Amateur Marketing Cripples Another ‘Professional’ Opera Company


Vancouver Opera announced last week that it was transitioning to a smaller festival format in 2017 because it doesn’t know how to sell enough tickets to sustain a full season.

Regular readers of this blog know that when things like this happen I go to the company’s marketing materials to look for signs of trouble. Today I visited Vancouver Opera’s website and found:

Rigoletto-banner-1200x500_01. Individual show promotions that feature archaic graphics and canned blurbs. These images, pretty as they are, have nothing whatsoever to do with the desires and expectations of potential new audiences, and the blurbs that accompany them are just amateurish gobbledegook. This is what happens when arts insiders with no professional marketing expertise hole up in conference rooms dreaming up creative ways to get the word out. It’s a self-centered, self-important, self-indulgent mid-20th century take on arts promotion that should have been abandoned decades ago in favor of more sophisticated audience-centered methods.

2. Nothing About New Audiences. The Vancouver area contains plenty of curious but uncommitted potential opera-goers, but there’s not a word or image on this site that’s designed to persuade them to come. Clearly, no research has been done to learn what motivates new opera audiences, and if such research has been done (I’m being generously optimistic here), it is painfully obvious that no one has bothered to develop strategic messaging in response to what it says.

3. Passive boringness. If you sell tickets through your website, the website’s job is to sell tickets. And if you sell opera, you’d better make sure that the website demonstrates why someone who isn’t already a fan would want to come. Opera is a colorful, emotional, active, vibrant, larger-than-life social experience. This website is pretty much the opposite.

To be fair, I haven’t seen the full scope of Vancouver Opera’s marketing and this website could be an anomaly. My experience with opera companies, however, suggests that this is a reliable representation of the style and content of the rest of the campaign: Old-fashioned, out-of-touch, amateurish, inactive and designed by opera insiders for opera insiders.

Somebody at Vancouver Opera approved these marketing materials. I’d like to know where he studied marketing and where he acquired his professional marketing experience. Making marketing decisions that determine whether a large professional opera company will thrive or shrink along with its dying audience is a big deal. When a company announces that it has chosen the latter, it is perfectly fair to ask if the person who’s making these decisions has the necessary expertise.

American Orchestra Enjoys a 36% Increase in Classical Ticket Sales


I’ve mentioned Jason Nicholson, Director of Marketing at the The Austin Symphony, in previous posts.

A few days ago Jason wrote to tell me that The Austin Symphony saw a 36% increase in ticket sales for classical concerts this past season and a 20% increase in year-over-year sales for all programming. In an era of shrinking audiences for classical music organizations, this is extraordinary news.

How did Jason and his colleagues do it? They made the marketing about the customers’ experience with the product. Take a look at this brochure and you’ll see an astonishing amount of real estate dedicated to photos of audience members enjoying themselves at a show. Compare this to marketing materials generated by other arts organizations and I guarantee you won’t find this much audience-centered content. Most arts organizations are far too self-centered and self-important to allow themselves to do this.

But good marketing is as much about the customer as it is about the product. Jason knows this and he applies it in all of his marketing messages. Meanwhile, classical music marketers around the world still behave as if good marketing is all about them – even though the results prove otherwise.

It’s no surprise, really, that audience-centered marketing is performing so well while self-centered marketing is failing to attract new audiences; customer-centered marketing is standard practice in the commercial world. What’s surprising is the way ailing arts organizations cling so desperately to old marketing methods that don’t work.

My favorite part of Jason’s email was when he said this:

“We are seeing an increase of people of color attending which we are really excited about. We are going to the communities and inviting instead of expecting. How do I know this is working? I’m asking them at the concert. It’s amazing what information you’ll get if you just take the time to listen.”

(Note: If you’ve been wondering what motivates younger, more culturally diverse audiences to attend arts events, the most effective and least expensive way to find out is to talk with them in your venue. Not interns with clipboards, you, the senior decision maker.)

Jason was recognized by the League of American Orchestras a while back for his customer-oriented marketing materials. I hope the League notices these impressive results and encourages some of its larger, more self-centered members to follow his lead.

Congratulations, Jason. Keep up the great work.

A Museum Branding Horror Story


I was once hired to help a struggling museum generate an increase in weekday admissions. It was a simple process of doing some qualitative research, dusting off a few under-exploited opportunities and engaging with local partners that served a similar audience.

I worked with the marketing team to develop a plan that involved creating packages and promoting them with marketing materials that were based on what we’d learned about our target demo during our investigations.

Unbeknownst to me, however, there was an old gal on staff at the museum whose job was to “protect the brand.” She was a graphic designer, primarily, but she’d been there for many years and was highly regarded by several board members and the executive director.


I had developed a set of recommendations for creating audience-centered campaign materials and we were all set to begin the process when this woman stepped in and squelched everything we’d been working on. According to her, it didn’t fit the brand.

So, instead of making changes that would have improved results, the folks who ran this museum – in an effort to protect their brand – did what they’d always done and, not so surprisingly, achieved no increase in weekday admissions.


Consultants who work with nonprofit arts organizations occasionally discover that the problems they were hired to solve are the people who hired them.


This designer meant well, of course, but she had no professional marketing background, no real marketing education, and her knowledge grew out of a mid-20th century brand understanding that was tied to graphic design. Back in the 1970s when she learned about brands, people still thought they were logos and design schemes that dictated what the organization’s communications should look like.

Today, of course, marketers have a far more sophisticated understanding of branding. Most professional marketers know that brands – to the extent that they can be said to exist at all – exist well apart from the organization or its products: Brands live in the minds and hearts of people who come in contact with the organization.

Graphic design isn’t the brand because the brand doesn’t live in the marketing messages. Graphic design is just one of many brand management tools that organizations can use to shape public perceptions, and good designers continually hone their tools in response to the way people on the outside think, feel and behave. Or, in other words, in response to what they learn about the status of their brand.

Fundamentally, organizations that manage quality brands do three things:

  • They assess public perceptions in order to measure the brand
  • They stay focused on what they want people to do
  • They develop and use tools that shape perceptions and motivate behavior

The only way to protect a brand is to learn what people think and feel, and then use that information to further influence perceptions and behaviors. The purpose of branding is to engender favorable predispositions in the marketplace and motivate consumers to buy (or attend or give), so a well-protected brand is one that engenders favorable predispositions and motivates desirable behavior.

A poorly protected brand, meanwhile, is one that remains unmeasured, and that is managed by an organization that tries to tell people what they should think and feel, rather than asking them what they actually do think and feel. You can’t protect a brand if you don’t know what the marketplace thinks and feels because the brand is what the marketplace thinks and feels.

This museum wasn’t protecting its brand; it was protecting an image that it wanted to project and that’s not branding, it’s narcissism. Deciding what image you want to project in the absence of input from the outside world and then stubbornly clinging to that image in the face of diminishing results is just plain nuts.

Arts organizations that want to have vibrant, active, productive brands need to abandon outdated conceptions of what brands are. They need to place the responsibility for managing their brands in the hands of staffers – preferably young marketing staffers – who have the most regular personal contact with the community (which means interaction with the brand), and they need to take their brand management cues not from venerable internal gatekeepers, but rather from the community where the brands they presume to manage actually live.

If your organization is projecting an image that doesn’t motivate enough people to respond, that image isn’t worth protecting.

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’ll 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 to 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 patrons 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.

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.


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?

Taking a Cheap Shot at Community Engagement

In my last post I took a cheap shot at community engagement and I’d like to make amends for that here.

I began by saying that community engagement is not audience development and that arts organizations that need to sell tickets should stay focused on selling tickets. These two things are true and I stand by them 100%.

The cheap shot came when I said this:

“If you want to do engagement, leave it to outreach and education departments that don’t have to generate revenue.”

This comment was aimed at arts leaders who don’t understand engagement and who think it’s something that can be tagged onto an arts organization as a low-level administrative function (“Of course we’re doing engagement; we just hired an outreach and community engagement manager.”) or, God forbid, programmed (“Join us for a special community event!”) or, worse, dumped on the marketing team (“We’re changing the marketing director’s title to Director of Marketing and Community Engagement.”).

These things aren’t engagement, they’re amateur nonprofit foolishness, and I don’t believe for a minute that outreach or education or any other administrative department should be expected to “do” engagement.

Engagement isn’t something you do, it’s something you are, and no amount of administrative wheel spinning will compensate for an organization that hasn’t fully integrated engagement into its organizational culture – beginning at the very the top of the management hierarchy. If you’re looking for a place to put engagement on your flow chart, the appropriate spot is in the square that says CEO or Executive Director. If community engagement isn’t happening there, it is highly unlikely that it’s happening in a meaningful way anywhere further down the line.

Community engagement is the single most important idea being discussed in the cultural sector today. Arts organizations that don’t endeavor to fully understand it, embrace it, absorb it into their operations, and allow it to change the way they relate to their support systems are virtually guaranteeing that they won’t survive this audience crisis. Arts organizations can’t exist without the support of their communities, and the people who comprise those communities won’t support arts organizations to which they have no relevant personal connections.

If your organization still isn’t quite sure what engagement is, or you’re doing engagementy things without the participation of fully engaged leaders, or you’re making frivolous engagement-like noises because funders have been browbeating you into “doing” engagement, you owe it to yourself and your community to go back to square one and start over.

126.The_Prophet_EzekielAnd if you’re not sure how to do that, you might want to talk to Doug Borwick, who is a saint and possibly even a prophet. Doug has been thinking, writing and talking about engagement for a long time. But more importantly, he’s been in the field helping organizations become more successful engagers. He knows what engagement is and he knows how to help organizations make it work. In a time of great uncertainty, when so many traditional arts organizations are destined to fail, Doug is holding up a beacon in the darkness and pointing the way toward salvation. Those who intend to survive would do well to follow his lead.

I’m happy to call Doug a prophet because at the heart of his message is an idea that prophets have been sharing for millennia. It’s both simple and profound and it goes like this:

Love and be loved in return.

If your ailing arts organization is demanding love from an increasingly indifferent community, it’s probably time to venture out into that community and share some love with the people on whom your survival depends.

Or as Doug Borwick would say: Engage!

Five Outdated Marketing Ideas The Arts Must Abandon Immediately

With audiences in steady decline, ticket sales-dependent arts organizations are destined to shrink or go out of business. The question is not whether this will happen, but how many it will happen to, and which ones will survive.

We won’t know the answer until it happens, of course, but there are a couple of things we can know for certain: The survivors will have abandoned counterproductive nonprofit thinking and they’ll have found new ways to attract sustaining audiences.

If you’d like to count yourself among the survivors, here are a few moldy old arts marketing ideas that need to be tossed right now.


To promote literally means to push forward. Nonprofit arts organizations push forward information about arts events in hopes that avid fans will respond. Unfortunately, avid fans are steadily disappearing and promotion doesn’t work on people who lack avid interest.

In the arts, where survival is now dependent on customers who lack avid interest, promotion is only half the battle. The missing half – a necessary business counterpart to pushing forward – is pulling in. Also known as persuasion or sales.

Tragically, despite decades of chronic audience attrition, arts organizations still rely almost exclusively on pushing forward boastful promotional information.


Anyone who tries to sell you community engagement as audience development is either dishonest or woefully uninformed. Engagement will not, cannot replace sales and marketing as a means of building paid audiences. If your organization has opted to make community engagement a part of your earned revenue strategies, you are wasting valuable resources.

Establishing quality relationships with customers is an excellent idea, but it’s just good sales practice – something businesses have understood for centuries. If you’re a sales-dependent arts organization and you want to earn more revenue, do better sales.

If you want to do engagement, leave it to outreach and education departments that don’t have to generate revenue.

Audience Development

The term “audience development” was coined in the 1980s to appease older arts pros who thought “marketing” sounded too commercial and who wanted the crass business of ticket sales to sound more like the genteel practice of fundraising.

Today there may be nuanced semantic differences between audience development and marketing, but marketing is more focused on sales and will deliver more efficient ROI. Any organization that’s having trouble earning revenue should speak the language of marketing so they stay more focused on earning revenue.

The most efficient way to develop audiences is and has always been to sell a lot of tickets.

DIY Marketing Content

If you develop your own sales and marketing content, you should stop right now. Very few arts organizations have the necessary professional expertise to develop the sort of marketing content that’s necessary for survival, so continuing to publish amateur, do-it-yourself materials is just plain suicidal.

Yes. I’m talking about you.

Yes. I know you’re a big city arts institution that’s been developing your own marketing content for decades.

Yes. Even if you’re in New York.

If you still don’t think I’m talking about you, go to Starbucks and read your latest promotional copy to a 28-year-old tech exec on her coffee break. Watch her face and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Self-Important Messaging

Good marketing content is about the customers and how our products will satisfy their needs and desires. Arts marketing content, meanwhile, is about the products and why arts insiders think customers should find them appealing.

The chief problem with letting amateur nonprofit arts administrators develop their own marketing content is that they can’t resist making it all about themselves and about why they think customers should find them attractive.

If good marketing is about the customers and arts marketing is almost never about the customers, we may have an important clue as to why audiences are disappearing.


Arts organizations that survive this audience crisis will be the ones that stop spraying self-indulgent amateur promotional messages at the world in hopes of somehow magically capturing a larger share of a shrinking fan base. They’ll be the ones that refuse to let squishy nonprofit fads distract them from their primary task, which is building and serving sustaining audiences. And they’ll be the ones that turn their attention – and the content of their communications – away from themselves and toward the audiences on which their futures depend.

If you’re a young arts administrator who wants to have an arts management job in ten or twenty years, you might want to start working now to ensure that outdated nonprofit traditions don’t deprive you of that opportunity.

An Old Arts Marketing Joke

A publicist, a marketer and a salesperson walk into a bar where they see three gorgeous women sitting across the room. The publicist asks the bartender to send them a round of drinks and say, “The good-looking guy at the bar sent these over.” The women nod their polite thanks.

Next the marketer draws a clever picture with a provocative message on a cocktail napkin and tips the bartender to send it to them. The women read the napkin, smile and acknowledge the men, but return to their conversation.

Finally the sales guy walks over, speaks briefly, sits with the women for a while and eventually the four of them get up and leave together.

The next day the publicist and the marketer ask their colleague how he did it and he says, “Simple. I asked them which one worked better, the drinks or the note, and then listened intently for a very long time.”