With a mere $11,000 to spend on marketing, IndyFringe Executive Director Pauline Moffat is always on the lookout for low- or no-cost promotional opportunities.
So when Pat Coyle, founder of online community smallerindiana.com, approached her about a novel arrangement to spread the word, Moffat jumped at it.
The deal was this: The Fringe would give two tickets to each of its festival shows to Smaller Indiana, which would hand them over to members who would write blogs about the performances and the festival.
"There's still a multitude of people out there who don't know what the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival is," Moffat said. "They also think it's something it isn't-that it's too out there and edgy for them. ... I think Smaller Indiana will help us reach people we couldn't normally get to."
If she was optimistic as the festival was starting Aug. 22, Moffat was downright enthusiastic a few days later: Preliminary data showed more online visitors had linked to indyfringe.org from Smaller Indiana than any Web sites except aroundindy.comand indy.org. The festival, which had 53 performing groups scheduled to present 264 shows through Aug. 31, also drew more attendees early on than in previous years.
Questionnaires handed out at performances revealed that this year's audience is younger, more diverse, has a higher income, and is spending more money at the festival than in past years.
Those are just the kind of results Coyle had hoped for when he launched the Smaller Indiana Web site in January with a goal of inspiring community, commerce and culture.
He thought an online community-he prefers that phrase to "social network," which he said implies connecting with people you already know-would inspire central Indiana residents to take advantage of the region's many offerings.
Coyle, whose day job is online sports marketing at sportsmarketing20.com, invited the 50 people from the businessbook club he'd been running to participate. They invited more people and started posting. Now Smaller Indiana has 3,000 members, about 45 of whom blogged about the Fringe Festival.
The idea wasn't to have people write reviews. Coyle wanted the bloggers to write about their experiences.
"To me, that's what any institution-commercial or non-commercial-has a hard time doing with their advertising: capturing the emotion of people using their product or service," he said. "And that's what people will do if you give them a chance."
Bloggers could write whatever they want, in however many words they needed. Their only requirements were to register on Smaller Indiana and use real names. So visitors to smallerindiana.comgot to read items like Hazel Walker's observations of the Motus Dance Theatre's performance "Wicked Dreams, Pleasant Nightmares."
Walker's post read like a poem about dreams before she summarized the show: "From the traditional naked in a public place, searching for something and people in masks, you know you know them but you don't know them," she wrote. "This abstract dance was a very interesting take on a very common subject. If you like something off the beaten path and you enjoy dance, I would recommend it."
Moffat was impressed.
"I thought that was terrific. I might go and see that now, and dance is not one of my favorite things," she said.
Walker, who owns Business Network International, said she saw the notice on smallerindiana.comasking for bloggers.
"I love to write and love plays and love to support Indianapolis," she said.
Other organizations are taking note of the tickets-for-blogging arrangement. One likely to follow Fringe's lead will be the Heartland Film Festival. CEO Jeff Sparks was looking forward to seeing the results from the Fringe experiment.
"I hope it does well," he said before the festival began. "It's another wonderful way to get the word out locally through a very creative idea. I applaud them for doing it."
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra used Smaller Indiana bloggers earlier this year to tell folks about the orchestra's "Happy Hour" concert series and other events.
Blogger Mike Magan made an impression on many readers with his essay about "Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz," the ISO's performance with the rapper Ice T, who read Langston Hughes poems. Magan wrote about how the event helped him talk to his 11-year-old daughter about race.
"After I read it, I thought, 'This is exactly what these online communities are for,'" said ISO spokeswoman Jessica DiSanto. "Before the Internet, we used to go home after seeing a play or a musical performance or an exhibition, and you probably told 10 people what your experience was. ... Now it's all there for everyone to read. ... It really gives word-of-mouth a megaphone."