Community Engagement: Get out of your box

This article was the sixth in a series of Audience Building articles on Ms in the Biz, where I go into depth on the sticking points, the places where I see people take short cuts but are quite vital.

This is how to find and build new audiences, not just promoting without annoying your family and friends.

When I first began this work in 2009, most people boxed it into “marketing,” “social media,” or “waste of time.” I was careful to imprint the word “outreach” into everyone’s mind. You must reach out and invite strangers. As a verb, “outreach” is even defined “to surpass in reach” or “extend.”

So let’s surpass the reach of what you think audience building entails. The first parts to this series detail finding new audience and talking to them online. Now take it offline.

Photo 1 Cindy Marie Jenkins

I do that, you may think. I go out. I leave the house.

Yes, but do you insert yourself into social and community organizations that are not directly related to your art? It is there you will find the potential audience for your work. When I consult with filmmakers who say their target audience is other filmmakers, warning bells clang inside my head. That is a lazy answer and will never move your work beyond family and friends.

Few strangers have the time, will or knowledge of [insert your industry here]to find their varied choices, never mind find the exact choice that excites them enough to partake of your art and follow your future work.

Therein lies The Gap. The Gap between your potential audience and your art.

Mind The Gap.*

I first encountered this massive gap while working full time at a theatre and a politically-engaged friend of mine encouraged me to talk to the local neighborhood council.

Here’s how the conversations went:

Neighborhood Council Rep: “Oh, that building’s a theater?”

Leader of Theater: “Neighborhood council? What’s a Neighborhood Council?

That is when I saw it. Not just a gap, but a gaseous-asphalt-deadly desert-Mordor-sized gap on both sides of the fence. All too often, we simply are not aware of each other, nor do we understand what potential audience/strangers care about.

Bridge That Gap.

Build a bridge out of rope, tame an eagle, make a canoe, throw a dwarf – just do it. Andsame guidelines apply as online: relationships before promotion.
Here are some starting points:

  1. Neighborhood Councils**. I don’t suggest joining a Board of Directors unless you want a full-time volunteer job, but attend a meeting. Dip your toes into it and just attend a Sub-Committee Meeting. Many councils have an Arts and Humanities or Cultural type of Sub Committee.
    You can meet people.

You can get the vibe.

Maybe down the line, you can ask them for money.

Maybe you just make friends who then may support your work.

  1. NASA Socials. We’ll go into more detail on these soon, but you can apply to attend cool info sessions and viewings of space-related events, and socialize. You do not need to be fluent or even knowledgeable of all the latest science news; that is actually the point.

My first one was the Mars Rover Curiosity launch, and three years later, I’m still friends with these people around the world. They are intelligent, arts-interested folk who support people’s passions. You want them on your side, and many are very supportive of my work since meeting at the Social.

Also: science is fricking cool and inspiring.

  1. Immediate Community. There is an elementary school near 24th ST Theatre who always invites us to their Health Fairs. They consider the arts to be part of a healthy lifestyle, and this is thanks to years of relationship building on part of both groups. From 24th ST’s end, it is the result of Community Engager Allegra Padilla (There is a full time staff member whose title is Community Engager. Let that sink into your brain.)

At one Health Fair, we had a table where Allegra and I:

-took reservations for upcoming performances..

-talked to families who knew nothing about us and described our programs and mission.

-met parents and siblings of youth who attend(ed) our After ‘Cool program

-visited every other booth and tweeted, instagrammed, Facebooked photos of the community resources present at the fair

-met the people behind these tables and invited them to the theater. Our presence gave a face to the theatre’s name (if they knew it was a theater at all. Most of the responses we get are “Oh, that’s what’s in that building? I walk by it all the time and always wondered!”)***

-when we made ticket reservations, we gave them a business card that had all the show info on it. This was a pilot program after we realized that no-shows from the neighborhood can’t always their email (so our email reminders wouldn’t work). Here in their hands was a physical reminder including how to let us know if they can’t make it.**** And here is how my favorite audience member arrived, proudly displaying her reservation:

Photo 2 Cindy Marie Jenkins

  1. Local businesses. Have meetings at local businesses and tweet about them. Have a place where you always order lunch or get your afternoon caffeine? Talk to the workers and tell your own online audience about them. The smart businesses notice who talks about them. You’ll get discounts, special treatment, but above all you will build relationships. Soon they’ll donate or discount goods or space. They’ll cross promote, but I suggest you do it informally as a matter of course before asking anything in return. Businesses need word of mouth and you need partnerships and people who care enough to tell everyone they know about your work. Seems like a no brainer if you find a good fit.

These are just starting points to meet the people surrounding your art who could have an interest. If not your immediate project, then perhaps another one down the line. You have to stay involved, though, and attend some of their events as well as invite them to yours.

Comment with your questions or tweet them to @CindyMarieJ. I’ll answer or address it in a later post.

*Come on, I had to.

**Find your Neighborhood Council HERE by adding your address.

***Remember not to judge people for their ignorance of your lifestyle. How many buildings do you pass every day and not notice or know what happens inside of them?

****It takes a lot more than even these actions. Invitations are one thing. Feeling welcome is entirely different. Since kids depend on their parents to take them to arts events, 24th ST Theatre embarked on a massive program to break down the barrier between the adults in their community and the theatrical space.

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