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5 Marketing Lessons from a Circus

December 2, 2013

CircusWho doesn’t love the circus? Well, me, for one, because I’m not a fan of caged animals. I do appreciate good marketing though, so I’m going to give the circus a break for now and talk about how they market themselves…

The Shrine Circus was founded in 1906. It currently travels to about 120 cities per year in the United States and there is a separate unit travels to about 40 locations in Canada.

The venue listed on the ticket pictured here, Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, holds about 10,000 people, depending on the type of show.

With this many shows at venues this large, there are a lot of seats to fill. How do they do it? How to do they maximize revenue? How do they compete with non-animal circuses like Cirque du Soleil?

Marketing Lessons from a Circus

1. Do the Work Once… – This is perhaps your greatest leverage point in business. Most businesses primarily work in one of three ways…

  • One-to-One – This is a basic service business, like life coaching or teaching music lessons, where you work one-on-one with a person.
  • One-to-Many – This is also a service business, such as a church, where you work with a group of several people at one time, rather than one person. Whether you have five people in your church service or 100, the work it takes to do the service is primarily the same.
  • Tape – This is where you publish, manufacture, or otherwise replicate something, like a book, a blog, a podcast, a video, or a music album, where the product can be created (and used) without additional staffing. All manufacturing businesses are this way, excluding the “service” element.

Like a church service, a circus performance falls into the “one-to-many” category. The show is a live event that can’t be replicated, but it can be enjoyed by more than one person at a time for about the same amount of work. In other words, a show with 10,000 people in the audience, isn’t five times as much work as a show with 2000 people in the audience.

While “one-to-many” isn’t as easy to grow as a “tape” business, it certainly gives you more leverage and opportunity to make money than a “one-to-one” setup, where you’re severely limited by how many hours you’re able to work. If you’re currently doing one-on-work work, such as coaching, consulting, or counseling, a “group program” is an option that will help you to make this transition.


2. The Power of BOGO – Because of the “one-to-many” format of a circus performance, a “buy-one-get-one” (also known as a BOGO) promotion is a great way to fill seats with people who will buy additional goods (such as shirts, concessions, and other merchandise) as well as encourage the attendance of people who wouldn’t otherwise attend at all, since a BOGO will allow them to bring along a friend.

People don’t go to a circus alone. A man might attend a circus because his wife is attending. A woman might attend a circus because her kids want to go. Either gender might attend because their friends are attending.

A BOGO will help get people over the edge.

3. VIP OptionsSomebody has to sit close. Why not charge for it?

But remember it’s not just sitting close that people are paying extra for… A large number of people will take a “VIP option” simply to make themselves stand out from the crowd.

Ever flown First Class? It’s pretty nice. For somebody like me, 6’3” tall with long legs, I can see the benefit of more space. But the “hidden” benefit is boarding the plane before all the people in coach and having them envy you when they walk by to their seats…

4. Kids Free – Kids don’t go to the circus alone, so somebody in the party is going to have to buy a ticket. Pretty sneaky, circus. Even if that wasn’t the case though, there would still be plenty of money made from sales at the concession stands and merchandise booths.

5. Tastemakers Fill Seats – Reaching out to “people who know people” (also known as tastemakers) is a great way to get attention to your product or service. The circus sent me (and probably thousands of other businesses) 20 free tickets along with posters to put up.

This is the reason network marketing companies love churches with big congregations. Get the pastor involved and everybody else follows…

It’s the reason authors want Oprah (or whomever is hot on TV now) to talk about their books.

It’s the reason musicians want a big radio station to play their music.

The Truth About PT Barnum

You can’t talk about circus marketing without mentioning PT Barnum, one of the great marketing minds of all time. He didn’t get involved with the circus until he was 61, but made such an impact on the business that many of his marketing and promotion methods are still in use today.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus started in 1919 and is still going. There are currently two “three ring” shows, each with a train is a mile long with roughly 60 cars. There is also a smaller, “one ring” show that travels by truck and services smaller markets. Each show tours 11 months out of the year.

His autobiography was released into the public domain as soon as it was written, because PT Barnum knew the value of having other people talk about him. Read it for more great marketing lessons from the circus.

ABOUT THIS SERIES: Every Monday, I analyze the good, bad, and ugly about the marketing behind a common business or famous personality. See other posts in this series here and, if you have a request for something (or someone) you’d like me to analyze for this series, contact me via Twitter.

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