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Creativity Behind the Scenes: Institutional Marketing and Reality Television

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"There is no money in reality television. We made such a minor amount of money it wouldn't have made a dent in our bottom line from actual cashed earned. The bigger earning has been the institutional marketing." - Ballet West Artistic Director and "Breaking Pointe" cast member Adam Sklute

American's television viewers should not be strangers to ballet. The Bell Telephone Hour debuted as a radio program in 1940, continuing on television from 1959 - 1968, and introduced Americans to the ballet stars of the day like Rudolf Nureyev, Maria Tallchief, and Eric Bruhn. PBS has been doing its "Great Performances" series continuously since 1972, including it's 1976 addition of "Dance in America," focused solely on concert dance in the U.S. and heavily featured ballet works.

Dance, more broadly, exploded our imaginations when seen through the lense of the reality television format: 2005's "So You Think You Can Dance," 2008's "America's Next Dance Crew," and even 2011's "Dance Moms." Ballet had so far been excluded (or spared?) from this treatment until "Breaking Pointe," a 2012 reality show based around the daily operations of the artists of Ballet West, both onstage and off, and whose second season is set to premiere later this month. For the first time in American history, television was able to bring the average American into the dance studio and make them want to watch a dance rehearsal. Regardless if you like the show or not, we can all agree that this is no small feat.

What happens when we put a leading regional company into the living rooms of America?

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Artists of Ballet West in Marius Petipa's "Paquita." Photo by Luke Isley.

To understand the impact, let's view "Breaking Pointe" as the ultimate institutional marketing campaign; all of a sudden Ballet West has become a household name beyond their geographic region. As opposed to a programmatic campaign ("Buy tickets to this particular performance!"), institutional marketing is all about the larger brand and familiarizing potential audience members to the work the company does on a big picture level. (You can see how other dance organizations use social media to promote these two types of marketing here.)

John Roake, Ballet West's Director of Marketing, is keen to track trends and collect data to show the impact.

We saw the results of that exposure most dramatically in the number of hits on our website: The month that 'Breaking Pointe' premiered, we saw an increase of 1,287,368 hits over the previous month on the site. We also saw a dramatic increase in the sales of signed pointe shoes (for cast members) on our website. In one month we sold more shoes on the web than we had in the previous 12 months combined.

Since the premiere, the company has created television ads that they run locally with the program that gives the impression that the dancers featured in "Breaking Pointe" have just come off "the set" to talk with the audience. When paired with a stronger social media presence, piggy-backing off of the success of the show, Ballet West has found a unique way to market itself and build audience engagement.

One immediate marketing effect can be seen at the Ballet West Academy, who saw interest for their summer program quadruple. This puts the training program on a more competitive track and improves the quality of the students admitted. The faculty and quality of the training stayed constant, but the program suddenly became much more attractive because of strong institutional marketing.

Any not-for-profit performing arts organization does not rely on ticket sales alone to sustain their operations. Annually, 50 to 60 percent of Ballet West's revenue comes from contributions. If strong marketing leads to strong fundraising, what effect did "Breaking Pointe" have on Ballet West's donations?

Ballet West's Director of Development Denise Begue was keen to capitalize on the "behind the scenes" aspect of the show to get her supporters closer to the company, while simultaneously capitalizing on the exposure the company would have to new potential supporters.

We saw a 22% increase in the number of "Friends of Ballet West" donors (gifts under $500), from 844 donations to 1,081 Friends donations. While the increase is not entirely attributable to 'Breaking Pointe,' we know for a fact that the increased exposure has assisted the Company in making a first ask. The show has given the Company a way to reach younger, more tech-savvy donors, which historically have been the hardest to attract and retain.

Every arts organization works tireless to build new and younger audiences.

At least 80% of the conversations with new (especially younger) donors focuses on the Artists featured in Breaking Pointe, as they have become our own "celebrities," not only around town, but around the country. Breaking Pointe gives us, as a development team, another story to use when talking with donors about Ballet West. Additionally, it has provided our board members with another platform by which to introduce Ballet West to their friends and colleagues. It is an easy segue for staff and donors alike to say, 'Have you seen our Company on TV?'

"Breaking Pointe" has also turned the company into a cultural ambassador for the region, with the company seeing an increase in foundation and government funding. While not directly related, grant-making organizations should be thrilled that the company has developed nationwide exposure.

Finally, with such a larger platform to curate, did Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute change his artistic programming, knowing that his choices of repertory and dancers would be seen and judged across the country?

Absolutely not. Diversity and versatility - as an American dance company that is paramount for us - that is what we are all about. I have always have and always will aspire to present programming that appeals to everyone. Programming that some people will enjoy. Programming that some people will be challenged by. To me, it is really important that we continue to grow the artform and the art: to expose people to those great classics and push the artform forward.

The first season of "Breaking Pointe" revolved around the preparations for a triple bill program, featuring Jiri Kylian's "Petit Mort," George Balanchine's "Emeralds," and Marius Petipa's classical showstopping suite from "Paquita." Dance lovers were thrilled but seemingly hungry for more. If we are able to reach new audiences with this format, where was the dancing? Sklute is sympathetic,

The Balanchine Trust is very protective of their work, but have always been very supportive of us and love that we do the works. While they approved the company to perform the works, they didn't know what would be filmed for the show, how it would be filmed, and what would be shown, so I can see why they would be hesitant to allow to allow too much exposure. I completely respect the Trust, and also the Kylian Foundation, but the unfortunate side of this was that we weren't able to show as much dancing as I would have liked.

Another artistic side effect of the show are the increased opportunities for the dancers of Ballet West (not just the dancers who are featured) to receive outside guest performance opportunities, which only gives the company additional exposure outside of Salt Lake City.

The icing on the cake for dance advocates is that the show is reaching more young people (with thumbs connected to social media) nationally than any other dance awareness campaign. In theory, the show is successfully reaching a younger demographic, a challenge for all arts organizations. Will other dance companies across the country see their audience engagement increase as well? Time will tell.

I would like to offer the administration of Ballet West a challenge: collect impeccable data for the rest of us.

Ask yourselves what sort of impact the show is having on the operations of the company, and how can you measure this and show dance funders the impact a strong institutional marketing campaign can have on performing arts organizations. It is still too soon for us to understand the exact impact of the show (season one premiered during last summer when the company was not performing) but season two will surely build on last year's momentum and yield more critical information on the effects of program to the organization. I invite Ballet West to revisit this conversation with me in a year to further understand the impact of this partnership. Albert Einstein reportedly once asked fellow physicist Neils Bohr, "Does the Moon exist if no one is looking at it?" Keep up the good work Ballet West - the world is finally watching.

"Breaking Pointe" Season 2 premieres on the CW on July 22, 9pm/8pm Central.