The Language of the Arts is Passive (plus cute puppies!)

Sometimes paying attention to the language we use while talking about the language we use can be revealing. For example, consider how often phrases like “spread the word” or “get the word out” pop up in your marketing discussions.

“We think placing this ad in the Weekly will really help us get the word out.”

The idea of spreading the word dates back to a time when there were so many people who cared about what we did that getting the word in front of them was enough to elicit a sufficient enthusiastic response. Given the way the marketplace has changed, though, I’m astonished when arts professionals still say “we need to spread the word” or “we have to generate awareness” or, God forbid, “we need to publicize this event” as if spraying information at the market is still a sufficiently strategic approach.

In my home we have two dogs. One of them loves to go for a walk but the other is usually pretty content wherever he is, which is often in bed. They both enjoy the actual walking, but their initial inclinations couldn’t be more different. If we shake the leashes and say, “Who wants to go for a walk?” Dewey comes running but Hoover doesn’t budge. So, in our house, getting the word out only works on the dog that’s sitting there waiting for the word.

The problem with getting the word out is that it’s passive. It is entirely dependent on there being a sufficient quantity of people — or beings, if you will — in the market that are eager to hear the word. And if there aren’t enough sufficiently motivated people waiting for the word to meet our sales goals, then getting the word out doesn’t work.

In our house, when the word is “walk,” only fifty percent of the available market is interested enough to respond. If we had two Hoovers, we could stand at the door shouting, “go for a walk” all day long and the business simply wouldn’t get done.

Of course we can try to make the word more enticing:

Who wants to go for a walk? It’s a beautiful day… I’ve got poop bags…. Whistle. Whistle.

The Springfield Arts Center proudly presents Cirque du Fromage, the high-flying aerial circus The New York Times calls “a dizzying, death-defying delight.” There’s something for everyone in this action-packed acrobatic extravaganza.

 And we can issue urgent calls to action:

 Better come now or we’re leaving without you!

 Don’t miss this rare chance to experience the thrills and excitement…

But if the fundamental impulse isn’t there, the desired behavior simply won’t follow.

Fortunately, Hoover’s motivations are fairly transparent; all we have to do is open the cupboard where the dog supplies are stored and say “treats” and he comes running. For us, motivating our non-avid audience is a matter of making a premeditated, strategic, audience-oriented message choice that triggers the behavior we want from our less well-motivated target.

For the arts, where pre-existing interest is waning, getting the business done will mean choosing strategic messages that work on customers who need more compelling motivators – something like, maybe, cute puppies?

[This post is adapted from my book “Marketing the Arts to Death: How Lazy Language is Killing Culture” – Available at Amazon and other e-book retailers]

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One thought on “The Language of the Arts is Passive (plus cute puppies!)

  1. Getting the word out works when you have enthusiastic people spreading the word to people that they know (which increases the likelihood that the message will fall on ears of people that would enjoy the word(s) that is being spread).

    Typical marketing can fall on deaf ears since people are not motivated by the typical. They are motivated by the amazing. Getting to know potential audiences (and there are ways to build relationships with your potential audiences) will help us create this amazing motivation. We can become aware of what makes them aware and motivated. And, of course, cute puppies and kitties can certainly help!

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