Social Media Is a Useful Marketing Tool, But It’s Not Everything—Here’s Why

Small-business owners may find it tempting to pour all their resources into social media, but experts advise caution. Here’s what happened recently when two dance companies tried to promote their work on Facebook.

Handing holding a smart phone, on which there's an image of woman holding her hands up with the word "blocked" overlaid on it.
Getty Images

If keeping track of what you can and can’t post on social media feels harder than it used to, that’s because it is. In their attempts to address disinformation, harassment and offensive material, platforms have implemented new rules enforced in part by software instead of human moderators.

“In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in Facebook not approving ad content for political messaging, especially for organizations having events around sensitive subjects, and for images of dancers,” says Erik Gensler, president of digital marketing consulting firm Capacity Interactive. Be aware that any photo of dancers in formfitting, skin-toned costumes risks getting flagged for nudity.

Recently two dance companies were forced to dramatically alter their marketing.

Last October, Karole Armitage was promoting a run of her You Took a Part of Me at New York Live Arts by Armitage Gone! Dance.

Armitage Gone! female dancer in nude colored unitard with black band at chest and hip. Image is from "You Took a Part of Me" performed at New York Live Arts.
Photo by Julie Lemberger, courtesy Armitage Gone! Dance

But Armitage’s social-media marketing plan, developed with consultant Jamie Benson to capitalize on existing performance photos, wasn’t going as anticipated. Nearly all 32 versions of the ads had to be heavily edited—some multiple times, after repeated rejections from Facebook and Instagram—and Twitter suspended their permission to advertise. “None of the images we shared included nudity, and none of them simulated sex acts,” Benson says. “The costumes were mesh bodysuits with, ironically enough, what look like black censor bars across the chests.”

Benson and Armitage made lemonade out of the affair by revealing it to their e-mail list. One subject line asked, “Do you think this video is pornographic?” The message included screenshots of rejections from Facebook and Twitter. “It clearly broke through the noise of a competitive season,” says Benson. “Our open rate that week averaged 124 percent higher than usual and our click-through rate averaged 184 percent higher.”

“As artists, we have to embrace accidents,” Armitage says, “and controversy is always good.” The company sold 716 out of the 720 tickets available.

When choreographer Eryc Taylor tried to promote a Facebook post for his project EARTH, he got an error message.

EARTH is “a visual, physical and auditory wake-up call to the impact of our actions on global warming,” was the description rejected by Facebook for paid promotion. “Every time I tried to boost a Facebook post, I would get an error,” explains Taylor, “saying that I couldn’t because of the content of the ad. We tried a million different ways to rephrase the mission. The same thing happened on Instagram.” Taylor retained that language in EARTH‘s free event pages on Facebook, but paid posts were reduced to mentioning only EARTH, the premiere date and the name of the venue. “You can debate them, but it goes nowhere,” says Taylor.

Instagram post of Eryc Taylor Dance, Inc. with two dancers stretching cloth over their bodies as they dance

Word of mouth generated through five studio showings alleviated some of the pain. The company spent about $100 to print flyers for dance and fitness studios in the area, and postcards for hand-to-hand distribution. Taylor took advantage of free calendar listings offered by Dance/NYC, and a referral from Pentacle, hired for administrative support, led to a contract for Brooklyn Botanic Garden to present EARTH.

EARTH’s one-night-only premiere last November sold out, thanks primarily to personal endorsements from fans, friends and family. “In terms of getting our message out to the masses, though, we were not as successful as we had hoped,” says Eryc Taylor Dance company manager Nicole Baker.

The Bottom Line

Don’t assume there’s no way out when your social strategy gets cornered. Just as Armitage Gone! Dance made Facebook’s restrictions the subject of an e-mail campaign, companies can turn experiences on one platform into conversations on another. LinkedIn and Medium are two appropriate places to publish thoughtful writing—just be sure to do your research and enlist an editor if you can.

Rather than challenging Facebook, Gensler of Capacity Interactive recommends staying up-to-date on its policies. “It would be hard for an arts organization to run a successful campaign without social media,” he says. “Be aware of what the limitations are so you can plan around them.”

And while it may be tempting to pour all your resources into social media—especially given declining press coverage for dance—any marketing campaign should use at least one other channel. Capture as many details as you can about your efforts so that next time you can tweak the recipe. It might make more sense, for example, to trade mailing lists with a similar company and send postcards rather than another e-mail to someone who hasn’t opened the last four you sent.

Zachary Whittenburg spent 10 years as a professional dancer with companies including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, BJM Danse Montréal and Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now in nonprofit communications, he is based in Chicago.

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