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.

NEA Discovers MASSIVE Audience That Arts Organizations Fail to Persuade

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New research by the NEA has revealed an enormous untapped reservoir of willing arts participants. Thirty-one million Americans said they wanted to attend arts events, but weren’t sufficiently motivated by arts organizations to do so. The research points to a shocking inability among arts marketers to get persuadable customers off their lazy asses and into theaters, concert halls and museums.

Man-on-sofa-watching-TV--010Why the resistance? Turns out that going to arts events is inconvenient: Not enough time, too hard to get to, nobody to go with, blah, blah, blah. There’s no shortage of folks who want to attend arts events, but they appear to lack the necessary drive to overcome the common obstacles that stand in their way. Arts fans have been facing these obstacles for decades, of course, but for some reason, thirty-one million modern American arts enthusiasts don’t have the drive to get themselves to the venue and experience the art.

And why can’t American arts organizations motivate these people? Because we absolutely suck at persuasion. We’re brilliant when it comes to telling people how wonderful they should think we are, but when it comes to moving customers to buy, we’re essentially incompetent. We’ve perfected the art of self-centered, self-important boasting, which worked great on highly self-motivated twentieth century arts patrons, but we’ve lost sight of how to appeal to the less-well-motivated new audiences on which our futures depend.

Persuasion, as we’ve discussed often on this blog, is all about leveraging desires to motivate behavior. If you want people to do something, you have to understand their desires so you can demonstrate how doing the thing you want them to do will satisfy their yearnings. Preachers have long known that people want to live forever and they’ve been exploiting that yearning to sell religion for millennia. Nigerian spam scammers know that people want to get rich quick and have been conning suckers since the advent of email. And Girl Scouts know that people desire cookies – and want to avoid the guilt of bypassing a group of adorable uniformed girls on their way into the grocery store – and have thus been filling my freezer with Thin Mints for the last thirty years. Persuasion is an extremely powerful tool, but if you plan to use it, you have to understand your audience’s desires and know how to use them to motivate behavior.

For a more personal example, consider Jennifer who’s trying to persuade her boyfriend Hector to go to a movie:

JENNIFER

Hey, Hector, why don’t we go see Birdman tonight. It’s over at the Regal. You know, the one with Michael Keaton that’s getting all those awards? You said you really wanted to see it.

HECTOR

Eh. I don’t know. We’d have to get over there and figure out where to eat and parking’s always a mess. Seems like a hassle.

There you have it. The quintessential arts marketing challenge. Jennifer knows her target audience wants to attend the cultural event she’s trying to sell, but she’s discovered that inconveniences are standing in the way. She could do what arts organizations do and ‘promote’ the movie by playing up its critical acclaim, its award nominations, its star performances, etc. And she could use all sorts of overblown promotional language to make it appear exciting or attractive or enticing – as arts organizations do – but chances are that Hector is well aware of the show’s positive attributes and repeating them will have limited influence on his behavior.

Fortunately, Jennifer is an adept persuader who is intimately familiar with Hector’s desires:

JENNIFER

I know. Let’s stop at that gourmet burrito truck that parks in front of the museum on our way. We’ll grab a bite and see the movie then swing by the brewpub afterward for an IPA. I’ll text Shawn and Kyle and tell them to meet us at the truck in thirty minutes.

HECTOR

Sounds great. Let me grab a coat.

Jennifer and Hector are engaged so she knows him fairly well. Here are some of the things she knows he desires in addition to seeing good movies:

  • Burritos from trendy gourmet food trucks
  • Fast, easy solutions to filling his stomach with tasty food
  • Craft-brewed IPAs
  • Simple solutions to mundane problems like planning to go to a movie
  • Doing fun things with their best friends Shawn and Kyle

Jennifer, as it turns out, because she is a brilliant communications strategist, was able to leverage Hector’s desires to motivate him to act. She knew that his desire to see the movie wasn’t enough to overcome the inconveniences of getting there, so she tapped into additional related desires to make her pitch more appealing. Plus, she neutralized several of the perceived inconveniences by offering up a package that made the decision easy. If Jennifer were in charge of strategic communications for your arts organization, you’d be successful beyond measure.

2_zps11697305If we want to persuade interested but under-motivated audiences to participate in our cultural events, we have to know who those audiences are. We have to immerse ourselves in their lives so we have an intimate understanding of their desires. We have to leverage those desires by addressing them explicitly in our strategic communications – even if it means selling more than just the art. And we have to do whatever we can to neutralize the perceived inconveniences of accessing our products. The way to do this is to cast aside old-fashioned, amateur, self-centered promotional traditions and replace them with professional, audience-centered, persuasive marketing approaches.

Out of touch arts administrators who hole up in conference rooms dreaming up creative ways to tell the world how wonderful they are can’t complain when tomorrow’s audiences lack the necessary motivation to respond to their marketing. If audiences lack motivation, it’s our job to supply it, and that means making our marketing content as much about what they want as it is about what we’re trying to sell. And we’ll never do this if we don’t step outside our artsy bubbles and start learning about the people we intend to persuade.

According to the NEA, there are thirty-one million people out there waiting for American arts organizations to stop blathering about themselves long enough to motivate them to come to our events.

How many of those people do you suppose live in your community?

Time To Stop Selling Art and Start Selling Audiences

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According to a new set of studies released by the NEA, the number one reason people participate in the arts is to socialize with friends and families. It’s not the play or the concert or the exhibition, necessarily; it’s the social event. People participate in the arts so they can enjoy doing interesting and enriching things with other people.

Hmmm.

If I were a marketer who understood that my audience’s primary motivation was to have a good time with other people at arts events, my marketing would be mostly about people enjoying themselves with other people at my events. It wouldn’t be quite so much about the art, the artists or the organization because that would mean focusing on less compelling motivators. No, it would be about the emotional impact of sharing a quality artistic experience with friends and family at my venue.

Professional marketers understand this dynamic well. Tune into any commercial TV station for a few minutes and watch some ads. You’ll quickly discover that advertisers almost always show their customers enjoying their products because they know that their job is to demonstrate how their products will satisfy their customers’ desires. If they’re selling a minivan, they show a happy family enjoying the minivan. If they’re selling jeans, they show happy people having fun together wearing those jeans. If they’re selling a restaurant, they show happy people enjoying food together. It’s fairly straightforward: The essence of persuasion is demonstrating how your products will make people happy, and that usually means showing happy people enjoying your products.

Unfortunately, arts marketers haven quite grasped the concept. Take a look at marketing materials produced by just about any traditional arts organization and you’ll find marketing content that’s almost exclusively about the art, the artists and the organization. We don’t focus on audience members having a great time enjoying one another’s company in our venues because that would mean making it about them and, well, when it comes right down to it – if we’re being honest – despite what we profess in our mission statements and grant applications, we’re really, mostly, pretty much, well, actually entirely about us.

Check out this Philadelphia Orchestra brochure. Fifty-two pages, over a hundred and five photographic images and only a scant handful of oblique references to the audience. Seventy-three percent of arts patrons told the NEA they go for social reasons but only about three percent of the content in this brochure even references the audience, and none of it puts forward the idea that people might enjoy spending time with one another at a concert. Given what the NEA has revealed, I can’t help wondering what would happen if a more reasonable percentage of those pages and photos were devoted to what audiences are actually looking for, which is people like them having a good time together with other people like them.

Useful Tip: Pictures of audiences clapping at your stage or fawning over your artists don’t really count. Neither do those obligatory shots of kids at education events or mucky mucks at the gala. If people are looking for excuses to share arts experiences with one another, make sure your marketing features regular people having a great time together – and have the courage and humility to let your product take a back seat.

This isn’t really news, by the way. Any arts organization that’s well engaged with its audience knows that people attend for myriad reasons, most of them having to do with their own needs, wants and desires. And organizations that do professional marketing tend to respect and reflect those predispositions. But the overwhelming majority of arts organizations still cling to an amateur mid-20th century communications philosophy that says, “Our job is to tell the world how wonderful and important we are and assume that there are enough people out there who want what we’re boasting about to keep us in business.”

I’ve been making the following recommendation on this blog for the last three years and it’s become absurd to have to keep repeating it, but here it is one more time – with a big fat chunk of objective support from the NEA: If you’re not selling enough tickets, try making your marketing about the customers for a change.

Your artistic director and CEO may lose their shit and do everything in their power to try to stop you, but it’s not about them anymore and now the whole world knows it.

 

Who The Hell Is Writing Your Copy?

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I read about another dying orchestra last week, so I went to their marketing materials to look for signs of trouble. There I found this blurb:

Blurbology 2

The purpose of sales copy is to persuade customers to buy tickets. And the best way to persuade customers to buy tickets is to answer the question, “Why would I want to go to that concert?”

This copy is just impotent drivel written by someone who knows nothing about strategic messaging and approved by an executive leader who, when it comes to vetting marketing materials, is incompetent. Sadly, it could have appeared in just about any orchestra’s season brochure.

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 clarinet in her high school orchestra. You get to chatting and you decide to persuade her to come to your upcoming concert, so you lean in and say, “Written at the edge of the Baroque Era, the symphony uses a concerto grosso format to pull the curtain on the era as music transitions towards a new Classical aesthetic. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, in imitation of Haydn, exemplifies Neo-Classical style in the 20th Century.”

Suddenly the Starbucks falls dead silent as everyone in the store freezes and stares dumbfounded in your direction. The gal you’re talking to looks nervously from you to the frozen onlookers then back to you where she’s trying to decide if this is a weird joke or she’s talking to a lunatic. She shrugs uncomfortably and, as the din begins to rise again, makes a quick excuse then runs out of the store while you, with yet another empty seat on your hands, sit there cursing the educational system for making her run away.

Now come on. Seriously. What would you say to her? How would you describe that concert to convince a real live human being that it was worth her time and money? You’d probably say something like this: “For this concert we paired up two symphonies that were written 170 years apart – but in the same style. The early one’s by Haydn and the more recent one by Prokofiev. Both pieces are gorgeous examples of their eras, so you get the entertainment value of listening to great live music, but the whole experience becomes more fascinating because of this extraordinary connection.”

Good sales copy is spoken language written down. Period. End of story. If you wouldn’t say it, for god’s sake, whatever you do, DON’T WRITE IT!

Classical music organizations that let inexperienced, inexpert, amateur marketing staffers fill their brochures with silly, pretentious, didactic nonsense can’t complain about not selling tickets – because they’re not actually selling tickets. And executive leaders who vet and approve this kind of non-strategic bullshit in their sales collateral have no one to blame but themselves for their organizations’ failures. 

If you want to sell tickets, you have to talk to real, live human beings in a language they understand about how your products will make them happy. If your organization can’t figure out how to do that, you’re probably too far out of touch with your community to be worth saving.

If You Have To Say You’re Doing Engagement…

I’ve noticed that many arts organizations are including “Community Engagement” sections on their websites and listing engagement activities as if they’re some sort of program offerings or one-off events. One venerable classical music institution says that their education and community engagement programs:

“…offer individuals of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop their relationship with the [organization] and build their ownership of and engagement with orchestral music through high quality, relevant, multi-leveled, and interactive education and community engagement experiences.”

How lucky those little community members must be to have such a high-minded institution offering them this incredible opportunity. (This didn’t come out of a grant application, these people actually published this on their website.)

The thing about engagement that arts organizations don’t get is that it’s not something you talk about or, god forbid, offer to people; it’s what you are. Publishing a list of community engagement programs on your website is like printing a list of interpersonal behaviors on your business card:

Friendly smile √  Firm handshake √  Eye contact √  Warm greeting √  Remembers name √

If someone handed you such a business card, you’d think that person was an idiot. Good interpersonal skills aren’t something you telegraph in printed materials, they’re something you exhibit naturally, or by practice if necessary, in the presence of others. For arts organizations, this translates into being naturally engaging throughout the entire organization as a part of your everyday interaction with the world around you. If you’re not doing it, no amount of promotion will compensate for its absence. And if you are doing it, you won’t need to talk about it on your website.

Sadly, the copy above shows how wide the gap still is between arts organizations’ willingness to do engagement and their ability to be truly engaging.

 

 

Arts Marketing Workers Unite! The Time to Organize is Now

The arts are facing a catastrophic audience crisis and American arts marketing is a mess:

  • It is governed by executive leaders who have no professional marketing expertise
  • It is shackled by outdated, counterproductive, nonprofit traditions
  • it is self-centered rather than audience-centered
  • It is isolated from the broader marketing profession
  • It is under-valued and under-supported relative to its necessity
  • It is inconsistent in terms of titles, job descriptions and compensation
  • It has no self-governed infrastructure for professional development
  • It offers severely limited opportunities for career growth
  • It is not being used to solve the problems it exists to solve

By organizing to address these issues, arts marketers can put the industry back on a path toward solvency and productive growth.

1. The arts industry is filled with talented, educated, motivated young marketers who are regularly overruled by inexpert executive leaders. By organizing, young arts pros will have the collective authority and sector-wide backing they need to insists on professional alternatives when inept leaders make bad marketing choices.

2. Many marketing traditions that older arts leaders insist on perpetuating were designed to appeal to twentieth century patrons who are now dead. By organizing, arts marketers will have the power, knowledge and tools to they need to reconnect with the marketplace and learn how to engage with living audiences.

3. Effective marketing focuses on the customers and how the product will satisfy their needs or desires, while arts marketing focuses exclusively on the virtues of the product. By organizing, arts marketers will be able to redirect the industry’s communications focus toward the customers on which its future depends.

4. Arts marketing is an isolated, amateurish enterprise that is largely unconnected from, and thus uninfluenced by, the broader marketing profession. By organizing, arts marketers can identify, establish and strive to maintain professional standards that transcend parochial arts industry norms and expectations.

5. Only marketing can save ticket-sales-dependent organizations that need a constant supply of new paying customers. By organizing, arts marketers can ensure that the industry supports marketing in a manner consistent with its importance, and that it recruits and compensates marketers according to their value.

6. Arts marketers have a right to expect basic consistency in titles, job descriptions and compensation levels across the industry. By organizing, marketers can establish benchmarks to which organizations throughout the cultural sector can adhere in order to ensure fair treatment and career stability.

7. The fact that American arts marketing workers have no formal, self-governed mechanism for furthering professional development is an embarrassment. By organizing, arts marketers can develop industrywide training and accreditation processes that will ensure productive career growth and highest-possible job performance.

8. Good marketers seldom ascend to leadership positions in the arts (a fact that explains why the industry fails to attract and keep good marketers, and why arts organizations have so much trouble selling tickets). By organizing, arts marketers can establish sensible career paths that position marketing professionals for leadership roles.

9. Because there are so few leaders among arts executives, or in the funding and policy communities, who possess legitimate professional marketing expertise, arts marketing is not being used to solve the problems that it exists to solve. By organizing, arts marketers can take control in a leaderless environment and assume authority for moving the industry in a more decisive, sustainable direction.

These and other issues point to a clear need for a well organized collective of arts marketing professionals. Whether a union, guild or association, arts marketers must come together to address problems that only professional marketing can solve.

The choice is clear: Unite and lead, or continue to follow “leaders” who don’t know where they’re going.

 

 

 

 

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.