When one thinks of Cirque du Soleil, beautiful imagery and athleticism come to mind long before the nitty gritty business operations. The team at Cirque du Soleil works hard to maintain these images and the mystique that go with every one of its shows. However, just as many businesses are these days, the company is using a mix of blogger relations and social network outreach to help grow attendance for all of its home and traveling shows.
Jessica Berlin, Cirque du Soleil's social media manager, first came onto the social media radar after Chris Brogan sang her praises 18 months ago for her keen view of blogger relations, and how endearing bloggers to the Cirque brand eventually helped publicity for the show. Previously a publicist for Cirque, she had long been networking online and made a point of meeting as many influencers in person as she could.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes companies make is trying to just pitch bloggers," she said. "Social media doesn't work like traditional public relations. You have to form a relationship with someone first and foremost before they are interested in blogging about you and your brand."
A bit of a pioneer for Cirque du Soleil, Berlin says that her current position was created after she became an advocate for giving bloggers the same access that Cirque would give to any mainstream media outlet.
"I strongly believe that bloggers can tell the story of our shows better than anyone else because its not as formal as a magazine articles or as structured as something in the paper. It is someone's first-person account of their experience and so many readers will trust their opinion on the show," Berlin said.
More important, Berlin understands that the new influencers, or those who serve niche interest groups, might be better at driving awareness to the audience that Cirque wants versus some of the mainstream press.
"Just because a blog may not have the same number of views or readers as a magazine or newspaper, that doesn't make them any less valuable," she said. "In fact, the smaller audience may actualy be a more targeted/relevant audience for Cirque and potential ticket sales."
According to Berlin, this success did not come overnight. There was a lot of internal education that was important, to ensure that upper management saw the value in engaging with bloggers along with traditional media. She also said that it took a bit of trial and error to figure out the best way to leverage social media followers and have them become evangelists for the brand.
"People don't usually understand the legwork that goes into making a post about one of our shows happen. While I'm lucky to work for a brand so many people have an emotional connection to, that doesn't mean they will write about us. It took a while to educate people internally on the process."
What Berlin is doing, from blogger relations to managing both Twitter and Facebook channels for Cirque, is an extension of what the company has been doing since its inception. Simply stated: word of mouth marketing. Cirque du Soleil was started 25 years ago by a group of street performers who relied on word of mouth to get attention for their performances. In a way, social media allows Cirque to go back to its roots.
To this end, Cirque has made a concerted effort around touring shows OVO and Kooza, which are on separate touring schedules. Specific to OVO, Berlin said that word-of-mouth has been key in creating demand for the show.
"The nice thing about OVO is that once people see the show, it speaks for itself and word-of-mouth has been strong online since it premiered," Berlin said. "This too also comes back to blogger outreach and trying to get bloggers we already have relationships with to see the show early in its run when it comes to their town."
Berlin says that the traveling shows are only in one city for a few weeks or days at a time, so social media efforts are focused on in-market tactics.
"We work on targeting particular city blogs or people with strong local followings. At the same time, we’re also looking at the next city the show will be traveling to. With a permanent production we look at more generic blogs (i.e. mom blogs, music, travel, celebrity) that have larger reach as well as people with a really large Twitter audience so we can spread the word to as many people as possible," she said.
Word of mouth marketing and blogger relations has also been key in drawing attention to its newest Vegas show, Viva ELVIS. Berlin said that the premiere event drew top tier bloggers Perez Hilton and @AdventureGirl, which helps keep the show top of mind even for people who aren't intending to travel to Vegas in the near future. Specifically for this show, Cirque du Soleil used video of the performers traveling to Graceland gain inspiration for their performances. The videos were hosted both on the Cirque du Soleil site and on the show's Facebook fan page, which according to Berlin drew great support.
More than blogger relations and social network outreach, listening tools are key to fueling a successful social media program. Cirque du Soleil uses Radian 6 to help monitor converations, influence, tonality and reach.
"Through our monitoring we've been able to identify our influencers and these are some of the people we regularly with work but we’re always discovering new bloggers who are able to help spread news about our brand," she said. "Internally, our executives like seeing particular blog postings as well as the week to week growth of our channels. Another thing we look at is how conversations are growing month to month in blogs, comments, etc. Are there more or fewer online conversations happening? We want to know which shows are being mentioned the most/least and for what reasons."
Berlin says that direct metrics include sales tracking. She posts discounts that are exclusive to Twitter and Facebook fans, which at zero cost to Cirque, helps to quickly spread the word of the shows.
"We've had great success with this and pushing last-minute ticket sales, yielding great ROI."
Berlin is quick to point out that a social media program such as this cannot just be a hit here and there; it has to have longevity and permanence to really be effective for Cirque du Soleil's business. For example, Cirque needs to sell 120,000 tickets per week for Viva ELVIS alone.
"Just because a show has opened doesn't mean promos stop since there are always tickets to sell," Berlin said. "I'm looking forward to some really cool initiatives that we'll be launching this year."
Images of OVO courtesy of Cirque du Soleil