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Social Media Will Tell Your Story: The Digital Strategy of #Ham4Ham

Ismael Lopez Medel

Abstract

During the first two years of the Hamilton show on Broadway, the #Ham4Ham lottery system provided fans waiting outside the theater with live performances that included the show's original cast. These included Hamilton songs, covers of other musicals, and different performing arts. Seeking to reach a non-traditional theater audience, Marathon Digital, a digital agency specializing in Broadway shows, turned the performances into a viral campaign utilizing social media outlets to create proximity to the fans through content relevant to the audience.

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1It is undeniable that Hamilton the musical is one of the most important artifacts of pop culture in the last decades. After a successful debut on Broadway, it took the world by storm, offering off-Broadway productions in different American cities and international locations. The critical and popular reception of the show made it a cultural icon, as it has been widely covered in academic circles. Out of the many successful stories streaming from Hamilton is #Ham4Ham, a social media campaign to showcase the show’s ticket lottery. The digital campaign was more than a serendipitous moment of technical brilliance. It was a remarkable demonstration of social media wittiness by a New York City digital agency, Marathon Digital, specializing in creating strategic social media campaigns for Broadway shows. #Ham4Ham was able to turn a local event into a worldwide phenomenon.

  • 1 The idea of a lottery system to access last-minute tickets to Broadway shows is not original to Ham (...)

2The idea behind the campaign seemed like an intelligent approach to solve a complicated problem: satisfying the immense demand for Hamilton on Broadway and celebrating the fan base’s loyalty. The solution was to create a daily lottery system to give away twenty-one front-row tickets priced at $10, hence the title. However, it was not necessarily original as an idea: Broadway has a long history of diversified marketing strategies to promote shows in a highly competitive environment through contests, giveaways, and competitions.1

3Moreover, while the initial intention was to show appreciation to the fans, it became much more due to the vision of Marathon Digital. The campaign's success over the years proved that it was an intelligent approach, as #Ham4Ham has become another extension of the show, another cultural icon within the Hamilton universe. The extensive collection of pre-show performances, special surprises, and creative moments has gathered millions of views on social media platforms—many times amplified by fans who shared the content generated in the official production social media channels. Beyond the numerical success of the performances, #Ham4Ham has become a perfect vehicle for communicating the brand's values through social media by speaking the show's language, offering genuine content for the fans, creating original performances, and bringing the cast members and musicians close to the fan base.

4Although the #Ham4Ham performances lasted from 2015 to 2020, most of the 139 performances occurred in 2015 and 2016, reaching the number of seventy and fifty-nine, respectively. Unfortunately, at that time, the performances’ success turned into a public safety hazard due to the large numbers of fans congregating at the doors of the Rodgers Theater on Broadway, and the performances slowly died out while the lottery moved to an online platform. However, social media prolonged the campaign's endurance and multiplied its reach.

  • 2 A campaign begins with a research phase in which the organization is studied, its communication, vi (...)

5Behind the campaign lies an intelligent social media strategy which understood that the Hamilton phenomenon was more than another Broadway show and that there was a demand for more content delivered in a relevant and attractive format to the audience. With the campaign, #Ham4Ham achieved the goal of becoming an extension of the brand adding value to a fan base who, in their majority, could never physically attend the Broadway shows. In the words of Marathon’s Digital CEO and true creative force behind the campaign, Mike Karns, the goal was to “decrease the distance between the brand and the people who appreciate the brand” (Arts and Arch). To achieve this goal, Marathon Digital created its own methodology labeled “creative proximity,” which anchors the campaign in three key elements: the generation of content relevant to the fans, the development of closeness to the fans, and the utilization of the appropriate social media channels. #Ham4Ham is a campaign that, according to Newsom et al., is defined as “coordinated, purposeful, extended efforts designed to achieve a specific goal or a set of interrelated goals that will move the organization toward a longer/range objective expressed as its mission statement” (297). This definition of a communication campaign is widely shared in the academic literature (Freitag et al.; Wilcox and Cameron; Smudde; Lattimore et al.), and it includes a series of steps or elements that need to be in place to develop a successful campaign.2

6Although creative agencies develop their methodologies, they are frequently grounded in these steps. However, before analyzing #Ham4Ham, we will first take a brief look at the key figure at Marathon Digital, Mike Karns, the person behind the concept and vision of the campaign.

1. Marathon Digital’s CEO, Mike Karns

  • 3 The website describes the agency as “Broadway's first social media marketing agency, representing r (...)

7#Ham4Ham is the creation of Mike Karns, a theater producer turned communication entrepreneur. In reality, it is more the confluence of three key elements: Karns’ academic background in theater, consumer insights, and social media savviness. Karns graduated from the School of Theater at Penn State University in 2011 and started managing the social media accounts for Sing Out Louise production company on Broadway, where he was the associate producer of George Takei's Allegiance show, which ran in 2012. He also produced content for social media for shows such as Catch Me If You CanAmerican Idiot, and West Side Story, earning three Tony nominations. Later on, In the Heights producer Jeffrey Sellers offered him a job running the digital strategy for Sting's The Last Ship show that ran for four months in 2016, combining that experience as a producer, digital creator, and entrepreneur. In 2013, he created Marathon Digital, an agency created specifically for Broadway productions.3 Despite Karns’ lack of background in digital media or communication, he described himself as a “perfect customer.” His passion for theater was the perfect vehicle to become both the average customer of Broadway shows and the perfect communicator. In an interview with Penn State College of Arts and Architecture Dean Steve Carpenter, Karns, an alumnus of the School of Theater, explained

8I did not see myself as an entrepreneur, and I had no legitimate experience in advertising or marketing, but what I did feel I had a good grasp on was understanding what people were looking to do and what experience they were looking to have on social media. I, as the consumer, what would I be looking to do in order to connect with these brands and how can I, Mike, use those skills to be able to build a community of people on social media that supports the show. (qtd. in Carpenter)

9One of the critical insights that Karns brought to the campaign was the realization that the timing for Hamilton was perfect for social media, as the show was growing at the same time that social media became more than just a connecting tool to share information and connect with family and friends and turned into an advertising-driven vehicle. The rapid transformation of social media into a space that brands could utilize to connect with audiences occurred when Hamilton was becoming a phenomenon. The success of the campaign, therefore, can be partially attributed to what Karns calls “a confluence” admitting: “I was at the right place at the right time in a moment when social media became so important to conversations that were happening” (qtd. in Carpenter).

2. The #Ham4Ham Shows

10The opening line of The New York Times’ review of the debut of Hamilton on Broadway in the summer of 2015 encapsulated the type of media expectation generated by the show: “Yeah, it’s that good.” From the initial days of the production, it became clear that the show would become a pop-cultural icon, worth media attention, and increasing popularity. After one year off-Broadway, the expectation was high, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s production did not disappoint. Ben Brantley indicated in his review: “brave new show about America’s founding fathers has been given the kind of worshipful press usually reserved for the appearances of once-in-a-lifetime comets or the births of little royal celebrities.”

11Karns believed that the show's success would be immediate and that the media's enthusiasm would translate into a pop culture phenomenon that would go beyond the walls of traditional Broadway musical attendees. While the #Ham4Ham lottery was conceived to complement the tremendous popular reception of the show and followed a practice regularly followed on Broadway, Miranda turned the lottery into a show of its own almost spontaneously. Surprised by the number of people gathered for the lottery tickets on the first preview night, he gave a speech, and the following day, he

made theater history all over again, inaugurating what could be a new Broadway tradition with the first official #Ham4Ham performance. Now, a couple of times a week, even those Broadway fans who can’t see Hamilton—because they didn’t win the lottery, or because they live far away from New York—get a special show just for them, in person or on the Internet. Lin-Manuel Miranda has already transformed the kinds of performers, the modes of storytelling, and the kinds of music that can make a classic Broadway musical. Now with #Ham4Ham he’s transforming the way that Broadway connects with, and rewards, its fans. (Wickman)

12Soon crowds of fans started gathering outside the Richard Rogers theater to discover the winner of the two front-row tickets for the day’s show. Sensing the momentum, Karns decided to turn the waiting time into a show on its own, and on the first night of the show, on July 13, 2015, he brought cameras along as he greeted the crowd waiting to discover the winners of the first #Ham4Ham lottery with prophetic words: “thanks to you we are probably going to be here for a while” (“#Ham4Ham: Lottery for Broadway's Hamilton”). Marathon Digital’s idea consisted of a weekly lottery to distribute front row tickets priced at $10. According to the show's director, Thomas Kail, on the first day, 12,000 people entered the first preview lottery (qtd in. Kaplan). As an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, Ariele Nereson explained: “Here Hamilton innovates again, creating #Ham4Ham, a preshow performance for the many hundreds waiting in the rush line for a limited number of ten-dollar tickets for that evening's show. #Ham4Ham has become its phenomenon, a way to bring some of Hamilton's magic to the many who will not make it in for the entire performance.”

13The public response was immediate, and the show sold out months in advance, with StubHub tickets starting at $500 and offered by scalpers for thousands. The intent of the campaign was to attract younger audiences, those who traditionally cannot afford the high prices, and to offer more opportunities to attend the show. Karns explained that:

We knew that not everybody that loved that show or would come to love that show would have the ability to see the show in person. So it was my responsibility to create content and run those social media channels to democratize the brand and make people feel as if they are part of it. Our goal was to say whether or not you can spend a thousand dollars on a front-row seat to Hamilton, or if you’ll never see Hamilton in your life, you still felt that you were equally connected to the brand. (qtd. in Carpenter)

  • 4 The very first of such performance took place on July 17, 2015, only three days after the preview o (...)
  • 5 The performances would not be limited to Broadway shows. As soon as the production opened in cities (...)

14As fans created a tradition of gathering at the backdoor of the theater to enter their numbers for the lottery, Hamilton cast members started to offer a short entertainment show with a wide variety of formats.4 Naturally, the shows included Question and Answer sessions with Miranda, freestyle raps, swipe performances, cover versions, beatboxing, all-female songs, book readings, and of course, performances from the musical. What initially was meant to be an improvised salute to the waiting fans became much more, as Slate’s editor Forrest Wickman explains: “Lin-Manuel Miranda has already transformed the kinds of performers, the modes of storytelling, and the kinds of music that can make a classic Broadway musical. Now with #Ham4Ham he’s transforming the way that Broadway connects with, and rewards, its fans.”5

15Even the initial format was more exploratory than thoughtfully designed. Similar to Karn’s lack of experience in marketing, Hamilton’s video editor, Howard Sherman, came from a different background and did not have a previous connection to the show. In an interview, he commented on how he approached the role of taping the performances spontaneously. His team consisted only of himself and an “unofficial volunteer” named Laura Heywood in charge of recording the performances. However, he also noted that the key was to remember that “theater has always been known for building a sense of community, and Hamilton shows how to build the same kind of community both online and IRL, between fans and performers alike” (qtd. in Wickman). As a result, #Ham4Ham proved to connect well with the audience, even considering that, as Thomas Kail pointed out, “most of [those who enter] will go home without a ticket, but each of them will have a story to tell and a sense of connection” (qtd. in Kaplan). 

16Nevertheless, the main goal was more profound, as Karns explains: “Hamilton in and of itself is this unique, meteoric show that very easily could become unachievable. It'd be very easy for us to alienate our audience. But online, we've been able to decrease the distance between the brand and the people who appreciate the brand” (qtd. in Lapowsky). On August 30, 2016, the producers announced the end of the #Ham4Ham lottery system in its current format through Twitter, citing security concerns with the massive number of spectators waiting outside the Richard Rodgers Theater on 47th Street in Manhattan. In place of the physical lottery, a new digital system was implemented that allowed 250,000 participants per day. The digital environment utilized a methodology specifically created by Marathon Digital for Hamilton. The process was named “creative proximity” and was based on three elements developed by Karns and his team: creating content relevant to the fans, ensuring proximity to the audience, and utilizing the right social media outlets.

3. Creative Proximity 1: Creating Content

17The first element of the creative proximity strategy was the creation of content relevant to the fans. In that sense, it is important to understand who the audience of a Broadway show is. The Broadway League's “The Demographics of the Broadway Audience. 2018–2019 season” report provides a clear picture of the average audience member, which can be summarized into two distinct groups. On the one hand, most audience members are international tourists visiting New York City. On the other hand, the local attendees tend to be highly educated upper-class New Yorkers who attend Broadway shows regularly.

18Behind the strategy of the campaign lied the knowledge of the consumer behavior for Broadway shows; beyond traditional forms of buying tickets online or through memberships to theaters, younger audiences tend to rely on what is known as “rush policies,” a system in which people wait outside the box office hours in the morning of the show. These policies had become integral to the Broadway experience for younger audiences. Through #Ham4, Hamilton was able to go beyond the traditional Broadway theater enthusiast and reach a much larger audience. This was evident in the #Ham4Ham performances, which revealed a profound connection between the show’s creators and the fan base. The performances were reportedly fun, spontaneous, and innovative, highlighting the performers more than the show. The content of the 139 performances is difficult to classify due to the eclectic content of the shows with swapping characters, covers, freestyle, and alternative content. Most performances were not about Hamilton per se but included a wide variety of topics. A general overview of the performances indicates four main categories in terms of content: cover songs, Hamilton songs, Broadway covers, and freestyle rap. These four categories amount to 80% of the total performances. The rest is a collection of monologues, poetry readings, choir performances, charity events, and artistic performances.

19The first category included forty-five cover songs from famous artists, including Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and five Christmas-themed songs. The second category featured original songs from the show, sung by cast members who often traded parts. These performances became the chosen formats to send-off as actors were leaving the production. The third main category was covers of other Broadway shows. Through thirty performances, fans were treated to renditions from shows such as HairLes Misérables, or In the Heights appears in three performances. The last category was freestyle rap, which appeared on nine occasions. The versatility of the performances reflected the wide array of singers and actors from the Hamilton cast plus guest performers, such as poets, actors and musicians.

20The complete list of the ninety-seven performances includes celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, George Takei, J.J. Abrams, and “Weird Al” Yankovic; cast from other Broadway shows, New York City mayor at the time, Bill de Blasio, and even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father singing a duet to a classic Puerto Rican song En Mi Viejo San Juan by Noel Estrada. Of course, the weight of the performances was carried by the original Broadway cast, who appeared in different forms for 80% of the total performances. Hamilton cast members who frequently participated were Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Digs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Rory O'Malley, and Anthony Ramos. As one would expect, Lin-Manuel was the most frequent performer, appearing on 51 of the 139 shows. In most of his appearances, Miranda introduced guest artists and invited performers, but he also frequently appeared as a solo act.

4. Creative Proximity Step 2: Creating Proximity to the Fans

21Though the #Ham4Ham performances were loose, creative, and seemed spontaneous, it was a carefully planned operation. The intention behind the performances was clear: it was a gift to the fans. Lil-Manuel Miranda wrote an email to a few actors and cast members when he left the Broadway production in 2016, which would serve as a roadmap for future performances. “The Ham4ham Manifesto” sums up the spirit of the performances in eight pieces of advice that cover the practicalities of the performances to make them light-hearted, collective, informal, and fun. The advice included the following:

1. Don’t try to top yourself. Avoid the trap of trying to go bigger from week to week. If you have some elaborate show one day, bring company member for a solo the next week. The show is a gift to the fans, so really ANY SHOW at all is a win.
2.You win when you hold someone else up. Our best Ham4Hams are always when we shine a spotlight on someone else. Our neighboring shows, new shows coming in, a new ensemble member, someone in the building with a hitherto unseen talent. Keep your ear to the ground in the building, sometimes the best ham4hams come out of conversations with your fellow talents.
3.Keep it DIY. If you’re getting more elaborate than what to mics can cover, it’s too elaborate. Part of the charm of Ham4Ham is that it’s a street theater.
4.You can always start again, you can always wait for a bus to pass.
5. Enjoy your guests and be a gracious host. It’s no accident that my crying gaze has become a meme as I gaze adoringly at our guests. The more you enjoy the show as the host, the more the crowd will enjoy the show.
6. It’s a gift. It’s a gift to our fans who may not see the show, and it’s a street full of people like us who love theater. If you get stuck for an idea, just think “what would I want to see if I were a fan of this show?” That’ll unstick you quick. If you think of it as a gift you’re giving to friends, this gig will never grow old on you.
7. Don’t blow out your voice. The mics got you. (The Federalist Freestyle)

22Miranda conceived these shows as a continuation of the central performance and an added feature for the fans. His manifesto reveals that he understands fandom and sees himself as a fan of theater and Broadway in particular. By extension, he also understands that the proximity to the fans goes beyond the physical proximity at the door of the theater and entails the conscious reduction of physical and metaphorical space between the artists and fans. It also involves commonly shared themes and tastes, as well as a deep and sincere appreciation for the audience’s desire to live a more personalized experience.

5. Creative Proximity 3: Utilizing the Right Social Media Outlets

23The last element of the “creative proximity” strategy was utilizing the appropriate social media outlets. In this sense, it is essential to point out the accuracy of the predictions laid out by Karns in 2016 about the growth of social media. The first two elements of the strategy are conceptual, while this third one is tactical. Marathon Digital soon proved to understand the current evolution of social media and how Gen Zs and Gen X fans were using different platforms not to stay informed about news and brands but to establish a personal connection with them. The #Ham4Ham campaign relied on the massive social media audience of the show: The official Hamilton accounts reached more than four million followers across YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. In addition, Lil-Manuel Miranda and the main actors of the original Broadway cast are thriving. This is especially evident on Twitter, the platform devoted to quick updates, instant interaction, and live commentary, where Miranda connects with 3.6 million followers, doubling all the other prominent cast members altogether. Along with the official @Hamilton account, the potential for interaction reaches over six million followers on the platform, achieving the initial goal of expanding the audience of a traditional Broadway show and reaching to a younger generation.

24Followers who interact directly with the cast receive updates and information from Miranda and share the content created by the producers. One of the elements that contributed to the campaign’s success was that Marathon Digital relinquished control over the shows’ presence on social media. Aware that the thousands of fans waiting outside the Richard Rodgers theaters were filming the performances and far from prohibiting its distribution, Karns and his team encouraged fans to share the content on social media. Thus, the most successful #Ham4Ham shows are, to this day, hosted on fans’ YouTube channels away from the official @Hamilton channel. Using the hashtag created by Marathon Digital, fans of the show could continue the conversation and connect with the show and each other. Most importantly, Miranda brought the cast close to the audience creating a sense of complicity and intimacy. Miranda also responded quickly, personally, and directly to many fans, establishing an honest and relevant connection with the fanbase of the show.

6. Conclusion

25While Hamilton the musical will remain one of the critical manifestations of popular culture in the early twenty-first century, the #Ham4Ham campaign will be remembered as a creative and witty addition to the shows. Originated in the passion for theater shared by Karns, Miranda, and all the cast and crew of the show, the performances offered an incentive. They became a reason to pay attention and strengthen the connection between the artist and the audience.

26Though many of the performances were semi-spontaneous and deliberately informal, they captured the show’s magic. They lived within the Hamilton culture, speaking its language, offering a surprising behind-the-scenes of the creative process and tributes to the musical theater genre, pop culture, and life in urban America in the twenty-first century. The cast’s cheerful and enthusiastic participation became another crucial point because it proved that the original desire for authenticity was genuine. #Ham4Ham was a campaign that successfully transmitted the energy, enthusiasm, and passion shared by the show as fans could freely access, interact, and engage with the content on social media. It was also a vehicle for the cast members to have fun, surprise the audience, and show appreciation for them. The performances connected with the show’s ethos, which is about America’s history viewed through a contemporary and fresh glance.

27Though shortly lived in comparison with the show itself, the 139 #Ham4Ham sessions have become an integral part of Hamilton, creating an authentic connection with the fanbase, offering a collection unique in the performing arts, and increasing the emotional connection between the fans and the show. In addition, the groundbreaker campaign designed and produced by Marathon Digital contributed to the cult-like status of the show and will remain in the fans’ memories as what it was meant to be: a gift.

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Notes

1 The idea of a lottery system to access last-minute tickets to Broadway shows is not original to Hamilton but a regular practice on Broadway. It started in 1996 with the show Rent. The producers wanted to reach out to a younger audience (in their twenties and thirties) and started offering $20 rush tickets. The policy's popularity turned problematic when people started camping out the night before the performances hoping to win affordable tickets. A year later, in 1997, a lottery system was implemented, and it spread to other shows especially interested in reaching a younger audience (Wickman).

2 A campaign begins with a research phase in which the organization is studied, its communication, vision, and mission statements are analyzed. The following step includes establishing goals to analyze the audience (demographic and behavioristic terms). Once the audience is selected, the campaign's core lies in selecting tools to facilitate such goals. The last steps of any campaign include planning, budgeting, and an element of monitoring and evaluation.

3 The website describes the agency as “Broadway's first social media marketing agency, representing revolutionary shows and other live entertainment and nonprofit arts clients in New York City and around the world. We specialize in social media marketing, video production, and live & pre-recorded virtual events. Marathon Digital converts your fans to customers by cultivating communities and creating quality multimedia content across platforms. Broadway is a marathon, not a sprint.”

4 The very first of such performance took place on July 17, 2015, only three days after the preview of the show, when Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daveed Diggs, and Chris Jackson performed the first song from the show, trading spots to sing “Cabinet Battle” and thus starting a tradition of unscripted, fresh, and creative performances.

5 The performances would not be limited to Broadway shows. As soon as the production opened in cities like Chicago in October 2016, London in December 2017, Puerto Rico in January 2019, or San Francisco in August 2017, the #Ham4Ham lottery shows moved along to these new locations: Miranda even opened the California #Ham4Ham himself in August 2017.

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References

Electronic reference

Ismael Lopez Medel, Social Media Will Tell Your Story: The Digital Strategy of #Ham4HamEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-1 | 2023, Online since 19 February 2023, connection on 13 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/19260; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.19260

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About the author

Ismael Lopez Medel

Ismael Lopez Medel, Ph.D. Doctor Suma Cum Laude in Communication (Universidad CEU San Pablo, Madrid). Master of Science in Electronic Publishing (City University, London). BA in Advertising and Public Relations (Nebrija University, Madrid). Associate professor in the Communication Studies Department at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, California, directs the undergraduate program in Public Relations. Previously he served as Associate Dean of the School of Communication at Universidad CEU San Pablo). He has directed the graduate program in advertising design (Tracor). He has been a researcher at the National College of Art and Design (Dublin, Ireland) and guest speaker in universities in the United States and Europe. His research is published internationally and includes areas such strategic communication, digital media, storytelling, transmedia communication and the internationalization of higher ed.

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