California Literary Review

How Social Media Has Energized Small Arts Organizations — An Interview with Diablo Ballet’s Dan Meagher

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September 20th, 2012 at 8:31 pm

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Diablo Ballet’s "A Swingin’ Holiday" (chor. Sean Kelly, music by Ellington, Cole, Marsalis, and Tchaikovsky) (l/r) Edward Stegge, Rosselyn Ramirez & David Fonnegra. Photo by Ashraf.

Award-winning Diablo Ballet Director of Marketing Dan Meagher has been both administration and talent. With his strong background in theatrical marketing and as a performer in national productions like Titanic and The Sound of Music, Meagher is aware that for the performing arts to survive, companies must attract new fans, even while maintaining existing audiences. And one way to do this is through the creative use of social media.

For small performing arts companies like Diablo Ballet, social media has come into the forefront as a cost-effective vehicle to get audiences involved in the arts in a new and interactive way. In the past, marketing personnel for arts organizations had to navigate the expensive ad formats in print, television, and radio to get their message out. Often, local media would donate print space or airtime as part of their public service commitments, but this tended to be an unpredictable delivery method, dependent on too many variables, including space availability and the personal commitment of individual station managers.

What social media offers, besides a low cost of delivery, is an opportunity for arts managers to control what and how their message is distributed. It also allows for something new — true interactivity.

In the three years since he has been at Diablo Ballet, Dan Meagher has used all the traditional marketing and public relations techniques to build public awareness of the company. However, in January 2012, he accelerated the company’s use of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to engage the dance community and audience in a fresh and contemporary way. This summer, Meagher began using social media’s latest thing — Pinterest.

Last season, via Twitter and Facebook, he put out a call for volunteer tweeters to live “broadcast” during the spring performances of Inside the Dancer’s Studio. These citizen critics, who were not dancers or dance writers, posted their immediate impressions, likes, and dislikes, and created quite a stir.

California Literary Review: Can you tell our readers a bit about your background?

Dan Meagher: I started working in TV and radio when I was twelve and had my own NPR radio show in San Francisco; I continued in San Francisco TV and radio for years. Then, in the early 1990s, I had the unexpected chance to work in professional theatre. I played in musical theater for quite awhile, working in such places as Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, and Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. After all this performing, I decided to continue my education at Oklahoma City University — home of a fantastic musical theater program. It was there that I returned to marketing as part of the university’s national summer music program. In 2008, I returned home to San Francisco and have been marketing for arts companies ever since.

I love marketing for the arts because it’s such an uphill battle — a real challenge. At least 99% of arts companies have no real marketing budget, so you have to be creative and always thinking. You have to be willing to go out on a limb and try something new (like tweeting from a dance performance). It’s that kind of freedom I enjoy. I am also fortunate to have a boss who is as crazy as me, and who let’s me try new things!

This year, Diablo Ballet has had a much higher profile than in past years, and social media has played a major part. Is this area of public relations and marketing new for you, or have you played in this particular sandbox before?

Thanks so much. I’m thrilled that you’ve seen a change in exposure. I’ve been working at Diablo Ballet for three years, and we’ve just started to hit our stride. It’s a process that takes time. You can’t just walk into an organization, start a marketing program, and a week later, have a thousand followers on Twitter.

Getting Diablo Ballet’s name out is always in the forefront of my goals. My marketing programs don’t cost thousands of dollars. We’re very grass roots so it takes creativity and a willingness to experiment. It also takes a staff willing to put in the time to do the job. They have to be more than “idea” people — those all-talk-and-no-action types. We’re too lean an organization for that. As for me, I work six days a week and love it.

Diablo Ballet Marketing Director Dan Meagher

How have you been able to coordinate all this with traditional media?

That’s a great question. Doing social media (Facebook, Twitter. YouTube, Pinterest) takes a huge amount of time. I spend three hours each day just attending to Twitter! It’s worth it, though. I believe that it’s only a matter of time before social media becomes our traditional media. Our mediated world is just getting more mediated every year.

In addition, I like to find ways that our traditional marketing efforts can combine with social media. Our Twitter Night last March was a perfect example. We received a lot of traditional coverage (newspaper, radio, TV) for using social media. I am always looking for ideas that can cross-pollinate with conventional media to draw people to our social media outlets.

However, not all organizations need social media. If you don’t have the time, don’t do it! There’s nothing worse than a company starting a Facebook page and then ignoring it for years. I’m fortunate to have a few wonderful volunteers who assist with all our social media tasks. I certainly couldn’t do it alone!

You created quite a stir with your Tweet section at certain performances. Can you talk a little about the results, both positive and negative?

I was amazed by what happened with our Twitter Night at the ballet last March. Even thought we were the first professional dance company on the West Coast to do this, I never expected it to generate so much local, national, and international media coverage.

It came about because we thought it would be fascinating to see how the average person would describe dance in 140 characters. And the results amazed me. Out text-perts (who tweeted live during the performance) saw things in the dance pieces that none of us ever considered. The company performed the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres. One text-pert said they saw a “dueling relationship where a cheating lover takes the other back.” Who knew?! It was exciting to hear people’s instant reaction to the various pieces.

I was also surprised by how much antipathy we experienced from some in the arts and dance community. People were afraid that bringing in technology would be intrusive and the beginning of the end of dance as we know it. That’s just ridiculous. All out text-perts were in the back of the theater in a secluded area nowhere near patrons. Most of the audience didn’t even know the text-perts were there.

Unfortunately, many of our local critics had a “not in my back yard” approach that I found sad. The arts need new ideas and audiences to survive and new blood to keep things going. The longer we keep putting up these walls can lead to an increasing danger that the entire performing arts system will fall.

Social media has opened up a new world to the arts, and we need to harness this power now. Plus, it works. For example, after we did our Twitter Night, I heard from quite a few people who now wanted to go see a dance performance.

This year, we’ve come up with another exciting way to combine technology and dance for our March 2013 performances. It’s never been done with dance, and I’m very excited!

Besides the live tweeting at performances, Diablo Ballet has used Twitter to share dance-related content to company fans. What has been the overall response to your quotes of the day, for example?

There is a huge community of dancers and dance fans on Twitter. I was absolutely surprised at the number! We started full force on Twitter in January 2012, and seven months later, we have over 1,500 followers, adding about fifty new fans each week. Probably because we give them the stuff they like to read — dance news stories, dance quotes, “did you know” facts, and things happening with Diablo Ballet. We’ve shown them that we love dance as much as they do, and we’re willing to invest the time to create a fun way to learn more about the art they love.

People just go crazy for our dance quotes! I can post one and, five minutes later, have twenty-five retweets (people posting the quote on their own Twitter page). We look for quotes that say something about dance or dancers — even from outside the world of dance. We have used quotes by folks like George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld, for example. But the great thing about the quotes is that they prompt people to find out more about the person who said them.

Twitter seems to have been your focus this past year. Any plans to bump up your Facebook presence? Or other social media?

Although it seems so, Twitter really hasn’t been the main social media focus for us this year. Success just came rather more quickly than we anticipated. We use Facebook a lot. Twitter and Facebook are two different kinds of social media: Twitter is the two-year-old who needs constant, immediate attention. Facebook is the mature adult you can talk to once a day, and that satisfies them. Because we post consistently throughout the day on Twitter, more people are going to find us.

I’ve been thinking about new ways to use Facebook. One of the new uses will be moving our popular Twitter chat nights to that platform.

Through Twitter, you seem to have connected with the Breaking Point production staff. Anything percolating in that universe?

We were so thrilled to be a big force in supporting and promoting the CW’s Breaking Pointe series. Support for this show is important to Diablo Ballet because it exposes millions to ballet each week. When’s the last time that happened?

We didn’t realize how popular we were in the Breaking Pointe universe until the CW network got in touch with us about how they appreciated our help in promoting the show. We also are a big supporter of Ballet West (the company featured in Breaking Pointe) because Ballet West’s Artistic Director Adam Sklute danced with us.

Shows like Breaking Pointe, Bunheads, So You Think You Can Dance, and Dancing with the Stars all make dance accessible. That’s one of our main missions at Diablo Ballet.

When did Diablo Ballet start videotaping different aspects of the company rehearsals for YouTube?

I really only started making rehearsal videos this past season. It was as simple finally having the proper device to make them! We use a Flip Cam — very basic, and we don’t do any editing. It keeps it live and real. We’re able to show great choreographers like Val Caniparioli, Christopher Stowell, and K T Nelson working with our dancers in the studios. This fall, we are introducing a new video series with our dancers. We’re getting up-close and personal!

The big question: Has all this effort translated into butts in the seats?

Absolutely! We sold out our May performances, are currently at 98% subscriber renewals, and we’ve already exceeded group sales goals for the premiere of our new November holiday performance. All these marketing efforts feed into each other.

You can’t just sit by a computer waiting to see how many tickets sold from your Facebook ad. You need to look at the big picture. Social media works because it capitalizes on word of mouth — the best salesman and the only kind of advertising everyone trusts. You can’t buy this. Let’s face it; if you can touch someone via Twitter, Facebook, or a library lecture, then you’ve gained a fan. Plus, you’ve done your job whether or not you made an immediate sale. It’s a cumulative process.

Too many companies look at graphs and charts, not realizing that touching someone today might result in a purchase a year later — one that would have never have happened without your efforts. My advice: Get out there and talk to people. Get into the community and tell them why you make a difference. We have to take ballet (and the other classical performing arts) out of this alienating world of marble columns and velvet seats — make it accessible and affordable. We need to show people why dance and the arts matter in their lives.

Performing arts companies need to start looking outside of the obvious. For Diablo Ballet, I’m big on marketing to a nonspecific dance audience. Our new Dance on Film Festival was a huge seller, and most people who came were not major dance fans. Additionally, the annual Gourmet Gallop, our food and wine walk fundraiser, brings in over 500 people to Walnut Creek each year. Most aren’t dance fans, but people who just like good food. So we get exposure to a whole new demographic, and we’ve seen ticket sales from it.

Any advice for others seeking to explore social media?

I’ll steal a line from an old Nike ad campaign: “Just do it.” We sit around in too many committees and too many meetings, and then nothing ever happens. If it is something that your company can sustain and produce, then do it. You’ll be surprised at how many friends and fans already exist out there.

They were just waiting for you to join the party.

 

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For information about Diablo Ballet’s 2012–2013 season, go to www.diabloballet.org. Single tickets are now available at 925. 943.1775, ext. 0, or online at www.diabloballet.org. However, as sales for season tickets this year have been brisk, availability of single tickets is not guaranteed.

 

See Diablo Ballet in action here:

YouTube Preview Image

 

  • Leslie Udland

    A great interview. Dan brings up so many important points about social media and marketing. I agree that dance needs to move our of the “opera houses” and into the communities. Congrats Diablo Ballet!

  • RichardBunnel

    This article should be required reading for all arts marketing people. Read it..learn it. This guy really knows what he’s talking about.

  • ERyan

    I’m at the National Arts Marketing Conference and just met Dan. Amazing guy who really knows what he’s talking about. Love how he isn’t afraid to break some walls in the arts.

  • Susan W

    I just talked to Dan here at the NAPMC convention and blown away by what he knows. I love that he’s all about breaking down the walls of classic arts. Someone said this interview should be required reading and I agree.

  • Natte

    This article has inspired me. Thank you.

  • ArtsCouncilAB

    Just read this article after reading the interview with Dan by Americans for the Arts. He’s very fascinating and love his take on marketing the classical arts. Here’s the A for A article: http://www.artsmarketing.org/resources/article/2012-11/diablo-ballet-and-power-social-media

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