It’s a time-honored custom in the arts to allow executive leaders to vet campaign ideas and select the messages that will be used to market their organizations. Unfortunately, these leaders often have no academic training in business communications and limited hands-on experience in professional marketing, so the messages they choose tend to be more reflective of tradition, gut instinct, ego and personal opinion than they are of objective, external considerations.
The problem with this, of course, is that objective, external considerations are really the only worthwhile considerations, and that the “expert” marketing opinions of under-educated, inexperienced arts executives are of extremely limited value.
That’s going to be painful news to arts leaders who believe that rendering opinions on marketing is an important part of their jobs – irrespective of their backgrounds – but the arts can’t afford to let that happen anymore. With arts organizations closing their doors from coast to coast, it’s time for senior arts execs to suppress their subjective marketing impulses, keep their opinions to themselves and start letting the data tell them what to do.
The only way to understand the potential effectiveness of a marketing message is to determine whether or not it promises to satisfy the needs, wants and desires of its target audience. And the only way to do that is to know exactly what the target audience needs, wants or desires. If you’re an executive leader, your job when vetting marketing materials is not to insert yourself into the process, but rather to get answers to the following questions:
- Who are we targeting?
- What have our target audiences told us they want?
- How do we know that? Is this reliable information?
- Have we established motivating connections between what target audiences tell us they want and what’s true about our products?
- Is this the best possible way to convince target audiences that our products will satisfy their yearnings?
- Does this message appeal to current audiences and new audiences alike? How?
- Does this message compete effectively for their attention and interest? Are those attention getters and enhancements consistent with the strategy?
As for considerations that have traditionally been used to evaluate materials – How did we do it last time? What do other arts organizations do? Will the artistic director freak if we don’t use his photo? What will my industry peers think? Wouldn’t it be easier to do what we’ve always done? How will the board react? Shouldn’t the Arts Council credit be larger? I like the one that tells the world how wonderful I am we are. Shouldn’t we be mentioning the education program? Will the foundations be pissed if we do something unusual? Can’t we slip in a funding pitch on the last page? I just know it would be prettier in blue. Will people think we’re tacky if it looks too salesy? Why’s the logo so small? Isn’t the logo the brand? I thought the logo was the brand. What if they find out I don’t really know that much about marketing? – You can use them if you want, but arts leaders who are genuinely concerned about the fiscal health of their organizations would be well advised to set aside internal concerns and begin approaching message development from the perspective of the people who matter most.
Effective marketing messages start with the audience – not with a group of insiders sitting in a conference room filtering spontaneous creative inspiration through a gauze of tradition, subjectivity and dubious expertise. The senior executive’s role in this process is to rise above the arts/audience divide, keep the focus on the customer and make certain that messages are developed in response to reliable, external market intelligence. I’m well aware that this is a radical departure from accepted practice, but audiences have been disappearing for several decades now and there’s no excuse for perpetuating methods that have failed to prevent their departure.
If you’re an arts administrator who’d like to give this a try, the simplest and perhaps best first step is to do this: No matter who you are, how high you are in the food chain or how much you think you know, when it comes to marketing, if you’re inclined to start a sentence with “I think…, say “We know…” instead.
And if you can’t finish the sentence because you don’t know, find out.