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.
2. 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.