On Building Stronger Marketing and Development Silos


Are you trying to attract audiences with fundraising appeals?

I read a symphony orchestra brochure recently that devoted all of its content to describing how wonderful the organization was, how important classical music was to western civilization and how many great things the orchestra was doing for its community. I knew they were trying to sell me tickets, but I wasn’t at all clear about why they thought I’d buy.

In re-reading it, I got the distinct impression that the people who wrote, designed and published the brochure were asking me to support them with my participation rather than offering me something that I might actually find personally rewarding.

They weren’t asking me to buy, they were asking me to give.

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When the good people in the development department talk to potential donors, their communications are rooted in a set of assumptions that go like this:

  • We are valuable to you, to the community and to the larger culture
  • We cannot provide this value without your support
  • You should give us money so we can continue to be of value

When professional marketers talk to potential buyers, their communications are rooted in a set of assumptions that go like this:

  • You have stated needs and desires that we recognize
  • The artistic products we sell can satisfy those needs and desires
  • We promise that when you buy our products, your needs and desires will be satisfied

You may notice a striking dissimilarity between these sets of assumptions. The development set is self-centered while the marketing set is audience-centered. The development set focuses on the value of the art, artists and institutions while the marketing set stresses fulfillment of the customers’ needs and desires. The development set is rooted in shoulds while the marketing set is rooted in promises. In fundraising, we put ourselves first and ask people to support us. In professional marketing, the customers come first and the emphasis is on satisfying their personal yearnings.

If this description of marketing sounds strange to you, it’s probably because you work in the nonprofit arts where marketing is almost never about the customers. We don’t do professional marketing in the arts; we do arts marketing, which takes its cues not from the marketing profession or from successful businesses, but rather from nonprofit fundraising traditions.

When arts marketers talk to potential buyers, their communications are rooted in a set of assumptions that go like this:

  • We are wonderful, important and of value to the community (and to you)
  • (You may not know it, but you need us and may, if you try us, desire us)
  • You should buy our products so we can be of value to you (and to the community)

Compare these assumptions with the sets above and you’ll see that arts marketing has a lot more in common with fundraising than it does with professional marketing. Arts marketing emerged in a culture dominated by fundraising and fundraising has exerted such a powerful influence that we actually taught ourselves to do marketing backwards: We use an entirely self-centered, self-important form of promotional communication in a vain attempt to motivate sustaining audiences when we should be using customer-centered communication that’s developed in response to our audience’s stated needs and desires.

Why do we do marketing backwards? Because back when arts patrons viewed buying and giving as interdependent parts of the participation process, it didn’t matter. People bought and gave for similar reasons so arts organizations could use similar appeals in their fundraising and marketing pitches. But today, when arts audiences are disappearing at a rate that makes many traditional institutions unsustainable, and new audiences don’t necessarily view arts participation as a social responsibility, the distinction makes all the difference in the world. Marketing that’s rooted in fundraising assumptions doesn’t work anymore and our refusal to embrace legitimate, businesslike, customer-centered marketing practices is quite literally killing us.

silosIf we want traditional arts organizations to survive, we have to assign marketing a level of priority that’s equal to its task. We have to sever the ties that allow marketing to be encumbered by outdated nonprofit traditions. And we have to replace amateur methods with professional approaches that take their cues from best practices outside the insular, fundraising-oriented cultural sector.

Marketing and Development are fundamentally different administrative endeavors. It’s time to separate them and allow each to do its job according to accepted professional standards.

“This Opera’s Not Boring!” Crows San Diego Opera


After nearly a year of promoting their Nixon in China production with dull copy and images, San Diego Opera sent out an email yesterday with this subject line:


And internal copy that reads:

Nixon in China is a theatrical treat.
You won’t want to miss it.

What Nixon in China is: energetic, imaginative and kaleidoscopic!

What Nixon in China is not: boring, pedantic, or sleep inducing.

Nixon in China opens on Saturday and you won’t want to miss this “rhythmical, pulsating, jazzy” romp through a moment in time that changed the course of history.”

And to support the copy, they added this odd pair of images, which shows Nixon at Disneyland along with a wacky production shot from the opera:


Now, on the one hand, this is just great. For the first time since their near-death crisis, the folks at San Diego Opera are addressing something audiences are actually thinking about, rather than just blathering on about how wonderful and important their operas are. Somebody, it appears, learned that potential audience members thought an opera called Nixon in China might be boring. I don’t know if they did research, or a board member got an earful at a party, but either way, SDO actually developed marketing content in response to external market conditions and this is a huge step forward.

But on the other hand, it raises a host of troubling questions:

Why not promote the opera as an energetic, imaginative, kaleidoscopic theatrical treat from the get-go? You don’t have to do a lot of research to know that an opera about Richard Nixon’s diplomatic trip to communist China could be considered boring. Any professional marketer would have worked to counter those perceptions from day one.

Where was the research? In the absence of in-house expertise, SDO might have conducted some focus groups or single-ticket buyer surveys to learn about their audience’s Nixon in China perceptions. If proper research had been done back when the marketing strategy was developed, nobody would be shouting WE’RE NOT BORING today.

Was there ever a strategy? Given the “Boring…boring…boring…, But wait! We’re not boring!” way this campaign has unfolded, it’s fairly clear there was no strategic marketing plan.

Can you say you’re not boring without shouting WE’RE NOT BORING? Telling your entire email list that Nixon in China is not boring, pedantic or sleep inducing is a great way to let everyone know that some people think the opera is boring, pedantic or sleep inducing. If you discover a negative perception among your customers, by all means counter it, but whatever you do, don’t reinforce it by repeating it. Despite all the worthwhile things he may have done, including his historic trip to China, Richard Nixon cemented his reputation as the nation’s most notorious crook the day he stared into the TV camera and said, “I’m not a crook.”

Where’s the professional marketing expertise? You’d think a major opera company that all but died last year for lack of audiences would have secured some serious marketing leadership. Somebody who understands professional marketing should have caught this one before it went out. But, really, somebody should have professionalized the organization’s marketing effort long before a comeback was even considered.

Trying to bounce back from an audience development failure of this magnitude without a fully professional approach to audience development is unfair to the people who supported San Diego Opera’s resurrection, unfair to San Diego opera lovers, unfair to people who work in the opera profession, and profoundly unfair to new audiences who have yet to discover why opera is such an amazing and addictive art form.

I hope this is a signal that the organization has finally learned to listen to its community and respond with audience-centered marketing content. Given the amateurish execution, however, I’m not sure that’s what’s happening.

The Feds Know Why Arts Marketing Doesn’t Work (No, Not the NEA, the SBA)


I popped onto the Small Business Administration’s website today and found a section called “Marketing 101.” Here’s the first thing it said:

“In order to successfully grow your business, you’ll need to attract and then work to retain a large base of satisfied customers. Marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business, and has two guiding principles.”

Take a look at the wording in the second sentence:

Marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business…

They didn’t say “marketing emphasizes the value of the business to the customer,” they said “marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business.” It’s a monumentally important distinction that goes a long way toward explaining why the arts are in so much trouble.

In the arts, we devote all of our marketing energy to emphasizing the value of the business to the customer, which is completely ass backwards and self-serving, not to mention counterproductive. The SBA understands that effective marketing puts the customer first, which is something arts administrators are loathe to do. We put ourselves first, which is where we believe we belong. If you doubt it, look at marketing materials from just about any orchestra, opera company, dance company, arts center, theatre or museum (start with your own) and you’ll see marketing content that’s exclusively focused on the product.

In the same sentence the SBA mentions two guiding principles, the first of which says:

“All company policies and activities should be directed toward satisfying customer needs.

In the arts, all company policies and activities are directed toward satisfying the organizations’ needs. Marketing in the arts is an entirely self-centered affair that exists to tell the public how wonderful we are, how much they should like us and how fortunate they are to have us in their Lovecommunities. We’re hemorrhaging audiences, but rarely, if ever, do we bother to learn about our sustaining customers’ needs, much less promise to satisfy them in our communications. Marketing that’s directed toward satisfying customer needs focuses on the fulfillment the customer will enjoy as a result of participating, not on what we believe are the most worthy and desirable attributes of our artistic offerings.

Back when traditional art forms were popular, these distinctions didn’t matter so much. We could afford to be self-centered because there were a lot of people who agreed with the flattering things we said about ourselves. But today we’re not popular anymore and our self-flattery – falling as it does on indifferent and increasingly skeptical ears – is beginning to sound like delusion. We’re in desperate need of customers, but we’re too busy boasting to notice that we don’t have a clue what tomorrow’s audiences need, and we don’t seem to care about finding the places where what they need and what we offer overlap.

If we don’t know what our new audiences need, we’ll never be able to talk to them about how the art we sell can be of value. And if we continue trying to tell audiences what we think they should need, rather than responding to what they actually do need, we’re nothing more than a bunch of presumptuous amateurs who have no business complaining about empty venues.

The arts are failing to attract sustaining audiences because our grasp of the fundamentals of marketing is about as sophisticated as that of small business hopefuls who turn to the SBA’s website for advice.

But here’s the real kicker: In the arts, there’s no place to go for advice of this quality. When it comes to marketing, there just aren’t any industry leaders or institutions that have the professional expertise to be able to offer it.

Are You Selling Drills or Holes?


I rediscovered this old adage while scanning some marketing blogs today:

Never sell drills when what your customers are looking for is holes.

It’s a pithy way of saying that marketing should be about the customers and their needs, not about the product and its features. What drill buyers want is holes. The right drill for them is the drill that will give them the holes they need. So the right marketing for the drill manufacturer is the marketing that demonstrates how the drill will give the customers the holes they’re looking for. The most effective way to sell a drill to someone who needs holes is to focus on how satisfied the customer will be when he buys the drill that does the best job of giving him the holes he’s looking for.

In the arts, the holes can be many things:

  • Ways to spend a quality night out with friends or loved ones
  • Ways to experience enriching and edifying entertainment
  • Ways to feel connected to a community or social stratum
  • Ways to impress a date
  • Ways to enjoy leisure time

As the drill adage points out, the role of arts marketing is to focus on these needs and how satisfied the customers will be when they’re met. Given the needs described above, the most effective arts marketing content would naturally focus on:

  • People enjoying one another’s company in a given arts venue
  • Customers describing how the art they’ve experienced improved their lives
  • Depictions of people who represent a desirable community enjoying the art
  • Couples bonding at an arts event
  • People having a great time enjoying an arts event

And how often do arts marketers focus on customers having their needs met by the arts product?


We don’t do audience-centered marketing in the arts. It’s not part of our holier-than-thou culture. We do self-centered marketing that focuses exclusively on the superior features of the products we believe our audiences should want to buy. In other words, we sell drills, and rather than focusing on the holes, we promote the drills’ features relentlessly in a vain attempt to convince people that the drills we prefer to produce and promote are more important than the holes our audiences need to make.

Drills are a meafriends-at-a-bar-720x430ns to a hole. The arts are a means to various types of personal fulfillment. If the drill manufacturer should be marketing the hole, arts marketers should be marketing customer fulfillment, which means the content of our marketing should be about customers having a good time participating in the arts.

How many photos did your organization publish in marketing materials in the last twelve months? How many of them depicted customers having their desires fulfilled by attending one of your events?

If you’re like most arts organizations and your marketing content is exclusively self-centered, you’re spending way too much time talking about drills when you should be talking about how happy your customers will be with the holes that only you can help them make.

Take The “Gal in a Starbucks” Test


Say you’ve just been named CEO of a major North American symphony orchestra. Would you approve this copy for publication in your new sales brochure?

“Mendelssohn’s extraordinary symphonic cantata Hymn of Praise, heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a seminal moment in human history: the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Appropriately, Mendelssohn chose the Bible as the subject matter for his commission, and created a work that has been celebrated through the centuries for its sublime beauty.”

Before you answer, take the “Gal in a Starbucks” test that I mentioned a few posts ago:

Imagine yourself sitting in a busy Starbucks where the gal sitting next to you is a smart, 28-year-old tech executive who, as it turns out, played oboe in her college orchestra. You get to chatting and you decide to persuade her to come to your upcoming concert, so you lean in and gutenbergpresssay, “Mendelssohn’s extraordinary symphonic cantata Hymn of Praise, heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a seminal moment in human history: the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Appropriately, Mendelssohn chose the Bible as the subject matter for his commission, and created a work that has been celebrated through the centuries for its sublime beauty.”

Would you approve it now?

Of course not. It’s didactic horse shit that has nothing to do with the young woman you’re talking to. If you actually spoke to someone like this – someone who represented an excellent shot at attracting new audiences – you’d come off as wildly out of touch, pompous and condescending. Or in other words, you’d sound like a typical classical music brochure.

The brilliant advertising guru David Ogilvy once said,

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”

Clearly, this is not the language that new arts audiences use every day. It’s not even the language old arts audiences use every day. It’s the language boring history teachers use every day. Arts organizations that should be speaking to new audiences in a fresh, conversational vernacular about things those audiences actually care about are instead lecturing the world about things they think people should know – a practice that is presumptuous, amateurish and fiscally irresponsible. The entire cultural sector is desperate to understand why audiences are disappearing, but nobody seems to realize that we’re boring new audiences to death by trying to educate them in our marketing materials.

Here’s a shocker: Marketing is a terrible vehicle for arts education. New audiences want to know how attending arts events will satisfy their personal desires, not how those events fit into the history of western civilization. And even if new audiences do have an interest in being educated about the art form, the job of marketing is to promise that education, not to deliver it. Johannes Gutenberg belongs in the program notes, not in the brochure.

The reason arts audiences are shrinking is that arts administrators are too far out of touch with new audiences to know how to talk to them. And instead of learning how to talk to them, we hole up in conference rooms with fellow out-of-touch insiders filling our marketing content with pedantic puffery that’s designed more to appeal to artistic directors and CEOs than it is to persuade outsiders.

How would you describe that Mendelssohn piece to the 28-year-old former oboe player in the Starbucks? If you can find language that will tap into her personal desires in such a way that she’ll be motivated to come to your Mendelssohn concert (or La Bayadère or Miss Julie or Tosca or an exhibition of Renaissance paintings), then that’s the language that belongs in your marketing content.

Arts administrators who understand intuitively that lecturing the gal in the Starbucks isn’t a good way to motivate her to buy tickets, should apply that intuition throughout their organization’s strategic sales communications.

Dating Advice for Arts Marketers


In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, here are five suggestions for successful dating, designed specifically for arts marketers. Follow these tips and the relationships you’re looking for can’t fail to materialize:

1. Look Nice – But Don’t Overdo It

When you’re dating, it’s important to present an attractive appearance that honestly reflects your personality. Arts marketers have a tendency to over-accessorize so you might want to pare down to the essentials. Keep it simple. Try to see yourself through your date’s eyes or get some good advice from a friend. Oh, and that diamond treble clef brooch your grandmother gave you? Leave it at home.

2. Talk Normal

Chances are your date speaks plain old conversational English. Arts marketers speak an artificial language filled with overblown adjectives, indulgent self-flattery and creaky old clichés. There’s a slight chance that a relationship with you will be a roll-in-the-aisles, side-splitting, zany madcap romp or a compelling descent into madness and intrigue set against the backdrop of pre-apocalyptic twenty-first century urban America, but it’s not something you’ll want to project on a date. Just talk like a regular person.

3. Don’t Talk About Yourself

If you want your date to like you, ask questions. Learn about what interests them and focus your conversation on the areas where your interests and their interests overlap. Arts marketers talk exclusively about themselves and the things they think other people should find interesting about them. They almost never ask questions, so they don’t learn about other people’s interests, and they blithely prattle on about how wonderful they are, hoping that by promoting their inherent wonderfulness they’ll make themselves more attractive. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of this sort of thing, however, can tell you that it’s a lousy dating strategy.

4. Don’t Lecture

A relationship with you may end up being a valuable learning experience, but that’s something you’ll want to avoid telegraphing on a date. Arts marketers have an annoying habit of trying to educate everyone, as if to suggest that a successful relationship with them would be contingent on a certain level of academic achievement. Yes, late nineteenth century Norwegian societal constraints may have made strong women do crazy things, but that’s no subject for a dinner conversation, Hedda. Find out what interests your date and talk about those things instead. Who knows, you might end up learning something useful as well.

5. Ask

If you want to get lucky, you have to ask. Arts marketers do endless promotion but they don’t do sales, so they don’t know how to close the deal. You can spend the whole evening talking about how wonderful you are and then sit back and wait for your date to make the move, but that only works for marketers who are totally super hot. If you’re just reasonably attractive, but smart and worth getting to know, you’re going to need a more proactive, less self-centered approach.

So if your old relationships haven’t been working out so well and you’re looking forward to getting to know somebody new, put on a nice simple outfit, talk like a normal human being, take a sincere interest in others so you can talk about common interests, don’t try to improve people before you get to know them and, when you’ve earned the permission, move in for the kiss.

Happy Valentine’s Day!



Where The NEA Blows It


In my last two posts I reported on fascinating new research from the NEA, which delves into the motives that drive people to participate in the arts, as well as barriers that stand in their way.

Unfortunately, the folks who published this research stepped beyond their realm of expertise and made some rather inane suggestions for how to use the data to “reach the missing audience.” Here are the four recommendations from their infographic:

  • Couple low-cost admissions with learning-focused programming
  • Increase community engagement
  • Provide opportunities to socialize and experience new art forms
  • Market to couples deciding on “date night” options

On the surface these seem like great ideas – but that’s just the problem: They’re surface-level ideas. Any intern could have blurted them out in a marketing meeting. It’s the kind of simplistic thinking that nonprofit arts organizations have been using for decades, and it’s disappointing to find such amateur stuff coming from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Most professionals who conduct research into consumer motivations do it to improve their persuasive communications. Politicians learn what motivates voters so they can develop campaign strategies. Sellers of consumer products learn what motivates their customers so they can develop more effective marketing content. Lawyers research jury motives so they can develop more persuasive arguments. If your industry’s persuasive communications suck – as arts industry communications certainly do – and you’ve discovered a veritable gold mine of insight into audience motives – as the NEA certainly has – then the recommendations you put forward should be all about developing new, research-based, audience-centered strategic communications.

The closest the NEA comes to this is their facile “date night” idea, which might as well be singles nights, family four packs, girls’ nights out, flex passes, casual Fridays or any one of a dozen other decades-old arts marketing clichés. And the other three recommendations are about changing programming and administrative culture, which is great, but also quite difficult and expensive – and still needs to be effectively marketed in order to have any value.

Meanwhile, creating marketing content in response to what research has revealed about audience motives costs absolutely nothing and stands to deliver substantial returns. Why change what you sell when you can change the way you sell and generate better results?


Good research requires professional expertise and sophisticated methods. It also requires industry leaders who understand the value of collecting useful data – especially in an industry that suffers from chronic, long-term audience attrition. And it appears that, when it comes to research, the National Endowment for the Arts does indeed have the expertise, methods and leadership they need to provide the industry with useful market intelligence.

But knowing how to use the data also requires professional expertise, sophisticated methods and industry leadership, which, when it comes to attracting audiences, is sorely lacking in the cultural sector. Had the NEA executives who developed this material applied professional marketing expertise in preparing their report, their recommendations might have looked something like this:

  • Design communications around audience motives, not around your products
  • Sell what your customers say they want to buy, not what you want to sell
  • Identify, address and neutralize obstacles in your strategic messaging
  • Know your new audiences personally to better understand their motives

I can understand the NEA’s wanting to toss out a few casual suggestions to stimulate thinking, but the stakes are far too high to be cavalier about the application side of the research equation. Arts administrators don’t know how to use research data to make their communications more persuasive. It’s a skill that executive leaders have never been asked to master and that amateur arts marketing practitioners have never been expected to learn. All the audience motivation data in the world won’t get that conductor’s photo off the cover of the brochure if the CEO never learns why it doesn’t belong there.

Arts marketing is obscenely narcissistic. It’s all about the art, the artists and the organizations – and almost never about the audience. We assume the purpose of strategic communication is to tell the world how wonderful we are and we publish endless amounts of self-important, self-indulgent, self-centered, self-congratulatory, self-flattering promotional content that barely, if ever, reflects what audiences (especially new audiences) have told us they’re looking for. It seems incredible that an entire industry could be doing something so important so badly, but there’s just not enough legitimate marketing expertise among industry leaders to understand, let alone solve, the problem.

If the National Endowment for the Arts can’t offer professional suggestions for using research data, who can?

NEA Discovers MASSIVE Audience That Arts Organizations Fail to Persuade


New research by the NEA has revealed an enormous untapped reservoir of willing arts participants. Thirty-one million Americans said they wanted to attend arts events, but weren’t sufficiently motivated by arts organizations to do so. The research points to a shocking inability among arts marketers to get persuadable customers off their lazy asses and into theaters, concert halls and museums.

Man-on-sofa-watching-TV--010Why the resistance? Turns out that going to arts events is inconvenient: Not enough time, too hard to get to, nobody to go with, blah, blah, blah. There’s no shortage of folks who want to attend arts events, but they appear to lack the necessary drive to overcome the common obstacles that stand in their way. Arts fans have been facing these obstacles for decades, of course, but for some reason, thirty-one million modern American arts enthusiasts don’t have the drive to get themselves to the venue and experience the art.

And why can’t American arts organizations motivate these people? Because we absolutely suck at persuasion. We’re brilliant when it comes to telling people how wonderful they should think we are, but when it comes to moving customers to buy, we’re essentially incompetent. We’ve perfected the art of self-centered, self-important boasting, which worked great on highly self-motivated twentieth century arts patrons, but we’ve lost sight of how to appeal to the less-well-motivated new audiences on which our futures depend.

Persuasion, as we’ve discussed often on this blog, is all about leveraging desires to motivate behavior. If you want people to do something, you have to understand their desires so you can demonstrate how doing the thing you want them to do will satisfy their yearnings. Preachers have long known that people want to live forever and they’ve been exploiting that yearning to sell religion for millennia. Nigerian spam scammers know that people want to get rich quick and have been conning suckers since the advent of email. And Girl Scouts know that people desire cookies – and want to avoid the guilt of bypassing a group of adorable uniformed girls on their way into the grocery store – and have thus been filling my freezer with Thin Mints for the last thirty years. Persuasion is an extremely powerful tool, but if you plan to use it, you have to understand your audience’s desires and know how to use them to motivate behavior.

For a more personal example, consider Jennifer who’s trying to persuade her boyfriend Hector to go to a movie:


Hey, Hector, why don’t we go see Birdman tonight. It’s over at the Regal. You know, the one with Michael Keaton that’s getting all those awards? You said you really wanted to see it.


Eh. I don’t know. We’d have to get over there and figure out where to eat and parking’s always a mess. Seems like a hassle.

There you have it. The quintessential arts marketing challenge. Jennifer knows her target audience wants to attend the cultural event she’s trying to sell, but she’s discovered that inconveniences are standing in the way. She could do what arts organizations do and ‘promote’ the movie by playing up its critical acclaim, its award nominations, its star performances, etc. And she could use all sorts of overblown promotional language to make it appear exciting or attractive or enticing – as arts organizations do – but chances are that Hector is well aware of the show’s positive attributes and repeating them will have limited influence on his behavior.

Fortunately, Jennifer is an adept persuader who is intimately familiar with Hector’s desires:


I know. Let’s stop at that gourmet burrito truck that parks in front of the museum on our way. We’ll grab a bite and see the movie then swing by the brewpub afterward for an IPA. I’ll text Shawn and Kyle and tell them to meet us at the truck in thirty minutes.


Sounds great. Let me grab a coat.

Jennifer and Hector are engaged so she knows him fairly well. Here are some of the things she knows he desires in addition to seeing good movies:

  • Burritos from trendy gourmet food trucks
  • Fast, easy solutions to filling his stomach with tasty food
  • Craft-brewed IPAs
  • Simple solutions to mundane problems like planning to go to a movie
  • Doing fun things with their best friends Shawn and Kyle

Jennifer, as it turns out, because she is a brilliant communications strategist, was able to leverage Hector’s desires to motivate him to act. She knew that his desire to see the movie wasn’t enough to overcome the inconveniences of getting there, so she tapped into additional related desires to make her pitch more appealing. Plus, she neutralized several of the perceived inconveniences by offering up a package that made the decision easy. If Jennifer were in charge of strategic communications for your arts organization, you’d be successful beyond measure.

2_zps11697305If we want to persuade interested but under-motivated audiences to participate in our cultural events, we have to know who those audiences are. We have to immerse ourselves in their lives so we have an intimate understanding of their desires. We have to leverage those desires by addressing them explicitly in our strategic communications – even if it means selling more than just the art. And we have to do whatever we can to neutralize the perceived inconveniences of accessing our products. The way to do this is to cast aside old-fashioned, amateur, self-centered promotional traditions and replace them with professional, audience-centered, persuasive marketing approaches.

Out of touch arts administrators who hole up in conference rooms dreaming up creative ways to tell the world how wonderful they are can’t complain when tomorrow’s audiences lack the necessary motivation to respond to their marketing. If audiences lack motivation, it’s our job to supply it, and that means making our marketing content as much about what they want as it is about what we’re trying to sell. And we’ll never do this if we don’t step outside our artsy bubbles and start learning about the people we intend to persuade.

According to the NEA, there are thirty-one million people out there waiting for American arts organizations to stop blathering about themselves long enough to motivate them to come to our events.

How many of those people do you suppose live in your community?

Time To Stop Selling Art and Start Selling Audiences


According to a new set of studies released by the NEA, the number one reason people participate in the arts is to socialize with friends and families. It’s not the play or the concert or the exhibition, necessarily; it’s the social event. People participate in the arts so they can enjoy doing interesting and enriching things with other people.


If I were a marketer who understood that my audience’s primary motivation was to have a good time with other people at arts events, my marketing would be mostly about people enjoying themselves with other people at my events. It wouldn’t be quite so much about the art, the artists or the organization because that would mean focusing on less compelling motivators. No, it would be about the emotional impact of sharing a quality artistic experience with friends and family at my venue.

Professional marketers understand this dynamic well. Tune into any commercial TV station for a few minutes and watch some ads. You’ll quickly discover that advertisers almost always show their customers enjoying their products because they know that their job is to demonstrate how their products will satisfy their customers’ desires. If they’re selling a minivan, they show a happy family enjoying the minivan. If they’re selling jeans, they show happy people having fun together wearing those jeans. If they’re selling a restaurant, they show happy people enjoying food together. It’s fairly straightforward: The essence of persuasion is demonstrating how your products will make people happy, and that usually means showing happy people enjoying your products.

Unfortunately, arts marketers haven quite grasped the concept. Take a look at marketing materials produced by just about any traditional arts organization and you’ll find marketing content that’s almost exclusively about the art, the artists and the organization. We don’t focus on audience members having a great time enjoying one another’s company in our venues because that would mean making it about them and, well, when it comes right down to it – if we’re being honest – despite what we profess in our mission statements and grant applications, we’re really, mostly, pretty much, well, actually entirely about us.

Check out this Philadelphia Orchestra brochure. Fifty-two pages, over a hundred and five photographic images and only a scant handful of oblique references to the audience. Seventy-three percent of arts patrons told the NEA they go for social reasons but only about three percent of the content in this brochure even references the audience, and none of it puts forward the idea that people might enjoy spending time with one another at a concert. Given what the NEA has revealed, I can’t help wondering what would happen if a more reasonable percentage of those pages and photos were devoted to what audiences are actually looking for, which is people like them having a good time together with other people like them.

Useful Tip: Pictures of audiences clapping at your stage or fawning over your artists don’t really count. Neither do those obligatory shots of kids at education events or mucky mucks at the gala. If people are looking for excuses to share arts experiences with one another, make sure your marketing features regular people having a great time together – and have the courage and humility to let your product take a back seat.

This isn’t really news, by the way. Any arts organization that’s well engaged with its audience knows that people attend for myriad reasons, most of them having to do with their own needs, wants and desires. And organizations that do professional marketing tend to respect and reflect those predispositions. But the overwhelming majority of arts organizations still cling to an amateur mid-20th century communications philosophy that says, “Our job is to tell the world how wonderful and important we are and assume that there are enough people out there who want what we’re boasting about to keep us in business.”

I’ve been making the following recommendation on this blog for the last three years and it’s become absurd to have to keep repeating it, but here it is one more time – with a big fat chunk of objective support from the NEA: If you’re not selling enough tickets, try making your marketing about the customers for a change.

Your artistic director and CEO may lose their shit and do everything in their power to try to stop you, but it’s not about them anymore and now the whole world knows it.


Who The Hell Is Writing Your Copy?


I read about another dying orchestra last week, so I went to their marketing materials to look for signs of trouble. There I found this blurb:

Blurbology 2

The purpose of sales copy is to persuade customers to buy tickets. And the best way to persuade customers to buy tickets is to answer the question, “Why would I want to go to that concert?”

This copy is just impotent drivel written by someone who knows nothing about strategic messaging and approved by an executive leader who, when it comes to vetting marketing materials, is incompetent. Sadly, it could have appeared in just about any orchestra’s season brochure.

Imagine yourself sitting in a busy Starbucks where the gal sitting next to you is a smart, 28-year-old tech executive who, as it turns out, played clarinet in her high school orchestra. You get to chatting and you decide to persuade her to come to your upcoming concert, so you lean in and say, “Written at the edge of the Baroque Era, the symphony uses a concerto grosso format to pull the curtain on the era as music transitions towards a new Classical aesthetic. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, in imitation of Haydn, exemplifies Neo-Classical style in the 20th Century.”

Suddenly the Starbucks falls dead silent as everyone in the store freezes and stares dumbfounded in your direction. The gal you’re talking to looks nervously from you to the frozen onlookers then back to you where she’s trying to decide if this is a weird joke or she’s talking to a lunatic. She shrugs uncomfortably and, as the din begins to rise again, makes a quick excuse then runs out of the store while you, with yet another empty seat on your hands, sit there cursing the educational system for making her run away.

Now come on. Seriously. What would you say to her? How would you describe that concert to convince a real live human being that it was worth her time and money? You’d probably say something like this: “For this concert we paired up two symphonies that were written 170 years apart – but in the same style. The early one’s by Haydn and the more recent one by Prokofiev. Both pieces are gorgeous examples of their eras, so you get the entertainment value of listening to great live music, but the whole experience becomes more fascinating because of this extraordinary connection.”

Good sales copy is spoken language written down. Period. End of story. If you wouldn’t say it, for god’s sake, whatever you do, DON’T WRITE IT!

Classical music organizations that let inexperienced, inexpert, amateur marketing staffers fill their brochures with silly, pretentious, didactic nonsense can’t complain about not selling tickets – because they’re not actually selling tickets. And executive leaders who vet and approve this kind of non-strategic bullshit in their sales collateral have no one to blame but themselves for their organizations’ failures. 

If you want to sell tickets, you have to talk to real, live human beings in a language they understand about how your products will make them happy. If your organization can’t figure out how to do that, you’re probably too far out of touch with your community to be worth saving.

You’re Too Stupid To Know What You Want: Buy Now!


I’ve often stated on this blog that good marketing requires us to know what our customers want. It is a fundamental principle in marketing and a bedrock truth in persuasion. Aristotle codified this truth over 2500 years ago and smart people have been using it productively ever since.

Kyle Clausen reminded me in a comment on my last post, however, that this truth is something arts leaders often find bothersome and would just as soon ignore:

“Arts organizations feel it is their duty to give the world not what they want, but to push their boundaries and limits and give the audiences what they don’t yet know they want.”

Sounds great. Very noble and generous. But replace just one small word and the whole idea is exposed for the presumptuous nonsense that it is. “Arts organizations feel it is their duty to sell the world not what they want, but to push their boundaries and limits and sell audiences what they don’t yet know they want.”

Here’s another bedrock truth: People don’t buy things they don’t want because some aloof, condescending, we-know-better-than-you arts organization told them they should want it. Traditional arts organizations are increasingly marginal, irrelevant and unpopular and, thanks to nonstop media coverage of conspicuous failures, everybody knows it. Arts pros who run these organizations and who think they’re well-positioned to tell people what they should want are either hopelessly out-of-touch or delusional – or both. And when they try to tell people what they should want in communications that are meant to sell tickets, they’re committing an especially tragic and painful – not to mention obnoxious – form of organizational suicide.

The only way to sell arts products to new audiences is to know who those audiences are and what they want. Armed with that information we can explain how our art will satisfy their yearnings and, in so doing, motivate them to buy. Marketing is a process of motivating behavior by leveraging desires. If we don’t know what those desires are, we can’t use them to motivate behavior. And, believe it or not, you can’t motivate behavior by trying to leverage desires that people won’t have until after they buy the product.

Here’s where arts pros who don’t understand marketing tend to get confused. Learning what new audiences want doesn’t mean we have to start selling them crap, it means finding the overlap between what they want and what we sell so we can establish a meaningful connection. It’s not about pandering, it’s about identifying an optimal context for effective communication. It’s about finding a common language based on mutual interests – one that new audiences are most likely to find persuasive.

Venn 2

In this diagram, the first circle includes all the ways our products satisfy, and the second circle includes all the things that new audiences say they desire. The place where these two circles overlap contains all the information we need to motivate new audiences to participate by convincing them that our products will satisfy their yearnings. But if we never learn what’s in that second circle, we’ll never discover the place where what we sell and what they want come together. And if we insist on filling the second circle with what we wish were there, or what we believe will appear there if they decide to participate, the information in the overlap will be meaningless and motivationally impotent.

Arts professionals who refuse to learn what new audiences want because they prefer to focus on what arts insiders believe they should want – and who make their marketing decisions accordingly – are a danger to their organizations and a detriment to this industry. If we have no respect for the legitimate desires that new audiences already have, independent of their exposure to our art forms, we can’t complain when they ignore the self-important, self-flattering bombast that we insist on publishing in our promotional materials.

The day we decide to engage humbly with new audiences and start learning – with sincere curiosity – about their needs, wants and desires is the day traditional arts organizations will stop hemorrhaging customers and start climbing back on the path toward health and sustainability.

Only then will we be able to help new arts audiences develop healthy and enduring longings for all the wonderful things they may not have known they wanted.

Three Questions Competent Leaders Ask in Marketing Meetings


In my last post I suggested that when it comes to marketing, most arts leaders lack basic competence. I don’t mean that as an insult; it’s a simple description of reality. When compared with the broader marketing profession, arts marketing is an insular, amateurish, old-fashioned enterprise, and since most executive leaders learn what they know about marketing as they rise through the the nonprofit ranks, they arrive in their positions sorely underprepared to make professional marketing decisions.

This is why the arts are in so much trouble. The people who lead the industry, and who presume to make its ultimate marketing choices, don’t know enough about the way real marketing works to attract sustaining audiences.

imgres-1You don’t have to be a marketing genius to lead a well-marketed organization of course, but you do need to know some fundamentals and you need to have some management tools at your disposal to avoid perpetuating the industry’s counterproductive traditions. Most of all, you need the wisdom, humility and self-restraint to avoid inserting your own amateur opinions into the marketing process. This may come as a bit of a shock, dear executive arts leader, but you don’t get to have final say anymore just because you’re the boss. That’s not the way marketing works in professional contexts.

So if you’re an arts exec who lacks a legitimate academic and/or professional background in marketing, but wishes to guide your organization in a more productive direction, here some tools you can use in your next meeting that will help you lead your staff toward unprecedented results:


1. What do we know?

Effective marketing discussions begin with a thorough examination of what the organization knows about its situation and its markets. A good leader will expect her team to come to meetings prepared with abundant factual data describing a broad range of internal and external realities. At a minimum this will include detailed sales figures and plenty of market research results.

Arts marketing ends up being amateurish because it’s so often driven by insiders’ opinions rather than objective, external facts. If you want to do professional marketing, banish opinions entirely from the process (especially your own) and focus exclusively on what can be known. A good way to do this is to strike the phrase “I think…” from all meetings and insist that it be replaced with “We know…” (The first few such meetings will be conspicuously brief.)

For most arts professionals this will be agonizing. Collecting accurate, useful data is hard work and poring over dry figures for thirty minutes before looking at designers’ mockups isn’t fun. But if you develop the habit of acquiring and thoroughly analyzing objective data at the beginning of each meeting – without giving in to idle speculation – you will be far more successful. (I learned this at Disney and last time I checked they were doing pretty well.)

2. How does this work?

Marketing is a process of understanding what consumers want and then motivating them to act by describing how your products will satisfy their desires. It’s a bedrock formula that underlies all effective persuasion. The only way to know if your marketing works is to ask if it fits this formula, so a reasonable answer to the question might sound like this:

We know from our focus group research that younger audiences are looking for peripherals that enhance the concert experience such as drinking and socializing with peers. The campaign we’re presenting today features photos of the target demo having fun and enjoying drinks in the lobby bar. It works by allowing younger audiences to see themselves enjoying time with friends as a part of the concert experience.”

Amateur arts marketers usually can’t describe how their marketing works because they don’t follow this formula and they haven’t gathered the objective data they need to know what their target demo wants. You can’t describe how marketing works if it hasn’t been created in response to your customers’ stated desires. And, needless to say, if your content was created in response to what you think people want, or assume people want, rather than what they actually told you they want, it’s amateur bullshit.

The more time and energy you spend focusing on what you know to be true about your audience’s desires, the easier it will be to create marketing that motivates them – and the easier it will be to describe how it works. (Note: You’ll have to know exactly who your potential audiences are and you’ll have to do research to learn what they want.)

What will it do?

Good marketing is predictable. If you know what your target audiences want and you make smart, rational choices in demonstrating how your products will satisfy those desires – and you do it repeatedly – you will be able to project results with surprising precision. A reasonable answer to this question might sound like this:

We know from our focus group research that younger audiences are looking for peripherals that enhance the concert experience such as drinking and socializing with peers. The campaign we’re presenting today features photos of the target demo having fun and enjoying drinks together in the lobby bar. It works by allowing younger audiences to see themselves enjoying time with friends as a part of the concert experience. We are projecting an 18% increase over last season in this demo based on the quality/consistency of our research findings and year-over-year trending from similar past strategies.

Marketing results can’t always be pinpointed to the penny, but the more facts you use at the beginning of the process, and the more rational methods you apply in the content development phase, the more accurate your projections will be. Compare that to the traditional method, which involves having a group of well-meaning but under-informed insiders sitting in a conference room guessing what people want and dreaming up creative ways to tell them about upcoming events, and you’ll see the difference between amateur and professional approaches.

Arts administrators have long believed that marketing is a creative endeavor that’s well suited to smart, clever, creative people, but that’s just self-indulgent nonsense. Marketing is a science where creativity and the opinions of the organization’s highest-paid person are of severely limited value. The day the arts embrace marketing as a rational, fact-based, professional enterprise is the day that audiences will stop disappearing and traditional arts organizations will begin growing again.

But that day won’t come until arts leaders stop pretending to be marketing experts and begin letting facts and rational methods guide their choices.

If that day never comes, arts leaders have only themselves to blame.

Why Not Just Sell The Friggin’ Tickets?


I’ve been thinking a lot about community engagement lately and have decided that, for large ticket-sales-dependent organizations, it is a colossal waste of time and resources. All the energy and money that community engagement might require of these organizations would be better invested in developing new outside sales initiatives.

What most struggling arts organizations need is to sell more tickets. Sales does that. Community engagement does not.

Engagement is a great idea for small, low-budget, well-funded grass roots organizations that cater to localized community interests and don’t need to earn a lot of revenue, but it’s not going to do much for the big guys – certainly not in the area of audience development. Sadly, it’s being sold to all arts organizations as a solution to their audience development problems when, for the larger institutions, it is no such thing. In many cases, community engagement is a false promise that desperate, highly suggestible arts leaders are buying into because they don’t know how to sell tickets and they don’t know where else to turn. And, tragically, while they’re chasing this elusive dream, they’re neglecting more fiscally responsible alternatives.

The easiest way to develop audiences is to identify people who are likely to want to buy tickets and then go out and sell them tickets. It’s the simplest thing in the world. Unfortunately, arts organizations tend to suck at doing it.

Most arts organizations emerged in a world where there were a lot of people who wanted to buy tickets, so all they had to do was promote their events and wait for the phones to ring. That world doesn’t exist anymore, of course, but arts organizations haven’t figured out how to make the transition. When promotion no longer works, you have to sell, which means you have to reconnect with your community and convince people that it’s in their interest to participate in the art you want them to buy.

Ironically, sales and community engagement are identical processes, with one important exception: Sales has quantifiable goals. Both require personal interaction with the community, nurturing of trust and good will, development of mutually beneficial long-term relationships, honest give-and-take that enables collaborative evolution and a meaningful, institution-wide commitment to the process. But in community engagement, the relationship is the goal, whereas in sales the relationship is expected to deliver useful results. Both are noble pursuits, but only one puts butts in seats and cash in the coffers.

So, if you have the staff and resources to do community engagement, and your survival depends on selling tickets, the smart thing to do is devote those resources to sales because sales will deliver larger audiences and more revenue. Community engagement might be a nice idea, but for ailing arts organizations, doing nice things without doing smart things is irresponsible and counterproductive. Good community relationships can’t save arts organizations that neglect to sell enough tickets to keep the doors open.

If you work for or run a large, ticket-sales-dependent organization, the next time someone tries to convince you that community engagement is the answer to your audience development problems, listen patiently to their lofty advice, attach dollar goals the minute they’re gone, focus on people who are most likely to buy tickets and get used to calling it sales. You can call it engagement on the grant applications if that’ll make the foundations happy (they don’t know anything about selling tickets), but on the ground where it matters, say sales, do sales, and stay focused on selling.

If you do it the right way, all of your community engagement and sales goals will be met.

The Case for Uglier Arts Marketing


The best graphic designer I ever worked with was a self-taught journeyman who produced some of the most inartistic, practical, workhorse sales materials you’d ever want to see. Together, we moved a hell of a lot of tickets.

His designs worked because he knew that his job wasn’t about being pretty, it was about rendering sales messages in the most strategic, audience-centric manner. Some of my more cultured colleagues bristled at the thought of being represented by such inelegant imagery, but we weren’t trying to make art, we were trying to sell art, and understanding the distinction made all the difference in the world.

Sadly, it’s a distinction that’s lost on most arts professionals. In the arts, when given a choice between unattractive marketing that sells and pretty marketing that doesn’t sell, executive arts leaders will choose pretty every time. It’s built in. For most arts leaders, marketing isn’t about selling tickets, it’s about designing and disseminating pretty marketing materials. The sales that result – or fail to result as the case may be – are just byproducts of an accepted and largely unquestioned industry tradition.

Why would we opt for pretty but ineffective marketing when so many arts organizations are struggling to attract audiences? A part of the answer has to do with history. Back in the old days when there were a lot of people who wanted what we had to sell, being pretty worked. It didn’t matter much what marketing materials looked like as long as we got the messages in front of the right people.

Unfortunately, the rest of the answer has to do with inept leadership. Now that there are fewer people who want what we have to sell, we need to use more professional forms of strategic communication and arts leaders don’t know what that means. Ian Campbell didn’t know what that meant, which is why San Diego Opera published such lovely but impotent marketing materials to promote what ended up being its last season. There are few things more painfully poignant than dead arts organizations leaving behind archives full of beautiful but ineffective promotional materials.

In the arts, executive leaders get to decide which marketing materials their organizations will use even though most arrive in their positions with no professional marketing expertise. Arts leaders tend to rise up through the ranks of the cultural sector where marketing is a quirky, insular, quasi-professional, third- or fourth-priority administrative function driven by tradition, habit and the subjective opinions of the people at the top. The widespread ineptitude is only coming to light now because the marketplace no longer contains enough people who want to respond to the outdated materials arts leaders prefer to approve.

Pretty ArtArts executives who lack professional marketing expertise will always opt for the choice that looks nicest or that’s most familiar – or that flatters them or puts forward what they believe is the most attractive representation of their products or organizations. But in more professional settings, the process is quite different. Serious marketers choose marketing content that was crafted in response to objective market data and that was designed to achieve predictable results – irrespective of the highest-paid person’s personal tastes and opinions. While arts executives rely on subjective discernment to guide their choices, real marketers allow rational, external considerations to lead them toward choices that have the best chance of delivering expected returns.

Suppose for a minute that your research demonstrated that new audiences are looking for leisure entertainment opportunities they can share with friends. Armed with such data, professional marketers would naturally populate their materials with images of target audiences having a great time with friends in their venues. But given a choice between a brochure that features audiences having a great time in the venue and one that features photos of tuxedo-clad conductors (or any other self-flattering marketing cliché), most executive leaders will go with the conductor. They just don’t know or care enough about marketing to understand that the research-driven, audience-centered approach will sell more tickets.

Does effective marketing have to be ugly? No. Of course not. But marketing content that looks beautiful to a veteran arts pro who’s devoted his entire life to a certain art form can differ dramatically from that which appeals to a 28-year-old woman who’s looking for an entertaining way to spend an evening out with friends. The 28-year-old woman’s preferences should determine what shows up in the marketing content, but it’s almost always the arts executive’s preferences that appear there instead.

The answer to the arts’ audience crisis is heartbreakingly simple: Learn what new audiences want and then speak to them in words and images that resonate with their yearnings. But for this to happen, somebody’s going to have to tell the GMs, EDs and CEOs – all the future Ian Campbells out there – to remove themselves and their well-meaning but counterproductive personal opinions from the marketing process.




Can Technology Save the Arts?


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


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.

Filling the Empty Seats First


It’s 7:59 PM at a one-hundred-seat venue and a show is about to begin.

Seventy-five seats have been sold since the on-sale date. The first tickets were sold to buyers who were eagerly waiting for the event to happen. As time went on more tickets were sold, but the relative enthusiasm of the buyers tended to wane as the sales campaign unfolded. Finally, in the days and hours before the event, a few stragglers tipped into the ticket-buying category and shortly before curtain time, the seventy-fifth buyer walked up to the box office.

Who’s the most important customer?

Tradition would suggest that the first thirty or forty buyers — the subscribers, members and loyal patrons who responded first — are the most important. They’re on the most responsive lists, they come to a lot of events, they have the closest relationships with the organization, they’re more likely to give money, they have more in common socially with the people who run the organization and their motivations are well understood by the managers and marketers who craft the sales messages. Who wouldn’t value them? We love them! Customer number one is customer number one for a reason and the rest follow according to their relative avidity.

Buyers forty-one through sixty-five are a little tougher. They’re more expensive to reach, they’re less committed, they’re less passionate about the art form and they may not show up again until next year. They’re vitally important to the bottom line but they’re an unpleasant necessity. Life would be so much easier if we didn’t have to worry about the vagaries and expense of single-ticket-buying audiences.

And sixty-six to seventy-five? Who the hell knows? They’re late, they’re fickle, they’re unreliable, they’re hard to find, they respond mostly to incentives or discount offers and they have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that’s almost insulting. They may help us with our goals, but they’re a pain in the ass and they’re not really our people anyway. And besides, we may never see them again.

So who’s most important to you?

I loaded these last few paragraphs with a bias that reflects some deep-seated attitudes in our industry. We tend to know and care the most about the people who know and care the most about us; and conversely, we know and care the least about the people who know and care the least about us. It’s human nature. And it makes sense that such an attitude would shape our priorities. After all, why invest too much time in audiences that don’t share our passions and preferences? Why bother with people who don’t even have the decency to behave like proper arts patrons?

But if I were to pick the most important customers in this example it would be a tossup between numbers seventy-five and seventy-six — the last one to purchase a seat and the one who came closest to filling the next seat but for some reason didn’t make it. The rest are important — there’s no doubt about that — but they represent the past and the present; we already know how to talk to them. Seventy-five and seventy-six, on the other hand, define the difference between old and new audiences and they have more to teach us than anyone who’s ever walked though our doors.

Personally, I’m curious to know what made seventy-five get off the couch and drive down to the venue. He almost didn’t make it. I can’t help wondering what moved him to get here in time. We have twenty-five empty seats and if we can learn what motivated this guy, we should be able to use that information to persuade more people like him to come to our events. I wonder if there’s something we should know about him that would make it easier for us to persuade him to buy earlier or come more often.

Havin FunAnd my heart goes out to number seventy-six who thought she might come but wound up somewhere else. Where is she tonight? What did she decide to do instead? Why didn’t she come to our venue to see our show? What was it about what we said to number seventy-five that got him in the door but failed to capture seventy-six? Could we have said something different that was slightly more compelling — something that would have tipped her into the ticket-buying category, too? What should we know about her that would make our messages more persuasive?

No matter what size the venue or how popular the show, the unsold seat next to the last seat sold has somebody’s name on it. And the only way to fill that seat is to make whoever isn’t sitting there a priority.

We can talk endlessly about new audiences while continuing to put all of our energy into making customer number one happy. But as far as I’m concerned, the key to new audiences lies in making the customers who can’t decide where to go as important as the ones who wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.


Tweeting Mahler, Graham and Stoppard?


I once did marketing for an old vaudeville theatre-turned performing arts center that had amazing acoustics. One day I was walking past the telemarketing room where I overheard a young salesperson saying, “The acoustics in this theatre are so good that it’s like listening to a really well-produced CD with a great set of headphones.”

I thought of this yesterday when I read a story about tweeting during orchestral concerts in Pacific Standard Magazine (via Artsjournal.com). According to writer Tom Jacobs, a young Alabama journalist was recently asked to tweet from his seat at a symphony orchestra performance and afterward said, “The exercise helped transform me into more of an active listener, a true observer instead of merely an audience member.”

What’s fascinating about these comments is that they reveal a shift away from direct experience and toward mediated experiences. For the young telemarketer, the CD was the standard against which all other musical experiences might be compared. For the journalist, being a “true observer” wasn’t possible without a digital connection to an external social network. In both cases, having a direct, unmediated connection to the art was a lesser experience than one that could be had with the aid of technology.

As an arts marketer I tend to sell the experience of connecting directly with art because I believe it’s the transcendent ideal and that an unfiltered relationship is superior to any other means of arts participation. But I’m 53 years old. I was raised in a culture that believed in direct, immersive connections and my perspective is tied to my generation. Younger people who were raised in more highly mediated, less focused environments may not have the inclination or capacity for full immersion and may not be prepared to benefit the way my generation did from the experiences I’m often trying to sell.

In his article, Jacobs quotes researcher Clifford Nass who claims that young multi-taskers may not value the deep attention that direct experience requires. “That’s a cultural shift,” says Nass. “Artists have to think about what that means, and what they want to do about it.”

Personally, I think it means the days of sophisticated plays, operas, ballets and symphonic works that rely on measured temporal development are probably on their way out. The idea of sitting quietly, willingly, yieldingly and patiently in a theatre or concert hall giving oneself over to a complex communal artistic experience may be obsolete. Some people say that’s a good thing – that it was an artificial product of an overly fussy 19th century attitude about art that’s no longer useful. I can see their point, but I’m conflicted about having to toss out all the great works that were created to be experienced in such a context. It’s possible that this era of unmediated communal artistic immersion, rather than having been a forgettable anomaly, was one of the greatest achievements of human civilization.

Should we invite social media into theaters and concert halls and encourage young people to add our artistic products to their ongoing multi-tasking endeavors? Maybe the answer is both yes and no. If we’re presenting fare that doesn’t ask much of its audience and lends itself to being sampled in small bites, why not? You don’t have to pay much attention to Wicked or the Chinese Acrobats or John Williams’ movie scores to have a nice time at a show.

But asking someone to tweet through Stoppard’s Arcadia or a Mahler symphony or Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring is just plain ludicrous. It doesn’t make sense to produce art that demands immersion for its payoff and then invite people to skim across the surface. They won’t be able to get from it what it was designed to deliver. And we risk having them find it obscure and off-putting and then sit there telling the world what a bad time they’re having while they’re having it.

The day may come when a new generation of great artists create brilliant new works for immersion-averse multi-taskers, but as long as we’re producing work that was designed for fully engaged, undivided audiences, we should do everything we can to get new people to come and stop apologizing for asking them to pay attention when they get there.

If the alternative is to produce art that doesn’t require a direct connection just to get more people to come to live events, why bother?

It’s Time to Stop Promoting the Arts


I’ve been thinking a lot about promotion and persuasion recently and I’m convinced that the reason the arts are losing audiences is that we don’t understand the difference.

The culture of arts marketing is one of promotion, of course. Always has been. And this was just fine back when demand was high, but the fact that audiences are in steady decline suggest that we need to be more persuasive, and we don’t seem to know what that means.

Fortunately, the good people at Merriam-Webster online dictionary offer a concise delineation:

Promote: To present a product for buyer acceptance through advertising, publicity, or discounting

Persuade: To move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action

There it is, right there in the first two words. To promote is to present while to persuade is to move. Promoters offer information in hopes of stimulating pre-existing demand while persuaders motivate people to act through the use of reasoned arguments or appeals. Put another way, promoters present their stuff and wait for audiences to happen while persuaders make audiences happen by motivating people to attend. The difference is profound.

For a useful example, look at the concert industry. Concert promoters select acts that have built-in demand and then advertise or publicize them so that fans will buy tickets. They don’t build audiences; they exploit pre-existing demand through promotions. If the demand is weak and the acts don’t draw, the promoters stop booking them because you can’t successfully promote something for which there is insufficient demand. Promotion alone, because it is by definition passive, doesn’t work on audiences that need to be moved.

The tragedy in the arts is that our industry is built on a promotional model that’s incapable of delivering the audiences on which our future depends. We’re like concert promoters pushing acts that we believe in, but that don’t have enough fan support to satisfy the bottom line. We promote vigorously – and expensively – but because our promotional efforts lack strategic rigor, we can’t motivate enough new customers to keep ourselves in business.

The solution of course is to stop promoting and start persuading, but that’s easier said than done. Resistance to persuasion goes deeper than semantics. In the arts there are a lot of people – especially among older artists and administrators – who believe that persuasion is beneath their dignity and that having to appeal to under-motivated buyers diminishes the integrity of the art they’re there to provide. Art, to them, is too valuable to have to be sold.

And the problem is compounded by the fact that embracing persuasion as a survival strategy means accepting a reality in which people don’t like or value us as much as they once did, and that’s an extremely difficult thing for veteran arts pros to do. Some would rather continue promoting their endeavors with vain, bombastic, self-flattering, self-important, self-deluding marketing content than admit that they’re dependent on customers who lack a self-motivating interest in what they do. Persuading fence-sitting audiences means shifting the emphasis of our strategic communications from us to them, and that’s a change that few established arts leaders are willing to endure.

The good new is that the industry has plenty of young, well-educated arts administrators who grew out of the ambivalent, relativistic cultures that older arts pros find so frustrating. They have an intuitive understanding of what it will take to get their peers in the door and strategic persuasion, to them, is a given. The big question is whether they’ll be able to persuade the arts administrators who hire them to let them do what must be done.

Arts Marketing Doesn’t Work Because It’s Irrational


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?

A Human-Centered Approach to Arts Marketing?


Last Sunday night, CBS’s 60 Minutes profiled a design consultant and Stanford University professor named David Kelley who founded a fascinating company called IDEO.

David Kelley - IDEO

David Kelley – IDEO

IDEO is a “global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.” The company’s philosophy is simple but it’s nothing less than revolutionary: create better products by watching people actually using them.

Here’s a brief exchange between Kelley and 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose:

Charlie Rose: The main tenet is empathy for the consumer – figuring out what humans really want by watching them.

David Kelly: If you want to improve a piece of software, all you have to do is watch people using it and see when they grimace and then correlate that to where they are in the software and you can fix that, right? And so the thing is to really build empathy, try to understand people through observing them.

Charlie Rose: In other words, their experience will communicate what you need to focus on.

David Kelly: Yeah. Exactly.

According to Kelley, a group of like-minded insiders sitting in a room trying to design something for outsiders will inevitably miss the mark, while a diverse group of creative thinkers paying close attention to how people actually use a given product will be far more likely to succeed. It’s the empathy with the user and the understanding of how they interact with the product that holds the key to innovation. (If you’re using a mouse right now, or one of its descendants, you are in direct contact with one of Kelley’s innovations – something he and his team developed for a young tech entrepreneur named Steve Jobs.)

As an arts professional, I couldn’t help listening to Kelley’s “grimace” comment without thinking of people reading arts marketing materials. We know the grimaces happen­ – arts marketing materials are among the least innovative and most grimace-worthy design products imaginable – but if we take some time to understand when, where and why those grimaces occur, we may be able to make our messages more effective.

I think arts marketing is long overdue for a human-centered design overhaul. The only way to know how to design effective marketing materials is to develop a deeply empathic sensitivity to the way our potential customers interact with our messages. If the grimaces occur as soon as they see the product or brand there may be no hope, but if potential customers start grimacing when they see the vanity shot of the tuxedoed conductor, the tedious welcome letter from the board chair, the hokey production shot from last season, the arcane academic jargon, the artsy wordplay, the hackneyed blurb, the hoary old clichés, the imperious ballerina in the tutu, the sterile architectural shot, the fawning society pics, the thrilling anniversary celebration, the endless barrage of vainglorious hype or the conspicuous absence of anything having to do with them, there may be some room for improvement.

Can human-centered design work on marketing materials? Absolutely. Brand and communications strategies are right up IDEOs alley. It’s true that most arts organizations can’t afford companies like IDEO, but there’s no reason we can’t start paying attention to how our marketing messages work – not the response rates or click-through rates they generate, but how potential customers engage, or fail to engage, with our strategic message content.

Imagine for a minute that your organization could afford IDEO and you hired them to put together a task group of independent auditors to watch a test group of young, culturally diverse people reacting to your marketing materials. What would the auditors observe? Where would the grimaces occur? What would this task group recommend to you after having seen the way new audiences react to your marketing messages?

The business world is rapidly embracing the idea that its products should be designed not according to what companies think they should be selling, but rather how customers want to use the products they sell. In the arts, we don’t necessarily want to change our products to meet the comfort and convenience expectations of our customers, but there’s no reason we can’t empathize with our customers’ attitudes and dispositions in order to improve the way we persuade them to participate.

Why Arts Leaders Don’t Change?


Canadian psychologist Robert Gifford recently described seven psychological barriers that keep people from changing. Gifford’s area of interest is the environment – people don’t change their energy consumption habits even though global warming is likely to be catastrophic – but his observations apply just as well to the arts where leaders don’t change their management habits even though the industry suffers from chronic, potentially fatal, audience declines.

Here’s a brief paraphrase of what Dr. Gifford calls his “Seven Dragons of Inaction” along with some examples from the arts.

Limited Cognition

Humans simply may not be wired to anticipate future catastrophes and then change their behavior to prevent them from happening. For thousands of years we’ve dealt mostly with the here and now, and it’s only in the last few decades that we’ve been asked to gaze into the future, imagine the dire consequences of our actions and make wholesale changes in the way we live. Given the way we’ve evolved, we’re not very good at wrapping our minds around abstract future problems so we tend to drag our feet, assume that the problem is someone else’s or cling to irrational causes for optimism: “But sales were really strong for our Marvin Hamlisch tribute.”

Michael Kaiser complained recently in a Huffington Post blog that his consulting clients weren’t implementing sensible strategic plans even though they understood that inaction could have devastating consequences. It could be that when arts professionals fail to act it’s not because we’re lazy or stubborn, but because we simply don’t have the cognitive capacity to do it.


Some belief systems are so strong they blind people to reality. We all know how political ideologies can influence what people think about global warming, but there may be equally powerful ideologies preventing arts pros from understanding why change is necessary.

Long term tracking studies by the NEA have demonstrated chronic audience declines and conspicuous resistance among baby boomers to adopt the habits of their arts-consuming parents. Yet it’s still surprisingly easy to find arts professionals who’ve maintained a lifelong belief – and aren’t ashamed to profess – that people will somehow magically turn into arts patrons when their hair turns gray.

Significant Others

This one’s sort of like the blind leading the blind. I was working for a small museum a while back where I recommended some changes designed to appeal to new audiences. The museum decided they weren’t comfortable with the changes so they checked with other museums in the area, found that they weren’t contemplating such changes, and opted to stick with what they’d always done – even though it wasn’t working.

Sunken Costs

People who’ve made significant investments in the status quo are likely to defend those investments even if their long-term value is questionable. This helps to explain all those tuxedo-clad conductors on the covers of symphony orchestra brochures. From a new audience perspective they’re pure poison, but those photo shoots cost a fortune so there’s not a chance the pictures will be left out of the brochure.


One of the easiest ways to avoid change is to discredit the people who tell us that change is necessary. The energy industry does it by casting doubt on accepted environmental science. The arts industry does it by categorically dismissing management approaches that forecast and prepare for future threats and opportunities. “We’re the arts. We shouldn’t be expected to behave like businesses!”

Perceived Risks

Change is risky. One of the benefits of refusing to change is that you can avoid responsibility for failure. In the arts, it may be easier to succumb to seemingly inescapable external threats than to make proactive choices and have to answer for what happens. “Despite our best efforts to attract new audiences (i.e. doing the same things we’ve always done), we simply couldn’t sell enough tickets to keep the doors open.”

Positive but Inadequate Change

People do change, but the changes we’re willing to make are often not enough. Assigning a low-level staffer to tweet out show announcements is a nice gesture, but if it’s not part of a comprehensive long-term plan to participate generously, humbly and meaningfully in the broader social media conversation, it’s the equivalent putting a “Save the Environment” sticker on a Lincoln Navigator.

Gifford suggests that change is possible, but that we’ll need to understand and address these psychological resistance factors before we can bring about the change we want. I’m not sure how that would work in the arts, but at least his seven dragons give us a more focused way to think about the problem.