Vancouver — All the world may be a stage, but the players can now be found on Facebook.
Squeezed by shrinking funding and a battered economy, arts organizations are increasingly tapping into the power of social media to spread the word and sell out shows.
Their tactics range from the simple (140-character posts on Twitter) to the more sophisticated (QR codes that reward patrons with discounts, backstage passes and other perks).
Social media are giving even the smallest organization a reach that can stretch across global networks.
“For fans, the access is just much more direct than it was. That’s where the real gold is for all of these arts organizations,” said Mikala Taylor, a social media and content strategist and creator and writer of Backstagerider.com.
“Everybody wants, particularly in arts, to go to the cool thing. You want to be part of the inner circle and savvy marketers are engaging in that dialogue.”
Treating social media as a billboard doesn’t earn loyalty. It’s making connections that counts and responding to fans that keeps them coming back.
“Arts organizations can build casual fans into super fans by creating a dialogue that nurtures that excitement,” said Taylor.
Reviews can help or hurt a production, but it is often the recommendation of a friend or colleague that prompts a ticket purchase. Social media allows organizations to target their audience, focusing their attention on groups that might be interested in what they’re doing rather than resorting to a scattergun approach.
“With social media, the theatre community can reach a specific community,” said Cynnamon Schreinert, publicist for Bard on the Beach and other arts organizations and a member of the Vancouver International Fringe Festival board.
“It is an opportunity to go in and find that niche market and really put your material together and present it to them.”
Among the tools created by the Fringe Festival was its own mobile app for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, a help in navigating the festival’s many performances and venues.
Small organizations often don’t have marketing departments and can’t afford a full-time publicist, making their use of social media almost an imperative.
“It is very focused,” said Schreinert. “Social media are a great way to get a word out about a production or about a performance that is going on without having to spend big advertising dollars.”
A recent study found Vancouverites among the most likely in Canada to plan their weekends using social media. You can line up numerous events, from the Biltmore Cabaret to Ballet BC, looking no further than Facebook.
Opera might not be the first entertainment that springs to mind when you think of leading-edge technology, but the Vancouver Opera is flipping the traditional image with its social media strategy.
VO social media manager Ling Chan attributes that to general director James Wright, who is willing to try new initiatives, whether it’s blogger nights or a tweeting Opera Ninja.
“We started in May 2008 because our general director wanted us to have a blog,” said Chan.
“When we started the blog, we also started a Facebook account, YouTube and Flickr and in February 2009 we got onto Twitter. Management was very progressive and open about it. We’re at an advantage to have management that
even thinks this way, we took the idea and just ran with it.”
For cash-strapped organizations, the barrier to entry for reaching fans and potential customers is low; many social media tools are free. And while they require continuing attention, socially media savvy organizations enlist the help of fans to fuel their traffic.
Vancouver’s Raul Pacheco-Vega is one such fan. A former stage actor and professional dancer, in 2006 he launched a blog, Hummingbird604.com, that focuses on food and culture. It’s a hobby for Pacheco-Vega, whose day job is teaching environmental politics at the University of B.C. and consulting.
“I think this is one of the great steps the arts community has taken,” Pacheco-Vega said of the shift to social media. “I used to be one of those producers who had to promote the old way, by putting up posters at schools and community centres, but now social media has given arts organizations a lot more reach.”
Pacheco-Vega isn’t paid for reviews and stories, but he hosts contests on his blog with prizes donated by organizations promoting their events.
“I feel that Hummingbird604 gives me power to push for causes that are not popular,” he said. “Art is not popular; the Canucks are popular. I have had organizations come back and say ‘if you hadn’t blogged about us, we wouldn’t have had the ticket sales that we’ve had.’ That is my reward.”
Rebecca Bollwitt, who runs the popular Miss604 blog, has a reach that dwarfs many arts organizations and a mention on Miss604.com or her Twitter profile can propel sales. The blog hosts contests with accompanying buttons showing how many times the posts are tweeted, shared on Facebook or elicit comments. Contests include ones such as Ballet BC, where readers can enter to win tickets by posting on Twitter or leaving a comment.
Rebecca Coleman is the author of an ebook entitled “Guide to Getting Started with Social Media for Artists and Arts Organizations.” She teaches social media for artists at Emily Carr University of Art+Design and is starting a social media course for small businesses at BCIT in January.
Coleman said the growth of social media coincided with staff cutbacks that saw fewer reviewers from mainstream media outlets at events.
“I started noticing that in traditional forms of media there wasn’t as much space for articles in the arts,” she said. “What I am finding now is there is almost no time when somebody hires me to do publicity that social media are not part of their marketing.”
Coleman said she creates videos for every show she works on, shooting interviews and other material and posting it on YouTube.
“One of the great things about social media is that it has levelled the playing field,” she said. “If you have a good social media campaign, you can get people in the door.”