How to build community around your brand, cause or event

Singer Katie Noonan performs at the Woodford Folk Festival

Singer Katie Noonan performs at the Woodford Folk Festival

Last week I attended the Woodford Folk Festival for the first time in 9 years. It’s been amazing to witness the growth of this festival, particularly as I was involved as a marketing consultant to the festival 13 years ago.

I had just finished uni when I got the call from Bill Hauritz, asking me if I wanted to come and work for them. I had never even been to a festival at that stage. It was definitely a steep learning curve and one I am grateful for, as I learned a lot through that experience.

Unlike a lot of other large festivals that have experienced organic growth, Woodford has managed to stay community-focused and maintain its point of difference over the 28 seasons it has been on.

The event has survived financial hardship, torrential rain and even a community uprising.

So, what makes Woodford so unique as a major event and why has it been able to successfully negotiate such difficult obstacles without losing its audience?

#1 Personalised direct marketing to loyal followers has always been the central marketing technique

Long before personalised email marketing campaigns became the method of choice to reach and develop relationships with potential clients, Woodford Director Bill Hauritz was dedicatedly sending out personal letters (by snail mail) to the Woodford Folk Festival mailing list.

Bill’s letters would always contain personal anecdotes, the highs the lows and everything in between. There were no marketing pitches or manipulative messages (other than the obvious… get your tickets quick… fair enough!).  You always felt like Bill was talking directly to you.

Nowadays the Festival sends these letters via email but I still feel they could capitalise on this relationship-building exercise a lot more than they do. It’s clear they have a loyal and dedicated following. Their repeat visitor rates are incredibly high. Why not grow the relationships by emailing more frequently?

Interestingly, I couldn’t find an obvious mailing list subscribe form on either their very active Facebook page or their website. This is an area for improvement, for sure.

#2 Woodford consistently over delivers on what it promises

There’s nothing more disappointing than attending an event that sounds great on paper and turns out to be a dud. I have never had that experience at Woodford. Every aspect of the festival is put together lovingly and thoughtfully, from the artists’ program to the venue décor.

While there is always room for improvement with an event covering an area bigger than some small towns, I have seen some significant improvements since I first worked for the festival. The electronic ticketing makes the entry process seamless and the organisation of camping venues and shuttle buses, makes attending the festival easy.

At the dance venue at Woodford

Festival goers old and young hula-it-up at the dance venue

One of the things I love about Woodford is that it attracts such a mixture of talented people, from high profile, famous people (including Australia’s Prime Minister this past festival) as well as grandmas, parents with small children and people with disabilities. It is a melting pot of culture, thought leadership and joy! And everybody’s in it together!

drinking green smoothies at the festival

Green smoothies boost festival goers' energy!

I saw an elephant wandering down one of the festival lanes and had to blink. It took me a few moments to realise that it was a street theatre act. During the evening a lantern parade lit the streets of Woodfordia and I fumbled around for my camera. People waited patiently for the loos and to get into venues and even those sitting outside the packed venues in the rain couldn’t find a reason to complain.

There are a few events that inspire this kind of harmony.

#3 Woodford employs the High School Musical Principle

Bill’s philosophy has always been to get as many unique people involved as possible and this has always been a key to the event’s success. It was he who taught me about the High School Musical Principal.

The opportunities for piggyback marketing are endless when you have hundreds of performers, community organisations, thought leaders and politicians involved in your event.

Social media has amplified this too. This year, so many of my friends were tweeting and sharing images from the festival on Facebook… and not just people who were in my festival circles.

One thing I did notice was that, while the festival has an awesome Facebook presence, their Twitter presence is wanting. For the folk festival to only have 2726 followers on Twitter, is, in my opinion, a travesty. Being active on Twitter is a great way to network with thought leaders and build your profile. Given that the festival has hundreds of performers and community leaders involved, it should have thousands of followers on Twitter! Given how difficult it’s getting to be seen on Facebook, building a following on Twitter would be a good strategy.

They also have no Google Plus presence and given so many thought leaders interact on Google Plus (and this is growing now that Google has introduced Google Communities), I think this is an area for growth.

Lastly, Woodford’s website does not have a blog. Gasp! Now I realise I’m a tad biased, but a blog would help them promote the festival more widely, develop those crucial relationships with loyal fans (and give them more reason to share about the event throughout the year) and give their artists more opportunities to contribute. A blog would certainly add value to their marketing efforts, not to mention their search engine optimisation and social profiles.

If you have never attended the Woodford Folk Festival, I highly recommend you do, but if you’re a small business, cause or event wanting to learn how to build community around your brand, you might find these pointers helpful.

How do you build community around your brand, cause or event? I invite you to share below.

  • Michelle Nichols

    Enjoyed reading your post cas. i’m doing the UBC too and your article has inspired an idea for a blog post. Good luck with challenge.

    • Cas McCullough

      Thanks Michelle! Glad to hear it!

  • Sally Thibault

    We attended Woodford this year for the very first time, after many years of ‘wanting’ to go, but because of rain, hot temperatures, or just plain ‘its too far too hard’, we didn’t attend. And I am disappointed that we didn’t make the effort in the years past. We just loved our experience this year, it is a wonderful festival and a celebration of all things creative. We were there for 12 hours and it felt like only a few! Brilliant concept. I think you have captured the spirit of the festival and I agree with you, there are many things a small business can learn about how the festival has grown to become such an incredible event and it truly did over deliver on all aspects

    • Cas McCullough

      Awesome Sally! So glad you got to attend and I loved reading your comment on Facebook about your experience on the shuttle bus too.

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