No matter how amazing your makerspace is, it’s not going to magically fill up with people if no one knows about it. Marketing is a critical piece of launching any small business or nonprofit, and it is often pushed to the back burner because there are so many other immediate concerns: hiring staff, getting the building ready, ordering equipment, and planning programming. Makerspaces tend to suffer from this oversight more than most, as they are typically DIY passion projects with limited staff bandwidth.
Fortunately, there are more paths to finding your audience than ever before. Many are free or inexpensive, and can be designed to precisely home in on the folks most likely to be interested in your services. Given the (mostly) niche interest in makerspaces, expensive ad campaigns are not the best way to get folks into your space. Instead, pairing a careful understanding of audience needs with targeted social media, face-to-face outreach, and strong word-of-mouth will go a long way towards building a robust makerspace community.
First and foremost, you’ve got to define your audience so you can figure out the best way to reach them. Way back in one of the very first Made in Baltimore posts we discussed basic market research. We used the Bureau of Labor Statistics website to parse out occupation categories that might be most interested in Open Works. Then, we layered in information for the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance and Policy Map to find out some more information about our immediately adjacent neighborhoods. Last, we went out and met folks – at community meetings, public events, meetings of other makerspaces – and gathered anecdotal impressions of what people were interested in.
The second, deeper layer of audience research is focus groups. We organized six, each clustered around an affinity group that we thought might find value in our space. For instance, we got seven local artists around a table and chatted about our price points, their unique needs, and programming ideas. Focus groups needn’t be expensive or complicated – for us it was as simple as buying a few pizzas and touring folks through the building. Online polling works as well, though the data is a little less trustworthy. We used Google Forms because they neatly itemize answers into a spreadsheet, which makes for easier parsing. Critical data points include best hours of operation, ideas for classes people would like to attend, comfort with price points, equipment needs, and support service needs (i.e. small-business services or similar).
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are the three pillars of social media these days, with Snapchat quickly gaining ground. There are many, many resources out there that are better informed that I am about how to grow a social media following, so I will just speak to our own experience. We have had a tremendous response on Instagram, a visual medium that is perfectly suited to building a narrative over the course of construction. Whenever I was on site, I would snap a few pictures or videos, and then post every morning before 8 AM. This seemed to ensure the most likes as folks scrolled through their feeds at breakfast and saw the post continually through the day. This no longer works quite as well now that Instagram has moved to an algorithm-based feed.
Facebook has taken more time. Facebook has gotten to be so sprawling it can be hard to rise above the noise. We seeded our following with some other friendly organizations throughout the city, and began posting regular construction updates, fun maker articles, and links to these blog posts. A few targeted ads helped grow the following. The ad system on Facebook is pretty incredible, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of how to best leverage that to get in front of the folks most likely to want to participate in Open Works. We have found that a lot of people message us through Facebook, or use it as their primary email system. This has been great for fielding general inquiries about membership, classes, and our calendar.
Twitter has been slow to take off. It is great when we’ve been at conferences or events – allowing us to participate in the hashtagged conversations occurring around us – but takes a lot of energy to build a following. We haven’t gotten into Snapchat yet, but keep an eye on our website – we’ll be establishing a channel eventually.
These posts have been a great way to tell our narrative to the wider world. While blog readership isn’t necessarily what it was back in the early 2000s, it is still a great way to control the story you want to tell about your space, document your process, and highlight makers and community members. Blogger and WordPress are the original blogging platforms; Medium is the new kid on the block, used by everyone from big news channels to President Obama. It provides a nice visual interface and a great tagging system to help folks find your content.
While we all hate spam, old-fashioned email is still a huge way to get in touch with folks. We built an initial email list for our groundbreaking celebration that included a couple hundred names of early supporters, local politicians, community leaders, neighbors, and contractors. As we took meetings and expanded our network, we kept adding names. Now, we have over 1,000 folks on our email list.
We keep track of all of our contacts in a Google Sheet divided into a dozen categories, including education, employment interest, contractors, politicians, and so on. Each sub-list is uploaded into Mail Chimp so we can micro-target different emails to different folks. Some emails appear across multiple lists. We now collect sign-ups at big events like Artscape as well as those who opt-in on our website.
Earned media is free publicity from news stories. We have crafted a press release around each major milestone in the project – announcing a round of funding, groundbreaking, signing up of partners, releasing our mobile makerspace, hiring staff – and pushed it out to local media outlets. Depending on the content, we reached out to different publications like Technical.ly Baltimore, the Baltimore Sun, local TV, or WYPR, our local NPR affiliate. Over the last 18 months, that has led to a whopping 22 million online impressions – everything from Facebook posts to page views to retweets.
Makerspaces align with several current media trends, including the rise of maker culture, 3D printing, shared workspaces, and the resurgence of American manufacturing. Crafting a good press release is a matter of concision and craft: write a kick-ass headline, keep it to no more than 500 words, and make sure you are pitching a media outlet that would be interested.
Events and door-to-door outreach are very important for Open Works and makerspace in general. Not everyone is on social media, active on the Internet, or turned into the news. People learn and interact in different ways. To that end, we are planning to table at a lot of events like Artscape, DIY Fest, some back-to-school events, a Boy Scout merit badge jamboree, and, hopefully, a regional Maker Faire. Alongside that, we are hosting our own events – a series of open house tours in late August and early September focused on our neighbors and those that have expressed early interest in membership. On September 24th, we will have a big ribbon-cutting celebration with music, makers, food trucks, and all sorts of activities for families.
Marketing incentives are very important to the launch of any business. An introductory offer (first month free in our case) helps get folks in the door, using the space, and understanding the value of a membership to their maker practice. We have crafted long-term incentives for certain groups (10% off for educators, students, and veterans), and will look at periodic, short-term incentives to boost sales at critical times of the year.
Last, but most important, is follow-up. Sales don’t usually happen on the first or second touch; it takes three-plus impressions to get someone to make the decision to buy. Once we start rolling out our membership program in earnest, we will use software to track how many times we have reached particular individuals and what methods have proven successful. Over time, this data will allow us to build a detailed picture of how to best reach our target audiences and provide value to our membership.
In our next post, we will introduce the new staff of Open Works!
Since the last post, we have:
1. Began the last major piece of construction – replacing asphalt in the loading dock area.
2. Had the building cleaned post-construction.
3. Passed our elevator, life safety, and fire inspections.
4. Installed about 40% of our woodshop equipment and set up all three of our CNC machines.