Marketing in a Pandemic

Posted on June 4, 2020 by Sami Abdul-Razzak

Categories: General

Results from our recent survey suggest that many independent cinemas will not be able to reopen until September at the earliest. With this in mind, digital channels may remain the primary means for cinemas to engage their audiences for some time yet.

In this blog we outline some ways to stay in touch with audiences online, hear from several organisations about what they’ve been doing to maintain engagement while their doors are closed, and point to some resources which will help you keep your digital content effective and accessible.

Ways To Connect

Partnerships & membership incentives

We heard from Stewart Terry, Director of Marketing and Communications at Broadway, Nottingham, about their current social channel strategy and the incentives they’ve used to bolster their membership offering during this period. 

Since our closure in mid-March, most staff have been furloughed which obviously has led to a reduction in resource for marketing and communications at Broadway. The tone on our social channels has switched from being broadcast-heavy to something more informal, giving us the opportunity to showcase our values and build relationships with customers more easily. Luckily, we have an extensive amount of archive material which has resonated massively with our core audience – more so than anything we would typically post.

We’ve also been working closely with other arts organisations across the city and have committed to sharing each other’s content more readily than we would have in the past. We’ve experimented with virtual film quizzes and they have gone really well (OBS Studio is a great free tool for running these) and we’re looking to run one or two Q&As with filmmakers later on into lockdown.

Ultimately, this has been a great time to experiment with messaging on our digital channels’

We’re lucky enough to have great relationships with both MUBI and the BFI, which has led to us being able to extend promotional offers for their respective streaming platforms to our members. Having this available has meant that the membership drop-off rate has not been dramatic and has allowed us to bring in new members. These benefits are at the forefront of our membership retention campaigns alongside our general ‘Support Us’ call to action.

Ultimately, this has been a great time to experiment with messaging on our digital channels. Once we reopen I think we’ll have an even better understanding of what customers want to hear from us, and how we can engage with them beyond our film programme and therefore build brand loyalty.

(Stewart Terry)

The exterior of Broadway Cinema in Nottingham.
Broadway Cinema. Credit: Stewart Terry.

We then spoke to Una Cottrell, founder of boutique marketing agency Authentic and the 45NotOut podcast, about the practicalities of launching a podcast.

It isn’t that hard to launch your own podcast. You can practically do it with one person. Anchor is an online platform that allows you to create and host your podcast, then distribute it to the likes of Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and some of the smaller podcast platforms. All for free!

Recording a podcast doesn’t need a professional studio or expensive equipment. You just need a phone or laptop, someone willing to talk, and a good idea. You can record the conversation directly using the hosting site’s app, or record it separately and upload afterwards.

Once published, consider setting up a separate page for the podcast on your website and link out to each episode individually. This will help to improve the website’s SEO [Search Engine Optimisation].

(Una Cottrell)

A person recording a podcast on a laptop, a microphone stands in the foreground.
Recording a podcast at home. Photo credit: CoWomen.
‘Pay it forward’ initiatives

Una also suggested some ways cinemas could use this time to assist their local community, and highlighted a few cinemas which have been running ‘pay it forward’ initiatives for NHS workers. 

One of the positives of this period has been seeing people reach out to their local community to offer help where they can. Cinema buildings are largely deserted right now, is there a way they can be utilised to serve the local area?

The National Business Response Network is an initiative where organisations can offer support and be matched with other local organisations needing help. Not only are you doing something amazing to help people through the crisis, but it’s likely the new relationship between yourself and those community partners will last long after you’re able to reopen your doors.

Taking this one step further, a collection of three cinemas in the North West and Midlands – Savoy Cinema Heaton Moor, Rex Cinema Wilmslow, and Regal Cinema Melton Mowbray – have introduced a ‘Heroes in Cinema’ initiative where customers can ‘pay it forward’ by buying a cinema ticket for a NHS worker to use when cinemas are able to re-open. Founder and Co-Director Tony Mundin explained, ‘It not only allows the cinemas to say thank you to our NHS heroes, but also helps a little with cash-flow.’ Tony reports that so far, uptake has been brisk.

(Una Cottrell)

An empty row of seats in a cinema auditorium.
Row of seats at Savoy Heaton Moor. Photo credit: Tony Mundin.
Streaming platforms

We spoke to Ellen Reay, Marketing Coordinator at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, about setting up their own streaming service during lockdown.

When we closed our doors, we had to quickly plan new ways to stay connected with our audiences. The first port of call was establishing two regular newsletters: Monday Medicine, a themed email with suggestions of things to read, listen to and watch; and What To Stream This Week, film suggestions from staff members. Reflecting both our independent programming and the personal relationship between the team and our audience.

We also wanted to make sure we provided something exclusive for our audience, so an online player was discussed almost immediately. We launched QFT Player on the Vimeo OTT platform on 3 April, two weeks after closing.

‘So far, the films have been watched in 40 countries by over 9,000 people’

The player is primarily a way to maintain a relationship with our audience, rather than a revenue stream. We’re focusing on free content as much as paid – most of it is exclusive to us and homegrown. We have hosted 12 films to date, including two musical productions by The Belfast Ensemble, archive documentaries by John T. Davis, short films, and a new feature by artist Mariah Garnett. So far, the films have been watched in 40 countries by over 9,000 people.

The player also allows us to continue to work with partners such as Outburst Queer Arts Festival, Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s, and Cinemagic Film Festival, by co-presenting screenings.

We plan to keep the player going post-lockdown as a virtual Screen 3, for Q&As, content we’ve produced ourselves, and film screenings where possible.

(Ellen Reay)

Two people walking in front of a grey wall.
QFT Player. Credit: Ellen Reay.
Getting to know the team

Next we spoke to Tom Jowett, Marketing and Events Manager at The Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford, to hear how they’ve been utilising their social media channels during this time. 

With no screenings or events to plug, we decided to open up our social media presence to streaming recommendations, discussions surrounding film, and giving our followers a chance to learn more about our brilliant volunteers who we couldn’t do without.

Our #UPPFridayFilmClub has been running each week, offering recommendations available to stream online based around a unifying theme. We’ve always made sure that one or two options were free to air, as it’s easy to forget that not everyone has a Netflix subscription.

‘Just because our doors are closed, the conversation around cinema doesn’t need to end’

On Wednesday, we’ve been dedicating our Twitter account to our volunteers by using the hashtag #MeetTheTeam. Each of our volunteers introduces themselves and, throughout the day, speaks about why the UPP is important to them, shares some of their favourite film-watching memories, and lets us know what they’ve been up to during lockdown. It’s been a really great opportunity for our customers to learn a bit more about the brilliant team of dedicated cinephiles who serve them drinks before they settle down in our auditorium to watch a film. Something that we’re all itching to do again soon!

Staff being furloughed has interrupted periods in which we’ve been able to be more active, and I’d be lying if I said that everything we’ve posted has been met with a deluge of responses. However, I think it’s been a useful way to remind our customers that, just because our doors are closed, the conversation around cinema doesn’t need to end. We’re here and we aren’t going anywhere. Come and say hello!

(Tom Jowett)

The exterior of The Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford.
The Ultimate Picture Palace. Credit: Tom Jowell.
Engaging the local community

Finally, we heard from Isra Al Kassi, Programme and Marketing Manager at Catford Mews about their strategy and advice for engaging the local community. 

Catford Mews has from its inception relied on in-depth community engagement. We wanted to continue doing this but didn’t want to provide a service that no one in the community wanted or had asked for. We’re now in conversations with community leaders on activities they want to deliver during and after lockdown.

As we’ve worked with them on that, we’ve recognized a number of things:

Not everything can translate to an online event, but a surprising number of activities can be delivered online

There was instant pressure to do something, anything, when lockdown was announced. But I think it’s important to remember that this is an unusual situation and it’s OK not to rush into things and instead focus on the things that are manageable, relevant and helpful.

We chose to go online with the things that we could. We’ve had to temporarily let go of our family screenings, HOH screenings and comedy nights as we couldn’t do them justice online. In the meantime we continue to work on making our communications and events more accessible.

The current situation has however made our monthly film quiz, delivered by Kino Korner, a bi-weekly one. We’ve had more than 100 people ‘attend’, each one boasting a larger audience than we’d have in the venue. 

Don’t always try to monetise your online events

Lockdown has been the time to look further afield than just traditional programming. One of our cancelled events before we closed was Now What. We were excited to work with them to bring a short film programme to the big screen and give filmmakers and their short films a second chance. It’s every curator’s dream to bring something previously unseen to a wider audience, and by offering the films online for free we increase the likelihood of them being seen. Now What are curating the programme, and thanks to kind contributions from filmmakers we are able to continue working as a platform to spotlight new and young filmmakers. 

‘We didn’t want to provide a service that no one in the community wanted or had asked for’

Be realistic about your online presence   

It is only thanks to the relationship we’d already established with the local community that we can continue this level of engagement during lockdown. If there isn’t a strong online presence already in place this is not the time to force it or to grow an audience, but rather to keep already active channels alive. When we were open we would only send a newsletter once a month, and trying to increase that would only have made our supporters feel bombarded with information. So we’ve kept it to one a month, while continuing to be active on social media and contactable via email.

Lockdown has proven how everyone in the film industry is in it together. We have maintained collaborations with Dartmouth Films, MUBI, Feminista and others, to strengthen our relationship and come together to make incredible cinema available to a wider audience. Continue to have conversations with both industry colleagues and patrons. While the landscape will have changed when cinemas re-open, we hope that the newfound love for finding gems digitally will complement traditional cinema programming, rather than being seen as a threat.

(Isra Al Kassi)

Empty cinema auditorium at Catford Mews.
Catford Mews. Photo credit: Isra Al Kassi

Digital marketing resources

In this final section we give some tips on how to keep your digital content effective and accessible, and point to some further resources to help you develop your digital marketing skills. 


It’s important that your social media content is accessible for a wide audience. Here are a few ways you can help ensure this is the case:

  • Consider the readability of your text. This can be increased by using fewer adverbs, simpler words, shorter sentences, and reducing use of passive voice. Here’s a handy website which checks your writing’s readability.
  • Capitalise each word in a hashtag and try not to use too many hashtags in one post.
  • Limit your emoji use. If you do use them, try to do so at the end of a sentence.
  • Use high contrast text within images or videos, and add image descriptions (or ‘alt text’) when posting a photo. Here is an article on how to write image descriptions.
  • When using video, make sure it’s captioned. Not only does this benefit d/Deaf users, but most video content on social media is watched without sound on. So adding captions should improve engagement on your videos. Stage Text has released free videos on digital subtitling training.

If you have an email newsletter, Chamaileon have created an in-depth guide to help you ensure your emails can be read by each of your subscribers. We’ve listed some of the main points below, though the points for social media content apply here too:

  • Use an email design that would work without any colours. For example, add a specific pattern to every coloured bar in a chart or section in a graphic so they can be distinguished without referencing their colour.
  • Use headers and images to separate sections of text, and try to use paragraphs that are a maximum of five lines.
  • Avoid justified text as this can be difficult to read for both dyslexic and non-dyslexic users.
  • Avoid writing in all caps as this can be difficult to read for dyslexic users.
  • Only center-align short chunks of text. If it’s longer than two lines it should be left-aligned.
  • Similarly, try to keep the line length short. Aim for between 45 and 75 characters.
  • Emphasize important words and phrases with bold text.
Website optimization

Improving your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) helps you rank higher in search engine results and, in turn, increase traffic to your site. If you have the time to read it, Moz have a free, online guide on the basics of SEO. If you don’t have time, here are a few quick, topline ways you can improve your SEO:

Improve your page loading speed

If your site loads slowly then users may abandon their visit, which damages your SEO ranking. A common culprit for slow load times are large images. Optimize your images by resizing them and using a lossy compression file type such as JPG.

Improve your dwell time

This is the length of time a visitor spends on a page. The best way to increase this is to make sure the content on your site is high-quality, up-to-date and informative. Blogs are a great way to add regular, relevant content to your website.

Increasing the quality of the user experience helps here too. Optimize the site for mobile devices and make sure it’s accessible by keeping your text readable and splitting it up with paragraph breaks, bullet point lists, images and headings.

Use internal links

Links to your site signal to search engines that these are high-value pages and increase your SEO ranking. While inbound links from third-party sources are the most valuable (and perhaps the most efficient way to increase your SEO ranking), linking between pages on your site not only passes ranking power between them but also helps the user navigate your site easily. However, don’t use so many links that they reduce the readability of your text.

Digital skills training

If you have time to spend on it, there are currently lots of free online resources to help you brush up on your digital marketing skills.

  • The Digital Culture Network has set up a hub of resources to help you become more digital engaged. View their offering here, which includes a webinar series on Google Analytics.
  • The Arts Marketing Association has made their online webinars free to attend. Topics include Social Media Analytics and Getting to Know your Online Audiences.
  • There are a number of courses on FutureLearn which cover various digital marketing topics.
  • The Bigger Picture has compiled a list of handy How-To guides to help cinemas engage audiences online, and Matchbox Cinema wrote about some things to consider when planning online events.
  • Together Films has been delivering a weekly webinar series to help organisations transition to digital offerings. Topics covered so far include crowdfunding options, delivering online Q&As, and creating virtual cinema platforms.
  • We’ve put together some tips on holding webinars and watch parties here.

Thank you to all our contributors to this week’s blog. If you have any questions about anything you’ve read here, or about running your own online events, please do get in touch at 

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