The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)
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PUBLICIZING FOLK DANCING WITH MEETUP.COM
As the person responsible for publicity for the Pasadena Folk Dance Co-op, I have made a concerted effort to attract new participants and have had some success. We have about two new people every week now. Of course, only a small percentage stay with us and become regular members, but this is quite an improvement over recent years. Of course, we are thrilled when this happens. More than a third of these new people come from Meetup.com.
Everyone recognizes the need to attract more dancers, and I wanted to share with you one component of our successful efforts. So this article is about making good choices when setting up a Meetup group for your folk dance club. I am not a Meetup expert, but I made some mistakes along the way and you can learn from me what to do and not to do.
Several years ago at a Pasadena Co-op board meeting, a member suggested we try joining Meetup.com. At that time, in our ignorance, the board decided not to do it. I forgot all about Meetup, although in the intervening years, I became responsible for publicity. One of our other members suggested I try setting up a Meetup group in order to promote our group. Meetup is a social media company that you can use to promote your folk dance group. This for-profit company helps local groups organize and promote themselves. You can use it to try to get new members for your group. Organizing a group in 2013 costs $45.00, but membership for individuals is free.
I enter our group in many different online listings, so, when it was suggested we join Meetup, I quickly set up a Meetup site before dashing off on a short ski vacation. When I returned, to my thrill and horror, I discovered we had 32 Meetup members, all new people! We were not prepared for this. To make things worse, because I had explicitly stated that people did not need to RSVP, our group did not know how many people to expect that night. Was it going to be 2 or 32? I alerted our group, we brought extra food, and hoped for the best. Only two new people showed up. The next week, much to our surprise, we had about eight new people, all beginners, so our teacher altered his teaching plans on the spot to accommodate them.
Suggestion 1: Don't disable the RSVP function.
You need to have an idea what to expect.
Suggestion 2: Be prepared.
About 72 hours after you set up the Meetup group, an "email blast" will go out to every Meetup member (who shares an "interest topic" with you) within a 50 mile radius of the ZIP code you give for where your group is located. That email blast will never occur again, so you need to do everything you can to show the new visitors a good time so they will stay with you. If you have a good number of RSVPs, be prepared with good informational signs as to where to park, where to enter the building, and use your best teachers to teach your best beginning dances. You might even persuade some of your regulars to park in less desirable places that first night so the newbies can park in the best locations. Of course, you want everyone to be especially friendly to the newbies.
Suggestion 3: The 15 "topics" for your group are crucial.
They can be different from those you use for yourself when you join Meetup. Use "topics" that reach out to a lot of people, so many will receive information about your group during the email blast. About half of the new people we attracted had never heard of folk dancing until they received the Meetup email announcing our group. I had good success by selecting the following: Contra Dance, Dance, Dance Lessons, Dancing, Exercise and Fun, Folk Dancing, Friends, Fun Times, International Folk Dancing, Make New Friends, New in Town, Newly Single, Night Life, and Social. Bad choices would be things that are too specific, like Romanian Folk Dance, unless that is the focus of your group. If you want to reach out to those of middle age and beyond (as we do), include "topics" such as: Retirees, Seniors, and Widows and Widowers. A new "topic" I especially like is Empty Nester. As you enter your 15 "topics," Meetup will suggest additional related "topics," and Meetup will let you know how popular each "topic" is. Then you can change your "topics" if you wish.
Suggestion 4: Give strokes.
Whenever someone joins a Meetup group, you will receive a notice. You should send that new member a welcoming message, such as, "I'm delighted that you joined the Pasadena Folk Dance Co-op. This is a perfect time to join us because we are having a month of beginner-friendly teaching. If you haven't already, see our website at . . . Let me know if you have any questions. I hope to see you soon!" You can set up your Meetup site so that these welcoming messages are automatically generated. I don't do that, but you can. I look at each new member's Meetup public profile to see if he or she appears particularly promising. I look at their picture, the interests they have, what other groups they have joined, etc. If they look like they will be a good fit for our group, I try to personalize my welcoming message to them. For example, if they are holding a cat in their picture, I would mention that I am a big cat fan.
Many of your new Meetup members will join but never show up to dance. It is easy to click to join a Meetup group, but much more difficult to walk into a room full of people you do not know and try to do something new to you. Many of your new members will never show up, but they are more likely to do so if they feel they know you. We make an effort to arrive early every week and attend beginning teaching, just so we can make sure new people have friendly advocates there in our group who will be helpful but not overwhelming. Of course, other members of our group are especially friendly to new dancers, but we never know who is going to be getting there early.
You should know that Meetup is visited by many, many single people in their 20s and 30s who tend to join Meetup groups, apparently hoping that someone of interest to them will also join the group, so they can exchange messages and perhaps date. These people will visit your Meetup site frequently at first, but will not show up at your group unless they see that someone they like has said they are going to your group. It's a waiting game for them. No amount of friendly messages from you is going ot get them to show up and dance. If you are lucky and have your RSVP option enabled, perhaps they may show up if someone interesting to them RSVPs.
Suggestion 5: Create buzz.
Get some of the more articulate and computer savvy members of your regular group to join the Meetup group. Remember, it is free to join; it only costs if you create a Meetup group. Ask them to comment to you and to one another about how much fun they had dancing in your group. They should not use it for routine communications but rather to let others see that you have a friendly, welcoming, fun group. People should write things that might interest or attract prospective members. Comments to others in your group with "inside" information are not helpful, and describing your many decades of dance experience may make it seem that your group is only for long-time, serious dancers. The objective of every single post should be to say, "Whether you already know how to dance or not, you will have a good time with our group."
Suggestion 6: Know when to quit.
After the first tow and a half months, the number of new people showing up from your Meetup site may have slowed to a trickle or stopped. Now it is time to decide whether to spend another $45.00 (cost may have changed) to renew for another three months. I have heard that some people take their site down, let it rest for a few months, and then restart it, thereby benefiting from the email blast a second time. One reason not to do this is if you have some promising looking members in your existing Meetup group who haven't shown up yet, but might do so in the near future. If you take down your Meetup group, you will no longer be able to contact those people and they won't receive updates about what is going on in your group. We continue to have new members join even three full months after I started the Meetup group, so I have continued it.
Suggestion 7: Instead of quitting your old Meetup group, start another Meetup group and benefit from the email blast a second time.
For your $45.00, you can have three Meetup groups. You don't want to have exactly the same name on the new group, so think of variation. Perhaps you want to try to attract a different kind of new member, so you can start a group with a slightly different name and change your "topics" list. For example, for our group, people of middle age would be desirable new members. So I am planning to alter the name of our group slightly and include in its "topics" list to attract an older population.
Suggestion 8: Be aware of geography.
Our group is in Pasadena, but I have had people join from Pacific Palisades and from Thousand Oaks. Most people are not as dedicated as some others, and would be discouraged by a horrific drive across town on Friday nights. I tell them I would be delighted to have them dance with us, but they might enjoy some other group that I suggest which is closer to where they live. Sometimes I suggest the metro, since our group is near two metro stops.
Meetup is not the only success we have had in attracting new dancers, but it is one that many of you might not know about. International Folk Dancing has so much to offer but many people don't know about it. I hope that if your group is trying to bring new people in, you will find some of my experiences to be valuable.
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, February 2013.
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