About Trevor O'Donnell

I'm an arts & entertainment consultant who's developed successful marketing and/or sales initiatives for Disney Theatrical Productions, Cameron Mackintosh, Cirque du Soleil, the Music Center of Los Angeles, Center Theatre Group, Blue Man Productions, Broadway’s Nederlander Organization and for numerous Broadway shows, performing arts presenters and nonprofit arts organizations across the US. I help my clients build larger audiences and earn more revenue by using smarter message strategies, tapping non-traditional audiences and employing innovative approaches to sales.

Why Amazon is Soaring and Traditional Arts Organizations are Sinking

Featured

I read a fascinating NY Times article on Sunday about the work culture at Amazon. It directed me to a list of “Leadership Principles” the company distributes to new employees and publishes on its website.

Here’s Amazon’s first principle of leadership:

CUSTOMER OBSESSION – Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

There’s nothing unusual about a successful business saying it makes customers a top priority, but what struck me was how different this is from the arts, where leaders never obsess about customers, and where leaders would never dream of starting with the customer and working backwards. In the arts, we start with ourselves and work back to ourselves. Customers are a priority only to the extent that they’re willing to be caught up in this loop.

I wouldn’t recommend adopting Amazon’s management approach, necessarily; the article makes it sound pretty scary. But I can’t help wondering what would happen if leaders of failing arts organizations started obsessing about customers for a change – especially the new ones they’re going to need to keep their organizations alive.

Where I Spent $50 in Boston (Not at the MFA)

Had I done my homework, I’d have learned in advance about the Museum of a Fine Arts’ exorbitant admission fee and saved a trip over there.

My husband and I were in Boston for the first time in many years and thought we’d pop in for a brief visit as part of our day’s adventure. Once in the lobby, though, we discovered that our museum visit would cost $50.

I asked the fellow who greeted us if the fee was suggested or mandatory, and he told us to come back on Wednesday at 4:00 pm when we could pay whatever we wanted (this was Friday). I knew he was just a low-level staffer so I said, politely, that we were in town for a few hours and couldn’t commit to a long enough visit to make it worthwhile. He cocked his head and shrugged his shoulders in a way that said, “We’re far too important to care if you stay or go.”

A nice security guard did let us slip in to use the restroom, though, so our trip to the MFA wasn’t a total loss.

With more time to visit old haunts, we ended up having an exceptional day in Boston where we treated ourselves to a lovely lunch with a nice bottle of wine, which we used to toast the museum and its thoughtful security staff.

<><><>

As a long-time cultural tourism professional, I’ve paid close attention to the chronic decline in museum attendance over the last twenty years, but mostly from an abstract, aggregate perspective. This weekend I came face-to-face with the choices potential museum goers must make when they assess the relative value of their leisure options: Nice lunch out in an appealing destination, or a visit to the local museum.

I can see why more and more of them are choosing lunch.

Things Hartford Symphony and Pittsburgh Symphony Have in Common

Featured

Today I read that the venerable Pittsburgh Symphony is suffering a precipitous drop in ticket sales for their classical concert series. So I went to their marketing materials to look for signs of trouble, and there I found this brochure.

What’s most striking about this sales collateral is its startling resemblance to Hartford Symphony’s brochure. Check it out:

Pittsburgh ArtHartford Art

Two orchestras in the news for declining ticket sales and both chose images of women playing instruments with blobs of paint coming out of them. What are the odds? Clearly, these marketers have tapped into some universal longings that transcend geography. People in Pittsburgh and in Hartford, it would appear, have a burning hunger for women playing instruments with artsy blobs of paint coming out of them.

I would love to have been in those focus groups when young, culturally diverse respondents began talking about their pent up longings for women playing instruments that churn out paint blobs. How fortunate these marketers must have been to have gotten such rich data that gave them such clear direction.

And look at those tag lines. In Hartford, the focus group participants said they had a yearning to be transformed, while in Pittsburgh, they expressed a poetic desire for art that is somehow also play.

“When I look for ways to spend leisure time and money, I respond to abstract, artful imagery that symbolizes my deep-seated desire to morph into a different plane of reality through some sort of mystical process that includes young female musicians, musical instruments, colorful bursts of paint and an eventual transformation into something light and carefree like a butterfly.”

“When my friends and I plan our social outings, we give careful consideration to the complex, semantic interrelationships of art and play and we’re just nuts for poetry so when someone uses clever double entendres that combine these two interests, we jump at the opportunity to buy what they have to sell.”

It’s fascinating to think that new audiences in these cities would have expressed yearnings that come so close to matching the artsy images and cutesy phrases that out-of-touch arts administrators like to put in their classical music brochures.

The focus group research that I’m familiar with, meanwhile, tends to reveal more concrete desires. Rather than talking about abstract metaphorical yearnings, people talk about having a good time with friends or family, seeking entertainment that’s memorable and enriching, enjoying food, drink and art, doing something special, etc. And since motivating these people is a process of leveraging their desires, effective strategic messaging usually involves reflecting these desires and demonstrating how they can be satisfied by purchasing the product. You know, like showing people having a great time enjoying one another’s company at a concert.

I’m not privy to the research that the folks in Hartford or Pittsburgh did to understand what motivates new audiences to buy classical concert tickets, but I can’t help thinking there are young, culturally diverse people in those markets who would be better motivated to participate if they saw themselves and their actual, stated personal yearnings reflected – and satisfied – in local orchestra marketing materials.

Hartford Symphony Fails “Gal-in-a-Starbucks” Test

I read yesterday that Hartford Symphony was having financial difficulties:

“The orchestra says it’s “severely undercapitalized” and struggling with annual deficits of more than $1.3 million, a fully-drawn $2 million line of credit, falling subscriptions and ticket sales that are flat.”

So I went to their website to look for signs of trouble and there I found the blurb below. Before reading it, you might want to revisit the Gal-in-a-Starbucks Test guidelines:

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 say:

“Back by popular demand, guest conductor William (Bill) Eddins returns to conduct the HSO in an all-Beethoven program. The overture, inspired by von Collin’s play Coriolan and Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, contrasts a warrior’s bold resolve as he is about to invade Rome with the tender pleadings of his mother to desist. Beethoven’s third piano concerto pays homage to Mozart’s 24th in its melodies, rhythmic gestures and phrasings. His eighth symphony is light and humorous, contradictory (and perhaps conciliatory) to the composer’s circumstances during the summer of 1812, when he ended a romantic relationship in a famous letter written to his “Immortal Beloved.”

I don’t know about you, but my gal was out the door shortly after von Collin’s play. Who the hell is von Collin? I’ve worked in the arts my whole life and don’t have a clue who he is.

And the rest of the blurb is just self-indulgent nonsense that has nothing to do with the audiences Hartford Symphony needs to stay in business. If you want the gal in the Starbucks to 200198920-001-300x300come to your concert, you have to actually know her, you have to know what she finds appealing and you have to talk with her about what interests her in a fresh, colloquial, conversational language she’s likely to respond to.

This blurb talks to no one in particular about arcane historical trivia in a stuck-up, canned, old-fashioned language that’s self-important, absurdly didactic and completely out of touch with the world outside the classical bubble. I’m shocked that the leaders at Hartford Symphony have the audacity to complain about poor sales – or worse, to tell the musicians’ union they can’t sell enough tickets – when they do marketing at this level. If you do amateur marketing, you can’t expect to sustain a professional enterprise.

My heart goes out to the person who wrote this. I’m sure she was doing the best she could given her situation. But I don’t think it’s fair to let the person who approved it off the hook. Somebody at Hartford Symphony allowed this copy to be published – an arts leader who clearly lacks the marketing expertise to know that this language is non-strategic drivel. And that leader is no doubt responsible for a broad range of other marketing decisions that determine the organization’s fate.

The article quoted above continues:

“An approach that capitalizes on video, different types of performances and intense competition from other forms of entertainment is imperative,” said David Fay, president and chief executive officer of the orchestra. “We need to become more market-driven, more market-oriented,” he said.

If Mr. Fay wants to be more market oriented, he should probably head down to Starbucks with his company’s marketing materials and strike up a few conversations.

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.

Rebecca-1

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.