Defining your studio’s unique identity
By Nancy Wozny
No two people are alike, so it follows that no two businesses are alike either. There might be a dozen dance studios in the country with identical names, all of which offer jazz, tap, and lyrical, but if you look beyond the surface, each is distinct. What makes them so? You, the school owners, that’s who. You are unique and your one-of-a-kind personality infuses your business. If there’s one idea I came away with after spending four days with roughly 500 dance teachers at the DanceLife Teacher Conference last summer, it’s that each dance studio is different.
There’s an idea going around that A-list studios have a certain look. They’re big, with several dance rooms, huge enrollments, dozens of faculty members, and snazzy competition teams. This is simply not true. Teachers aspire to their own definition of success. Here are just a few of the ways teachers I’ve spoken to describe what they do:
- “I am a one-person dance studio.”
- “I don’t do competitions.”
- “We are all about performing for our local community.”
- “I specialize in adults.”
- “We do alternative recitals.”
- “I want to grow my enrollment to 100.”
- “I am hoping to reach 700 students this fall.”
- “I work out of a community center.”
- “I have a dance studio and a company under one roof.”
Honestly, if each school owner you ever met described her studio to you, I doubt you would hear two stories that were the same. For each of these descriptions, there are parents out there looking for exactly what those schools do.
But sometimes you hear otherwise. Books, articles, and workshops abound for dance studio owners, all telling you how best to run and market your business. Have a dress code, keep parents at a distance, emphasize classes for ages 3 to 13, get a flashy website, charge this or that fee. Dance teachers are inundated with well-meaning advice. What if you looked at these ideas as suggestions and not a set of operating instructions? How can those suggestions be adapted to fit you? You know your school and yourself better than anyone else, so pick and choose according to what best fits your unique niche in the dance world.
Most dance studio owners have a mission statement. Usually it says something about aspiring to the highest standards of dance education and providing a nurturing environment for learning. All of that is fine, and important—but it’s too generic. Your business has more flavor than that. What if you took it a step further and truly defined your studio’s personality? If you took over an existing studio when you opened your business, then it’s especially important to do this work.
What’s the vibe at your studio? What feeling does the school evoke? How is it different from other studios? If a stranger walked in the door and had to describe the environment in just one sentence, what would she say? How do people talk about your studio? How do you talk about your studio?
Find a few friends who are not in the dance studio business and ask them to listen to you talk about your school for 30 seconds. In the sales world, this is known as an “elevator speech.” Afterward, have the listeners write down three ideas that popped into their minds. How well do these ideas match with your concept of your school? Try the exercise a few times and select three sound ideas that describe you perfectly. Add them to your mission statement.
Why define myself?
Your goal is to have clarity in all that you do and portray, from the person who answers the phone to the sign on the building. When you define yourself you attract the students who could benefit most from your unique service. Sometimes studio owners think that they need to be everything to everybody. Students sometimes leave and they wonder why. There are many reasons why students leave (see “Wish They’d Stay, Wish They’d Go,” DSL, October 2008), but one is that your service was not a match for that particular student or family. And students who leave open up spaces in class for someone who is a good match. It’s an entirely different way to look at losing business: as an opportunity. The good news is that there are enough dance students out there for everyone.
OK, I have defined myself. Now what?
Ideally people discover whether there is a match between student and teacher in an actual dance class, but a lot happens before that relationship begins. Opinions are formed long before anybody steps in the door. That’s why it’s best to make sure that your entire environment, both physical and virtual, as well as your print materials, reflect your special message. Think of your entire marketing package as having a cumulative effect. It’s impossible to import your entire personality into your website or your lobby. But if you take a good look at what’s already in place, chances are you will be delighted to find that you are naturally doing this all by yourself. Now how can you do it more consciously and consistently through your entire business?
Website and print media
A website is often a potential customer’s first stop in considering your school. Take a good look at yours and rate it from 1 to 10 on how well it conveys your message. How could you get that number up? Do the photos send an accurate visual message? Do they look like the kids that you actually see at your studio? Lovely photos are wonderful, but if they send the wrong message they will attract the wrong students, and if those students are not a good fit they might eventually leave. Even a simple font change can make a difference in the online image of your school. However, a website doesn’t have to do it all, so try not to stress out about having the perfect site.
When it comes to print media the same principles apply. Images, fonts, and overall design lend specific messages about what goes on at your studio. Take out some old ads, postcards, or brochures. Are they generic? Could they fit just about any dance studio? If so, it’s time for an update. If you are working with a professional graphic designer, describe what’s unique about your business so that he or she can transfer that information into a visual image. That’s the designer’s job, not yours.
Putting more you in your studio environment
Start with your front door and signage. What does it say about you? If someone were to walk by and peek in the door, would what he saw be an accurate reflection of what you stand for? What can you change easily without spending a bundle? Signs are expensive, and you might have been limited in your choices, especially if you are located in a strip mall. Ask yourself what is changeable in a way that would be more suited to you—color, size, overall design? Or perhaps adding lights to an existing sign is an option.
Find a few friends who are not in the dance studio business and ask them to listen to you talk about your school for 30 seconds. In the sales world, this is known as an ‘elevator speech.’
Next move to your lobby. How is your personality present in your interior choices, color scheme, furniture, photos on the wall? All of it counts. Now take a tour to the nucleus of your business, the actual dance rooms. Are the walls blank and white? If that feels perfect for you, great; you are there. If they feel a little pale, it’s time to jazz them up with your style. Or perhaps they are still painted that ’80s mauve from two owners ago. If so, it’s time for a trip to the paint store. And maybe add some photos on the wall or update a window treatment. Never underestimate the power of small changes; think of them as putting a touch of you in your dance rooms.
You at the front desk
Many people claim that word of mouth is their best selling tool. That’s great, but what about the mouth that is doing the talking for you? Do the people answering the phone at your school reflect your values? What’s on your answering machine? Consider recording the message or writing the script yourself. The front desk staff should be familiar with your mission statement and able to convey a consistent message. From time to time it’s good to have a meeting with your faculty and staff to go through this important information.
You in your recital
Recitals are widely considered to be good selling tools, so why not have yours also connect to your mission? There are so many options for recitals these days; in fact, it’s possible to buy an entire recital in a box. Backdrops and themes, complete with music, can be ordered from a catalog, making it easier for you to put on a big show. But is it your studio’s show? Take a look at the DVD of last year’s recital. What could you change easily? It could be the venue, length, presentation style, program, costumes, choice of music, or style of dance. Here’s a good indicator of how well your recital matches you: When you sit in the audience, are you having the time of your life?
Don’t break the bank
Defining your business is an ongoing process and does not need to be done in one day or even a year. In fact, small changes work best. Start with what needs the most work. Take your time. Say you change the art in your studio. How does it feel? Was it a good move? If you are on a tight budget, hold off on buying that snazzy new couch for your lobby and do something simpler, like adding new photos to your website or changing an old ad. Think of this as a fun and creative project. Talk to your faculty about your ideas and ask them for theirs. Get feedback from friends, and notice how parents and students respond to any changes you make.
Which advice to use?
By all means, keep reading articles and attending workshops on business and marketing strategies. We can’t come up with ideas all by ourselves, and it makes sense to listen to experts. It’s what you do with the information that counts. When you reach for the pen at the bottom of your very large dance bag because you can’t wait to write down an idea and try it, that’s a good indication that it’s a good fit. When your first impression is “I would never do that,” that’s a good indication that it’s not for you—or at least not yet. Always ask yourself how an idea can be modified to fit your goals.
Defined for success
A well-defined business acts as a lighthouse, shining your bright light in the direction of just the kind of students you will love teaching. You have created a beacon of your strengths and individuality. Dance is a huge world, large enough for myriad dance studios, all offering quality dance education. There is no one perfect model for an ideal dance studio and there will never be. Celebrate your diversity and give yourself permission to teach dance to your own beat.