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.

Sylph-centered Arts Marketing

Got this brochure recently from the reanimated San Diego Opera…

SD Brochure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… and couldn’t help noticing its kinship with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s season brochure, which features images like this:

Atlanta Sylph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wrote a few weeks ago about SDO’s post-crisis brochure, which featured a short white man in a brown suit, and I think this might be a marginal improvement, but I can’t help wondering what’s up with the flying babes. What the hell do sylphs have to do with selling tickets and why are two of America’s most notoriously troubled arts organizations featuring them in their marketing materials?

Do these organizations know something we don’t know about the persuasive power of sky spirits? Or is it possible that inane marketing choices are a shared characteristic of failing arts organizations?

In professional marketing, images that appear in sales collateral are chosen according to market intelligence and they’re designed to leverage actual audience dispositions. Given my experience with nonprofit arts organizations, I’m going to guess that these images were chosen by amateur insiders according to personal opinions and designed to look nice.

If the creators of these materials had access to objective research data and were designing sales messages in response to what target audiences told them they were looking for, sylphs would never have been a consideration.

Executive leaders of arts institutions that don’t sell enough tickets should understand this.

If they don’t, we may have a clue as to why they’re in so much trouble.

Arts Marketing Wouldn’t Suck So Much If It Were Like This

I came across this ad for Android devices today.

Watch it and pay close attention to these things:

  • The ratio of content featuring customers vs. content featuring the product
  • The fresh, down-to-earth, colloquial, customer-centric language
  • The emotional impact of customers engaging with the product
  • The emphasis on YOU (meaning the customer)
  • The diversity of the customers shown enjoying the product
  • The fresh, professional, contemporary production values

Now go get your last season brochure and pay attention to these things:

  • The ratio of content featuring customers vs. content featuring the product
  • The fresh, down-to-earth, colloquial, customer-centric language
  • The emotional impact of the customers engaging with the product
  • The emphasis on YOU (meaning the customer)
  • The diversity of the customers shown enjoying the product
  • The fresh, professional, contemporary production values

In my last post I drew attention to some shamelessly egocentric marketing materials that were produced by big financially troubled arts institutions (Minnesota Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, San Diego Opera). This Android ad, by demonstrating so well what good marketing is about, shows exactly why those arts marketing materials are so bad:

  • Their content is entirely about the product
  • Their language is canned, stuck up, artsy and self-centered
  • They tell customers what they should feel rather than showing them how they will feel
  • Their emphasis is on US (meaning the product)
  • There is no diversity of customers shown enjoying the product because there are no customers shown enjoying the product
  • Their production values are stale, amateurish and old-fashioned

Make no mistake. The blame for failing to attract sustaining audiences lies squarely with executive leaders who allow their organizations to do narcissistic marketing.

When troubled arts organizations start developing marketing content that’s about new audiences – and how their products will make those audiences happy – they’ll earn the customers they deserve.

Arts Leaders’ Egos and Bad Arts Marketing

In my last post a reader took issue with my having suggested that executive arts leaders’ egos might have something to do with bad arts marketing.

Please allow me to be more direct.

The egos of executive arts leaders have everything to do with bad arts marketing. Arts marketing sucks because so much of it is developed to feed the egos of executive arts leaders.

The reason arts marketing is overwhelmingly self-centered, self-important and self-aggrandizing is that executive arts leaders with healthy egos and little professional marketing expertise make all the final marketing decisions. Asking an arts executive to approve a brochure filled with shameless self-flattery is like handing a loaded pipe to a crack addict. They can’t help themselves. They don’t really know what professional, customer-centered marketing should look like, and since there’s no one to stop them, they’ll approve the marketing they believe is the best reflection of their organization’s worth. And since the reflection of their organization’s worth is also a reflection of its leaders’ abilities, they will inevitably go for the content they find most flattering.

In the real world, effective marketing strategy begins with the customers and is designed in response to their desires and expectations. Professional marketers develop their strategies to leverage those dispositions, which means keeping their focus on the customers. And executive leaders who manage these marketers know their role is to approve the methods and materials that do this most effectively. Smart business leaders may have personal opinions about marketing, and they may think their products are worth crowing about, but they understand that their job is to let objective market intelligence and rational, customer-centered methods take priority.

In the arts, meanwhile, marketing begins with the products and what organizations want to tell the world about their merits. After various promotional ideas have been mocked up, arts leaders use their professional discernment (a.k.a. personal opinions) to choose what they they think looks best or feels most appropriate or fits best with industry norms and traditions. And since industry norms and traditions consist primarily of inexpert arts leaders choosing the best reflections of their organizations’ worth, self-flattery will always win the day. This dynamic is so much a part of the culture of culture that we as an industry accept narcissistic marketing unquestioningly, as if it’s a given. “Why wouldn’t we boast about ourselves? We’re wonderful! People should know that. And the more wonderful we tell them we are, the more likely they’ll be to want to buy tickets.”

Makes a great dating strategy, too!

This is the point where executive arts leaders say,

“Well of course he’s not talking about me. I’m a respected arts executive. I’m too wise, perceptive and accomplished to make such poor decisions. Why, I’m the boss of a big city arts institution; I oversee the marketers so I am automatically a marketing expert. My thoughts on audience development have even been published in the Sunday newspaper! Besides, I’ve been vetting promotional materials for years and doing a damn fine job of it. This chronic decline in audiences has nothing to do with me. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a budget crisis to deal with and some artists’ salaries to cut.”

If you’re an executive arts leader who’s in a position to govern your organization’s marketing choices, and you learned what you know about marketing on your way up through the nonprofit arts, it is highly unlikely that you have sufficient professional expertise to save an organization that’s losing audiences. The nonprofit arts are a terrible place to learn marketing and you have undoubtedly learned an outdated, idiosyncratic, mid-twentieth century brand of “promotional” marketing that doesn’t work anymore. Arts marketing is a quirky, tradition-bound, quasi-professional endeavor that bears little resemblance to the full-on professional marketing that successful leaders will need to know to keep their organizations alive.

Poor old Ian Campbell thought he was making wise marketing decisions right up until he scuttled the San Diego Opera – for lack of audiences. Leaders at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra thought they were making wise choices when they approved this bizarre brochure – just before locking out their musicians. And the leaders at the Minneapolis Orchestra no doubt believed their monumentally self-adulatory brochure was the best of all possible choices – to spring back from the brink of disaster. All executive leaders of struggling arts organizations think they’re making the best possible marketing choices – even when they’re woefully underprepared to make those choices and their organizations are falling apart around them.

There was a time when the marketplace was so full of people who wanted what the arts had to sell that we could be as self-centered and boastful as we wanted and people would beat a path to our doors. But the world has changed; there are far fewer avid arts fans out there who agree with our overly generous self-assessments. Every arts leader has heard this admonition a thousand times, but at some point it has to actually influence behavior: IT’S NOT ABOUT US ANYMORE. You can’t just nod in agreement when people say this at industry conferences and then come home and publish marketing materials that are all about you; you actually have to make it about them.

If you want to sell something to somebody, you have to tell them how it will satisfy their desires. It’s one of the oldest truths known to humankind. But in the arts, we don’t really know who our new audiences are, we refuse to learn what they want, and without knowing what they want, we can’t tell them how our products will satisfy their desires. So instead we blather on endlessly about how wonderful we are – or how wonderful people should think we are – and hope that young, culturally diverse people will somehow magically find us as appealing as traditional audiences once did.

I’m well aware that I’m just pissing in the wind here. Executive arts leaders won’t read this because they just don’t pay much attention to marketing. In my experience they show little interest in learning how to do it well because they’re perfectly comfortable with what they think they already know. (I’ve never seen an executive arts leader at a marketing conference, have you?) You’d think that leaders of an industry that’s facing a catastrophic decline in customers would be rushing out to get marketing MBAs, but no. It’s easier to complain about how poorly the rest of the world is being educated than it is to get the education they need to solve their own problems.

The answer to the arts’ audience crisis is heartbreakingly simple: know your new audiences well enough to understand what they want, and then speak to them humbly and honestly, in a language they understand, about how your products will make them happy. Out-of-touch arts administrators who hole up in conference rooms filling brochures and emails with canned, amateurish, self-congratulatory bombast, and then spraying them at the world in hopes of hitting like-minded fans, simply aren’t going to survive.

‘Monumental’ Adjective Abuse at Minnesota Orchestra

Here are some words that executive leaders at the Minnesota Orchestra like to read about themselves in their marketing materials. All were published in just one post-fiasco season brochure:

Extraordinary, brilliant, celestial, dazzling, festive, stunning, shimmering, beautiful, star-studded, never-to-be-repeated, heavenly, glorious, wonderful, tragic, heartbreakingly, sprightly, treasured, superb, brilliant, monumental, tremendous, thrilling, stellar, magnificent, sensual, shocking, radiant, majestic, lush, enthralling, amazing, phenomenal, shining, beautiful, lush, characterful, stirring, distinctive, triumphal, charismatic, brightest, world-class, priceless, thrilling, most famous, lush, romantic, richly dark, tragic, star-crossed, thrilling, tragic, cinematic, comic, most-popular, utterly charming, gorgeous, stirring, wonderful, famous, remarkable, brilliant, striking, timeless, legendary, wonderful, dramatic, lyrical, dramatic, lovely, illustrious, soaring-voiced, spine-tingling, profound, ethereal, beloved, world’s greatest, fantastic, heartrending, unforgettable, greatest, most soul-stirring, transcendent, exquisite, enchanting, always-zestful, magnificent, deeply spiritual, ground-breaking, exciting, demanding, outstanding, blissful, thoughtful, witty, nostalgic, multi-faceted, fiery, famous, other worldly, stirring, great, distinguished, breathtaking, dancing, lyrical, extraordinary, marvelous, youthful, vigorous, esteemed, exhilarating, dance-infused, wildly popular, inimitable, preeminent, magically, mysterious, triumphant, epic, celebratory, historic, glorious, top-class, revered, hottest, immortal, jubilant, renowned, distinguished, extraordinary, delectable, magical, soulful, distinctive, organic, meditative, powerful, spiritual, romantic, glorious, perfect, special, bubbly, magically, rich, first-ever, stunning, wonderful, exquisite, wide-ranging, thrilling, classic, popular, beloved, festive, extraordinary, imaginative, stunning, phenomenal, captivating, beloved, ever-popular, timeless, transcendent, greatest of greats, beloved, stellar, multi-talented, uniquely, consummate, monumental, unforgettable, wonderful, glorious, funniest, bona fide, genuine, dazzling, esteemed, riotous, beloved, great, fantastic, heartrending, unforgettable, greatest, most soul stirring, pure, unadulterated, historic, legendary, glorious, extraordinaire, wondrous, beloved, lively, famous, popular.

Here’s a word that describes the professional qualifications of executive leaders who would approve this much hyperbole in one piece of sales collateral:

Dubious.

Here’s a word that describes the marketing team that would produce such a brochure:

Mismanaged.

Here’s a word that describes funders who allow their financially troubled grant recipients to do this sort of amateur marketing:

Irresponsible.

Here’s a word that describes an industry that accepts untethered, narcissistic bombast as acceptable language for public communication:

Leaderless.

And in case it isn’t obvious, here’s a word that describes the seats that might otherwise be filled by new audiences who need to be spoken to in a normal, sane, humble, down-to-earth, customer-centered persuasive language:

Empty.

:::

Maybe Atlanta Symphony Should Lock Out Its Marketing Department Instead

I’ve been reading about the musicians’ lockout at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra so I popped on to their season brochure to look for clues as to why the organization is having so much financial difficulty. Turns out the clues were plentiful. But first, some basics.

Good sales collateral must meet five specific criteria:

1. It must be developed in response to objective market intelligence. You can’t sell something if you don’t know who you’re talking to and how your product will satisfy their desires, so every good sales message must be firmly grounded in research.

2. It must show how the product will make customers happy so they’ll be motivated to buy. Doing this usually means making the content as much about customers enjoying the product as it is about how wonderful the product is (something arts organizations find almost impossible to do).

3. It must be crafted according to a legitimate persuasive strategy. Sales is a rational process that follows well-established protocols. We know you want X. We sell X. You will buy X. Make sure the first two exes match up, show how well they match up, and you’re golden.

4. It must be goal oriented. A well-designed sales tool leads the buyer naturally to the close with precision, directness and clarity. Every element has a specific job to do relative to this goal. In politics, this is known as staying “on message.”

5. It must balance the desires of multiple market segments in proportion to their value. If the organization is not attracting sustaining audiences, the sales tool must place increasing importance on appealing to new audiences.

So with this in mind, let’s take a look at the brochure that Atlanta Symphony Orchestra used to sell what has become their abbreviated 70th anniversary season.

1. You should be able to tell what an organization’s research has taught them by looking at their sales materials: “It’s obvious that the people of Atlanta said they want X because this sales material is so obviously selling X.” Apply that scrutiny to this Atlanta Symphony Orchestra brochure, however, and you’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what the ASO thinks it knows about its customers.

“It’s obvious that the people of Atlanta said they want:

  • Naked flying sylphs sporting red ribbons.”
  • To be seduced by a local nonprofit arts organization.”
  • A smorgasbord of educational trivia about artists and their works.”
  • A bunch of random descriptive words.”
  • Guest artists with interesting faces.”

I’ve sat in on a lot of focus groups over the years and have never heard an arts audience ask for these things. Usually they talk about themselves and their desire to enjoy enriching entertainment events as part of a broader social experience.

2. The brochure contains over fifty photographs and images, not a single one of which depicts customers enjoying themselves at a concert. Fully half of these could be dedicated to showing audience members having a good time without sacrificing the orchestra’s desire to remind everyone how wonderful and important they are.

3. If there is a rational persuasive strategy at work here, it is obscure at best. If I were to describe the strategy based on what’s evident, it would go something like this: “Let’s come up with a catchy thematic through line based on what we think people should know about us and design a sexy, attention-getting, upbeat vehicle for delivering what is essentially the same content we send out every year. Important goals will include being creative, following tradition, telling everyone how wonderful we are and coming up with something that senior leadership will approve because they find it flattering and comfortably familiar.”

4. If the goal is to get customers to go online and buy tickets, it is difficult to imagine how most of this content furthers that goal. Much of it is way off message including the thematic through line (unless focus groups said they were yearning to be seduced), the stand-alone descriptive words that seem to have no integral connection to the rest of the content, and the chatty, didactic show blurbs, which were clearly not written by a professional communications strategist in support of an overarching, goal-driven message strategy.

5. This is a rigorously traditional brochure that speaks almost exclusively to traditional audiences using the imagery and language that traditional arts audiences are accustomed to. If new audience research has revealed a different set of desires and expectations among future audiences that points to a different set of images and a fresher, more relevant, audience-centric language, there is little evidence to suggest that this brochure content has been balanced accordingly.

Presumably, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s labor issues are the result of the same underlying forces that are affecting orchestras everywhere: diminishing audiences and diminishing community support. But if the organization is using amateur, old-fashioned, self-centered marketing practices that fail to produce desired results, it seems counterproductive to lock out the artists when locking out the administrators who make bad marketing decisions would probably have more productive long-term consequences.

You’re Too Stupid To Know What You Want: Buy Now!

I’ve often stated on this blog that good marketing requires us to know what our customers want. It is a fundamental principle in marketing and a bedrock truth in persuasion. Aristotle discovered and codified this truth over 2500 years ago and smart people have been using it productively ever since.

Kyle Clausen reminded me in a comment on my last post, however, that this truth is something arts leaders often find bothersome and would just as soon ignore:

“Arts organizations feel it is their duty to give the world not what they want, but to push their boundaries and limits and give the audiences what they don’t yet know they want.”

Sounds great. Very noble and generous. But replace just one small word and the whole idea is exposed for the presumptuous nonsense that it is. “Arts organizations feel it is their duty to sell the world not what they want, but to push their boundaries and limits and sell audiences what they don’t yet know they want.”

Here’s another bedrock truth: People don’t buy things they don’t want because some aloof, condescending, we-know-better-than-you arts organization told them they should want it. Traditional arts organizations are increasingly marginal, irrelevant and unpopular and, thanks to nonstop media coverage of conspicuous failures, everybody knows it. Arts pros who run these organizations and who think they’re well-positioned to tell people what they should want are either hopelessly out-of-touch or delusional – or both. And when they try to tell people what they should want in communications that are meant to sell tickets, they’re committing an especially tragic and painful – not to mention obnoxious – form of organizational suicide.

The only way to sell arts products to new audiences is to know who those audiences are and what they want. Armed with that information we can explain how our products will satisfy their yearnings and, in so doing, motivate them to buy our products. Marketing is a process of motivating behavior by leveraging desires. If we don’t know what those desires are, we can’t use them to motivate behavior. And, believe it or not, you can’t motivate behavior by trying to leverage desires that people won’t have until after they buy the product.

Here’s where arts pros who don’t understand marketing tend to get confused. Learning what new audiences want doesn’t mean we have to start selling them crap, it means finding the overlap between what they want and what we sell so we can establish a meaningful connection. It’s not about pandering, it’s about identifying an optimal context for effective communication. It’s about finding a common language based on mutual interests – one that new audiences are most likely to find persuasive.

Venn 2

In this diagram, the first circle includes all the ways our products satisfy, and the second circle includes all the things that new audiences say they desire. The place where these two circles overlap contains all the information we need to motivate new audiences to participate by convincing them that our products will satisfy their yearnings. But if we never learn what’s in that second circle, we’ll never discover the place where what we sell and what they want come together. And if we insist on filling the second circle with what we wish were there, or what we believe will appear there if they decide to participate, the information in the overlap will be meaningless and motivationally impotent.

Arts professionals who refuse to learn what new audiences want because they prefer to focus on what arts insiders believe they should want – and who make their marketing decisions accordingly – are a danger to their organizations and a detriment to this industry. If we have no respect for the legitimate desires that new audiences already have, independent of their exposure to our art forms, we can’t complain when they ignore the self-important, self-centered, self-flattering bombast that we insist on publishing in our promotional materials.

The day we decide to engage humbly with new audiences and start learning – with sincere curiosity – about their needs, wants and desires is the day traditional arts organizations will stop hemorrhaging customers and start climbing back on the path toward health and sustainability.

Only then will we be able to help new arts audiences develop healthy and enduring longings for all the wonderful things they may not have known they wanted.

 

Three Questions Competent Leaders Ask in Marketing Meetings

In my last post I suggested that when it comes to marketing, most arts leaders lack basic competence. I don’t mean that as an insult; it’s a simple description of reality. When compared with the broader marketing profession, arts marketing is an insular, amateurish, old-fashioned enterprise, and since most executive leaders learn what they know about marketing as they rise through the the nonprofit ranks, they arrive in their positions sorely underprepared to make professional marketing decisions.

This is why the arts are in so much trouble. The people who lead the industry, and who presume to make its ultimate marketing choices, don’t know enough about the way real marketing works to attract sustaining audiences.

imgres-1You don’t have to be a marketing genius to lead a well-marketed organization of course, but you do need to know some fundamentals and you need to have some management tools at your disposal to avoid perpetuating the industry’s counterproductive traditions. Most of all, you need the wisdom, humility and self-restraint to avoid inserting your own amateur opinions into the marketing process. This may come as a bit of a shock, dear executive arts leader, but you don’t get to have final say anymore just because you’re the boss. That’s not the way professional marketing works.

So if you’re an arts exec who lacks a legitimate marketing background, but wishes to guide your organization’s marketing in a more professional, more productive direction, here some tools you can use in your next meeting that will help you lead your staff toward unprecedented results:

THREE QUESTIONS COMPETENT LEADERS ASK IN MARKETING MEETINGS

1. What do we know?

Effective marketing discussions begin with a thorough examination of what the organization knows about its situation and its markets. A good leader will expect her team to come to meetings prepared with abundant factual data describing a broad range of internal and external realities. At a minimum this will include detailed sales figures and plenty of market research results.

Arts marketing ends up being amateurish because it’s so often driven by insiders’ opinions rather than objective, external facts. If you want to do professional marketing, banish opinions entirely from the process (especially your own) and focus exclusively on what can be known. A good way to do this is to strike the phrase “I think…” from all meetings and insist that it be replaced with “We know…” (The first few such meetings will be conspicuously brief.)

At first this will be agonizing. Collecting accurate, useful data is hard and poring over dry figures for thirty minutes before looking at designers’ mockups isn’t fun. But if you develop the habit of acquiring and thoroughly analyzing objective data at the beginning of each meeting – without giving in to idle speculation – you will be far more successful. (I learned this at Disney and last time I checked they seemed to be doing pretty well.)

2. How does this work?

Marketing is a process of understanding what consumers want and then motivating them to act by describing how your products will satisfy their desires. It’s a bedrock formula that underlies all effective persuasion. The only way to know if your marketing works is to ask if it fits this formula, so a reasonable answer to the question might sound like this:

We know from our focus group research that younger audiences are looking for peripherals that enhance the concert experience such as drinking and socializing with peers. The campaign we’re presenting today features photos of the target demo having fun and enjoying drinks in the lobby bar. It works by allowing younger audiences to see themselves enjoying time with friends as a part of the concert experience.”

Amateur arts marketers can’t describe how their marketing works because they don’t follow this formula and they haven’t gathered the objective data they need to know what their target demo wants. You can’t describe how marketing works if it hasn’t been created in response to your customers’ stated desires. And, needless to say, if your content was created in response to what you think people want, rather than what they actually told you they want, it’s amateur bullshit.

The more time and energy you spend focusing on what you know to be true about your audience’s desires, the easier it will be to create marketing that motivates them – and the easier it will be to describe how it works. (Note: You’ll have to know exactly who your potential audiences are and you’ll have to do research to learn what they want.)

What will it do?

Good marketing is predictable. If you know what your target audiences want and you make smart, rational choices in demonstrating how your products will satisfy those desires – and you do it repeatedly – you will be able to project results with surprising precision. A reasonable answer to this question might sound like this:

We know from our focus group research that younger audiences are looking for peripherals that enhance the concert experience such as drinking and socializing with peers. The campaign we’re presenting today features photos of the target demo having fun and enjoying drinks in the lobby bar. It works by allowing younger audiences to see themselves enjoying time with friends as a part of the concert experience. We are projecting an 18% increase over last season in this demo based on the quality/consistency of our research findings and year-over-year trending from similar past strategies.

Marketing results can’t be pinpointed to the penny necessarily, but the more facts you use at the beginning of the process, and the more rational methods you apply in the content development phase, the more accurate your projections will be. Compare that to the traditional method, which involves having a room full of well-meaning but under-informed insiders sitting in a conference room guessing what people want and dreaming up creative ways to tell them about upcoming events, and you’ll see the difference between amateur an professional approaches.

Arts professionals have long believed that marketing is a creative endeavor that’s well suited to smart, clever, creative people, but that’s just self-indulgent crap. Marketing is a science where creativity and the subjective discernments of the organization’s highest-paid person are of severely limited value. The day the arts embrace marketing as a rational, fact-based, professional enterprise is the day that audiences will stop disappearing and traditional arts organizations will begin growing again.

But that day won’t come until arts leaders stop pretending to be marketing experts and begin letting facts and rational methods guide their choices.

If that day never comes, arts leaders have only themselves to blame.