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Facebook and the arts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2009 - In a post from earlier this week, an employee and an active volunteer from Citizens for Missouri’s Children explained the importance of attracting new blood to their organization. Increasingly, that starts with making contact through social networking sites like Facebook. 

Sounds easy enough. Facebook is so ubiquitous nowadays that surely someone at every nonprofit out there knows how to create a profile, throw up some pictures and start a marketing blitz.

Not so fast, says Michelle Paul, a business development manager for a company called Patron Technology that does e-marketing for arts groups, as well as other nonprofits and businesses. Her message to organizations that want to make the most of their Facebook pages: Start a conversation; don’t try to sell.

Paul, who has a background in stage management, met recently with about 40 people who do marketing or communications for cultural organizations in St. Louis. The meeting was arranged by the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, a group that’s a major funder of the arts, compiles a calendar of cultural events and leads conversations about ways to increase audiences.

In describing the importance of arts groups having a presence on Facebook, Paul said the web page is the virtual equivalent of being at the bar across the street from the theater where people discuss the performance after a show lets out. “Just being there and saying I live where you guys live is a big step,” she said.

Diane Kline, director of marketing for the commission, said just about every local arts organization is on Facebook and understands the importance of social media. But the people who run these pages often have questions about how to most effectively reach a young audience.

Which brings us back to Paul’s theme of starting a conversation rather than thinking like an advertiser. “The biggest way to go wrong with Facebook is to do nothing but promote events and aggressively ask people to buy tickets,” she said. “That’s not why people are on the site. They want to interact with friends and find out what your organization is up to, not what you’re selling them.”

Frequent Twitter users are probably nodding their heads about now. They recognize the spammers and shameless self-promoters from the people who post interesting commentary and links. 

Paul said research confirms the power of word-of-mouth marketing. That's why it's important to get a conversation going on a Facebook page. One effective use of the space, she said, is to ask people who have just attended an event how they enjoyed it. There's nothing wrong with listing dates of future shows and ticket information so long as there's also non-promotional content that drives users to the page.

“What I took away is that if you’re a symphony and you’re trying to get the word out about a Bach performance, let people experience what’s going on behind the scenes or hear a preview of some of the pieces,” Kline said.

Another idea is to utilize Facebook’s fan pages, which resemble other pages on the site but have an important difference -- there's not a two-way relationship. This is important, Paul said, because it allows people to find out all about an arts group without having to open up their entire profile to that organization. (You're not "friending" the Sheldon, you're simply becomng a "fan.")

Paul’s meeting with the cultural organizations comes on the heels of a Webinar series she’s doing called “Facebook for Arts Organizations.” She writes often about how arts groups can best use social media.