How to create monsters to market for you outside your haunt
This blog is based on the second episode of my podcast series, A Scott in the Dark. It’s titled, “Marketing Monsters,” and that’s what we’re going to talk about. First, I just want to say that the response to the first episode of my podcast was totally positive, and I want to thank everyone for their support. I thought it would take forever for this to catch on, but I was wrong, and that’s great. I want to send out a special thank you to Josh Young at ThemeParkUniversity.com for doing the first article about the podcast, which I think he wrote within minutes of it being released. I really appreciate that.
Because so many people are talking about the podcast and want to make suggestions, I’ve started a website, AScottInTheDark.com, and you can email me at [email protected]. I’ve also started a Facebook group. So, if you’re on Facebook and you want to share ideas, I look at that regularly and try to answer as many things as I can. Just search Facebook for A Scott in the Dark. I’ve gotten great suggestions for future episodes—things like how to get funding when you first start out, scripting for the haunted attraction, how to document and write a script, and how to find, train, and retain actors.
Today, a suggestion came through on the Facebook page from someone wanting to know about marketing and how to get people to come to your haunts. That fits in with today’s topic of marketing monsters, which isn’t just about marketing your monsters but also creating monsters that can help you market.
Before I begin talking about this, I want to give a disclaimer up front. I’m not a trained marketing person. My experience with marketing has been working next to some talented, trained marketing people, especially the folks at Busch Gardens in Tampa, the Lowry Park zoo in Tampa, and the Vault of Souls. These are really the marketing whiz kids, and I’ve learned a lot from them.
I do have considerable experience in dealing with marketing, especially on the public relations side. If you’re a low-budget haunter, that’s probably where your marketing is going to be focused—in addition to posters, flyers, tickets, and social media. Your focus is on getting interviews and getting people to visit your haunt. We’ll talk about that in greater detail shortly. So, I don’t have a Ph.D. in marketing. I’m the actor guy and the theater guy, but I’ve had the opportunity to work with some wonderful, talented, and creative marketing people.
“How Do I Get People to Come to My Haunt?”
The burning question for all of us is, “How do I get people to come to my haunt?” Let’s face it, if no one comes to your haunt, it’s almost masturbatory. You’re sitting there in the dark scaring absolutely no one. You have people in tons of makeup, you have people in costumes, and they stand around in a dark room doing nothing, which is just socially awkward. So, you want to have guests, and you want to make sure that not only are they having a great time but they’ll be telling their friends and social network how much fun they had.
We can’t underestimate the fact that, in this day and age, what people say about your attraction has far more impact than anything you say about your attraction. Word-of-mouth advertising is the most effective marketing, because it drives people to your website. People look at comments about your site and think, “Hey, we have nothing to do tonight. Let’s go to that cool new haunt we saw on Facebook that everybody’s talking about.” It’s the Yelp mentality. If you can get people to talk about your event in a public forum on social media of any kind, it’s going to help you significantly.
If you’re going to use social media, post regularly and respond frequently and promptly. Social Media 101 says that more active you are, the more effective you’ll be. Haunted attractions are an interactive experience, and that should start in your social media before guests even get there. Don’t just respond but also encourage interaction. Ask questions, take polls, and let the guests be part of the creation or innovation of your haunt. If have a new concept you’re thinking of, a new room, or even a whole new haunt, put options out there, and have guests vote on them. In this way, you’re doing market research while allowing people to feel they have ownership in the creation of your haunt. When people vote for or provide input on something, they feel they have more ownership, which makes it far more likely they’ll participate in that product in the future.
You do have to invest some time and money, but it’s not nearly as expensive as in the olden days when you had to buy ads on radio or in the newspaper. These are still valid ways to market, if you can afford it. Not only does it give you a broad audience, but it also validates that you’re in the big leagues. However, television ads are so very expensive that it’s cost-prohibitive for a lot of events.
Marketing Isn’t Separate from the Event Itself
It’s important to recognize that marketing isn’t a separate entity from the event itself. Your marketing is part of the experience—or it should be. The guest experience begins the first time they hear about your event, haunt, or theme park. It starts with that very first contact. Those of you who know me have heard me say this a million times: We decide whether we like people or products in the first seven seconds of encountering them. You have seven seconds to make your first impression, and the same thing is true in marketing. You have to make sure, at their first contact, people think, “That’s cool, that’s intriguing, and I want to know more.” And, of course, the best way to know more is to go to the event.
Someone I really love working with is a gentleman by the name of Ryan Alexander. He’s the marketing manager for Fable Studios. He made this comment in the Facebook group: “Just keep in mind there’s no magic bullet when it comes to marketing. It takes a lot of research and a lot of trial and error.” I agree with that 100%. I’m not going to focus too much on the demographics research, but I think it’s important to know who it is you’re trying to reach. Does your haunt target 15-year-olds or does it target 35-year-olds? The market for each of these is very, very different. You have to look at your demographics.
One of my favorite quotes is from a gentleman by the name of Seth Godin. If you’ve never read any of Seth Godin’s books, check them out. They’re brilliant, easy reads. He focuses on the practical, overall approach rather than the nuts and bolts. The quote is, “People don’t buy goods and services, they buy relationships, stories, and magic.” So, you don’t want to go out there and lead with, “We’re the cheapest game in town!” People will immediate think, “Well, then who’s the best game in town?” Don’t lead with price. You first want to make people excited about your product. You can always find ways to discount later. I’ve never seen discounting lead to long-term success. If you want to be in the haunt industry to make a “killing,” good luck. It’s probably not going to happen. You want to build relationships from the outset through your marketing.
Tips for Creating Monsters That Market for You
So, now let’s talk about how to create characters that can work in your marketing as well as work in your haunt. Of course, other people will have other opinions about anything I say, and that’s great. Listen to everyone’s opinion and find out what works for you.
When it comes to designing characters to help promote your haunted attraction, it’s important to create an icon. The big boys at Halloween Horror Nights did that for years. If you’ve ever been to the event in California or Florida, you know Jack, the clown character that was used for several years to advertise Halloween Horror Nights. These icon characters are really impactful and can be used by haunts on any budget.
A cool icon character provides a number of advantages. It gives you a tool to use to promote your haunt in the media. It gives you something recognizable on your posters, and it’s something—or someone—guests can actually meet. The icon character also helps share your backstory. In the first episode, I talked about how important storytelling is. If you’d like to learn more about my views on storytelling, there’s a four-part article in the Haunt Journal Magazine called Follow the Story, so you can check that out. Getting the backstory out there to guests is so important, because it helps create the environment they’ll be going into, and it hooks them, so they feel part of the overall adventure.
A media monster, spokescharacter, or an icon can do that. It starts the guest experience before they arrive. The haunt doesn’t begin when guests walk in the door. It begins the first time they hear the music, see the commercial, join the Facebook page, or see something on the website. So, make certain their experience begins before they get there, and ends after they leave. This inspires social media buzz.
Although I’m an old guy and didn’t grow up with social media, I realize it’s an amazingly powerful tool to communicate with guests and make them feel as though they’re part of the experience. It doesn’t matter if you have a budget of a bazillion dollars or ten dollars, everybody can do this. The combination of an icon character and social media gives you something to work with in guerilla marketing, gets you out into the street, and allows your haunted attraction to be part of the real world.
One of the things we did with the Vault of Souls in past years is what we called targeted apparitions. We’d take some of our characters and put them in neutral, white-face masks, have them dress in 1920s clothing, and carry black umbrellas into which we put these cool blacklights, because a lot of this was done at night, and we wanted to light up the creepy people. We’d show up at events that targeted our high-end clientele. We went to the Tampa Theater and the film festival, we stood on the corner in front of a very high-end restaurant in Tampa so we captured people’s attention as they went in and came out. It was a very soft sell. We handed people a postcard that had the Vault of Souls logo on one side and, on the other, it said, “Join Us” and had the website. What was really cool is that there was news coverage and photos of these strange characters and creatures that were appearing around downtown Tampa. This cost very little money, was amazingly impactful, and targeted our demographic.
Your Monsters Should Communicate the Feeling of the Event
If you’re with me so far and think an icon character will help with your marketing, let’s talk about what these monsters for the media should communicate. First, they should communicate the feeling of the event. What’s the event about? Is it threatening, is it creepy, is it mysterious, is it playful? All of those are completely valid ways of doing haunted attractions.
OK, I’m going to go off on a tangent for a moment. I don’t believe there’s a specific right way or wrong way to do a haunted attraction. If you want to do something that’s playful and family-friendly, go for it. It can be a ton of fun, and it trains the next generation to enjoy the more extreme stuff. If you want to do something threatening and blood-soaked, go for it. Just do it well. If you want to do something paranormal and creepy like the Vault of Souls that targets a different demographic, go for it. Whatever your approach to your haunted attraction, make sure your icon character represents and gives the feeling of the experience.
Have Someone Accompany the Monster Who Can Provide Basic Information about Your Haunt
You also need to make sure you don’t get too artsy-fartsy. Be sure your icon character or their handler or their sidekick communicates the basic important information about your event—dates, times, websites, tickets, whatever. So, for example, if you have an icon character that’s silent because they’re wearing a really wonderful silicone mask and everyone wants to have their picture taken with them, that’s great, but you need to have somebody with them at all times who’s related to this character and is a savvy spokesperson. Maybe it’s the guard accompanying the escaped lunatic who can talk about the actual nuts and bolts of how to get people to buy tickets. It’s important to get out there and create this vibe and this excitement, but you have to translate that into clicks of the turnstile, or, as we used to say in theater, you need to get the butts into the seats.
Next, create something that’s unique and unique to you. Thank goodness, in the haunt industry, there are tons and tons of great vendors who can offer a wide variety of everything from makeup to masks to costuming to whatever. You can almost create something by taking a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B, and the result is completely unique to you. If you can create a unique character via makeup, costume, half masks, prosthetics, whatever, I recommend doing that.
Three Types of Media Monsters
The way I see it, there are three, basic types of media monsters, or three basic pools of ideas that these monsters fall into. The first is your typical monster—somebody who’s hideous, terrifying, creepy, and looks great on a poster or a handout. This is somebody that people immediately think, “That guy could harm me,” or, “That woman could disembowel me, or eat my heart or something.” The advantages to this sort of character is they scare the heck out of people right off the bat. You can see them a mile away, they look amazing in print and on your posters, and they’re tied to your story. If you’ve got an entire haunt built on a butcher character, put that character up front so people get to meet them.
The disadvantages of this approach is that, sometimes, the character loses that fear factor when they’re not in their element. If you’ve set up a special appearance for your character at a grocery store, somehow an ax-wielding maniac isn’t quite as creepy when he’s standing in the frozen food section. So, that disconnect can be a disadvantage. But try to find ways to make it happen. If you’ve got a lunatic in your haunt, you can decide to take him for his walk so he can get some fresh air and maybe get socialized a little. You can create reasons to be just about anywhere if you have that type of character. Of course, in that case, the marketing focus is on the handler not the crazy person.
Another type of icon or spokescharacter is what I call the creator. I did this a lot at Busch Gardens. I’d speak on behalf of Howl-O-Scream as the creative director, which gave me some credibility, because I was the guy who put it all together. There are good things and bad things about taking this particular approach. The advantages are: you can share all the details, you can share behind-the-scenes stories, you can share facts and figures. We used to say, “Do an event by the numbers.” This means, you talk about six haunted houses, seven hundred characters, and whatever other numbers you can come up with. The creator spokesperson can do that, and they’re great for haunt geeks—which, of course, I’m using as a term of endearment, because I’m one. The creator spokesperson also helps generate a certain degree of celebrity.
The big disadvantage of using the creator spokesperson is they’re not visually scary. When I’d go into a radio studio, I’d always bring zombies or other scary characters with me, because they’re the ones who got the photos taken and got on the websites. They were the eye candy, and I was not. I wasn’t the person everybody wanted to see, but I was the person they wanted to hear.
The other disadvantage is it’s harder to tie a creator to the backstory. You’re not starting the storyline early when you use the creator to do your outreach and your media. The creator can tell the story, but listeners aren’t living the story, so it’s trickier. In addition, if you only have one spokesperson and that person is the creative director, designer, or whatever, they can only be at one place at one time. If you have lots of marketing opportunities, you’re going to miss out on some of those, and you need to schedule the others accordingly. That could be a disadvantage, but it might also work as an advantage, because you can schedule your interviews in a different way. You can plan out a media day or a media tour, contact your local radio stations, and say, “We’re going to be out talking about XYZ haunted house during the month of August and September, and we’d like to schedule time with you.” In smaller markets, that works really well. In larger markets, the radio station will likely tell you when they have time for you to be there.
The third type of media monster or character that can serve as a spokesperson for your event is what I call the observer or the victim. Not a whole lot of people use these, but I think it could be pretty cool. The victim or observer is someone who’s running away from whoever is wicked and evil, which puts them in the same mindset as the potential audience. The potential guest thinks, “They’re scared, so I should be scared.” The other advantage is that this character can give practical information. They can talk about the website, and they can talk about where to get tickets. You can have multiple performers who are victims or characters who’ve witnessed horrible things and barely escaped the monster.
The disadvantage of victims or observers as spokespeople is they’re not as scary or threatening as monsters. They create a sense of fear, but they’re not necessarily threatening to the guests, so it’s not quite as impactful visually. They don’t make as good a photo as the giant dude in the mask, you know? No matter how much you dress them up, put scars on their faces, or make it look as though they tried to run away, it’s just not as visually compelling.
You can use these three types of spokespeople in conjunction with one another. You can use the big monster and the victim, or the creative director and the main character for different markets.
Give Your Monster Its Own Social Media Account, and Schedule Interviews
After you decide on your approach, use social media to your advantage. One of the things I’ve had great success with over the years is giving the character or characters a specific voice or even their own account on social media. Big Monster Number One has his own Facebook page, separate from your haunt’s page. Obviously, you control it, but that character can speak directly to guests. For example, the Vault of Souls Facebook page is always told from the perspective of the residents who live in the vault—the spirits that have been held in there since the 1920s. This creates a different vibe, a different sound. I say sound, because whenever I read what’s posted there, I hear it. A number of haunts have given their main character their own Twitter account on which they make comments as that character, and this page ties to the haunt Facebook page or website.
So, say you’ve got whatever character you have, you’ve built them up on Facebook, you have them talking to guests electronically, and you’ve got a radio interview set up for your character at your local radio station. How do you handle that interview? How do you represent your haunt in the best possible light? The most important thing is to stay in character. If that character is a grunting monster, you have to stay a grunting monster. It can’t be, “Uuuggnnnn, uuuggggnnn, uurrrggggg, but come to our haunt at reallyreallyscary.com.” That sounds ridiculous. You’ve broken character and undermined your own creativity. If you’re the character, stay in that character for the entire interview. If you’re a victim, sound like you’re on edge, fearing the horrible monster may come crashing into the studio at any time. If you’ve got somebody who’s good interviewing you, chances are they’ll pick up on this and play along. Radio people recognize that radio is a theater of the mind, so, if they can create an illusion just by talking about something, listeners will be more involved, and it will be more impactful.
Answer the Questions Asked—or Block and Bridge
From a practical standpoint, it’s important to listen to the interview questions and answer them. Answer the question asked and, after you answer it, stop. I can’t tell you how many times in interviews I’ve heard people ignore the question and go straight to talking about their website and ticket prices. Answer the question you’re asked. There will be time to talk about where to get tickets, how much they are, nights of operation, and all of that stuff.
If you’re playing a character other than a spokescharacter or other than yourself, don’t share information your character would never know. If you’re the demon butcher, you wouldn’t know the website of the haunted attraction. Don’t share information your character wouldn’t know, because, once again, you’re undermining your own product.
Also, make sure you lead the interview. Certain reporters or interviewers—shock jocks, in particular—often get into things like, “How many people got killed in your haunt last year? Is there violence? I always hear about people punching the actors.” You want to avoid those situations, and I’ve come up with a few stock replies: “That’s an interesting question. Safety is always job one at our attraction, and we do everything to ensure the safety of both the guests and the actors. People come to be scared, they come wanting to scream, they come wanting to run away, and that’s what we focus on.” This is called block and bridge—I blocked the question and bridged it to something I wanted to talk about—I made it clear that safety is job one, I answered the question, and then I moved the interview in a direction to better promote the experience itself. If you’re adept at bridging, most radio DJs will follow you.
Speak in Soundbites
Speak in soundbites, because chances are good you’ll be edited later unless you’re doing a live broadcast or it’s your own podcast. Sometimes, a whole paragraph will get edited down to a specific soundbite, so include pauses when you’re talking so they can do that. For example, if you’re talking about your haunt and say, “We’re the most terrifying haunt in the Midwest,” take a little breath between “we are” and “the most terrifying haunt in the Midwest” in case they want to take “the most terrifying haunt in the Midwest” out of context. You don’t mind, because that’s a perfect thing to have out there about your haunt attraction. So, figure out what the soundbites are and speak to those.
Watch the Clock, and Wrap Up with a Tag
Watch the clock. This is one I have to pay attention to, because I have a tendency to ramble. If you see you only have five minutes left, be sure the last two minutes are focused on getting the name of your website out there and telling people how they can get tickets. Reputable DJs will usually lead you in that direction. Television interviews—not so much, because they’re more interested in what’s being seen rather than what’s being heard. If you can provide them with a slide that has all the information on it, usually they’ll put that up so everybody can see it and write it down.
Remember, you’re always on. Whether you’re in character or not, no matter what you say, no matter when you say it, and no matter who you say it to, you’re always on, and you’re always representing your haunt. If you’re playing a monster and go to a radio station to do an interview, show up as that monster. Sit in the green room as that monster, scare the staff, make people walking by uncomfortable. You can be sure they’ll talk about you on other shows and to other people. The only disadvantage of doing this is, if you’re wearing a large silicone mask and heavy costume, you’ll sweat like there’s no tomorrow. However, if you’re doing television, television studios are usually air-conditioned almost to the point of being a freezer.
Part of being on is being appropriately polite to everybody you meet. When you sign in at the radio station, make sure they know exactly who you are and that you’re thrilled to be there, because that person signing you in is just as important to your haunt as the host of the show. They’ll talk and share information.
Always tag the end of your interview. When you get to the end, make sure you have that one, perfect soundbite: “Come to Nightmare Express—where your dreams come true, unfortunately.” This is a nice little punctuation at the end.
How to (Legally) Do Guerilla Marketing
Let’s talk a little more about guerilla marketing and making those streetmosphere appearances around your town or city. First of all, don’t get arrested. Get permission from folks wherever you’re going to appear. Don’t just show up. Know the laws. If it’s illegal for you to walk down the street wearing a mask, the last kind of guerilla marketing you want to do is appearing on the police blotter. I know we’ve all heard the phrase, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but that would be bad publicity.
Opportunities for appearances happen all year round—not just in the haunt season. Local openings of horror movies are a great opportunity. Get a good relationship going with your local movie theater, and let them know that when a horror movie opens, you can bring a bunch of zombies to roam the parking lot. You’re providing free entertainment to the movie theater while you’re marketing directly to an audience that will be interested in your haunted attraction.
If you have pub crawls in your town, get permission from the local bar owners to have characters in each bar on the crawl. Have giveaways and swag in each bar. With pub crawls, you’re targeting people who like to go out, have an adventure, and spend money on alcohol. Usually, those are ideal haunt people. Target who you’re going after, find out where they hang out, and then throw a couple monsters in there.
The Payoff is Having Guests Be Part of the Haunt Experience
So, you’ve done all this marketing, you’ve created all these characters, the event opens, and you’re looking for the payoff for all this effort. The payoff doesn’t just happen when guests buy tickets. The payoff happens when guests come into your attraction and see these characters in person. These characters must be integrated into your experience, whether it’s a queue actor, a character in a pivotal scene, or someone at the climax of your haunt where guests finally see the character in its full glory. It’s vitally important that guests feel rewarded in the end of the haunt by being part of the experience.
Here’s an example of what I mean. In 2010, the icon character at Howl-O-Scream was My Ex. Sylvie was her name. We got a remarkably talented singer from California, and she became Sylvie of My Ex. She did the TV commercial, she did personal appearances in Florida, and then she did concerts during the event itself. Guests already knew her, because they’d gotten to meet her in person or saw her on the TV commercial. She became a celebrity for that event.
In 2009, we did House of Vayne at Busch Gardens. The House of Vayne involved fashion models who were vampires. We had a commercial for this event, and then we set up a live fashion show in the front plaza that replicated the commercial. As guests came in, they got to see this live version of the commercial, but, in this version, instead of the guests seated at the fashion show getting attacked and ripped up, as happened in the commercial, “guests” were dragged from the audience, pulled onto the stage, and bitten by this band of remarkably good-looking vampires—none of whom sparkled, by the way. They were all very goth, good-looking vampires—creepy and elegant and beautiful at the same time. It was very cool.
In summary, make sure that, whatever you do for your marketing, you’re able to translate that into the event itself. No matter what your budget, you can put together an icon character to lead your marketing charge. If you have a focused character out in front, you’ll be far more effective. I’ve had great experiences in guerilla-style marketing and PR-style marketing. Anybody can do it, and I think everybody should.
Once again, if you’d like to ask questions, suggest topics, or even make comments, please go to our Facebook group, go to AScottInTheDark.com or my website, or email me at [email protected]. Until next time, rest in peace.