A few years ago, I directed, acted in and produced an original work here in Brooklyn based on Seneca’s Medea. The first thing I did was post a casting call, then I hosted auditions, then rehearsed and performed the piece. Along the way, I also designed a simple, clean website, wrote copy to put into emails inviting others to come, setup a Facebook event page, formed local partnerships to help get the word out, designed the programs, coordinated a photo shoot (and then designed images to email people), created a logo and postcard.
Allow me then to rephrase my original comment then: I directed, acted in, produced and marketed my piece. I had no spare money to hire someone to do this for me, and - as I will discuss later - thank goodness I didn’t as “hiring” and “marketing” are no longer an ideal strategy. I had suddenly become lead designer, writer and communicator for the piece I had made. The internet now dominates our collective landscape of communication, and understanding the nuances of web marketing is essential for the contemporary creator of performance. The aim is to get the word out, exciting people about you and your work so much that they want to come see it in person.
The changing marketing landscape has dramatically altered institutional outreach programs as well. In fact, I propose that it is much harder to market from an institutional standpoint online than as an individual artist. Why? Well, it’s really very simple: what is valuable online is relationship, vulnerability and engaging content all conveyed through a voice that sounds familiar (ie - consistent and human). These factors allow for a connection to form. Finding this is vastly more difficult to do as an institution which likely explains why most are so, so, so very bad at it.
In this article, I would like to discuss what is working online and what isn’t. In particular, I would like to highlight the crucial areas where artists need to focus in order to attract more attention to their work. Oh, and while I am at it, allow me to dispel the “if you build it they will come” notion. It is no longer enough just to create great art. You must also know how to represent it online, and how to build media which is clear and - hopefully - sharable. The former approach worked in the 1960’s, but nowadays, people learn and explore newness via the web rather than venturing out into the unknown. In other words, I will look at your website and video content before I make the decision to buy a ticket.
The exciting thing for new, emerging artists and institutions is that the playing field has been leveled. You no longer need a massive marketing budget to reach people, you simply need a great idea. A young choreographer can create a 90 second video, share it with friends and suddenly have a great interest in his/her work. A producer can capture a particularly suggestive moment of a new piece using Vine, share it via Twitter, and have that seen by hundreds or even thousands of potential fans. Audience members can also now photograph or video portions of your work, share it online, becoming marketers themselves. One of the exciting ways that public performance and mobile technology merge is in how strangers can suddenly now become marketers.
It’s the sharing economy, and people are dying to consume.
I believe artists should consider building work - or portions of work - which can leverage the viral possibilities of social media. This might seem sacrilege: What? You are suggesting that we create work that can be shared online? Doesn’t this compromise my artistic integrity? Maybe, if you believe that integrity is solely in creating work which somehow reflects and appeals to yourself only. I view it like you are creating a great advertisement which is designed to reach people and connect them with something of value (your work). We know your work is great, but it is up to you to lead more people to it by creating media which works in the crowded world of online marketing. One tested technique is that you should share the BEST portion of your work with the world in order to excite them about coming to your performance. Junior’s is all about cheesecakes, but when people get in the door, they also order hamburgers, sandwiches, salads etc. Including this in your thinking will go a long way towards attracting more people to your work.
So, what should you definitely focus on? This is a vitally important question as time is limited and we all want to leverage our time and work so that it will lead to real results. In my work as the producer for the BEAT Festival, I am consistently stunned at how bad most artists are at marketing themselves. Many artists are, by nature, insecure. Their work is in revealing themselves in one way or another to the world at large, something that most of us spend a lot of time trying VERY hard not to do. So, to add on to that the notion that they now need to be good at promoting themselves too makes for a sticky brier patch for many.
Here are some simple guidelines I invite you to consider:
First, images MUST convey a clear and distinct shape. With the BEAT Festival, we always ask the artists to provide images of their work for us to use. You would be amazed at how these images are regularly ineffective and vague. The artist feels the images are beautiful and interesting, but usually artists are so close to their work, so intimately tied to it, they can’t view it through the marketing lens. What’s the marketing lens? Discovering it begins with a question which forces one to move away from their point of view and see things from another - what would be most interesting and engaging to people who know nothing about this artist/work/event? In other words, can I step away from my relationship to this piece and simply ask what is the most interesting shape or image that I can use to attract someone to look a little more? Again, this is difficult for an artist to do as he/she is, by definition, going to be intimately close to the work AND likely very insecure about presenting it. You might ask if this is the time when someone could be hired to help…well, this would be the one spot where an outside voice would have value, but you could also ask your partner/wife/husband too. Or, better yet, learn the art of removing yourself from the equation.
This shape needs energy and focus, it must - like any good image - make me want to look at it. Merce Cunningham used to infuriate photographers as he tightly managed every single photo shoot in his long and remarkable career. He went into the session knowing exactly what he wanted and emerged usually with that in hand. If you do a google search for “Merce Cunningham Lois Greenfield” you will see exactly what I am talking about. Merce’s career emerged in the evolving world of image and photography. He understood how best to capture imagery that was clear, simple, defined and dynamic. These shapes worked well in magazines, programs, posters and - yes - the internet (now) too.
So, images must be clean, dynamic and have energy. I must feel your work in the image. I must want to know “how did that happen?” or “I wonder what happens next?” Vague imagery of movement won’t cut it. It needs shape and force. Anything less is breezed past along with the ads, pop-ups and other things which don’t capture my eye online. I guarantee you that 90% or more of what artists create in terms of imagery falls into this category.
You have to not care about conveying the meaning of the work, just bring me directly into its most dynamic moments.
Second, video MUST be short and concise, and - preferably - edited. I receive numerous submissions per week for the BEAT Festival, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am to receive a 2 minute (MAX) reel of highlights or tightly curated footage from a recent piece or, even, various, representative pieces. No one wants to view your entire piece. And, no one - save your grandparents who couldn’t make the show - will.
In this day, simple movie editing software is very accessible. On Macs, we have iMovie. I know nothing about editing film professionally, but I definitely know how to use iMovie. And, if you don’t, there are tutorials online which can easily teach you.
Editing your work down to a 2-minute video with great footage requires some patience and work, but it separates the amateurs from the pro’s. The first thing I look at when I click a video link is the duration of the video. If the film starts and I’m seeing a blank stage and dancers entering, I stop watching - immediately. I want to see the action, the sharp moments, the strongest parts - and, so does everyone else. I want you to care for my eye and clock as much as I do.
This one is non-negotiable. You cannot approach video like you do live performance. The medium is different. It has to be edited, tightened and then, tightened and edited some more. The nature of film is to never linger (unless you are a master at it), and particularly if what I am viewing is something that happened live…without a strong editing job, your video looks amateur and lazy. This is not an impression you ever want to make.
Third, your website must be CLEAR and media rich. It doesn’t need to be flashy, per se, nor incredibly exciting (though, it should get there in a few years). But, when sending people to your website, be sure to know that if I click that link, I will judge you and the potency of your work on your first impression. I will make a snap judgement on whether I’m going to spend anytime in your world or not. I want to see “the latest news/updates”, pictures, I want to see a very clear menu and I want to see a social media presence. That’s it. In fact, it’s far more important to have an easily navigated, clean and current website than one which is “fancy” but that is out of date and disorganized.
If you, like many, aren’t skilled at web design, use Tumblr. It accepts images very easily, is intuitive to setup and always looks clean and simple.
For two great examples, check out Yanira Castro’s site for one which is super clean, current and visually very dynamic and Third Rail Projects’ site for one which is very simple, less dynamic but also current and highly functional.
Fourth up, Facebook…this might be the most important one. Why? Everyone is there, waiting to be organized. You can easily share media and people are accustomed to the process of registering for an event on Facebook. Also, the people closest to you can then turn around and invite more of their friends to come. It’s an absolute no-brainer that Facebook must be a core part of your marketing strategy. You must have a way for people to connect with your Facebook page on your website, and your page needs consistent activity, without stretching over the line of “too much”. 2-3x/day is a good model to follow to keep yourself relevant in the minds of others. If you are working full-time as an artist, posting 3x/day should be no problem.
Also, if you just wondered in your mind or aloud, how am I supposed to post 2-3x/day? The answer is simple - they need not always be about YOU. Feel free to comment on others’ posts, share them, or post content which you find relevant to your form, craft and followers. With the annual (Sept) BEAT Festival, for example, I continue to promote each year’s artists after the festival, up to the announcement of the next year’s slate. This furthers our mission of supporting Brooklyn-based artists while also keeping us in the minds of theater, dance and voice lovers in the borough. In short, it’s a way of staying in the conversation even when we’re not in full production mode.
Finally, a great source of content for social media is to present what is happening offstage. One terrific means of creating good performance content which engages people online is to show people “behind the scenes”. Take them backstage via Vine or Instagram. Post these to Twitter and Facebook. Show people what it is like preparing a new piece. Let me know what the dressing rooms like like, what it’s like entering via the stage door. What it’s like warming up. Show me fun clips from rehearsal, which reveal the actors or dancers’ personalities. All of this is interesting. Why? Because performance lovers NEVER get to see this. They are always stuck out in the front of the house, and would love a peek behind the curtain. So, give it to them by inviting them into the creative process and showing them behind the scenes.
Why it has to be YOU (and not someone else)
Too often we hand off our marketing to someone else. A friend, an intern, another person who took a class in marketing or who has a lot of friends on Facebook. This is all great and I’m sure they are really good at Instagram, but…your fans want to see and hear from YOU. They want your perspective, your input, your ideas. And, they already know your voice so you can’t fake it with them. The more true and vulnerable you can be, the better. Feel free to let them know what frustrates you AND what excites you. Bring them into the process of creation. Share with them the challenges and rewards, and let it come directly from you. As an artist, this is your advantage in the crowded world of online marketing - your unique voice. This is not hyperbole, this is truth - people want to hear from you directly.
You and I can both tell when a well-known artist’s Facebook feed comes from a member of his/her staff. It’s off-putting. It reminds me that this person is an “ institution" and doesn’t truly care about forming a connection with me. The really great social media accounts are those which are honest, revealing and personal. This goes for celebrities and other, non-celebs too. Of these guidelines, this one is by far the most important.
For institutions, it becomes trickier. It is better if the content comes from the Artistic Director - or, that he/she has their own account which IS them. The institution though must also have a voice and it must be consistent. This voice must interact, it must connect, IT MUST RESPOND. How many times have you seen a legit question come from an institution - something like: “Who would you like to see perform at the cabaret tonight?”. Then, a dozen or so people respond to the thread - offering their own social capital to the thread. Too often, institutions don’t respond. They commence the connection, but fail at that all-important moment of closing the deal by actually engaging and responding. This leaves people feeling abandoned and unfulfilled, and it doesn’t work long-term. Institutions must find a voice, stick with it, and treat it like it is a real individual and do the same for others who engage with them.
These are the BASICS. Without these, it will be much harder for you to excite new people to your non-present performance state.
And, You’re Also an Entrepreneur
But, underlying these is a crucial mindset I want to highlight here. You are certainly now a marketer, but more to the point, you are an entrepreneur. You are one who builds something out of nothing. You see possibility in your mind and then build that into a living organism, and then share it with others. In a fundamental way, you are building a business and need to treat it as such. The content will be different, yes, but the context is exactly the same.
The internet is not a meritocracy (Ryan Holiday), and because of that, the chances of your work being discovered, nourished and supported, is a loooong shot. Sure, the threshold for entry has never been lower, BUT as much as your work must be engaging and reflective of something true and real, so must your marketing and knowledge of media. Thus, you have to take marketing as seriously as an entrepreneur does when driving sales traffic to his/her site.
Entrepreneurship was formerly thought of as the act of the rebel. Steve Jobs comes to mind, so too do Michael Dell and Bill Gates. Entrepreneurs build crazy gadgets in their garages and then sell them for millions. This, of course, is the exception NOT the rule. The rule is that nowadays entrepreneurs are born every minute, and all artists must seriously build relationship, presentation and marketing skills to stand a chance. Otherwise, that great work you think will get you across the imaginary finish line won’t even leave the starting gate.
Art and entrepreneurship merge beautifully under this model. The truly great artists are those who simply MUST create art. The same is true for entrepreneurs. They simply MUST create for the world what they envision in their own minds. Rationally, it might be insane to try - but artists and entrepreneurs aren’t driven by rationale. They are driven by vision. This modality therefore helps separate the temps from the lifers. Initiative and drive therefore become massive leverage within the world of marketing. Those that wholly believe, and who MUST do their work, will find a way to get their message out. The others will be weeded out more quickly and effectively than ever before.
Having an entrepreneurial mindset means embracing the marketing as integral to your work. It is not tangential, a hobby, or something “I’ll get good at next year” - it has to happen now. This is particularly true if you want to attract more funding. People with dollars to give want to “get” you and your work in an easy way - they don’t want to spend hours trying to understand your work (and, in fact, they won’t). They want to feel like they are giving to a vibrant and worthy cause, and unless your website and marketing reveals that, you won’t attract them. More broadly, the first thing a grant review panel will look at (after reading your, hopefully, concise and revealing letter) is your website. If it is out-of-date, confusing or cluttered - you lose points. Trust me, I have sat on these panels, and this is exactly what happens. Your proposal is judged against the other artists who have applied, and if something as basic and primary as your website is not up to date, you don’t look good.
Take Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere. He moved to New York after school to pursue a career as an actor. One night, he decided to play a prank and pretended to be Ben Folds at the piano in a local bar. No one paid much mind until a “stranger” approached him and asked for his autograph. For the rest of the night, everyone there thought Charlie was Ben Folds. Charlie realized that he might be onto something and began forging an exciting career away from the traditional structure and created his own path, one that has since touched literally millions of lives (if we add up all the YouTube video views) and surprised and engaged thousands across the country and the world with the extraordinary work of Improv Everywhere. This is the arts entrepreneur. He understood that the landscape was shifting and made his own, original path within it. Now, Charlie can barely stay home as he is asked to speak all over the world on just this topic - the changing nature of creativity.
The entrepreneurial mindset gets this. It understands that things need to be current, and that one needs to be interested in marketing. It is a given that you are probably not very good at this. But, are you learning? Are you seeking out guidance and help? Are you TESTING your subject lines, delivery times and content in your newsletters? Thinking you’ll just “hire someone”? Again, BIG MISTAKE. Your fans and friends know the sound of your voice. The reason social media, particularly Twitter, is so effective is that there is an understanding that the voice is authentic. We know that Jimmy Fallon took the picture and shared it, not his assistant. People know the difference between your voice and the “marketing” voice. They will only respond to the real thing.
Which leads me to my final point - marketing is now, NOT marketing. Confused yet? The old notion of marketing is that I need to adopt another voice to “sell” my products from the one that “is” the product. This doesn’t work online, nor does it work for art. It must be you, you being yourself, you being vulnerable and honest. It cannot be contrived or forced or fake. It must must must be real.
This is why most institutions aren’t very good at this. Some have the clout and budget to mask lack of originality, but even that is not a long-term solution. Good institutional marketing now takes me behind the scenes, introduces me to the lighting guy, to the deck crew, to the house manager, to the producer, to the actor, to the…you get it. And, as I said before, it MUST be personal to make a connection. If you are a new organization or emerging artist, this is where you have an ADVANTAGE. Please do not forsake your voice to try to sound like an “institution”. People nowadays don’t want to interact with an institution - we want to connect with individuals and great art. The closer you are to that, the better your marketing will be - automatically.
My final question to you is…what is your great idea? Not good, GREAT. What gets people’s attention these days are the things that break with the norm, that stop people in their tracks and make them look, something uniquely different and original. This is where the bulk of your marketing energy should go - what is the one, great idea I can generate and exploit? Only something great will work in the crowded world of the internet. But, if you can uncover it and present it, your fans will do the rest.
What have you found to work (or not) in your own work? Would love further input and comment here. Or, if you have a differing view. Please share below!