One of the big buzzwords these days is “community” — everyone is supposed to try to engage a community, or contribute to one or, somehow, create one. We all know that you can’t just snap your fingers and have an engaged community. So how do you do it?
Here in Portsmouth, NH, we are lucky to have many examples of vibrant community engagement. One in particular, 3S Artspace, has quickly become one of Portsmouth’s hottest new spots. They built an engaged community from the ground up over the past 6 years or so, successfully converting individuals, businesses and fellow arts and culture organizations into a passionate following. We at Vital are big fans and supporters of 3S Artspace, and since they’ve been so successful in building an authentic and engaged community, we thought we would see what we can learn from them about engaging and converting a community.
3S Artspace (known simply as “3S” to locals) opened its physical doors officially in March 2015, and is a community cultural hub made up of three main spaces: a performance space, a non-commercial art gallery and a locally-sourced restaurant. (The fourth space or “silent S” is coming in phase two: affordable artist studios.) But although it hasn’t been long since they opened their physical location, they have been a presence in the Seacoast community for years.
“Our ultimate goal is for 3S to be a place where the community comes together. While our mission is to present emerging and unconventional art, we also strive to a create place for the community to gather, where everyone feels welcome, and add a new dimension to the creative landscape here on the Seacoast.”
— Celeste Ladd, Communications & Development Manager, 3S Artspace
How did this arts and culture destination go from a dream to a ragtag team of volunteers to a reality that is the new hot spot in town? And what can we take away from their story to help us engage and convert our own communities?
Don’t wait for perfection to start making and sharing great stuff.
Long before they had an address, 3S was organizing art shows and concerts and community events. As far back as 2009, 3S was organizing cultural events all over the region, from transforming a motel into an interactive art show to concerts and films around the city and region. This willingness to “show, not tell” their vision by not waiting for their own venue to bring cool arts and cultural events to the city helped 3S prove their mission and build community buy-in. They were also able to test their ideas in the wild and see what the community responded to as they worked on plans for their future home. By the time they opened their doors, a large portion of the community was already on board and excited to embrace them.
Takeaway: You don’t need 10,000 square feet of commercial office space and your own company manifesto to start building your audience. Start creating and sharing on your existing platforms. Let it build. See what sticks. Pay attention to what people are responding to. Be true to your vision but flexible to embrace a new direction if that’s where it takes you.
Know your surroundings.
If you’ve seen 3S, you might notice the unconventional rusty element to their exterior, an homage to the scrap metal piles that sat behind it (now a callback to them as they are no longer there). While this is a great tie-in to the area, by no means does the building blend in; it’s integrated with the community, it makes sense in context, but it’s not your average Portsmouth building. The name of their restaurant, Block Six, is a callback to a moniker from that neighborhood from several generations ago. Block Six’s menu speaks the local lingo, too, with partnerships with locally-farmed ingredients and waitstaff that seasoned Portsmouthians will recognize from other favorite local spots. By using local architects (McHenry Architecture) and local landscapers (Terra Firma Architects) who shared their passion for place, they were able to create a space that resonated with the Seacoast community, and specifically their spot in the Northern Tier of downtown Portsmouth.
Takeaway: In crafting your community, take a look at where your audience is currently spending their time. Pay attention to what websites they already enjoy using if you’re hoping to convert them with a website of your own. Listen to their key influencers and get a sense for the language that they speak. While you want to set yourself apart, you don’t want to alienate your potential community by coming out of left field with something confusing or not intuitive. Your community should make sense in context.
Push the boundaries.
Let’s face it — there’s probably not an existing fan base already in Portsmouth for jazz fused with rap. But that’s not stopping them from bringing it here. When was the last time you saw a show in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that incorporated Brazilian rhythms, Paraguyan harp, Andean mysticism and the solitude of Argentinian folklore? This isn’t something that people know they want yet, but 3S is bringing it to them. This type of risk-taking is paying off by establishing a reputation in the community for bringing new and different voices. And it’s not different just to be different. It takes an element of trust to spend $12 or $18 and a few hours to experience something you never heard of before — but 3S has established over the last few years that they have a discerning taste, so we’re in. We’re willing to take these risks with them.
Takeaway: You can’t just do what your competitors are doing. If you follow the lead of your peers, you’ll only ever be as good as they are (but a little bit behind). You have to take risks, show your audience something new, something they’ve never seen before. Be willing to fail, trusting that if you’re delivering something you really believe in, the community will catch on. And then you’ll be miles ahead of your competitors and they’ll try to start copying you.
Mix it up.
In addition to music shows and local theater productions, 3S Artspace has also been hosting community meetings, short film nights, comedy shows, networking events, poetry readings, award ceremonies and even a TEDx event. And that’s just in the performance space. The art gallery had offered an eclectic mix of visual, audio and movement installations, and the restaurant has gone through several menu transformations to fit seasonal ingredients and culinary trends (and a happy hour we Vitalians approve of!). 3S Artpace’s community learned really quickly that each time they visited, they were in for something completely different. They are excited to see the next thing. They are engaged.
Takeaway: There are SO many platforms and types of media through which you can convey your messages these days. Stuck in a traditional blog rut? Try recording your next one as a podcast, and reach a new audience. If you’re mostly engaging online, have you tried getting your community out to meet — in real life — at a fun event? On your homepage alone you could be engaging through video, social media, interactive tools, location-specific geotargeting, personalization and infographics (not that we’re saying you should be doing those all at once!). Mixing up your tactics will teach you new things about your audience — not to mention keeping your current audience engaged and coming back for more.
Not everything should have a price tag.
A non-commercial art gallery allows 3S to bring in art and artists that push the boundaries. Instead of having to bring in established, conventional art that will sell to keep the gallery in business, they surround the gallery with a restaurant (traditional commerce) and performance space (shows and events ranging from free to low and mid-range cost). This allows them the flexibility to bring in emerging artists into the gallery space that haven’t been heard from before. Sure, 3S Artspace as a whole needs to be financially sustainable as an organization, but keeping it affordable and accessible is a big part of their mission.
“By keeping our programming affordable and accessible, we hope that this space will continue to bring people together, both in our community and beyond, to experience art, music, and food in new & innovative ways.”
— Celeste Ladd, Communications & Development Manager, 3S Artspace
Takeaway: Offer something to everyone, and support your ecosystem with smart, diversified options. In marketing lingo, this is crafting your conversion funnel to offer free and easily accessible, useful information to tire-kickers in the Awareness phase; offering free premium content for serious shoppers in the Consideration phase (in exchange for contact information); and then of course, offering your services or products at a reasonable cost for buyers in the Decision phase.
Regardless of the kind of community you’re working within, all engaged communities have a common language they speak, a sense of place that defines them, an element of trust and the excitement of a shared experience.
Trying to create a space where community can come together? Look to the success of places like 3S Artspace:
Check out some of the amazing shows coming up at 3S Artspace (we try to keep this lineup updated, but please see 3Sarts.org for complete and up-to-date details):
- MUSIC — Wednesday, April 6th: Laura Gibson w/ Eric Ott
- FILM — Thursday, April 7th: Portsmouth Short Film Night
- MUSIC — Wednesday, April 13th: Sarah Neufeld, The Ridge w/ Eartheater
- MUSIC — Thursday, April 14th: Balance & Composure w/ Roger Harvey
- YOGA — Friday, April 15th: Kundalini Yoga w/ Karly Nihal
- DANCE — Friday, April 15th: Re<<Wind: “Just Can’t Get Enough” 80s dance party
- DANCE — Saturday, April 16th: Dance Classes w/ Neoteric Dance Collaborative
- MUSIC — Saturday, April 16th: Ballroom Theives Accompanied by Maine Youth Rock Orchestra
- YOGA — Friday, April 22nd: Kundalini Yoga w/ Karly Nihal
- DANCE — Friday, April 22nd: Boring Angel
- DANCE — Saturday, April 23rd: Dance Classes w/ Neoteric Dance Collaborative
- DANCE — Saturday, April 23rd: Boring Angel
- MUSIC — Saturday, April 23rd: Julien Baker
- ART — Tuesday, April 26th: Drink & Draw
- THEATER — Tuesday, April 26th: UNH John C. Edwards Undergraduate Prize Plays
- MUSIC — Wednesday, April 27th: Besnard Lakes
- YOGA — Friday, April 29th: Kundalini Yoga w/ Karly Nihal
- COMEDY — Friday, April 29th: Dorks in Dungeons, Season 4 Episode 8
- DANCE — Saturday, April 30th: Dance Classes w/ Neoteric Dance Collaborative
- MUSIC — Saturday, April 30th: Julianna Barwick