Troy Story: Tips for Reaching and Engaging Your Community

Stephanie Bleyer presented on Community Engagement at the 2012 Creative Capital Artist Retreat.

In 2011, the good citizens of Troy, Michigan hired some smart strategists and succeeded in saving their public library, thanks to a clever outreach and engagement campaign. The campaign united the community by creating a rallying cry that everyone could get behind, and (importantly) they used every medium available to them—old school and high tech tools—to get their message out. Check out this terrific 3-minute video about their efforts.
This summer, I spoke at Creative Capital’s Artist Retreat about effective outreach and engagement strategies. I started my talk by showing the Troy story. It’s not tied to a piece of art, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there that we can all learn from, including these tips:

  1. Turn a political issue into a moral issue. In the case of Troy, the organizers re-framed the issue from being about taxes to being about the value of books. Moving away from political divisiveness will help you engage a broader audience.
  2. Localize your campaign. If your work is about a big, national issue, enable and encourage local organizers to use your work to focus their community on a local issue. Providing a local avenue for action will yield the most impactful, long lasting campaign.
  3. Make it memorable. Online petitions­­—not memorable. Throwing a book burning party—memorable. Create a campaign that will get people talking. Texting too. But talking is better.
  4. Get off line. Having a lot of Facebook fans is not an engagement campaign. Use social media tools to compliment and push off-line action.

I work with filmmakers, artists, authors and nonprofits to develop, fundraise for and execute their engagement campaigns. My work is about getting people to get off their duff and do something. How can you and your work benefit from creating an engagement campaign?

  1. It will extend the shelf life of your work.
  2. It will bring you new audiences/venues.
  3. It will help you raise funding (many production funders want to know what your engagement plans are).

You may just find that the engagement campaign delivers concrete results in a way that helps you achieve goals unknown.
Beyond the standard protocol—establish goals, find partners, measure impact—here are a few of my best practices to consider when developing your campaign:

  1. Prevent action paralysis. Don’t give people 50 ways they can take action. Even ten is too many. Create clear, decisive actions around your issue, give people one, maybe two or three concrete choices, and inspire them to act.
  2. This is for filmmakers: Create a 30-min and 60-min version of your film. The first step of engagement is facilitating dialogue amongst your audience. Two-hour films do not leave enough time for dialogue. (For visual artists and photographers, the equivalent might be a paired-down version of your work).
  3. Create a short web video explaining your engagement campaign. Think of it as a film trailer, but made specifically to educate & engage people on how they can take action.
  4. Get beyond “raise awareness” and “take action.” These are clichés that funders read in every grant proposal. Get specific. If all you want to do is raise awareness, don’t ask for engagement funding. If you want people to take action, explain what that action is, how you are going to get them to take it and why it will help you achieve the goals of your campaign.
  5. Action shouldn’t be an afterthought. Don’t wait until your release or opening night to start developing an engagement campaign. You’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities to engage the public. Start planning early, be strategic and make a difference.

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