Warning: Community Engagement on Social Media Nears Extinction for Brands

If size matters, community engagement must not, or so the current trend of Facebook advertising and it’s near white-noise moment forecasts. Now that the dust has settled on arts organizations creating social media channels, the urgency for continually increasing follower count needs to slow down and priority needs to shift to integrating content and social strategies.

Did someone in your marketing department cheer when Instagram announced that advertisements were nearing reality on the photo-sharing network? Send that person back to Social Media 101. For every step a social platform takes towards monetization, two steps are lost in the journey towards community engagement.

“Marketers believe that a good ad can divert attention, maybe even kick start conversation – a troubling proposition,” writes André Mouton. Is he wrong? Hardly. Beyond the obvious danger of over-saturation, the loss of an already somewhat tenuous relationship between brand and consumer on digital platforms is a real risk.

Breaking that relationship would mean a complete defeat of the social engagement overhaul organizations spent the last few years adopting. “Social media is in danger of becoming something like reality television – a glimpse into the lives of people we find interesting, but have little personal connection with,” Mounton adds.

How should a brand avoid falling down the advertising rabbit hole on social media? Start understanding that everything you post on social media is, by its very nature of coming from a brand account, considered an advertisement. That innocuous photo of a gorgeous sunset over your theatre’s plaza might have resulted in ten times the number of shares a link to the latest New York Times review received, but they are both serving the same purpose in the eyes of a consumer—brand awareness.

A lesson to be learned from a photo outperforming an opening night review link or promo code offer is not that review links are bad, rather social media users are overwhelmingly in favor of interesting content and not traditional messaging. Performing arts organizations can thrive on image-based networks, thanks to theatrical work lending itself to visual stimulation.

“The combination of quality content, integrated placements and social sharing has not only bolstered brands’ content marketing efforts, but demonstrated to consumers that ads can add value to their lives,” writes Patrick Keane in AdAge. This conversation about content marketing is nothing new—the Content Marketing Institute sources an early use of the practice back to the late 1800s—but properly structuring a marketing department to allow for content creation is still in its infancy.

Over the course of my last three digital media positions—first at the American Museum of Natural History, then Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and now Center Theatre Group—the roles I’ve held were either brand new or still being defined. All three cultural institutions understood that digital content creation when mixed with social media required dedicated resources within the marketing and communications departments.

When creating the social media strategy for Lincoln Center, I focused the primary objectives as such: building relationships between patrons and the organization, engaging in direct feedback and conversation, inspiring user-generated content sharing, inspiring deeper conversation around programming, educating patrons on campus activities, and lastly, converting social communities into brand loyalists and potential ticket buyers. Never was ticket buying the main message. In order to achieve the primary social objectives, a majority of the tactics used centered on the creation of original and engaging content.

With a focus on content also comes the need for a clear brand voice, sometimes in a nearly literal sense as social messaging is meant to be “conversational.” As I wrote on The Huffington Post last year, “In the world of Twitter and Facebook, a brand’s ‘voice’ is a key bullet point in social strategy documents. ‘Brands are not humans. But people do project human qualities onto brands,’ Ric Dragon, CEO and co-founder of DragonSearch, professes. ‘There may be no place more important to the development of your brand voice than social media.’”

The bottom line: it’s time for all arts organizations to sharpen their pencils and start crafting social media strategies that focus on engagement and content creation. ROI is important and a real value as social media becomes commonplace, however, don’t let your brand become that socially awkward conversationalist, interrupting the flow of things just to be included. Uninspired social content could end up leaving your organization looking like “Tippy” on Saturday Night Live.

I originally wrote this article for the National Arts Marketing Project’s blog, ARTSblog ahead of a recent presentation in Portland, Oregon.