First, a disclosure: I am an amateur competitive ballroom dancer. I spend a lot of my free time on a dance floor. At the same time, I spend 100% of my working life practicing and thinking about marketing. After countless lessons, social events and even a few competitions as a 2-year student of dance, I think I’ve learned enough to draw some meaningful parallels between these two worlds.
What can ballroom dancing teach us about marketing strategy?
1. Partnership. A central idea in ballroom dancing is that communication between two individuals who constitute a couple is paramount. In order for a dance to be truly dynamic and vital, the central force must be stronger than one person. Just as a pair of dancers move around one shared point, marketing of the future needs to cohere across an organization, as well as meet the needs of different audiences. When ballroom dance partners coordinate around a central force and use the principles of resistance, balance and Newton’s laws of motion, they give off an “electric” vibe where their movements appear effortless.
At the same time, truly dynamic (or electric) marketing stems from a having a deep understanding of what an audience desires. “Partnering” with your audience by getting in its head, gently leading it, following it where it wants to go, and reading its body language (i.e., social signals and consumption patterns) leads to excellent performance.
A great audience-brand relationship also results from communicating valuable and highly relevant information to customers. Actively engaging with their partners while being resourceful helps dancers relate better to each other … and marketers relate better to their audiences.
Ballroom dancing has roles of “leads” and “follows,” just as brands and their audiences play distinct roles, sometimes leading, sometimes following. Audience input and perspective is at least as important as the brand perspective. Who is leading, who is following? Are you both playing roles around a shared goal? There are times for a brand to lead, but a brand also needs to listen in order to follow its audience when appropriate.
2. Performance (aka, the show). Competitive ballroom is nothing if not visually compelling. Judges put a premium on costumes, style, energy and how well you grab an audience’s attention, in addition to the fundamentals of technique. Content audiences have no less an expectation. Their consumption preferences are no different … so the great stuff stands out. In a world where presentation of content is essential to its attractiveness, marketers must never forget the power of the package and what makes their star content desirable and share-able.
3. Discipline. In order to be a great competitor, you need to practice every day. Talent alone is not enough. And you can’t rely on one or two moments of brilliance to carry you through. Same thing in marketing: You need to share and promote your messages regularly. Just producing a message does not guarantee it gets amplified … or even seen. You need to hustle to distribute it to different places, communicate it in different ways (depending on audience/medium), and repeat it with consistency so people have a chance to see and remember your great stuff. In a sense, you need to practice every day, or attend to all the smaller details that add up to a big impact.
4. Details. Speaking of details, there’s a reason for the old saying, “The devil is in the details.” They’re powerful yet easy to overlook. Just as musicality, i.e., how well a dancer responds to distinctive qualities of a particular song in a given dance, is a ballroom judging favorite, so too are the details of your marketing strategy. You can’t just play the same song for every piece of content you produce, for example. You need to know exactly how to adapt it for users based on their context.
Using the wrong language or presenting the wrong format can kill a great idea, e.g., your Facebook post is too formal or your desktop-oriented website breaks down on mobile. Your website form doesn’t accurately track data. Your marketing automation platform doesn’t talk to your CRM, and vice-versa. Your users don’t get the benefit of relevant content or personal communication. All of this dissonance makes judges (your audience) frown.
5. Rewards. Just as outstanding dance performances merit awards, so should your customers get praise for being great. When customers do great things (with your help, naturally), highlight their successes. You not only make them feel valued, but you will inspire future customers who might identify with those stories. The cycle of brand advocacy revolves around recognition and appreciation. If you appreciate your customers with passionate service, they will want to reward you with their business … and their friends’ and partners’ businesses. Judges give giant trophies to great ballroom performances, and great marketers acknowledge and share the successes of their customers in reporting, testimonials and case studies.
Happy customers reward marketers with loyalty.
6. Floor craft. Dance floors can get crowded. Good ballroom and social dancers don’t dance too big on a crowded floor. They expand their strides when space allows. Dancers always need to be aware of their surroundings and make quick decisions in order to avoid/minimize collisions. The act of navigating a busy dance floor is called floor craft; it is an often underrated mark of a savvy dancer. During my most recent competition, one fellow competitor accidentally hit my arm with her outstretched hand. Since I was grounded in my feet and knew exactly where my partner and I were on the floor, the impact was negligible. The invading limb crossed my eye; it didn’t break my stride or concentration.
At the same time, savvy marketers are aware of what their competitors are doing and how the contours of the industry landscape shape the path(s) before them. They know the dimensions of the room, where to step, and how to avoid conflict (brand or channel). Marketers who show great floor craft know the importance of brand integrity and cross-channel consistency, i.e., how well content experiences translate across media and devices. They don’t take the one-size-fits-all approach. They personalize for audience and medium.
7. The spotlight. Sometimes individual performers take the floor as a couple, threesome or small group. Known as a “solo,” this kind of routine is choreographed and rehearsed in advance to one particular song. It requires an outsize amount of dedication and repetition in order to execute with excellence. Thus it commands the exclusive attention of judges and crowds on a competition floor.
Much the same with premium content, marketers should be highlighting their best stuff and giving it the appropriate stage. This may warrant collecting information in exchange for its use (e.g., completing a registration form in order to attend a webinar) or charging a fee for access. Either way, the spotlight is what should shine on the most polished performances or pieces of content. Not all dances are created equal, and not all content is created equal. Use editorial discretion and give the best stuff its proper due; prioritize elite content over lesser-value offerings.
This applies to communication strategies, too. Since time and attention spans are finite, allocate more message space and frequency to the grade-A material. Save the second-rate messages for later, and don’t give them the same focus you would the top content. Basically, know how to present your winners by rolling out the red carpet and demanding respect. Ask for value (monetary, informational) in exchange for value.
Be a ballroom marketer
Ultimately, thinking like a ballroom dancer means being flexible in your marketing. It means experimenting, testing and refining. Iterations. New technologies and media. In a collaborative marketing partnership—e.g., one involving strategists, designers, writers, specialists, PR people, analysts—engaging constructively with a variety of creators ensures the final creation is stronger than it would otherwise be if produced in isolation.
At the same time, collectively putting the audience first means you will delight them if you take the time and know what you’re doing. And the delighted audience is the one that can’t help but come back for more.