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.

On Building Stronger Marketing and Development Silos


Are you trying to attract audiences with fundraising appeals?

I read a symphony orchestra brochure recently that devoted all of its content to describing how wonderful the organization was, how important classical music was to western civilization and how many great things the orchestra was doing for its community. I knew they were trying to sell me tickets, but I wasn’t at all clear about why they thought I’d buy.

In re-reading it, I got the distinct impression that the people who wrote, designed and published the brochure were asking me to support them with my participation rather than offering me something that I might actually find personally rewarding.

They weren’t asking me to buy, they were asking me to give.

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When the good people in the development department talk to potential donors, their communications are rooted in a set of assumptions that go like this:

  • We are valuable to you, to the community and to the larger culture
  • We cannot provide this value without your support
  • You should give us money so we can continue to be of value

When professional marketers talk to potential buyers, their communications are rooted in a set of assumptions that go like this:

  • You have stated needs and desires that we recognize
  • The artistic products we sell can satisfy those needs and desires
  • We promise that when you buy our products, your needs and desires will be satisfied

You may notice a striking dissimilarity between these sets of assumptions. The development set is self-centered while the marketing set is audience-centered. The development set focuses on the value of the art, artists and institutions while the marketing set stresses fulfillment of the customers’ needs and desires. The development set is rooted in shoulds while the marketing set is rooted in promises. In fundraising, we put ourselves first and ask people to support us. In professional marketing, the customers come first and the emphasis is on satisfying their personal yearnings.

If this description of marketing sounds strange to you, it’s probably because you work in the nonprofit arts where marketing is almost never about the customers. We don’t do professional marketing in the arts; we do arts marketing, which takes its cues not from the marketing profession or from successful businesses, but rather from nonprofit fundraising traditions.

When arts marketers talk to potential buyers, their communications are rooted in a set of assumptions that go like this:

  • We are wonderful, important and of value to the community (and to you)
  • (You may not know it, but you need us and may, if you try us, desire us)
  • You should buy our products so we can be of value to you (and to the community)

Compare these assumptions with the sets above and you’ll see that arts marketing has a lot more in common with fundraising than it does with professional marketing. Arts marketing emerged in a culture dominated by fundraising and fundraising has exerted such a powerful influence that we actually taught ourselves to do marketing backwards: We use an entirely self-centered, self-important form of promotional communication in a vain attempt to motivate sustaining audiences when we should be using customer-centered communication that’s developed in response to our audience’s stated needs and desires.

Why do we do marketing backwards? Because back when arts patrons viewed buying and giving as interdependent parts of the participation process, it didn’t matter. People bought and gave for similar reasons so arts organizations could use similar appeals in their fundraising and marketing pitches. But today, when arts audiences are disappearing at a rate that makes many traditional institutions unsustainable, and new audiences don’t necessarily view arts participation as a social responsibility, the distinction makes all the difference in the world. Marketing that’s rooted in fundraising assumptions doesn’t work anymore and our refusal to embrace legitimate, businesslike, customer-centered marketing practices is quite literally killing us.

silosIf we want traditional arts organizations to survive, we have to assign marketing a level of priority that’s equal to its task. We have to sever the ties that allow marketing to be encumbered by outdated nonprofit traditions. And we have to replace amateur methods with professional approaches that take their cues from best practices outside the insular, fundraising-oriented cultural sector.

Marketing and Development are fundamentally different administrative endeavors. It’s time to separate them and allow each to do its job according to accepted professional standards.

“This Opera’s Not Boring!” Crows San Diego Opera


After nearly a year of promoting their Nixon in China production with dull copy and images, San Diego Opera sent out an email yesterday with this subject line:


And internal copy that reads:

Nixon in China is a theatrical treat.
You won’t want to miss it.

What Nixon in China is: energetic, imaginative and kaleidoscopic!

What Nixon in China is not: boring, pedantic, or sleep inducing.

Nixon in China opens on Saturday and you won’t want to miss this “rhythmical, pulsating, jazzy” romp through a moment in time that changed the course of history.”

And to support the copy, they added this odd pair of images, which shows Nixon at Disneyland along with a wacky production shot from the opera:


Now, on the one hand, this is just great. For the first time since their near-death crisis, the folks at San Diego Opera are addressing something audiences are actually thinking about, rather than just blathering on about how wonderful and important their operas are. Somebody, it appears, learned that potential audience members thought an opera called Nixon in China might be boring. I don’t know if they did research, or a board member got an earful at a party, but either way, SDO actually developed marketing content in response to external market conditions and this is a huge step forward.

But on the other hand, it raises a host of troubling questions:

Why not promote the opera as an energetic, imaginative, kaleidoscopic theatrical treat from the get-go? You don’t have to do a lot of research to know that an opera about Richard Nixon’s diplomatic trip to communist China could be considered boring. Any professional marketer would have worked to counter those perceptions from day one.

Where was the research? In the absence of in-house expertise, SDO might have conducted some focus groups or single-ticket buyer surveys to learn about their audience’s Nixon in China perceptions. If proper research had been done back when the marketing strategy was developed, nobody would be shouting WE’RE NOT BORING today.

Was there ever a strategy? Given the “Boring…boring…boring…, But wait! We’re not boring!” way this campaign has unfolded, it’s fairly clear there was no strategic marketing plan.

Can you say you’re not boring without shouting WE’RE NOT BORING? Telling your entire email list that Nixon in China is not boring, pedantic or sleep inducing is a great way to let everyone know that some people think the opera is boring, pedantic or sleep inducing. If you discover a negative perception among your customers, by all means counter it, but whatever you do, don’t reinforce it by repeating it. Despite all the worthwhile things he may have done, including his historic trip to China, Richard Nixon cemented his reputation as the nation’s most notorious crook the day he stared into the TV camera and said, “I’m not a crook.”

Where’s the professional marketing expertise? You’d think a major opera company that all but died last year for lack of audiences would have secured some serious marketing leadership. Somebody who understands professional marketing should have caught this one before it went out. But, really, somebody should have professionalized the organization’s marketing effort long before a comeback was even considered.

Trying to bounce back from an audience development failure of this magnitude without a fully professional approach to audience development is unfair to the people who supported San Diego Opera’s resurrection, unfair to San Diego opera lovers, unfair to people who work in the opera profession, and profoundly unfair to new audiences who have yet to discover why opera is such an amazing and addictive art form.

I hope this is a signal that the organization has finally learned to listen to its community and respond with audience-centered marketing content. Given the amateurish execution, however, I’m not sure that’s what’s happening.

The Feds Know Why Arts Marketing Doesn’t Work (No, Not the NEA, the SBA)


I popped onto the Small Business Administration’s website today and found a section called “Marketing 101.” Here’s the first thing it said:

“In order to successfully grow your business, you’ll need to attract and then work to retain a large base of satisfied customers. Marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business, and has two guiding principles.”

Take a look at the wording in the second sentence:

Marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business…

They didn’t say “marketing emphasizes the value of the business to the customer,” they said “marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business.” It’s a monumentally important distinction that goes a long way toward explaining why the arts are in so much trouble.

In the arts, we devote all of our marketing energy to emphasizing the value of the business to the customer, which is completely ass backwards and self-serving, not to mention counterproductive. The SBA understands that effective marketing puts the customer first, which is something arts administrators are loathe to do. We put ourselves first, which is where we believe we belong. If you doubt it, look at marketing materials from just about any orchestra, opera company, dance company, arts center, theatre or museum (start with your own) and you’ll see marketing content that’s exclusively focused on the product.

In the same sentence the SBA mentions two guiding principles, the first of which says:

“All company policies and activities should be directed toward satisfying customer needs.

In the arts, all company policies and activities are directed toward satisfying the organizations’ needs. Marketing in the arts is an entirely self-centered affair that exists to tell the public how wonderful we are, how much they should like us and how fortunate they are to have us in their Lovecommunities. We’re hemorrhaging audiences, but rarely, if ever, do we bother to learn about our sustaining customers’ needs, much less promise to satisfy them in our communications. Marketing that’s directed toward satisfying customer needs focuses on the fulfillment the customer will enjoy as a result of participating, not on what we believe are the most worthy and desirable attributes of our artistic offerings.

Back when traditional art forms were popular, these distinctions didn’t matter so much. We could afford to be self-centered because there were a lot of people who agreed with the flattering things we said about ourselves. But today we’re not popular anymore and our self-flattery – falling as it does on indifferent and increasingly skeptical ears – is beginning to sound like delusion. We’re in desperate need of customers, but we’re too busy boasting to notice that we don’t have a clue what tomorrow’s audiences need, and we don’t seem to care about finding the places where what they need and what we offer overlap.

If we don’t know what our new audiences need, we’ll never be able to talk to them about how the art we sell can be of value. And if we continue trying to tell audiences what we think they should need, rather than responding to what they actually do need, we’re nothing more than a bunch of presumptuous amateurs who have no business complaining about empty venues.

The arts are failing to attract sustaining audiences because our grasp of the fundamentals of marketing is about as sophisticated as that of small business hopefuls who turn to the SBA’s website for advice.

But here’s the real kicker: In the arts, there’s no place to go for advice of this quality. When it comes to marketing, there just aren’t any industry leaders or institutions that have the professional expertise to be able to offer it.

Are You Selling Drills or Holes?


I rediscovered this old adage while scanning some marketing blogs today:

Never sell drills when what your customers are looking for is holes.

It’s a pithy way of saying that marketing should be about the customers and their needs, not about the product and its features. What drill buyers want is holes. The right drill for them is the drill that will give them the holes they need. So the right marketing for the drill manufacturer is the marketing that demonstrates how the drill will give the customers the holes they’re looking for. The most effective way to sell a drill to someone who needs holes is to focus on how satisfied the customer will be when he buys the drill that does the best job of giving him the holes he’s looking for.

In the arts, the holes can be many things:

  • Ways to spend a quality night out with friends or loved ones
  • Ways to experience enriching and edifying entertainment
  • Ways to feel connected to a community or social stratum
  • Ways to impress a date
  • Ways to enjoy leisure time

As the drill adage points out, the role of arts marketing is to focus on these needs and how satisfied the customers will be when they’re met. Given the needs described above, the most effective arts marketing content would naturally focus on:

  • People enjoying one another’s company in a given arts venue
  • Customers describing how the art they’ve experienced improved their lives
  • Depictions of people who represent a desirable community enjoying the art
  • Couples bonding at an arts event
  • People having a great time enjoying an arts event

And how often do arts marketers focus on customers having their needs met by the arts product?


We don’t do audience-centered marketing in the arts. It’s not part of our holier-than-thou culture. We do self-centered marketing that focuses exclusively on the superior features of the products we believe our audiences should want to buy. In other words, we sell drills, and rather than focusing on the holes, we promote the drills’ features relentlessly in a vain attempt to convince people that the drills we prefer to produce and promote are more important than the holes our audiences need to make.

Drills are a meafriends-at-a-bar-720x430ns to a hole. The arts are a means to various types of personal fulfillment. If the drill manufacturer should be marketing the hole, arts marketers should be marketing customer fulfillment, which means the content of our marketing should be about customers having a good time participating in the arts.

How many photos did your organization publish in marketing materials in the last twelve months? How many of them depicted customers having their desires fulfilled by attending one of your events?

If you’re like most arts organizations and your marketing content is exclusively self-centered, you’re spending way too much time talking about drills when you should be talking about how happy your customers will be with the holes that only you can help them make.

Take The “Gal in a Starbucks” Test


Say you’ve just been named CEO of a major North American symphony orchestra. Would you approve this copy for publication in your new sales brochure?

“Mendelssohn’s extraordinary symphonic cantata Hymn of Praise, heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a seminal moment in human history: the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Appropriately, Mendelssohn chose the Bible as the subject matter for his commission, and created a work that has been celebrated through the centuries for its sublime beauty.”

Before you answer, take the “Gal in a Starbucks” test that I mentioned a few posts ago:

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 gutenbergpresssay, “Mendelssohn’s extraordinary symphonic cantata Hymn of Praise, heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a seminal moment in human history: the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Appropriately, Mendelssohn chose the Bible as the subject matter for his commission, and created a work that has been celebrated through the centuries for its sublime beauty.”

Would you approve it now?

Of course not. It’s didactic horse shit that has nothing to do with the young woman you’re talking to. If you actually spoke to someone like this – someone who represented an excellent shot at attracting new audiences – you’d come off as wildly out of touch, pompous and condescending. Or in other words, you’d sound like a typical classical music brochure.

The brilliant advertising guru David Ogilvy once said,

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”

Clearly, this is not the language that new arts audiences use every day. It’s not even the language old arts audiences use every day. It’s the language boring history teachers use every day. Arts organizations that should be speaking to new audiences in a fresh, conversational vernacular about things those audiences actually care about are instead lecturing the world about things they think people should know – a practice that is presumptuous, amateurish and fiscally irresponsible. The entire cultural sector is desperate to understand why audiences are disappearing, but nobody seems to realize that we’re boring new audiences to death by trying to educate them in our marketing materials.

Here’s a shocker: Marketing is a terrible vehicle for arts education. New audiences want to know how attending arts events will satisfy their personal desires, not how those events fit into the history of western civilization. And even if new audiences do have an interest in being educated about the art form, the job of marketing is to promise that education, not to deliver it. Johannes Gutenberg belongs in the program notes, not in the brochure.

The reason arts audiences are shrinking is that arts administrators are too far out of touch with new audiences to know how to talk to them. And instead of learning how to talk to them, we hole up in conference rooms with fellow out-of-touch insiders filling our marketing content with pedantic puffery that’s designed more to appeal to artistic directors and CEOs than it is to persuade outsiders.

How would you describe that Mendelssohn piece to the 28-year-old former oboe player in the Starbucks? If you can find language that will tap into her personal desires in such a way that she’ll be motivated to come to your Mendelssohn concert (or La Bayadère or Miss Julie or Tosca or an exhibition of Renaissance paintings), then that’s the language that belongs in your marketing content.

Arts administrators who understand intuitively that lecturing the gal in the Starbucks isn’t a good way to motivate her to buy tickets, should apply that intuition throughout their organization’s strategic sales communications.

Dating Advice for Arts Marketers


In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, here are five suggestions for successful dating, designed specifically for arts marketers. Follow these tips and the relationships you’re looking for can’t fail to materialize:

1. Look Nice – But Don’t Overdo It

When you’re dating, it’s important to present an attractive appearance that honestly reflects your personality. Arts marketers have a tendency to over-accessorize so you might want to pare down to the essentials. Keep it simple. Try to see yourself through your date’s eyes or get some good advice from a friend. Oh, and that diamond treble clef brooch your grandmother gave you? Leave it at home.

2. Talk Normal

Chances are your date speaks plain old conversational English. Arts marketers speak an artificial language filled with overblown adjectives, indulgent self-flattery and creaky old clichés. There’s a slight chance that a relationship with you will be a roll-in-the-aisles, side-splitting, zany madcap romp or a compelling descent into madness and intrigue set against the backdrop of pre-apocalyptic twenty-first century urban America, but it’s not something you’ll want to project on a date. Just talk like a regular person.

3. Don’t Talk About Yourself

If you want your date to like you, ask questions. Learn about what interests them and focus your conversation on the areas where your interests and their interests overlap. Arts marketers talk exclusively about themselves and the things they think other people should find interesting about them. They almost never ask questions, so they don’t learn about other people’s interests, and they blithely prattle on about how wonderful they are, hoping that by promoting their inherent wonderfulness they’ll make themselves more attractive. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of this sort of thing, however, can tell you that it’s a lousy dating strategy.

4. Don’t Lecture

A relationship with you may end up being a valuable learning experience, but that’s something you’ll want to avoid telegraphing on a date. Arts marketers have an annoying habit of trying to educate everyone, as if to suggest that a successful relationship with them would be contingent on a certain level of academic achievement. Yes, late nineteenth century Norwegian societal constraints may have made strong women do crazy things, but that’s no subject for a dinner conversation, Hedda. Find out what interests your date and talk about those things instead. Who knows, you might end up learning something useful as well.

5. Ask

If you want to get lucky, you have to ask. Arts marketers do endless promotion but they don’t do sales, so they don’t know how to close the deal. You can spend the whole evening talking about how wonderful you are and then sit back and wait for your date to make the move, but that only works for marketers who are totally super hot. If you’re just reasonably attractive, but smart and worth getting to know, you’re going to need a more proactive, less self-centered approach.

So if your old relationships haven’t been working out so well and you’re looking forward to getting to know somebody new, put on a nice simple outfit, talk like a normal human being, take a sincere interest in others so you can talk about common interests, don’t try to improve people before you get to know them and, when you’ve earned the permission, move in for the kiss.

Happy Valentine’s Day!



Where The NEA Blows It


In my last two posts I reported on fascinating new research from the NEA, which delves into the motives that drive people to participate in the arts, as well as barriers that stand in their way.

Unfortunately, the folks who published this research stepped beyond their realm of expertise and made some rather inane suggestions for how to use the data to “reach the missing audience.” Here are the four recommendations from their infographic:

  • Couple low-cost admissions with learning-focused programming
  • Increase community engagement
  • Provide opportunities to socialize and experience new art forms
  • Market to couples deciding on “date night” options

On the surface these seem like great ideas – but that’s just the problem: They’re surface-level ideas. Any intern could have blurted them out in a marketing meeting. It’s the kind of simplistic thinking that nonprofit arts organizations have been using for decades, and it’s disappointing to find such amateur stuff coming from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Most professionals who conduct research into consumer motivations do it to improve their persuasive communications. Politicians learn what motivates voters so they can develop campaign strategies. Sellers of consumer products learn what motivates their customers so they can develop more effective marketing content. Lawyers research jury motives so they can develop more persuasive arguments. If your industry’s persuasive communications suck – as arts industry communications certainly do – and you’ve discovered a veritable gold mine of insight into audience motives – as the NEA certainly has – then the recommendations you put forward should be all about developing new, research-based, audience-centered strategic communications.

The closest the NEA comes to this is their facile “date night” idea, which might as well be singles nights, family four packs, girls’ nights out, flex passes, casual Fridays or any one of a dozen other decades-old arts marketing clichés. And the other three recommendations are about changing programming and administrative culture, which is great, but also quite difficult and expensive – and still needs to be effectively marketed in order to have any value.

Meanwhile, creating marketing content in response to what research has revealed about audience motives costs absolutely nothing and stands to deliver substantial returns. Why change what you sell when you can change the way you sell and generate better results?


Good research requires professional expertise and sophisticated methods. It also requires industry leaders who understand the value of collecting useful data – especially in an industry that suffers from chronic, long-term audience attrition. And it appears that, when it comes to research, the National Endowment for the Arts does indeed have the expertise, methods and leadership they need to provide the industry with useful market intelligence.

But knowing how to use the data also requires professional expertise, sophisticated methods and industry leadership, which, when it comes to attracting audiences, is sorely lacking in the cultural sector. Had the NEA executives who developed this material applied professional marketing expertise in preparing their report, their recommendations might have looked something like this:

  • Design communications around audience motives, not around your products
  • Sell what your customers say they want to buy, not what you want to sell
  • Identify, address and neutralize obstacles in your strategic messaging
  • Know your new audiences personally to better understand their motives

I can understand the NEA’s wanting to toss out a few casual suggestions to stimulate thinking, but the stakes are far too high to be cavalier about the application side of the research equation. Arts administrators don’t know how to use research data to make their communications more persuasive. It’s a skill that executive leaders have never been asked to master and that amateur arts marketing practitioners have never been expected to learn. All the audience motivation data in the world won’t get that conductor’s photo off the cover of the brochure if the CEO never learns why it doesn’t belong there.

Arts marketing is obscenely narcissistic. It’s all about the art, the artists and the organizations – and almost never about the audience. We assume the purpose of strategic communication is to tell the world how wonderful we are and we publish endless amounts of self-important, self-indulgent, self-centered, self-congratulatory, self-flattering promotional content that barely, if ever, reflects what audiences (especially new audiences) have told us they’re looking for. It seems incredible that an entire industry could be doing something so important so badly, but there’s just not enough legitimate marketing expertise among industry leaders to understand, let alone solve, the problem.

If the National Endowment for the Arts can’t offer professional suggestions for using research data, who can?