are intended for mature audiences. And then there are the intimate haunts, the basement style stuff that Scarehouse does, or Blackout sort of thing. have a place too, but generally speaking, the sweet spot for media coverage is going to be something that appeals to the largest number of people.
Then you can add to that your outlier, your intense experience, or in some cases, your family and your younger person experience. In that middle ground, it’s really important to be able to talk about your story, your tradition, your approach, and your creativity. Those are the things that differentiate one haunt from another. In one town there might be a corn maze, a local JCS haunted house, and a pro house. Why does one pop more than the other? I think those are the kinds of elements that make them pop; the idea of the story behind them, the tradition of why they’re here, how they’ve developed over the years, and the creativity that’s on display.
What makes people want to come back to your haunt year after year? The reason people go and the reason some haunts, like a Scarehouse, and they’re just one of many that have maintained over the years, is because they’ve developed a reputation of being intensely creative, whatever the story is, and super committed to the kind of storytelling, the kind of atmosphere, art direction, and quality that people expect.
Don’t Forget to Reach Out!
It sounds so basic, but one thing people fail to do is just reach out to their local media and to let them know that they’re there, let them know that they are an alternative. For the most part, people forget to actually tell their local newspapers, local TV stations, and their local radio stations that they’re there.