Arkansas bluegrass musician Derrick Ball fondly recalls the first time he was invited to participate in a “circle.” Not a Google+ circle, mind you, but a bluegrass circle jam. (Side note: Does anyone have a special memory about the first time they were added to a Google+ circle? I’m betting “no.”)

When Ball was a child, he sat down with a group much older, experienced players. The group kicked into their jam and asked if he knew it. He didn’t. The pickers played on, reaching a point where they paused and asked him to “take it.” He nervously passed, but they didn’t give up and tried again later in the jam. Ball finally shook off his butterflies and gave it a whirl. As he recalls, his part was far from perfect, but it felt great to play. 

Bluegrass players

“What I love about bluegrass is that it’s a participatory group experience, and that’s a little like what you see in social media,” Ball says.

It may seem an unusual comparison, but it’s apt. In fact, there are some valuable social media lessons that brands or marketers can glean from bluegrass jam circles.

Ball provided a few simple tips about bluegrass circle participation that translate well to the social media world: 

#1: “Go get your instrument” – When someone takes a seat in a circle jam, the other players want you to participate. They expect it. The same can be said for social media. Don’t pull up a chair if you’re not going to take part and offer something of value. If you join the social crowd, bring a distinct voice and, most importantly – good, helpful content. 

#2: “Find the right group” – Ball points out that bluegrass is sometimes clique-ish. When bluegrass circles form, the groups segment based on skill level, preferred style, and other factors. “You gravitate toward the group you know or a group that is playing what you like,” he says. In one respect, social media is one giant clique that brands desperately want to be a part of, but social media world – like the real world – is full of different interests and personalities. Some people talk politics, others post about food. Some people love interacting with brands and some don’t. Before jumping in, get to know your target audiences well and pay attention to who is already “playing your song” (who is talking about your area of specialty or even your specific brand). Take time to find out where your music is being played – is your audience full of Facebook users? Twitter lovers? Pinterest fanatics? 

Bluegrass players 2

#3: “Admire from afar until you’re ready or invited” - In a bluegrass circle, you’re expected to participate, but you’re also expected to follow some basic etiquette: Don’t “hog the jam” by not following the established sequence or getting out-of-tune with the other players; and don’t be too loud and drown out others.  Ball explains that “it’s customary that everyone gets to express what they want to hear.” To sum up the lesson here for marketers: Listen. Pay close attention to what’s happening in social conversations and what people are sharing. When you and your brand appear on the scene, ask the community what they want or expect from you. 

#4: “It’s always bigger than one. It has to be a group activity” – This one is simple, Ball says. Playing in bluegrass circle jams isn’t about any one individual, but the whole group sound. “It’s a social experience and a musical experience, so communication between all the players is important if you want to create a great sound.”  In short, there is no circle of one. It doesn’t do much good for a brand to simply broadcast out in social media if no one is listening or joining in the conversation. Focus on engaging your audience and providing the right kind of content, people will share your brand’s “song” and even add to it. 

#5: “Leave room for the circles to form” – Ball explains that sometimes bluegrass concerts are just that – concerts, with performers on a stage and an audience sitting back and enjoying. However, if someone is organizing a bluegrass festival or event, they take care to leave enough space available for circles to form and others to participate. If a brand has formed or joined an online community, it should always “leave room” for others to form. Marketers shouldn’t be afraid to let their audiences “take over” the conversation or take a brand’s content and spin off in new directions, creating their own “sound” that supports what the brand is doing. Welcome and support fan contributions and, where appropriate, offer a little guidance.