South Jersey's Eagle Theatre meets with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook to talk small business

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Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (front row, left), and Eagle Theater chief strategist James Donio (to Zuckerberg’s left) at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., with other members of Facebook’s Small Business Council,

The management team of the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, N.J., recently got to hang out with none other than Mark Zuckerberg.

Producing director Ed Corsi, artistic director Ted Wioncek III, and managing director James Donio were at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. They’re part of the inaugural National Small Business Council at Facebook. Founded in 2014, it’s a group of businesspeople from all over who give Facebook advice on its products and services. In return, Facebook helps them make the most of social media tools in their businesses.

Heady stuff. But the selection of the Eagle brain trust also shines a light on what this bunch is doing that’s right and different: They’ve taken social media seriously to grow their audience.

Hammonton is about 30 miles from Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore. You have to give these guys credit for vision. They started with a building that in its century of existence had been a silent movie theater, a church, a warehouse, and, as of 2006, a nothing. That’s the year they said, “Look at that! Perfect for a theater!” and began renovations. Eagle first spread its wings in 2009, and since then has offered full seasons of plays and musicals. (It just kicked off, through April 29, Moonlight and Magnolias, Ron Hutchinson’s witty look back at the crazy way the epic film Gone With the Wind was made despite firings and front-office interference.)

So what did they do, and what difference did it make? Their admiring Facebook Business page says that, dissatisfied with the impact of newspaper and TV ads, they began a Facebook strategy, boosting Facebook posts about their shows to theater-loving residents within 50 miles of Hammonton. They learned that video ads and casting announcements worked especially well. They invested more in such ads, and eventually doubled ticket sales.

They’re still pursuing the strategy, especially in targeting video content to the right folks at the right time. Both their home page and their YouTube channel show how much they are committed to the visual, as in this clip for the musical of Little Women:

The Eagle has just started a new division titled Social Eagle, passing along what they’ve learned at Facebook and guiding businesses’ growth by demystifying Facebook, Instagram, and other ways of marketing via digital media. They plan to offer both one-on-one counseling and business workshops throughout the Jersey-Philadelphia area and beyond.

The first Social Eagle workshop for businesses, titled “Don’t Just ‘Like’ Facebook, ‘Love’ It!,” is scheduled for April 10 at the theater, 208 Vine Street in Hammonton. The topic is how businesses can make the most of digital advertising tools. More information and registration are here, or call 609-270-1413.

One other thing they’re doing is, year by year, making Hammonton an arts destination, with the theater as a driving engine. “We use the words ‘cultural epicenter’ a lot,” Corsi told me in a recent interview.

Eagle and its town are the center for the official New Jersey Fringe Festival, begun in 2012 and growing apace. (That’s literal: All the venues producing shows are within walking distance from the theater.) They were shocked to get 11,000 people their first year. And it doubled the next year. “I don’t know what we all would have said,” Wioncek told me, “if we’d known it would grow so fast. It’s exciting to get people asking you – in January – ‘Hey, what do you have planned for Fringe this year? We want to make plans.’ ”

The 2018 rendition goes on Aug. 3-5.

All of that reminds us that theaters are businesses, and creativity happens all over the place – so it can happen for us, on stage.