Can Technology Save the Arts?

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If you follow ongoing public discourse about the arts, you’ll quickly discover that traditional art forms are losing audiences, that younger, more culturally diverse audiences must be found to replace graying audiences, and that finding new audiences means adopting the technologies that younger, more culturally diverse people use to communicate.

alexander_graham_bell_500pxTry following arts pros on Twitter for a while and you’ll experience a barrage of breathless advocacy for up-to-the-second technological answers to the arts’ most pressing marketing problems. Peruse breakout session schedules for industry conferences and you see that mobile technology is the panacea we’ve been waiting for. Or dive into the blogosphere and you’ll discover that anyone who’s not already on [new social media site name here] is hopelessly behind the curve. If the question is, “How do we build new audiences?” the answer is almost always new technology and, sadly, it’s almost always the wrong answer.

If building new audiences were a simple matter of getting the same old marketing messages in front of younger, more culturally diverse targets, it might be the right answer, but that’s not how it works. New audiences are less interested in the arts than old audiences. If we want to convince them to participate, we need stop focusing on getting our messages in front of them and start motivating them by talking to them about why they should come. These are two entirely different things and the latter is concerned not with technology, but with the uniquely human process of persuasion.

The accepted language of arts marketing is vapid, trite, amateurish, self-congratulatory bullshit that was developed for people who were so interested in the arts that it didn’t matter what we said as long as we gave them the information they were waiting for. But new audiences don’t respond to bullshit and they’re not sitting around waiting for our information. They may not care about our information and their lack of enthusiasm for our products won’t be overcome by novel technology. If we want to persuade them, we have to make a compelling case with direct, relevant, customer-oriented language – and language is not about technology, it’s about content.

The new media world accepts as a truism that content is king, but in the arts we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that digital innovation will somehow render the tedious puffery we publish in our brochures and emails suddenly persuasive – that technology is capable of taking idiotic phrases like “Celebrate the Experience of Live Performance” and delivering them more persuasively to a smartphone in a young hispanic person’s pocket. We’ve allowed shiny new objects to blind us to the limitations in our outdated promotional content and distract us from making fundamental, necessary changes in the way we speak to the world around us.

The answer to the problem is easy and surprisingly inexpensive. It involves knowing who we’re talking about when we say things like younger, more culturally diverse audiences. It involves learning what they want, which means talking to them – and listening to them. And it involves developing a fresh, direct, relevant promotional language that enables us to describe how what we sell will satisfy their yearnings.

Is technology important? You bet it is. It’s the vehicle that will carry our content to its intended recipients, it’s the conduit that will facilitate our loyalty building conversations with new audiences and it’s the convenience factor that will make buying faster and easier than ever before.  And, yes, it can even shape and enhance our message content to make it more appealing and possibly even a tiny bit more persuasive to people who prefer one technology over another. But we can’t allow ourselves to believe that shiny new technology will mitigate the need for thoughtful, strategic, audience-focused new content development.

Asking technology to be persuasive is like asking the mail carrier who drops off the same old subscription brochure you’ve been cranking out for the last thirty years to convince the mail recipient to subscribe. It’s not his job, it’s not what he’s there for and he’s not going to do it.

A Brand Is Not A Shiny Object

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I never really understood the concept of branding until the day I learned that brands don’t actually exist. You can’t see, touch, taste, smell or hear a brand because brands have no tangible form and therefore can’t be apprehended through the senses.

A lot of the things we refer to as brands – logos, design schemes, corporate identities, tag lines, product names, service directives, customer experiences, etc. – aren’t brands, they’re tools we use to shape brands, and understanding the difference between brands and the tools we use to shape them is extremely important. In an industry with steadily diminishing audiences, any brand discussion that takes place in the absence of this understanding is likely to be a waste of valuable time and resources.

Marketing guru Seth Godin says that brands are bundles of consumer expectations. You can’t see bundles of consumer expectations because they have no tangible form. You can’t experience bundles of consumer expectations through any senses because they exist in the minds and hearts of consumers. Your brand is the bundle of consumer expectations that surrounds your organization or product. It’s how people who are aware of you think about you and whether they’re inclined to respond to the promises you make.

The place where arts professionals get in trouble when discussing brands is the difference between the abstract, external bundle – Brand with a capital B – and the various tools we use to shape that brand. Unfortunately, the word ‘brand’ has been used historically to refer not only to big picture Brands, but to a whole host of brand management tools so it’s no wonder that so many people are confused. For a while there, back in the middle of the last century, the words ‘brand’ and ‘logo’ were virtually interchangeable so it’s not uncommon to find older arts pros who can’t quite get past the brand/logo association.

But today the word refers to the collective disposition of the marketplace toward the organization or its products. And the reason it’s so important to understand the distinction between Brands and brand management tools is that good branding always begins outside the organization with an investigation into marketplace attitudes and expectations. The only way to know how to manage a brand is to measure it, and the only way to measure a brand is to research consumer expectations as they relate to the organization or the product in question.

Many arts professionals, however, because they don’t distinguish between Brands and brand management tools begin the process by examining their tools to consider whether they need to be repaired, redesigned or sharpened, or whether they’re the right tools for the job. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it makes no sense to sit around polishing your tools if you haven’t bothered to learn what they’re meant to do. The most gorgeous, exquisite, elegant logo in the world is meaningless if it wasn’t designed in response to consumer attitudes and expectations.

So why do we spend so much time and money futzing with our brand management tools when we should be focused on what’s happening in the minds of consumers? Three reasons come to mind:

1. Arts people love shiny objects. It’s much more satisfying to sit in a conference room talking about things you can see than it is to talk about abstract concepts that can only be described in terms of dry market data. Who wouldn’t rather watch the designer unveil her first round of logo ideas than pore over reams of research results? Both are necessary for serious brand conversations, but the research is far more important because it actually describes the Brand, while the logo design – which should come much later in the process – is just one of many brand management tools.

2. Agencies sell shiny objects. Agencies make a lot of money selling creative services so they tend to focus on the visuals that come with the branding process. Good full-service agencies will sell complete packages that include both research and brand development (better described as brand management tools development), but a lot of smaller agencies sell branding services that consist primarily of graphic design and marketing message enhancements. The most effective agency is one that will devote the bulk of its energies toward gathering and analyzing market intelligence and then helping the organization respond with practical tools that will shape and activate the Brand. All smart agencies know, however, that abstract ideas – no matter how potentially useful or productive – don’t sell agency services, and arts organizations will usually go with the agency that shows them the shiniest objects.

3. Arts organizations tend to be inner-focused. Unlike commercial marketers, we place far more faith in our products and in their inherent value than we do in our potential customers and their attitudes, tastes and expectations. We believe the arts transcend the marketplace so we tend to devote our promotional energies to extolling our products’ virtues rather than responding to market demands. In the arts, we often bypass the marketplace entirely and develop our brand management tools as reflections of our own attitudes and values, which is why arts brands tend to be so exclusive.

If the arts are serious about growing audiences, we’re going to have to shape brands that are broad, inclusive, enthusiastic and active. And to do that we’ll need brand management tools that respond to and stimulate new audience expectations. The key to doing this, as far as I’m concerned, lies in looking past the shiny objects, achieving consensus on what the word ‘brand’ means, and making sure that whatever definition we choose asks us to think first and foremost about the audience.

Engagement: The Ultimate Market Research

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Bravo to Doug Borwick for his great post on marketing/research today. Doug and I don’t always see eye to eye on the the details of the engagement-marketing interface, but on this one we agree 100%. If you want to know what your audiences want, engage with them, talk to them, get to know them, listen to them and you’ll learn everything you need to know.

Expensive market research can be useful but there’s no substitute for having personal relationships with ordinary customers. As a veteran marketer I’ve done a lot of interesting and expensive research, but the most valuable information I’ve ever gained has come from engaging personally with audiences and hearing what they have to say. It’s the simplest thing to do and it doesn’t cost a cent, but it’s surprisingly uncommon in traditional arts institutions, as I’ve written about here and especially here.

The purpose of research is to understand audience dispositions and behaviors so we can be more responsive to their needs and desires. We can sit in our cubicles and conference rooms and hire expensive research firms to help us find out what the people who pass through our doors every day are thinking, or we can adopt a culture of engagement where every staff member from ED to intern is expected to connect meaningfully, personally, productively and regularly with the community members that our organizations were designed to serve.

The funding community seems to have recognized the chasm that’s opened up between traditional, remote, elite, tent pole organizations and their diminishing audiences. Led by the James Irvine Foundation, they’re trying to stimulate more engagement-oriented practices by adjusting the focus of their grants. I’m skeptical about the effectiveness of the approach, but I have no doubt that encouraging arts leaders and administrators to engage more fully with the world outside their artsy bubbles is the best way to help them solve their audience problems.

If you’re an administrator of an arts organization that has guests visiting today, try this: Stand by the doors for a while, introduce yourself to someone who looks like a newcomer, thank her for coming, ask her what made her decide to come today, listen long and hard to what she tells you and then and give her your card so she can email you tomorrow and share what her experience was like. If every staff member of every organization did this one small thing every day, the arts would be successful beyond measure.

Doug Borwick says it all the time and I’m happy to echo his recommendation: Engage!

Do New Audiences Think You’re Nuts?

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The ubiquitous Twitterer Howard Sherman called me out the other day for claiming that arts organizations don’t do research. Many do conduct research, of course, so it’s unfair of me to have made such a sweeping generalization.

I stand corrected, Howard.

But I remain deeply concerned about the type of research that arts organizations do and the extent to which the results of that research influence marketing practice. Anyone who’s followed this blog knows that I am convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that the arts really suck at talking to new audiences. I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions that the content of our strategic communications is overwhelmingly hackneyed, old-fashioned, impotent, insidery and self-indulgent, and that we’ve grown so accustomed to yakking at dying fans that we’ve lost the ability to speak meaningfully to the new audiences on which our futures depend.

When I make sweeping generalizations about research, I’m talking about the kind of research that connects us to the younger, more culturally diverse audiences we’ve been whining about for the last twenty years. I’m talking about research that taps into their yearnings so we can draw motivating connections between what we do and what they want. I’m talking about research that teaches us not what radio stations people listen to, but rather what they need to hear us say so our ads will move them to buy the things we’re trying to sell. If we’re serious about speaking persuasively to new audiences, we have to know them as well as we know our old audiences so the fresh new language they expect to hear comes out of us as naturally as the tired old language that we refuse to stop speaking.

The only hope the arts have for sustaining and growing audiences is a constant supply of new participants, and the only hope we have for motivating those fresh young audiences is knowing what motivates them. The alternative is to sit in our conference rooms imagining what they want, telling them what we think they should want, pretending they want what their grandparents wanted or, God forbid, offering up reasons for wanting us that might not have occurred to them yet. It’s the kind of thinking that gives us crap like this:

Celebrate Spring!

What better way to celebrate than with the unsurpassed joys of live music? From intimate performances of chamber music to majestic orchestral concerts, we’ve got just what you need to refresh your mind and spirit.

Cute isn’t it? Could have arrived in your inbox yesterday from just about any arts organization. But the problem is that it is the polar opposite of strategic communication.

Had the organization that published this done research into what motivates ticket-buying audiences, they’d have learned that there is no pent up desire among potential concertgoers to celebrate spring. And they’d have learned that even if there were such a desire, sitting in a dark concert hall is just about the last place anyone might claim to want to do it. You can funnel ten thousand prospects through a thousand focus groups with a hundred moderators asking an infinite number of penetrating questions about what people want, and not a single respondent is likely to say anything about celebrating spring by buying tickets to a classical music event.

What they will talk about is personal motivating impulses like enjoying live music, going out with friends, trying new things, drinks and dinner, bragging rights, belongingness, social interaction, inspiration, uplift, personal development and those intangible intrinsic benefits that people feel so deeply but find so difficult to describe. They’ll also talk about the things that turn them off like stuffiness, condescension, expense, exclusivity, inconvenience, artifice, arrogance and alienation. All of this is necessary knowledge for strategic communicators who want to know what they should and should not say.

No strategic message developer armed with such market intelligence would dream of talking about celebrating spring when it has nothing whatsoever to do with what their audiences have told them they want. The person who wrote this obviously didn’t have access to such information and instead decided to use his instincts, insider experiences, creative imagination and agility with poetic metaphor to come up with a fanciful suggestion about what a concert series might do for you if you stopped to think about it – in a certain way, with the lighting just right, an orchestra playing softly in the background, bluebirds flitting about and a soft breeze blowing through the lacy window curtains.

You wouldn’t sit down with a young friend or relative and try to get them to celebrate spring by coming to one of your concerts. They’d think you were nuts. It’s more likely that you’d use what you actually know about them to describe why you think they’d want to spend time and money on your products. “I remember how excited you were the night you heard Arvo Pärt in that club and I couldn’t help thinking this would be something you’d really like.”

The same goes for new audiences. If you talk silly, self-important nonsense they’ll know you’re out of touch with their reality. But if you do research and find out what they actually want – then use that information to bridge the divide between their yearnings and your products – they’re more likely to listen and then do what you so desperately need them to do.

Big data? Great. Pricing analytics? Great. Intrinsic impact research? Eh, I suppose, but none of it can save an organization that refuses to learn how to make rational, direct, personal, relevant, motivating communicative connections with its future audiences.

Arts Marketing Doesn’t Work Because It’s Irrational

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I mentioned two posts ago that good marketing is based on a logical formula that looks like this:

We know you want x

We offer x

Thus we can reasonably project that you will do y

The x is the product you sell, of course, and y is the behavior you expect from your customers, i. e. “We know you want a great night out featuring dining, socializing and high quality artful entertainment. We offer a great night out featuring dining, socializing and high quality artful entertainment. Thus we can reasonably expect that you’ll come to our destination with your friends or family, patronize one of our nearby restaurants, and experience a high quality performance event in our venue.

Spock SmilingWhen I studied classical rhetorical theory in grad school (don’t go away; this is good stuff) I learned that the first two parts of this formula are indispensable components of the persuasion process. Aristotle himself said that if you want to get somebody to think a certain way or do a certain thing, first you have to know what they need or want, and then you have to describe how your product will satisfy their yearnings. It’s a surprisingly simple yet immensely powerful idea that smart businesspeople, preachers, politicians and scoundrels have been using for the last 2,500 years.

Sadly, however, it’s an idea that’s completely lost on arts organizations.

In the arts we tend to ignore the first part of the equation and instead slip in all sorts of self-serving alternatives that don’t have the same impact:

We assume you want x

We hope you want x

We think you should want x

We think you need x because we believe it’s good for you

We’re really excited about x

x is so wonderful that your wanting it shouldn’t matter

Our artistic director has staked his career on the expectation that you want x

We knew your grandparents wanted x fifty years ago, but we’re too lazy to find out what you want now

We’re only interested in donors, subscribers and members who want x

Our marketing department actually knows what you want, but our executive director thinks you want x and he approves all the marketing

We think that if we find a clever enough way to get your attention you’ll want x

We’re celebrating our 25th gala anniversary of x

Alec Baldwin wants x

We’re too afraid that you don’t actually want x to find out what you do want

Plug any of these into the strategic equation and you’ll quickly discover that they don’t work. Logic doesn’t function that way. If we want the third part of the equation to remain constant and predictable, the first part has to be grounded in fact, and it must exist in a precise, rational, causal relationship to the second so that, together, they point to an inevitable outcome:

We know you want x

We offer x

Thus we can reasonably project that you will do y

If you want to learn in advance whether your marketing messages are optimally, rationally persuasive, ask yourself these questions:

Have we gathered enough objective, external evidence to know for a fact what our target audiences want?

Have we done a good job of describing how what we’re selling will satisfy our target audience’s stated yearnings?

Since the second question is entirely dependent on there being an affirmative answer to the first, there’s really only one question worth asking. And if the answer isn’t yes, there’s no logical reason to proceed.

Have you gathered enough objective, external evidence to know for a fact what your new audiences want?

If You Have To Say You’re Doing Engagement…

I’ve noticed that many arts organizations are including “Community Engagement” sections on their websites and listing engagement activities as if they’re some sort of program offerings or one-off events. One venerable classical music institution says that their education and community engagement programs:

“…offer individuals of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop their relationship with the [organization] and build their ownership of and engagement with orchestral music through high quality, relevant, multi-leveled, and interactive education and community engagement experiences.”

How lucky those little community members must be to have such a high-minded institution offering them this incredible opportunity. (This didn’t come out of a grant application, these people actually published this on their website.)

The thing about engagement that arts organizations don’t get is that it’s not something you talk about or, god forbid, offer to people; it’s what you are. Publishing a list of community engagement programs on your website is like printing a list of interpersonal behaviors on your business card:

Friendly smile √  Firm handshake √  Eye contact √  Warm greeting √  Remembers name √

If you had such a business card handed to you, you’d think the person was an idiot. Good interpersonal skills aren’t something you telegraph in printed materials, they’re something you exhibit naturally, or by practice if necessary, in the presence of others. For arts organizations, this translates into being naturally engaging throughout the entire organization as a part of your everyday interaction with the world around you. If you’re not doing it, no amount of promotion will compensate for its absence. And if you are doing it, you won’t need to talk about it on your website.

Sadly, the copy above shows how wide the gap still is between arts organizations’ willingness to do engagement and their ability to be truly engaging.

 

 

Arts Marketing Workers Unite! The Time to Organize is Now

The arts are facing a catastrophic audience crisis and American arts marketing is a mess:

  • It is governed by executive leaders who have no professional marketing expertise
  • It is shackled by outdated, counterproductive, nonprofit traditions
  • it is self-centered rather than audience-centered
  • It is isolated from the broader marketing profession
  • It is under-valued and under-supported relative to its necessity
  • It is inconsistent in terms of titles, job descriptions and compensation
  • It has no self-governed infrastructure for professional development
  • It offers severely limited opportunities for career growth
  • It is not being used to solve the problems it exists to solve

By organizing to address these issues, arts marketers can put the industry back on a path toward solvency and productive growth.

1. The arts industry is filled with talented, educated, motivated young marketers who are regularly overruled by inexpert executive leaders. By organizing, young arts pros will have the collective authority and sector-wide backing they need to insists on professional alternatives when inept leaders make bad marketing choices.

2. Many marketing traditions that older arts leaders insist on perpetuating were designed to appeal to twentieth century patrons who are now dead. By organizing, arts marketers will have the power, knowledge and tools to they need to reconnect with the marketplace and learn how to engage with living audiences.

3. Effective marketing focuses on the customers and how the product will satisfy their needs or desires, while arts marketing focuses exclusively on the virtues of the product. By organizing, arts marketers will be able to redirect the industry’s communications focus toward the customers on which its future depends.

4. Arts marketing is an isolated, amateurish enterprise that is largely unconnected from, and thus uninfluenced by, the broader marketing profession. By organizing, arts marketers can identify, establish and strive to maintain professional standards that transcend parochial arts industry norms and expectations.

5. Only marketing can save ticket-sales-dependent organizations that need a constant supply of new paying customers. By organizing, arts marketers can ensure that the industry supports marketing in a manner consistent with its importance, and that it recruits and compensates marketers according to their value.

6. Arts marketers have a right to expect basic consistency in titles, job descriptions and compensation levels across the industry. By organizing, marketers can establish benchmarks to which organizations throughout the cultural sector can adhere in order to ensure fair treatment and career stability.

7. The fact that American arts marketing workers have no formal, self-governed mechanism for furthering professional development is an embarrassment. By organizing, arts marketers can develop industrywide training and accreditation processes that will ensure productive career growth and highest-possible job performance.

8. Good marketers seldom ascend to leadership positions in the arts (a fact that explains why the industry fails to attract and keep good marketers, and why arts organizations have so much trouble selling tickets). By organizing, arts marketers can establish sensible career paths that position marketing professionals for leadership roles.

9. Because there are so few leaders among arts executives, or in the funding and policy communities, who possess legitimate professional marketing expertise, arts marketing is not being used to solve the problems that it exists to solve. By organizing, arts marketers can take control in a leaderless environment and assume authority for moving the industry in a more decisive, sustainable direction.

These and other issues point to a clear need for a well organized collective of arts marketing professionals. Whether a union, guild or association, arts marketers must come together to address problems that only professional marketing can solve.

The choice is clear: Unite and lead, or continue to follow “leaders” who don’t know where they’re going.

 

 

 

 

Sylph-centered Arts Marketing

Got this brochure recently from the reanimated San Diego Opera…

SD Brochure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… and couldn’t help noticing its kinship with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s season brochure, which features images like this:

Atlanta Sylph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wrote a few weeks ago about SDO’s post-crisis brochure, which featured a short white man in a brown suit, and I think this might be a marginal improvement, but I can’t help wondering what’s up with the flying babes. What the hell do sylphs have to do with selling tickets and why are two of America’s most notoriously troubled arts organizations featuring them in their marketing materials?

Do these organizations know something we don’t know about the persuasive power of sky spirits? Or is it possible that inane marketing choices are a shared characteristic of failing arts organizations?

In professional marketing, images that appear in sales collateral are chosen according to market intelligence and they’re designed to leverage actual audience dispositions. Given my experience with nonprofit arts organizations, I’m going to guess that these images were chosen by amateur insiders according to personal opinions and designed to look nice.

If the creators of these materials had access to objective research data and were designing sales messages in response to what target audiences told them they were looking for, sylphs would never have been a consideration.

Executive leaders of arts institutions that don’t sell enough tickets should understand this.

If they don’t, we may have a clue as to why they’re in so much trouble.

Arts Marketing Wouldn’t Suck So Much If It Were Like This

I came across this ad for Android devices today.

Watch it and pay close attention to these things:

  • The ratio of content featuring customers vs. content featuring the product
  • The fresh, down-to-earth, colloquial, customer-centric language
  • The emotional impact of customers engaging with the product
  • The emphasis on YOU (meaning the customer)
  • The diversity of the customers shown enjoying the product
  • The fresh, professional, contemporary production values

Now go get your last season brochure and pay attention to these things:

  • The ratio of content featuring customers vs. content featuring the product
  • The fresh, down-to-earth, colloquial, customer-centric language
  • The emotional impact of the customers engaging with the product
  • The emphasis on YOU (meaning the customer)
  • The diversity of the customers shown enjoying the product
  • The fresh, professional, contemporary production values

In my last post I drew attention to some shamelessly egocentric marketing materials that were produced by big financially troubled arts institutions (Minnesota Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, San Diego Opera). This Android ad, by demonstrating so well what good marketing is about, shows exactly why those arts marketing materials are so bad:

  • Their content is entirely about the product
  • Their language is canned, stuck up, artsy and self-centered
  • They tell customers what they should feel rather than showing them how they will feel
  • Their emphasis is on US (meaning the product)
  • There is no diversity of customers shown enjoying the product because there are no customers shown enjoying the product
  • Their production values are stale, amateurish and old-fashioned

Make no mistake. The blame for failing to attract sustaining audiences lies squarely with executive leaders who allow their organizations to do narcissistic marketing.

When troubled arts organizations start developing marketing content that’s about new audiences – and how their products will make those audiences happy – they’ll earn the customers they deserve.

Arts Leaders’ Egos and Bad Arts Marketing

In my last post a reader took issue with my having suggested that executive arts leaders’ egos might have something to do with bad arts marketing.

Please allow me to be more direct.

The egos of executive arts leaders have everything to do with bad arts marketing. Arts marketing sucks because so much of it is developed to feed the egos of executive arts leaders.

The reason arts marketing is overwhelmingly self-centered, self-important and self-aggrandizing is that executive arts leaders with healthy egos and little professional marketing expertise make all the final marketing decisions. Asking an arts executive to approve a brochure filled with shameless self-flattery is like handing a loaded pipe to a crack addict. They can’t help themselves. They don’t really know what professional, customer-centered marketing should look like, and since there’s no one to stop them, they’ll approve the marketing they believe is the best reflection of their organization’s worth. And since the reflection of their organization’s worth is also a reflection of its leaders’ abilities, they will inevitably go for the content they find most flattering.

In the real world, effective marketing strategy begins with the customers and is designed in response to their desires and expectations. Professional marketers develop their strategies to leverage those dispositions, which means keeping their focus on the customers. And executive leaders who manage these marketers know their role is to approve the methods and materials that do this most effectively. Smart business leaders may have personal opinions about marketing, and they may think their products are worth crowing about, but they understand that their job is to let objective market intelligence and rational, customer-centered methods take priority.

In the arts, meanwhile, marketing begins with the products and what organizations want to tell the world about their merits. After various promotional ideas have been mocked up, arts leaders use their professional discernment (a.k.a. personal opinions) to choose what they they think looks best or feels most appropriate or fits best with industry norms and traditions. And since industry norms and traditions consist primarily of inexpert arts leaders choosing the best reflections of their organizations’ worth, self-flattery will always win the day. This dynamic is so much a part of the culture of culture that we as an industry accept narcissistic marketing unquestioningly, as if it’s a given. “Why wouldn’t we boast about ourselves? We’re wonderful! People should know that. And the more wonderful we tell them we are, the more likely they’ll be to want to buy tickets.”

Makes a great dating strategy, too!

This is the point where the executive leaders I’m talking about say,

“Well of course he’s not talking about me. I’m a respected arts executive. I’m too wise, perceptive and accomplished to make such poor decisions. Why, I’m the boss of a big city arts institution; I oversee the marketers so I am automatically a marketing expert. My thoughts on audience development have even been published in the Sunday newspaper! Besides, I’ve been vetting promotional materials for years and doing a damn fine job of it. This chronic decline in audiences has nothing to do with me. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a budget crisis to deal with and artists’ salaries to cut.”

If you’re an executive arts leader who’s in a position to govern your organization’s marketing choices, and you learned what you know about marketing on your way up through the nonprofit arts, it is highly unlikely that you have sufficient professional expertise to save an organization that’s losing audiences. The nonprofit arts are a terrible place to learn marketing and you have undoubtedly learned an outdated, idiosyncratic, mid-twentieth century brand of “promotional” marketing that doesn’t work anymore. Arts marketing is a quirky, tradition-bound, quasi-professional endeavor that bears little resemblance to the full-on professional marketing that successful leaders will need to master keep their organizations alive.

Poor old Ian Campbell thought he was making wise marketing decisions right up until he scuttled the San Diego Opera – for lack of audiences. Leaders at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra thought they were making wise choices when they approved this bizarre brochure – just before locking out their musicians. And the leaders at the Minneapolis Orchestra no doubt believed their monumentally self-adulatory brochure was the best of all possible choices – to spring back from the brink of disaster. All executive leaders of struggling arts organizations think they’re making the best possible marketing choices – even when they’re woefully underprepared to make those choices and their organizations are falling apart around them.

There was a time when the marketplace was so full of people who wanted what the arts had to sell that we could be as self-centered and boastful as we wanted and people would beat a path to our doors. But the world has changed; there are far fewer avid arts fans out there who find our overly generous self-assessments appealing. Every arts leader has heard this admonition a thousand times, but at some point it has to actually influence behavior: IT’S NOT ABOUT US ANYMORE. You can’t just nod in agreement when people say this at industry conferences and then come home and publish marketing materials that are all about you; you actually have to make it about them.

If you want to sell something to somebody, you have to tell them how it will satisfy their desires. It’s one of the oldest truths known to humankind. But in the arts, we don’t really know who our new audiences are, we refuse to learn what they want, and without knowing what they want, we can’t tell them how our products will satisfy their desires. So instead we blather on endlessly about how wonderful we are – or how wonderful people should think we are – and hope that young, culturally diverse people will somehow magically find us as appealing as traditional audiences once did.

I’m well aware that I’m just pissing in the wind here. Executive arts leaders won’t read this because they just don’t pay much attention to marketing. In my experience they show little interest in learning how to do it well because they’re perfectly comfortable with what they think they already know. (I’ve never seen an executive arts leader at a marketing conference, have you?) You’d think that leaders of an industry that’s facing a catastrophic decline in customers would be rushing out to get marketing MBAs, but no. It’s easier to complain about how poorly the rest of the world is being educated than it is to get the education they need to solve their own problems.

The answer to the arts’ audience crisis is heartbreakingly simple: know your new audiences well enough to understand what they want, and then speak to them humbly and honestly, in a language they understand, about how your products will make them happy. Out-of-touch arts administrators who hole up in conference rooms filling brochures and emails with canned, amateurish, self-congratulatory bombast, and then spraying them at the world in hopes of hitting like-minded fans, simply aren’t going to survive.

‘Monumental’ Adjective Abuse at Minnesota Orchestra

Here are some words that executive leaders at the Minnesota Orchestra like to read about themselves in their marketing materials. All were published in just one post-fiasco season brochure:

Extraordinary, brilliant, celestial, dazzling, festive, stunning, shimmering, beautiful, star-studded, never-to-be-repeated, heavenly, glorious, wonderful, tragic, heartbreakingly, sprightly, treasured, superb, brilliant, monumental, tremendous, thrilling, stellar, magnificent, sensual, shocking, radiant, majestic, lush, enthralling, amazing, phenomenal, shining, beautiful, lush, characterful, stirring, distinctive, triumphal, charismatic, brightest, world-class, priceless, thrilling, most famous, lush, romantic, richly dark, tragic, star-crossed, thrilling, tragic, cinematic, comic, most-popular, utterly charming, gorgeous, stirring, wonderful, famous, remarkable, brilliant, striking, timeless, legendary, wonderful, dramatic, lyrical, dramatic, lovely, illustrious, soaring-voiced, spine-tingling, profound, ethereal, beloved, world’s greatest, fantastic, heartrending, unforgettable, greatest, most soul-stirring, transcendent, exquisite, enchanting, always-zestful, magnificent, deeply spiritual, ground-breaking, exciting, demanding, outstanding, blissful, thoughtful, witty, nostalgic, multi-faceted, fiery, famous, other worldly, stirring, great, distinguished, breathtaking, dancing, lyrical, extraordinary, marvelous, youthful, vigorous, esteemed, exhilarating, dance-infused, wildly popular, inimitable, preeminent, magically, mysterious, triumphant, epic, celebratory, historic, glorious, top-class, revered, hottest, immortal, jubilant, renowned, distinguished, extraordinary, delectable, magical, soulful, distinctive, organic, meditative, powerful, spiritual, romantic, glorious, perfect, special, bubbly, magically, rich, first-ever, stunning, wonderful, exquisite, wide-ranging, thrilling, classic, popular, beloved, festive, extraordinary, imaginative, stunning, phenomenal, captivating, beloved, ever-popular, timeless, transcendent, greatest of greats, beloved, stellar, multi-talented, uniquely, consummate, monumental, unforgettable, wonderful, glorious, funniest, bona fide, genuine, dazzling, esteemed, riotous, beloved, great, fantastic, heartrending, unforgettable, greatest, most soul stirring, pure, unadulterated, historic, legendary, glorious, extraordinaire, wondrous, beloved, lively, famous, popular.

Here’s a word that describes the professional qualifications of executive leaders who would approve this much hyperbole in one piece of sales collateral:

Dubious.

Here’s a word that describes the marketing team that would produce such a brochure:

Mismanaged.

Here’s a word that describes funders who allow their financially troubled grant recipients to do this sort of amateur marketing:

Irresponsible.

Here’s a word that describes an industry that accepts untethered, narcissistic bombast as acceptable language for public communication:

Leaderless.

And in case it isn’t obvious, here’s a word that describes the seats that might otherwise be filled by new audiences who need to be spoken to in a normal, sane, humble, down-to-earth, customer-centered persuasive language:

Empty.

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Maybe Atlanta Symphony Should Lock Out Its Marketing Department Instead

I’ve been reading about the musicians’ lockout at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra so I popped on to their season brochure to look for clues as to why the organization is having so much financial difficulty. Turns out the clues were plentiful. But first, some basics.

Good sales collateral must meet five specific criteria:

1. It must be developed in response to objective market intelligence. You can’t sell something if you don’t know who you’re talking to and how your product will satisfy their desires, so every good sales message must be firmly grounded in research.

2. It must show how the product will make customers happy so they’ll be motivated to buy. Doing this usually means making the content as much about customers enjoying the product as it is about how wonderful the product is (something arts organizations find almost impossible to do).

3. It must be crafted according to a legitimate persuasive strategy. Sales is a rational process that follows well-established protocols. We know you want X. We sell X. You will buy X. Make sure the first two exes match up, show how well they match up, and you’re golden.

4. It must be goal oriented. A well-designed sales tool leads the buyer naturally to the close with precision, directness and clarity. Every element has a specific job to do relative to this goal. In politics, this is known as staying “on message.”

5. It must balance the desires of multiple market segments in proportion to their value. If the organization is not attracting sustaining audiences, the sales tool must place increasing importance on appealing to new audiences.

So with this in mind, let’s take a look at the brochure that Atlanta Symphony Orchestra used to sell what has become their abbreviated 70th anniversary season.

1. You should be able to tell what an organization’s research has taught them by looking at their sales materials: “It’s obvious that the people of Atlanta said they want X because this sales material is so obviously selling X.” Apply that scrutiny to this Atlanta Symphony Orchestra brochure, however, and you’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what the ASO thinks it knows about its customers.

“It’s obvious that the people of Atlanta said they want:

  • Naked flying sylphs sporting red ribbons.”
  • To be seduced by a local nonprofit arts organization.”
  • A smorgasbord of educational trivia about artists and their works.”
  • A bunch of random descriptive words.”
  • Guest artists with interesting faces.”

I’ve sat in on a lot of focus groups over the years and have never heard an arts audience ask for these things. Usually they talk about themselves and their desire to enjoy enriching entertainment events as part of a broader social experience.

2. The brochure contains over fifty photographs and images, not a single one of which depicts customers enjoying themselves at a concert. Fully half of these could be dedicated to showing audience members having a good time without sacrificing the orchestra’s desire to remind everyone how wonderful and important they are.

3. If there is a rational persuasive strategy at work here, it is obscure at best. If I were to describe the strategy based on what’s evident, it would go something like this: “Let’s come up with a catchy thematic through line based on what we think people should know about us and design a sexy, attention-getting, upbeat vehicle for delivering what is essentially the same content we send out every year. Important goals will include being creative, following tradition, telling everyone how wonderful we are and coming up with something that senior leadership will approve because they find it flattering and comfortably familiar.”

4. If the goal is to get customers to go online and buy tickets, it is difficult to imagine how most of this content furthers that goal. Much of it is way off message including the thematic through line (unless focus groups said they were yearning to be seduced), the stand-alone descriptive words that seem to have no integral connection to the rest of the content, and the chatty, didactic show blurbs, which were clearly not written by a professional communications strategist in support of an overarching, goal-driven message strategy.

5. This is a rigorously traditional brochure that speaks almost exclusively to traditional audiences using the imagery and language that traditional arts audiences are accustomed to. If new audience research has revealed a different set of desires and expectations among future audiences that points to a different set of images and a fresher, more relevant, audience-centric language, there is little evidence to suggest that this brochure content has been balanced accordingly.

Presumably, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s labor issues are the result of the same underlying forces that are affecting orchestras everywhere: diminishing audiences and diminishing community support. But if the organization is using amateur, old-fashioned, self-centered marketing practices that fail to produce desired results, it seems counterproductive to lock out the artists when locking out the administrators who make bad marketing decisions would probably have more productive long-term consequences.