Over Thanksgiving, I was able to interview Melanie Deas and Rebecca Lane who head up the Link Centre in Tupelo, MS. Tupelo is a town of about 40,000 people, the birth place of Elvis Presley – king of Rock n’ Roll – my hometown, and consistently impresses me with the cultural density and talent it produces. I’ve been going to events sponsored by the Tupelo Ballet, Tupelo Symphony and Tupelo Community Theater since I was a kid and have high school friends that have had their bands featured on national TV shows and have even played at Carnegie Hall.
The Link Centre is a organization that furthers this history of cultural and community development as a “non-profit that helps bring together arts, entertainment, culture, education and health” by serving several purposes:
- Community Cultivator (I’m willing to share the title). They provide a training facility for senior services and art studios, sponsor events such as music classes for kids, a culinary arts program, real estate education classes, hula hooping classes (Hoop-elo), film and music series, after school programs, etc.
- Community Coordinator. By “linking” the efforts of other local non-profits, they help bring people together for the purpose of improving Tupelo’s cultural footprint.
- Multi-tenant non-profit center. The Link Centre is housed in the old Harrisburg Baptist Church where the Salvation Army and Girl Scouts also serve as anchor tenants. Additionally, they provide affordable office space for other local, non-profits and act like a non-profit incubator for the community which helps to foster collaboration opportunities.
Listen to the entire interview
The programs organized by the Link Centre are targeted at providing value to the entire community – from infants to elders. Their independent film series has included everything from a documentary on the furniture industry to the animated version of Flatland (very cool) and generally includes someone involved with the film, such as the director, writer or producer. Typically, this attracts a subject-specific audience as well as local film makers that benefit from conversations ranging from cinematography to production. This taps into the huge film community around the Mid-South and draws an audience ranging from 20-somethings and up.
Another example of the diverse audience attracted by the Link Centre’s events is the monthly music series that features a different genre each month. Typically, patrons for these events are in their 40′s and up, but there is also an appeal to a wide range of local musicians interested in collaborating with their peers.
Extending the audience even further are events like Hoop-elo that have had participants from 2 1/2 years old to 80.
Because of the diverse programs offered by the Link Centre, there is generally something for everyone. Patrons that are aware of these efforts are able to monitor upcoming events and select those that appeal to them – they look to the Link Centre as a highly localized organization that provides an ongoing stream of activities and serves as a consolidated source of local information.
One of the challenges that accompanies a wide-ranging target audience is knowing how to reach that audience. Melanie describes the Link Centre’s efforts as shotgun marketing – they have to use a variety of efforts to be effective.
Community College Collaboration
The Link Centre works in conjunction with Itawamba Community College to define and promote events. ICC utilizes Link Centre’s physical space and takes on the management and promotional role of specific events through their workforce development and continuing education programs. In two years, this has led to the participation of over 700 students.
Public Displays of Activities
A guerrilla tactic used to promote the Link Centre is public displays highlighting their programs, such as Hoop-elo. Not only does the Link Centre have classes in Hula Hooping, but this group goes to various community events to show off their skill. “You take people hula hooping with light up, LED hula hoops to a concert and … people notice.” There is even an integration with the Tupelo Public School PE programs.
The Pre-Symphony Dinner Series is an example of how Link Centre cross-promotes events for synergy. Before every symphony performance, the Culinary Arts program prepares an affordable, multi-course dinner in the same building as the event. Diners walk across the building after their meal and have reserved, VIP seating – which not only helps to promote the symphony, but the culinary arts program. In another effort, they doubled down on this strategy by hosting the dinner among a a city-wide art exhibit.
Online / Social Networking
Using social networking tools like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter is a new effort by the Link Centre, but has proven very effective. It allows them to quickly and cheaply (free) propogate information about upcoming events and offers a platform that patrons can use to provide feedback. There is still a struggle about how to most effectively use these tools and there is a limitation to the audience reach – elderly patrons frequently aren’t online – but they are happy with the experience so far.
One of the time costs for promoting online is the management of sites. New and updated event information must be posted on Tupelo.Net, Myspace, Twitter, Facebook, the Arts Commission website, etc. In fact, Rebecca has 2 pages of sites that have to be managed. Keeping all of this information current is tough, but the audience reach is worth the effort.
Historically, emails were sent from a standard email client, but this led to a 6-month backlog of updates and additions related to the mailing list. Melanie was able to resolve this issue by implementing the email campaign tool Constant Contact. Not only does Constant Contact allow individuals to manage their own subscriptions to emails, it also provides metrics about how effective these campaigns are – how many people are opening the messages, forwarding them, etc.
There is one criticism – Melanie would like some instruction on how to improve open rates. The data is great, but what do you do with it? Overall, though, it is direct, fast, inexpensive and seems effective.
Direct Mail is successful for certain efforts such as reaching older patrons, fund raising and sending announcements to Symphony Dinner patrons. The general advice is: know your audience and use direct mail accordingly – and definitely use bulk mail to reduce costs.
In cities that have higher population densities, there are numerous publications that promote local events, but in areas with less density, these publications have limited effectiveness because either they 1) don’t have suitable focus (state wide versus town/region) or 2) aren’t published in a timely manner (yearly, quarterly).
That being said, the Link Centre does do some print promotions in the local paper, especially in the free event postings section. There is also a new local publication the Link Centre is working with called ShakeMag that focuses on community activities in the Tupelo area.
Melanie has had a television spot produced and was happy with the quality, but it was not clear what effect, if any, the ad had. Her opinion now is, while there might be an event in the future that seems more suitable for this type of promotion, for the time being she is avoiding it as an expensive option that is difficult to measure the success of.
The Link Centre has dabbled with a Donor Program that offers free or discounted events to donors based on their contribution amount with levels starting at $100. This program is still in its early phase so the results aren’t in yet.
PSA’s (Public Service Announcements)
Local television stations and radio stations have budgeted time for PSA’s and Melanie makes sure that the Link Centre gets its fair share. One example is being included on the Weather Channel’s crawl (the news that scrolls across the bottom of the screen).
As always, word of mouth rules. While this is harnessed in part by the viral tools built into social networking, there are also powerful case studies of influencers spreading news to their personal networks. In one case, the mother of a home grown star of the Lawrence Welk program did a great job promoting her son’s upcoming show in Tupelo to her friends (big fans of Lawrence Welk). Word of mouth gets people in the door which creates an opportunity to turn these consumers into passionate patrons that will return again and again.
Word of mouth is also the primary way that other non-profits keep up with what their peers are doing. This is great to generate peer support of programs, but the information flow can be inefficient – you hope that relevant news makes its way to you.
People stay connected in different ways and the key is to promote in the various places that your patrons look for information. Social networks and online resources, email, direct mail, and local publications lead these efforts, but it’s important to know which are best suited for the specific information you are trying to disseminate.
There are a couple of key ways that the Link Centre simplifies their efforts:
- Constant Contact makes email campaigns much more effective and easier to manage.
- Adobe’s Contribute is used to manage the Link Centre’s website and allows Melanie and Rebecca to update the site without having to rely on a web developer.
- Paypal is used as a quick and easy way to process ticket purchases. It is a “very simple and cost effective tool” for the Link Centre to add this functionality for patrons. Very, very clever.
- The partnership with Itawamba Community College has allowed the Link Centre to off load some of their promotional and organizational efforts.
- Quickbooks is replacing the Link Centre’s traditional use of physical books and has made things much easier while consolidating information.
The first measure of success is how many people show up for events. Beyond that, the Link Centre monitors web traffic of their site on a monthly basis and has discovered most people are focused on the events page, buying tickets and making donations. This provides Melanie guidance on where to spend time… making sure this information is up to date.
Future efforts of measuring success might include in-house surveys to find out how people discover events. This not only would provide supplemental information to metrics available from web promotions, but would help close the loop on determining the effectiveness of off line promotions like newspaper advertisements.
Words of Advice
Running an organization like the Link Centre is challenging, but don’t give up and try not to get frustrated. Cultural development is a valuable service and shouldn’t be viewed as extraneous, but as a critical part of the community.
- December 5, 2009. Gallagher. It’s unknown if he will be using locally sourced, organic watermelons, but it should be fun nonetheless.
- December 12, 2009. Christmas by Candlelight Symphony with Pre-symphony dinner and post-concert reception
- January 8, 2010. Marty Stuart Concert to benefit the three anchor tenants of the Link Centre (Link Centre, Salvation Army and Girl Scouts)
- Every Tuesday at 1PM – CPR and AED courses sponsored by the Weston Reed Foundation
- Every Tuesday at 6PM – Hoop-elo
- Monthly (resuming in January). Independant Film Series
- Monthly (resuming in January). Monthly Music mix
Keep up to date with the official calendar.
Connect With Link Centre
Link Centre (Map)
1800 W. Main, Box 12
Tupelo, MS 38801
Make a Donation: http://www.link-centre.org/support.html
Facebook Group: http://www.facebook.com/LinkCentreTupelo
Melanie has been the Executive Director of the Link Centre for almost 3 years where she is responsible for a variety of roles, including event planning, box office management, and house management. She has a background in theater and university tour and event planning with an undergraduate focus on History and Literature (Harvard) and graduate work in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism (Yale).
Rebecca has been the Community Developer for the Link Centre since June of 2009 and supports Melanie’s role as well as spearheads Link Centre’s social media efforts. She focused on Elementary Education at Itawamba Community College and owned and operated Gum Tree Montessori and More attended by her two daughters.