Telling Your Dance Company’s Story Through Social Media

By Amy K. Harbison

Someone should choreograph a dance about the sweeping importance of social media and the ups and downs of trying to manage a social media presence. No sooner does an arts organization begin to use “the next best thing” when something new, shinier, and sexier takes its place.

In my research, I have come across many dance companies that are actively using social media platforms with various levels of engagement – and levels of success. Yet for many in the dance field, social media use is inconsistent and often reverts to a one-way marketing tactic to push out performance news.

Few dance companies are capitalizing on the real opportunities to engage in storytelling across social media platforms and share with the user an authentic experience of their company’s “brand.” Instead of putting themselves in their end users’ virtual shoes, they repeat the messaging in the same way they might in their marketing brochure.

How does your dance company engage in social media? Here are ten tips for how you might use social media more effectively and efficiently, with some examples of companies that are. While the list of social media platforms is growing daily, we’ll limit our focus here to those of greater familiarity — and one exciting emerging channel, Pinterest.

1) Play to your strengths.
What makes your brand special? What do your patrons love about your work? Why are they coming to engage with you? Pump up the volume on the kinds of stories and information that resonates with them! Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater not only has a Facebook page for its professional company, but it also has a presence for the Alvin Ailey II junior company. Interestingly, while the Ailey company maintains a strong presence on Facebook, where it reports having more than 150,000 engaged fans worldwide, Marketing Director Thomas Cott has not yet developed a Twitter presence for the company. Ailey’s marketing team has been strategic about its social media choices, as Cott noted: “Twitter is great, but we don’t have the bandwidth to be as responsive as we would need to be. We decided it was better not to actively participate in Twitter until we have the time and resources to dedicate to having a robust presence.”

2) Connect the dots for your followers.
In dance, a picture is worth a thousand words, but photos uploaded to an online album are begging for a narrative to help give context to your work and further your brand’s story. Captions are important: in one sentence tell us who is dancing, what is happening, and where the action taking place. If necessary, follow that with an answer to “so what?” What’s the story behind the story. Don’t simply label the participants in the picture; link to a blog post that references the photos, or advances some aspect of the work. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet does a nice job of linking its photos to blog posts. How do you keep the conversation going beyond the image?

3) Let your followers feel like insiders.
The most talked about and shared posts are often the ones that make your viewers feel like they are getting a behind-the-scenes vantage point. Share rehearsal video and photos, tell stories about individual company members. Let fans see the view from the other side of the stage. Trey McIntyre Project provides a good example of a dance company that brings you backstage. The company even surveyed Facebook followers about their preference in new merchandise designs. Talk about an “insider” perspective!

4) Create buzz.
Technology blogger David Rossiter suggests borrowing from Hollywood: create teasers or cliffhangers. For example, build buzz around your posts leading up to a performance. Tease out something different each time you post that builds on a previous entry. Or leave a cliffhanger and keep them guessing how you will resolve some artistic challenge in a new work. Tell the story from a company member’s perspective. Make a blog post and then link to it through Facebook or Twitter, adding some new clue or detail with each post.

5) Be generous; become a resource.
You are cultivating audiences and you want to engage audiences that love the arts. Look at your Twitterfeed, Facebook posts, or blog comments. Do you bring in other voices to add to the dialogue? Do you reference other artists who inspire you? Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company of Washington, D.C., has recently tweeted about Mark Morris, referenced a “Dear Amy” column, and linked to fitness tips. Mix it up. Celebrate your field, not just to your own work. Keep current and leverage pop culture references and headline news when you can.

6) Curate and Create Your Content.
Climb up and take a view of your social media strategy from 25 stories up. How much of your content is original? How much is curated from other sources giving context to your work? Ask yourself the big questions:

Is your social media strategy consistent with your institutional messaging and branding? Are you integrating social media as part of broader communications goals and objectives? What is the story that you’re trying to tell about yourself? How can social media help you further that story?

7) Know your audience and find the right social media platforms for you. You can’t be everywhere.

Right now Pinterest is hot. And about 80 percent of its users are women. Since women are the primary household decision-makers and philanthropists, take a look at how other arts non-profits and cultural organizations are using Pinterest. You can post backstage pictures, create one board for favorite costumes from previous seasons, another for alumni of your company and what they are doing, and a third on your tour locations in next year’s season. The possibilities to tell your story are limitless, and the opportunities for visual storytelling with video and photos make this a compelling choice for dance organizations.

Pinterest is not as time-consuming as Facebook. And the pins you post are linked back to their original sources, so if you post visually exciting video and photography that links back to your website. You may actually increase traffic to your site and boost your search engine optimization in the process. Note, though, that there is great online discussion about Pinterest and copyright infringement issues at publication time. It’s likely that Pinterest will develop some kind of permission system so that the content owner might authorize permission or opt-out. Stay tuned.

If you get on Pinterest (right now you need to send a request for an invitation), take a look at how Dance Magazine is using visual storytelling there: How can your company share its brand story and love of dance to engage audiences?

8) Engage, engage, engage.
Are you having a conversation with your followers or are you doing all the talking? The Joffrey Ballet asks questions of its viewers: What did you think of the performances? Ask people to recall a performance that moved them, a dancer that gives them goose bumps. Post a poll so you can see what people are thinking. Let them be part of the process. When you post on Facebook, think about the subject. Keep it short. Make it interesting. Find the hook and hook them in!

9) Take time and effort to measure your success and impact.
In planning your social media network, set measureable goals. Review your Facebook Insights to understand what kinds of posts are clicked through or shared the most. With Twitter, see how often you are retweeted and what kinds of content seem to be shared. How often are your videos watched on YouTube? Is there more narrative you can provide with that video so that people learn more about you than just that dance performance? I recently reviewed Facebook Insights for a dance client and saw that the postings about upcoming performances, with weaker hooks, had much lower views and clicks. The ones that lead to deeper understanding of the experience, were actual short stories about company members, or featured rehearsal footage, not only had greater engagement, but were also shared more readily. Do you know what story your analytics tell? Have you surveyed your audiences or followers to see what social media they use the most?

10) Leap (and the net will appear).
Jump in and begin to experiment. This is a learning and discovery process, and you can begin to refine your voice as you become active and, as in any marketing/communications strategy, keep your eye on how you are distinguishing yourself from your competition.

As artists, we know your creativity knows no bounds. Approach your social media as you would a new creative work. Ask questions, trust your instincts, remember who you are, keep your audience in mind, and tell a compelling story. But, most of all, have fun!

Amy K. Harbison is owner of Open Window Creative Strategies LLC, a communications/design firm that helps institutions tell their stories more effectively to reach their goals. She has more than 20 years’ experience working in strategic communications, media relations, marketing, branding, creative direction, and copywriting in the nonprofit sector, primarily in arts and health areas. She previously served as director of communications at the Meyer Foundation, where she provided strategic direction on the Exponent Award program, website, media relations, collateral materials, and won awards for her annual reports. Before joining the foundation, Harbison was associate director of communications for the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland; director of marketing and communications for the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts; and director of operations for the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association in Rockville. She earned a BA in anthropology from Kenyon College and has completed graduate work in marketing and management. She is a co-founder of the Olney (Md.) Farmers and Artists Market and currently serves as advocacy co-chair for the Montgomery County, Maryland Arts and Humanities Council. Harbison is a graduate of Leadership Greater Washington and has served as judge for the Catalogue for Philanthropy, Washington Post Nonprofit Management Award, and the D.C. Commission for Arts and Humanities UPSTART grants.


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