On Growing Audiences: Culture Grows Here Conference Recap

On May 13 & 14, SPARC’s Network Coordinator, Elisha Barlow, attended and presented at the biannual Culture Grows Here conference in Barrie, Ontario. One of the resounding themes was building movements/growing audiences. While this is a complicated area and there are no one-size fits all magic solutions, below is some of the information provided by the very successful and experience speakers that presented at the conference that may inform how you look at social media, word of mouth and audience development.

The conference started with an evening event that featured Keynote Speaker, Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of g adventures and the author of the book Looptail – How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business.  Bruce spoke about the importance of active customer/audience engagement and how social media has changed and impacted the way companies/organizations build and interact with audiences. g adventures, while a for-profit company, functions as a social enterprise and also has an associated charity that together work to improve the impact of its tourism and ensure that traditional ways of life are preserved in communities where tourism is rapidly changing the local economy. As well, the company is dedicated to fostering a positively engaged and supportive company culture through an intensive hiring process and makes sure its customers are aware of this. As a result, g adventures is valued by travellers worldwide who care that their travel has a positive environmental, social, ethical and financial impact and has fostered a relationship and customer community that goes far beyond transactional. Through its shared ideology, g adventures has built a strong, dynamic relationship with its customers and has leveraged that relationship via social media to engage and provide its followers in critical efforts that support that ideology and increasingly tighten the relationship – like this recent call to support recovery efforts in Nepal.

The next day began with a lively presentation by Keynote Speaker, David Sax, author of The Tastemakers. David spoke to the evolution of the cupcake to the cultural, world-wide phenomenon it now is, and discussed food fads in general. Most interesting for those focused on audience development, his talk described how the current cupcake craze began in one bakery in Greenwich Village and stewed there for years – where the trend developed over years due to traditional word of mouth, print media coverage and inspired regional copycats. Then the increasing prevalence of smart phones and social media caused the trend to spread much farther and much faster than ever before possible. He also noted that with food fads/trends, generally taste/quality of the product has to be good in order for the trend to develop but this is not always the case, it can also be a health factor/benefit of a food. However, it is also important to note that not all trends/movements are positive and that negative word of mouth can also catch on and spread quickly. And trends can also spiral out of the initiator’s control – here he cited the creator of the Cronut, who has had to become quite litigious in order to hold onto the exclusivity of his creation. Social media has monumentally accelerated and increased word of mouth through user posts on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc. and its important to be in and/or monitor the conversation about you/your organization on social media so that you know what is happening in connection.

The next speaker, a familiar face to attendees of the 2014 SPARC Symposium, was Scott Walters. Scott, responding to Bruce Poon Tip sharing the “How to Start a Movement” video, self-identified as the Shirtless Dancing Guy who was looking for his first few followers. For Bruce, this was regarding engaging his customers in g adventures’ vision and philanthropic activities; for Scott, it translated to engaging others in his vision (CRADLE -Centre for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education) where rural communities have the opportunity to tell their stories and champion their artists, and not simply import talent from larger city centers. Scott noted that it was just him and mostly a message of change that he continually tries to spread in order to start the CRADLE movement. And its noteworthy to note that Scott was very upfront that his ideas have not yet translated into a movement; just because an idea is good doesn’t necessarily mean it will be successful overnight and go “viral”. “How to Start a Movement” also applies to audience building – as Bruce Poon Tip noted, his customers are engaged with his company far beyond a transactional relationship and are considered partners in their shared ideology, which is in essence a movement. However, the ease of joining a movement also needs to be consider – the incredibly viral ice bucket challenge, which spiraled far beyond the imaginations of its creators, was a ultimately a simple request that required little lasting effort beyond the bucket and/or donation.

And once again, the message was that social media is transforming the affect of word of mouth, and allowing messages/movements to spread faster and at times, more effectively (it is not an exact science and creating movement that truly goes viral – such as the Ice Bucket Challenge – is still very hit-and-miss and hard to predict). An electrifying presentation by Robb Bliss, of Robb Bliss Creative, cemented the power of social media to harness word of mouth to build movements while encouraging engagement and creativity within a community and the ability of promotion via social media to have positive economic impact. Honestly, we could have listened to Robb for another hour as his story was that engaging! As a youth in Grand Rapids, Michigan Robb went from organizing an unsanctioned paint ball black ops event in a town park (originally attended by 35 of his friends, shared only through social media and then grew to 100s of attendees) to organizing town sanctioned pillow fights (attended by 1000 people, promoted/shared through Facebook) to a giant town-sanctioned water slide spanning city blocks (thousands waited hours in line to slide free of charge) to a paper-plane event (over 30,000 people attended to watch 100,000 paper air planes be launched off of city buildings) to creating video campaigns that have a combined total of over 100 million organic views (since 2011!). Beyond demonstrating the effect of social media on word of mouth, promotion and attendance, Robb also spoke about the power of ideas, and the need for government to be open to these ideas (which his was and happily so, as Grand Rapids has seen millions in additional revenue from Rob’s events and videos).

The effectiveness of social media was also noted by the presenters from the Barrie Film Festival, whose name is a bit of a misnomer as they have incredible, year-round programming, who pointedly stated that word of mouth was still their best promotion though they engaged in many other promotional efforts. This recent article in The Globe and Mail also addresses word of mouth for businesses, and notes that to increase scale (caveat: they are addressing the growth of million dollar tech companies) other means of promotion are required to “scale up” and also underscores the need to monitor social media to be aware of the conversation.

Rural and remote communities across Ontario are increasingly online, though regrettably there are still many communities that lack high speed service and face a service disadvantage in connecting to their audience in the rapidly expanding social networks. Many have webpages,  social media pages (such as Facebook) and some use real-time social media such as Twitter and Instagram.

The ability to connect, communicate and foster a deeper relationship with social media and encourage promotion via authentic social media shares is an enticing concept but there is also the reality that social media requires a huge investment of time – and arts organizations often can’t afford the staff time and social media volunteers can quickly burnout. Some groups work in partnership together to share social media staff or contract specific social media needs from a communications/media company.

If you are a rural art groups, there are so many things to consider: (and please, comment and share what you are doing in the comments!)

What kind of relationship do you have with your audience?

Are they passionate about what you are doing? Do they know and share your vision?

How are you engaging with them to ensure your relationship is beyond transactional?

Are they telling others about you? What are they saying?

If you ask a core audience member about your organization – how do they describe it back to you?

Do you regularly check-in to find out how your audience learns about upcoming programs/events?

Is your audience on social media?

Are they promoting you on social media? Positively and effectively?

How do you connect your audience together as a community? Do you have hashtags? Do you promote your hashtags?

In addition to monitoring the conversation about your organizations, are you providing content to encourage the conversation?

Do you have a core passionate audience who promotes you via word of mouth and social media but your audience still doesn’t grow?

What does audience growth mean to you?

Who do you want to join your audience?

Is what you are providing/your vision of interest to them?

Do you know if potential audience members are aware of your organizations/event?

Do you know why may they not be attending already? Are they on social media?

Do you know where your audience gaps are and if/where connections led back to your established audience (beyond shared place)?

If you are in an area of tourism, how are you connecting to potential out-of-town audience members?

Can they find you on social media?

And speaking of ways to engage your core audience/followers…more and more organizations are offering opportunities for followers/audiences to have prolonged, more connected experiences with their organization i.e. special concerts, private viewings of rehearsals, a behind the scenes look at production (etc.) to prolong the effort that goes into a performance but also enhance the performance and foster a sense of community and belonging.

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