Between a global pandemic and a long-overdue reckoning around racial injustice, it’s clear that the time for business as usual is over. But at a time when typical marketing tactics feel irrelevant—or even inappropriate—what’s a small dance business owner trying to bring in revenue to do?
A global pandemic and the recession it’s triggered—combined with uprisings over racial injustice and police brutality—have created a perfect storm that’s forced companies large and small to become more creative and intentional in their marketing.
For small dance businesses, which have been hit especially hard by pandemic-related closures and may be relying on marketing more than ever, this presents a number of challenges. Marketing expensive costumes or dancewear may not resonate with your audience while the unemployment rate is so high and large performances aren’t an option, for instance. Pretending that everything is normal in your communications can make your business appear out-of-touch, but sharing one solidarity post won’t be well-received if there’s no evidence of real diversity and inclusion within your business. It can be hard to know how much to acknowledge all that’s going on in our world, or how appropriate it is to push campaigns focused on bringing in revenue that you likely need.
Plus, there’s consumers’ changing relationship to brands. People are increasingly looking to support businesses that align with their values and are invested in the issues they care about, says brand strategist Ashani Mfuko, who has worked with Bloch, Capezio and Joffrey Ballet School. “If we don’t feel represented or feel that we’re not valued, then we won’t support.”
Showing your customers what you care about through a smart and thoughtful marketing strategy will be essential for keeping them engaged—and generating revenue. Use these dos and don’ts to guide you.
Do: Learn more.
Marketing during this time won’t just mean educating yourself about the latest Google Search trends or Facebook features. It’ll also require knowing what’s happening in the world, and how that relates to your business.
For example, before you post a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, you should be well-versed in how racial injustice impacts your community. And when communicating COVID-related information, make sure it’s credible and up-to-date—and that your offer (especially if it involves gathering in person, like a class or a performance) follows current safety guidelines. Customers can tell when marketing is coming from a place of research and knowledge, and when it’s not.
Don’t: Quit if you make a mistake.
“Audiences are holding organizations accountable in ways they haven’t in the past,” says diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Kim Crowder. It’s understandable, then, for small businesses to fear getting “canceled”—but this fear shouldn’t mean that you stay silent about issues that matter. “When you don’t say or do anything because of fear, that promotes and enables more inactivity,” says Jade “Soul” Zuberi, an anti-racism educator and a professional dancer.
Instead of avoiding potential mistakes by being timid in your marketing, know that you’re inevitably going to have some missteps along the way—and that’s okay. Reframe being “called out” as a learning opportunity. You probably receive feedback from your customers all the time that you use to improve your business—think of this in the same way.
Don’t: Jump on every social media bandwagon.
Many dance businesses participated in #BlackOutTuesday, posting a black square on Instagram with the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused. But some, including ballet companies with few dancers of color, were criticized for their lack of self-awareness and many have since returned to their regularly scheduled programming. “Months have passed, and they haven’t done anything else,” says Zuberi. “What are you doing now that will actually make that black square have weight to it?”
Before you join in on a social media or marketing trend, make sure you and your work are authentically aligned with the cause in a way that your audience can see. “You can’t post in solidarity and then uphold the reason it had to be posted in the first place,” says Zuberi, who cited Starbucks as an example of a business acting for the wrong reasons when it designed BLM shirts only after backlash for reportedly banning employees from wearing their own.
If a trend doesn’t feel like it’s in alignment with your values or work as a company, skip it, and find another way to communicate to your customers what’s important to you.
Do: Showcase your values in your posts.
Marketing should reflect what you say you value as a business owner, says Mfuko. “We should see it within your organization, your products, your website and your marketing. You shouldn’t even have to say it; we should be able to see it.” If you’ve stepped up during the pandemic to help your community by making masks or offering free virtual dance classes, for example, or if you’ve always been committed to having a diverse staff, be sure to showcase those things in your marketing.
But if you’re finding that your marketing still doesn’t feel authentic, it may be a sign that this is a business issue that goes much deeper than just marketing. After all, you can’t take a values-first approach to marketing if you aren’t already living your values in your day-to-day operations. If your teaching staff is all-white, for instance, or your product line only works for dancers with certain skin colors or physiques, you’ll need to take the time to consider how you can move forward differently as a business—and acknowledge to your customers that you’re committed to doing better.
Shaté L. Hayes—writer, educator and founder of TheWorkingDancer.com—has an extensive background as a professional dancer/choreographer and is a passionate advocate for career empowerment.