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.

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3 thoughts on “It’s Time to Stop Promoting the Arts

  1. Great read Trevor. I agree with you about the broader picture. The situation in Australia is particularly severe at the moment with top-down funding, older generation in power and super-rapid changes in the world, especially the arts.

  2. I completely agree that the goal posts have shifted significantly. It would be good to see some examples of organisations or independent artists who you feel have adopted this strategy effectively in recent times.

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