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.

The Arts’ Shameful Habit: Masturbatory Marketing


Stroking yourself can be an enjoyable way to generate short-term satisfaction, but it’s a terrible way to engage with the community and it’s not likely to accomplish much in the way of productive growth.

When ailing arts organizations do it in their marketing materials it’s just plain embarrassing.

What is masturbatory marketing? It’s a self-gratifying type of communication – common throughout the nonprofit arts - that’s distinguished by three primary characteristics:

1. It’s executed without the participation of a partner. In the case of arts organizations, it’s done by marketers who huddle up in conference rooms fantasizing about the new audiences they wish they had rather than venturing out into the real world and interacting personally with the audiences they can actually get.

2. It’s done primarily to satisfy the strokers. Most arts marketing is designed for senior decision makers who have limited professional marketing expertise and who tend to approve the content they find most personally stimulating, which is usually the content they find most familiar or flattering. Some older arts pros use masturbatory marketing to bolster a fragile belief in the perennial desirability of their art forms. In most arts organizations, marketing materials are designed to serve as mirrors of a kind that insiders can gaze into and tickle themselves into fits of self-reflective ecstasy.

3. It’s habit forming. People who engage in masturbatory marketing tend to develop a finely honed capacity for doing it just the way they like it. Many arts organizations pump out the same promotional content they’ve been producing for the last thirty years, not because it sells any better than the old marketing content, but because it hits their most sensitive sweet spot in the easiest possibly way.

How do you know if your marketing is masturbatory marketing? Here are three easy ways to find out:

1. If audiences aren’t in the conference room with you when you develop your marketing strategies, you’re probably doing masturbatory marketing. They don’t have to be there in person; they can be there in the form of research results – authoritative, objective, relevant data that tell you who you’re talking to, what they want and what you need to say in order to motivate them to participate. But if you’re just dreaming about attractive, young, culturally diverse people and imagining how appealing they’d think you were if they were sitting next to you, you might just as well be looking at porn.

Geraldo Selfie2. If the content of your marketing is all about you, it’s masturbatory marketing. Consider the promotional content you produce in any given year – every photo, graphic image and copy line. How much of it is about you? How much is about the audience? Fertile, productive, growth-oriented marketing is about demonstrating how your products will satisfy your audiences’ yearnings, which means it has to be as much about your potential customers enjoying your products as it is about how wonderful you think you are. If new audiences think you’re old and out of touch, and your marketing is an endless stream of vain, clueless selfies, it’s probably time for a more outsider-oriented approach. Invisible place holder.

3. If the essential content of your marketing hasn’t changed in thirty years because you get a charge out of doing it the way you’ve always done it, it’s masturbatory marketing. Marketing isn’t self-satisfying habit; it’s a constantly evolving process of understanding and responding to external market conditions. And the real truth is that you’re not even supposed to get off on your own marketing. That’s not what it’s there for. If you do it the right way, you probably won’t even like it because it won’t be about you and the things that turn you on anymore; it’ll be about tomorrow’s audiences and the things that turn them on instead.

The days of self-centered, self-important, self-flattering, self-indulgent, self-deluding arts marketing are over. Arts marketing today is about engaging personally, humbly, selflessly and persuasively with real, living, breathing human beings who thrive outside our artsy bubbles and who probably aren’t anything like the audience’s we’ve been dating for the last fifty years. And it’s about convincing these new audiences, based on their longings and expectations, that the art we want them to know more intimately is worth getting excited about.

So the next time you’re tempted to duck into your conference room and rip off a quick email, postcard or blurb, try doing something audience-oriented instead. Tuck in your shirt, fix your hair, go outside and find some of those younger, more culturally diverse people you keep talking about. Ask them what they think is sexy, listen carefully to what they tell you, and then use what you learn to create some hot, new consumer-oriented content for your next marketing campaign.

Who knows, if you do it right, you might just get lucky.


I learned this week that the San Diego Opera is about to be brought back from the dead. Some folks think this is wonderful, but I’ve read enough sci-fi books to know that bringing dead things back to life is never a good idea. In most cases the result is a grotesque monster that wreaks havoc on the community and ends up killing its creator.

San Diego Opera died because its leaders didn’t know how to respond to changes in the marketplace. It’s not a very noble or respectable way to go, but it went, and that should be the end of it. Bringing it back to life makes sense only if the board can find a smart leader who knows how to attract the audiences the company needs to stay alive, but that’s not likely to happen. Traditional opera administrators don’t grow audiences; they promote operas and hope that audiences will come. Big difference.

UnknownDr. Frankenstein made two mistakes that form a cautionary tale for San Diego Opera board members: He chose the wrong person to do an important job and he wound up inserting the wrong brain into his reanimated creation.

Folks who want to bring the SDO back to life might do well to seek professional assistance from beyond the insular, self-centered world of opera and then, if the project is determined to be feasible, make sure they have the right brain in place before attempting to stitch the company back together.

If they bring the company back to life only to have it be led by another opera insider who doesn’t know how to sell tickets, the good people of San Diego will have every right to get out the torches and pitch forks and make sure the beast is returned to the grave where it belongs.




Did Amateur Marketing Kill San Diego Opera?


As the arts world rushes to point fingers at San Diego, allow me to chime in with this: The cause of death might also be crappy marketing.

Every time a major arts institution announces financial difficulties, I go to their season brochure to look for clues as to what might be preventing them from selling enough tickets. I did this today with San Diego Opera’s season brochure and found a marketing tool that was designed and written in the late 1970s when Danny Newman wrote “Subscribe Now.” The names and dates are different, but this brochure was developed to sell tickets to my grandmother (who died, by the way, back in the 1980s). My guess is that if you took all the subscription brochures out of the SDO’s archives and lined them up on the conference table, you’d see a chain of unrelenting sameness dating back more than 30 years.

General & Artistic Director Ian Campbell said, “The demand for opera in this city isn’t high enough.” I think what he meant was, “We’ve been doing the same marketing we do every year and it’s not working anymore.”

Professional marketers respond to changing market conditions, which means their marketing strategies evolve to keep pace with changes in the world around them. Arts organizations, meanwhile, tend to do what they’ve always done and then blame the world for not producing the sort of consumers who respond to the marketing they do.

A part of me laments the tragic passing of institutions like this. Another part believes that arts organizations that refuse to learn how to persuade new audiences deserve the fates they create for themselves.

My heart goes out to the thousands of young, culturally diverse people in San Diego who won’t have a chance to become opera fans. I’m sorry we never bothered to learn how to talk to you.


Five Markets The Arts Don’t Bother Tapping #3

3. Volume Buyers

In the arts we cater to three types of buyers. If you’re one of them, you have a reasonably good chance of accessing our products, although some of you will get better service than others. If you’re not among these three types  – and many are not – you may be out of luck.

1. If you’re a performing arts consumer who wants to subscribe or a museumgoer who wants to become a member, we will roll out the red carpet and do every thing we can to make you happy. Many of our institutions were built around you and we will gladly nudge others aside to make sure you get the very best we have to offer.

2. If you’re not the commitment type, we welcome consumers in pairs and handfuls too, although you’re not our first priority and we may make you buy through an impersonal third-party ticketing system that adds unwelcome fees. There are so many of you, though, that we will do what we can – given our traditions – to get you in the door.

3. And if you are a consumer who wants to buy more than a handful of tickets, we may let you do it, but we’ll probably give you limited access, dreadful service, low-level staff support, third-class patron status – and we may even force you to sign a contract before we’ll let you and your friends pass through our venue doors.

Back in the 1950s performing arts providers on Broadway and elsewhere recognized demand from a limited but persistent market segment comprised of society ladies and seniors who wanted to attend shows together. But these customers said they couldn’t just plop down cash for un-returnable tickets until they knew how many of their people were coming, and they couldn’t invite people to come unless they knew they had the tickets, so box offices reluctantly carved out a reserve-now/pay-later pigeonhole and called it “group sales.”

PigeonholeSurprisingly, even though that was 70 years ago and society ladies and seniors are a small part of the volume ticket market, this pigeonhole remains the industry model we use today, and most volume buyers are expected to squeeze through it whether they fit or not. Since many don’t fit, only the most avid or complacent bother to buy.

Here’s a surprise: Of all the places you might look for untapped demand from new audiences, your volume sales department, even though it’s the last place you want to look, is likely to be where the most untapped potential lies. Below is a list of buyers that don’t necessarily fit into the three categories above, many of which, depending on your market and the relative popularity of your products, can be found sitting outside your old “group” sales pigeonhole waiting to be invited in through the front door.

But first, know this: Groups don’t buy tickets.

In every instance where multiple tickets are sold, there is an individual decision maker, often a business person or professional, who purchases tickets in large quantities on behalf of others, or purchases tickets to resell to others, or has the power to influence bulk ticket sales through proprietary social or business networks. Volume buyers are remote extensions of our single-ticket sales infrastructure who carry our marketing messages to places they wouldn’t otherwise go, motivate their various constituencies to respond by adding or passing along value, manage the logistics of ticket sales and distribution, and, in many cases, physically deliver patrons to our doorstep. Treating these people like discount-hungry little old ladies is utterly irresponsible, if not outright incompetent, and it’s a profound disservice to funders who expect the organizations they support to be earning revenue in a reasonably professional manner.

Partial List of Under-served Volume Ticket Buyers

  • International wholesale tour operators
  • Receptive tour operators
  • Domestic long-haul package tour operators
  • Local/regional day-trip tour operators (pre-formed & retail)
  • Ground transportation & sightseeing company operators
  • Meeting & event planners
  • Broad range of businesses/corporate buyers (executive event & client entertainment)
  • Destination management companies
  • Employee perks & recreation service providers
  • Corporate & hospitality concierges
  • Fundraisers
  • Destination partners (restaurants, hotels, non-competitive attractions, etc.)
  • Ticket brokers/resellers/agents
  • Affinity & membership organization managers
  • Premium access clients (ongoing accounts)
  • Educators & educational system administrators
  • Semi-professional group event organizers
  • Social media based event organizers

Do this tomorrow: Dismantle your entire “group” sales operation including all the box office traditions, procedures and protocols and throw the whole mess away for good. Now, go out into the world – well outside your artsy bubbles – and engage with representatives of these various market segments (as appropriate to your market/product). Ask them what you can do to give them extraordinary services that will enhance their ticket purchase potential. Listen carefully to what they say and learn as much as you can about how and why they use the products you sell. Then, rebuild your sales infrastructure from the ground up with no arbitrary group/single divisions, no unnecessary discounts, no archaic box office procedures, no superfluous contracts (if you’re still using group sales contracts, stop it right this minute), no punitive deposits, no holding back inventory for “more important” customers, etc.

When your organization begins to engage meaningfully with people in the business and professional communities listed above, you’ll realize that the low-level staffers in the old “groups” office aren’t equipped for the executive-level engagement you’ll need to make your new volume sales department optimally productive. Instead, try recruiting an experienced VP of sales who reports to the CEO, give her the support she needs (yes, even if it means changing your organization’s culture), help her build a new, bottom line-oriented sales department, and pay her a fair base and commission for the results she generates.

You can’t say, “We couldn’t sell enough tickets,” if you don’t have a real sales department that actually sells tickets.

Group sales is dead. Sales is the new marketing. Welcome to the 21st century.

5 Markets The Arts Don’t Bother Tapping: #2

Second installment in a series beginning here.

Incentivized Resellers

Nine years ago the city of Los Angeles hosted a huge international trade show organized by the US Travel Association for several thousand international tour operators and their North American suppliers. The cultural tourism fad was big back then and somebody had encouraged the arts institutions along Downtown’s Grand Avenue corridor to co-host an enormous promotional party for the visiting delegates.

I remember standing with a senior leader from the Music Center the night of the party on the steps of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion watching the crowds pour in and out of the newly built Disney Hall. At one point my friend said to me, “I’m told we’ll see a huge bump in sales after this.” I said, “You know they’re all wholesalers.” She said, “What?” I said, “They’re wholesalers. They buy destination products at pre-contracted wholesale rates to resell at a markup to their traveling customers. There’s not a box office in this city that can sell wholesale tickets let alone manage B-to-B contract accounts.”

She didn’t know. And neither, apparently, did her peers. There would be no bump in sales because the participating arts organizations were structurally incapable of serving the buyers they thought they were courting. In the arts, we can’t sell seats at a price below what’s printed on the ticket, and we offer no service mechanisms for high volume business buyers.

This was an unusually grand and embarrassing example of the arts’ failure to connect with incentivized resellers, but it happens all the time. For a more pedestrian example, consider the hotel concierge.

ConciergeAt some point in most arts marketing brainstorming sessions somebody says, “Hey, why don’t we reach out to the concierges so they can recommend us to hotel guests.” It’s a lovely idea until you realize that hotel concierges aren’t always the selfless service providers we imagine them to be. Many concierges earn rewards for the services they offer in the form of incentives paid by the restaurants and attractions they recommend. That concierge isn’t just being nice when she offers to personally place your reservation at the local steakhouse. She wants to make certain the steakhouse knows and has a record of the fact that she called because she makes money on the back end.

So. Will a concierge recommend your ticketed attraction? Maybe. But if you’re competing with another attraction that offers cash incentives, probably not. And even if she is motivated to recommend you, the likelihood is that she’ll book tickets through her contact at the local ticket broker, who gives her far better service than a nonprofit arts organization ever would, and rewards her handsomely for all the business she sends his way. If you’re expecting that concierge to call your box office or, god forbid, Ticketmaster, and then get nothing in return, it just isn’t going to happen.

Large theme parks understand the world of incentivized resellers and use them to great advantage. If you have a theme park or large commercial attraction in your community, invite the senior sales executive out to lunch some day and ask him to describe how he works with incentivized resellers (don’t ask him to share his contacts). If he’s willing, he might describe international tour wholesalers, domestic package travel companies and receptive tour companies that get net rates; networks of hospitality and corporate concierges who earn commissions; employee perks companies and affinity group organizers that work on contract rates or commissions; event and meeting planners who get per-person cash incentives; a range of ticket brokers and resellers who work on commissions or net rates; and various welcome centers, ticket & admission bundlers and selling partners throughout the the community.

Then ask him to describe his ticketing system. The more robust systems enable authorized external resellers to log onto the attraction’s ticketing system through their own accounts on their own computers and sell directly out of live or allocated inventory at a pre-negotiated rate – allowing for them to sell to their constituents and know that their incentives are accruing in their account according to whatever relationships have been set up in advance. With ticketing systems like this, concierges can book seats, print vouchers for their guests, and know that their cash rewards are being meticulously tracked.

In the arts, of course, we don’t do any of this. It’s not in our culture. We see an amount printed on the ticket and believe it’s our money. All of it. Even if the ticket is sitting unsold in the box office drawer. And we manage our box offices like mini fortresses with miserly treasurers, bulletproof glass and annoying intercoms (easier to buy a $5,000 computer from a CSR in the middle of an Apple Store). It’s no surprise that we don’t open our systems to outside sales networks or let people who are willing to do our sales work for us earn a cut of the take.

But at some point we may want to ask if our traditional operating culture is more important than earning revenue. Given the most recent NEA report on declining arts audiences, we might want to rethink some of these counterproductive systems and start developing infrastructures that will allow us to maximize some of our most promising untapped markets.

5 Markets The Arts Don’t Bother Tapping

1. Business-to-Business

Arts organizations tend not to employ sales staff who can walk into executive offices, corporate board rooms or professional trade gatherings and engage with executive peers in the commercial sector. It just isn’t part of our culture. If we do invest executive-level energy into our business communities, it’s almost always to raise money.

Imagine for a minute that a senior VP at a local corporation is hosting some thirty executive peers from around the world for a business gathering and wants to show off his city by organizing an event at a local cultural venue. He wants excellent top-dollar seats, a first-rate dinner at the nearest dining establishment and a private reception in the venue at intermission. Assuming your organization is on his radar to begin with (which isn’t a given if you don’t field outside sales execs to engage with the business community), who is he going to call?

In most arts organizations he’s going to call a telephone number that was set up to facilitate discount-hungry little old ladies who were meant to fill the seats that couldn’t be sold to the real customers. There he can leave a message about the tickets he wants to buy so a low-level staffer who knows nothing about his business or how he intends to use the tickets can return the call and quote seat availability and discount pricing. Discount LadiesThe sales rep will probably describe severely limited and largely off-limits inventory in the best seating sections then outline the onerous rules and restrictions that describe how people who want to buy a lot of expensive seats and bring new audiences into the venue must behave in order to earn the privilege of spending their money there. Then, maybe, the staffer will give him the phone number or website for a separate contact at the on-site catering company or a list of nearby restaurants he can call to set up his dinner.

This is where the business executive decides to call his contact at the local major league sports venue instead.

Now imagine a different scenario where the conversation goes something like this: “James, how great to hear from you! I had so much fun at the mixer the other night. That DJ was a nut and Phil Kimball certainly stole the show on the dance floor. I hope he got home OK. Now what can I do for you?…Wow. that sounds like a great evening. Let me start by having my box office manager pull back some house seats and unused subscription inventory so I can get you seating, then I’d like to set up a call with my colleague Joan at Verdigris – our in-house caterer. She was the one at the party in the green outfit with the red hair…Uh-huh. I think Dennis McDaniel introduced you…Yeah. We’ll have a chat about your dinner plans and see what we can put together in the lobby for intermission. I’ll drop a note to your assistant Dana to set up the call so we can walk through your event. I’m really glad you called. Anything we can do to help you show off the city to your colleagues is our pleasure.”

If you can’t imagine your senior outside sales staffer having that conversation (or if you can’t even imagine having an outside sales staffer), it’s time to start thinking more seriously about community engagement. No, not the warm and fuzzy stuff your funders expect you to do for the little people, but real, purposeful, goal-oriented, executive-level engagement with your local business community.

There are many businesses in a variety of industries that would be glad to buy tickets to arts events for a number of social and business-oriented reasons, but they tend to want to do business with other business people, and with vendors and partners who understand and defer to their business needs.

If the arts don’t do business-to-business sales because it’s not a part of our culture, wouldn’t it make more sense to change the culture than to cut artists’ pay or go out of business when we can’t don’t sell enough tickets?

Leaving the Nonprofit Arts

I’m bidding a fond farewell to the world of nonprofit arts to focus on my personal interest in architectural history and to work on some interesting commercial projects in the extraordinary city of Palm Springs, California.

IMG_1320When I’m not marketing arts & entertainment, I like to restore mid-century modern houses. This is one we did recently – a rare, unaltered, 1958 custom-built classic. It was badly neglected and had suffered some unfortunate cosmetic “improvements,” but all the original structure and interior detail was there waiting to be brought back to its former glory. For a closer look, check out this video.

My career as an arts pro began with the performing arts, but architecture has always been my passion so I’m drawing on my background in arts & entertainment marketing, cultural tourism, destination marketing, travel industry sales and historic preservation to live in a city that has has one of the largest concentrations of mid-century modern architecture in the world.

Frank Sinatra Estate, E. Stewart Williams, 1947

One current project is a great little company called Palm Springs Modern Tours, which gives architectural tours of the city. If you’re curious about desert modernism or considering a visit, take a look.

As for “Marketing the Arts to Death,” change happens at a glacial pace in the cultural sector so nearly all of the content on this blog and in my book remains timely and relevant. Feel free to browse around. My personal favorites are here, here and here. Or buy the book. It’s short, fun, irreverent and 100% guaranteed to help you build larger audiences and earn more revenue without increasing marketing costs (If it doesn’t, I’ll give you your six bucks back).

The answer to the arts’ audience crisis is heartbreakingly simple: Know your new audiences as well as you possibly can and then speak to them naturally, humbly and from the heart about how your products will make them happy. Or in other words, take a long hard look at traditional arts marketing and do the exact opposite.

Thanks to my readers and followers. I appreciate your having let me vent. And thanks to the legions of young arts pros who’ve cheered me on and who will one day be taking over. I hope you’ll do it sooner than later, though, so there’s something left when the current crop of leaders moves on.

Keep up the good work and come visit us in Palm Springs.


Fundraising is Evil?

I have a colleague who believes, and isn’t even remotely embarrassed to say, that marketing is evil. Like many arts pros he thinks that marketing is a dubious but necessary process that the arts must endure in order to survive in a culture that’s lost its arts-belong-on-top-and-everyone-should-aspire value hierarchy.

I read an arts blog today that made a passing reference to the evils of marketing. At first it seemed like just another glib aside, but soon it dawned on me that the idea runs much deeper than I’d imagined. Arts professionals talk like this all the time. Nobody would dream of casually referring to fundraising as a necessary evil, but as an industry we regularly confess, and often promote, a matter-of-fact disdain for marketing in our ongoing professional discourse.

Lately I’ve come to understand that arts professionals’ aversion to marketing isn’t just surface-level stupidity, it’s bred in the bone like a racial bias or phobia. We don’t just roll our eyes and say, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to do all this marketing,” we say frankly, openly and without a hint of reflection or guilt that there is something inherently malevolent about the marketing process itself, and that it’s been foisted on us, through no fault of our own, like when the wrong sort of family moves into the house down the street.

The idea is preposterous, of course. Anyone who thinks marketing is evil is ridiculous and anyone who has the temerity to say it out loud is a fool. Marketing is a value-neutral tool that can be used for good or evil. Saying marketing is evil is like saying the knife in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was evil. Any intelligent human being knows that Norman Bates was evil and the knife was just a knife. People can be evil. Tools can be used by evil people. But tools themselves cannot be evil.

Back in the 1980s I managed telephone sales teams for nonprofit arts organizations where we sold subscriptions and solicited individual gifts. I trained my staff to use carefully calculated techniques that could turn someone who wasn’t even thinking about subscribing or donating into someone who’d plop down a credit card and charge $500 in the space of twenty minutes. Those techniques were extremely powerful tools and they worked just as well on subscriptions as they did on donations, but they weren’t evil, and neither were we.

If you’re the sort of person who’s fond of saying that marketing is evil, or someone who perpetuates the metaphor in less direct ways, or even someone who harbors such sentiments privately, I challenge you to separate out the fundraising we did and call it good by comparison. The process was identical. If the marketing was evil, the fundraising has to have been equally evil. Both were accomplished using the same tools.

And the principle applies across the board. Marketing is a process of persuading people to participate in the arts. Development is a process of persuading people to give money to the arts. There is nothing whatsoever about the marketing process that makes it less moral or honorable. The value distinction lies in arts professionals’ prejudices, not in the processes themselves.

Why do arts pros harbor such a deep-seated belief that marketing is evil? That’s a long and complex story, but my theory after 35 years in the business is this: We resent having to sell something that we believe people should want. Our egos and identities are so deeply invested in the unquestionable value of art – and, by extension, the value and worth of our career investments in the arts – that it’s almost impossible for us to admit that we have to do something as low and humiliating as persuading indifferent outsiders to want us. We project evil onto marketing because we fear it: An honest, open-eyed acceptance of marketing threatens to lay bare the fact that we’re no longer on top, that the value hierarchy has been leveled and that tomorrow’s audiences don’t aspire to consume what we so desperately need to sell.

Here’s a scary thought. Marketing is the only reasonable hope many large, traditional arts organizations have for survival. Audiences are disappearing steadily and the only way to get them back is to persuade them to come through strategic communications, a.k.a. marketing. The better the marketing, the greater the chance of survival. Arts pros who want sustaining audiences will have to meet new audiences where they live, engage with them personally, learn from them what they yearn for and then figure out how to convince them that the art we make and sell will make them happy. At its core, that’s what marketing is, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the most honorable job any arts administrator could ever hope to do.

The arts’ aversion to marketing is irrational, unhealthy and counterproductive. If you’re an arts pro who likes to toss around facile condemnations of marketing to compensate for your waning belief in the sustainability of your chosen profession, it’s time to stop. Marketing is a useful tool that honorable people can use in good faith to lead others toward transcendent ends.

It may just be our salvation.

Amateur Marketing Won’t Save Professional Art Forms


History will probably tell us that one of the greatest tragedies in the arts was that our generation gambled away the survival of professional art forms on the false promise of amateur marketing.

Classical concert music, for example, employs the most talented, highly trained, technically proficient professional musicians in the world, yet we market their output with the efforts of workers who rank nowhere near the top of the marketing profession. Arts marketing is somewhat of an oddball in the broader marketing realm. It stands apart from the mainstream, it answers to its own set of quirky norms and traditions, it doesn’t evolve with the markets it expects to influence and it takes its marching orders from executive leaders who have severely limited marketing expertise. Unlike artists, who at the top of their professions work for nonprofit arts organizations, the world’s best marketers work well outside the cultural sector in successful businesses, corporations and political campaigns where strategic communications are far more sophisticated.

I mean no disrespect to arts marketers. There are many talented, experienced arts professionals who do marketing, but the standards the cultural sector sets for marketing fall so far short of the standards upheld by the marketing profession in general that any critical comparison will reveal a disturbing imbalance.

What fascinates me about this imbalance is that amateur marketing is so deeply ingrained in the culture of culture that we rarely, if ever, step back to consider the damage it’s doing or bother to ask if we should expect our marketing staff to perform at the same level of professionalism as their counterparts on the stage. Venerable institutions that represent the highest imaginable achievements in artistic excellence are either tanking or teetering on the verge of insolvency because they “can’t” sell enough tickets – yet they refuse to apply the same rigor to the process of persuading new audiences as they do to producing or presenting art.

Take a look at the promotional content used by just about any ailing arts organization that’s making headlines these days and you’ll find communications that bear the unmistakable hallmarks of having been created by amateurs. Those hallmarks – as I’ve stated so often on this blog – are self-flattery, self-indulgence, self-importance, condescension, presumption, cloying clichés, off-putting stereotypes, frivolous poetic metaphors, artifice, unrestrained hyperbole, mindless repetition, cutesy wordplay and a cavalier, if not arrogant, disregard for the perspectives of persuadable but skeptical outsiders. Seldom will you find down-to-earth, customer-centered messages crafted by knowledgeable communications strategists using objective, external market intelligence and rational methodologies. That sort of thing may be commonplace in professional marketing circles, but it’s just not how we do things in the arts.

I find it ironic that local cultural communities can rally around expensive and unnecessary building projects that saddle arts organizations with massive long-term overhead, but can’t scrounge up the money to hire marketers with enough expertise to keep the doors open. And I’m amazed that the cultural sector as a whole continues to undervalue marketing as if it’s the shameful concession people thought it was back in the 1980s – or fundraising’s bastard stepchild, or a common sense endeavor that anyone who watches Mad Men can do, or the operational department that makes all those pretty posters and brochures.

Traditional sales-dependent arts organizations need a steady supply of new audiences to guarantee their survival. That’s an inescapable fact. The only way to get those audiences is to persuade new people to come, and the only way to do that is with new, more effective, more persuasive forms of strategic communication. We can’t fundraise new audiences (unless the funding community wants to pay their way). We can’t find new audiences through public policy. We can’t build new audiences with squishy engagement fads. We can’t educate new audiences fast enough when it takes a generation to see returns. We can’t generate new audiences by doing what we’ve always done and hoping for better results (which for some reason remains the dominant strategic approach). We can’t compete for new audiences if we fail to match the sophistication of our commercial competitors. And we can’t attract new audiences by placing all of our faith in data and technology when the strategic impact of the content of our communication is what makes the primary difference.

Can the arts professionalize marketing? Sure. With the right industry leadership, the right expertise, the right allocation of resources and an influx of educated, experienced, properly compensated marketing professionals, it’s well within the realm of possibility. But can the arts make the changes that will be required to make it happen? That I seriously doubt. Comprehensive change would have to originate with leaders who understand the issues, know where to find external help and have enough influence to move the industry quickly and decisively away from self-destructive traditions. Given the cultural sector’s preoccupation with fundraising and public policy, however, and the obvious scarcity of marketing expertise in industry leadership circles, such change is unlikely to occur.

Meanwhile we sit and watch as a long line of organizations creeps inevitably toward the brink, all the while preening and strutting and flirting and boasting as if it’s 1959 and the world is overflowing with avid arts lovers who find them irresistible. That’s not the case, of course; new audiences find traditional arts organizations to be highly resistible, but it appears that somebody forgot to tell the people who approve all the emails, ads, press releases, banners and brochures.

Professional marketers wouldn’t let their organizations boast endlessly about how wonderful and important they were unless they had plenty of objective evidence to suggest that self-proclaimed wonderfulness and importance were compelling factors in new audiences’ decision-making processes. The likelier scenario is that they’d learn what new audiences actually think is wonderful and important – in their realities and on their terms – and then talk about that in equal measure.

The arts can be forgiven for having taken so long to accept marketing. Nobody wanted to believe back in the 1970s and 80s that art needed to be sold. But now that we know that attracting and keeping new audiences is the only thing standing between survival and obsolescence, shouldn’t we at least give professional marketing a try?

Why Doesn’t The Funding Community Lead Us Out Of This Mess?

If audiences for traditional art forms are in steady decline, and the only hope for survival is attracting a dependable supply of new paying audiences, why doesn’t the funding community insist that arts institutions do professional marketing?

I know that’s a loaded question, but I can’t think of any other leadership entity that has the perspective, resources and influence – not to mention vested interest – to pull the arts industry out of its tailspin and start growing the audiences on which its future depends.

I’ve been writing for two years now about the sorry state of marketing in the cultural sector, a concise summary of which can be found here and here, and the upshot is this: the arts are a diminishing industry with a desperate need for new audiences, but arts industry leadership is comprised mostly of marketing amateurs who don’t have the education, perspective, business experience or professional expertise to solve the problem.

The most glaring evidence of this professional deficiency is a half century of banal, repetitive, hackneyed, presumptuous, conspicuously self-congratulatory and increasingly ineffective marketing content that is out of touch with the desires and expectations of tomorrow’s audiences. Professional marketers change their marketing to reflect changes in the marketplace, but arts organizations, despite chronic, long-term audience attrition, continue to speak a language that lost its persuasive potency decades ago.

I’m convinced that the arts industry needs a comprehensive overhaul of its strategic communications – something akin to what the Republican Party did during George Bush Jr’s first campaign. Inspired by the brilliant communications strategist Frank Luntz and guided by the equally brilliant but notorious communicator/media manipulator Karl Rove, the Republicans developed an entirely new language that contained a carefully vetted set of voter-centric strategic massages that were embraced and echoed by the entire party.

If you prefer a more hopeful Democratic example, simply replace Frank Luntz with George Lakoff, and Karl Rove with David Axelrod and you get a similar story. It took the Dems a while to catch on, but Barack Obama is President today largely because the party took control of its strategic messaging and found a way to galvanize and motivate a broad coalition of old and new voters. Most importantly, they found a way to speak to the base (subscribers, members, donors?) and to undecided voters (younger, more culturally diverse audiences?) at the same time.

The lesson in this political example for arts leaders is this: two enormous, complex, multi-layered, old-fashioned, ego-driven institutions with conflicting priorities and fragmented constituencies (sound familiar?) got their act together, yanked themselves into the 21st century and adopted new, sophisticated, professional and highly effective persuasive communications strategies.

By comparison, the cultural sector’s strategy is pretty much what it’s always been: find creative ways to get the word out.

Persuading new audiences wouldn’t be difficult or expensive, but it would take centralized leadership, high-level intellectual rigor and an industrywide willingness to abandon amateur traditions in favor of more sophisticated professional approaches. It’s fairly obvious that the arts don’t have the organizational capacity or intellectual chops to pull something like this off, so I can’t help wondering why the funding community doesn’t step in and take the lead: Find the George Lakoffs who can help us develop a more effective strategic language and use the influence that only funders have to insist that the new language be adopted and spoken throughout the sector.

The alternative would appear to be a long, drawn-out process of telling failing arts organizations they’re cut off when they’re no longer able to earn enough revenue, and watching the industry slowly decline as avid audiences disappear and their less avid heirs seek more attractive, better marketed forms of creative expression.