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.

If You Wouldn’t Let Your ED Conduct The Orchestra, Why Let Him Make Marketing Decisions?

No respected classical music institution would ask its executive director to conduct the orchestra. There might be a few rare instances where executive leaders have the necessary talent and expertise, but in most cases, the executive director has not been trained to be a professional musician, has not earned enough professional experience to lead an orchestra, and has not developed the professional acumen necessary to occupy such a position.

Oddly, however, classical music institutions regularly ask their executive leaders to make marketing decisions. There might be a few rare instances where chief executives have the necessary talent and expertise, but in most cases, the executive director has not been trained to be a professional marketer, has not earned enough professional marketing experience to lead a marketing team, and has not developed the professional acumen necessary to be the arbiter of an institution’s life or death marketing choices.

Marketing is a professional 9A MOVIES08discipline that’s complex and difficult to master. Like conducting, it requires years of study, extensive practice, broad experience across multiple styles and genres and in-depth knowledge of theory. Those who rise to the top of the marketing profession tend to possess unique talents and insights along with extensive track records that support their elevated positions. And those who achieve expert status have accumulated, or will insist on accumulating, vast amounts of objective, external evidence to support their opinions. True experts will readily admit that in marketing, as in conducting, what matters most is not what you think, but rather what you know.

Meanwhile, in the arts, all it takes to become a marketing expert is to have the words ‘Executive Director’ printed on your business card. It is a time-honored tradition in the arts to allow executive leaders to make marketing decisions using only their personal opinions and nonprofit experience as guides (aka the “Think Method”). As an industry we absolutely suck at attracting and keeping sustaining audiences, yet we refuse to recognize that what our executive leaders think they know about marketing and what is actually true about marketing are often entirely different things.

If you’re an executive leader who has no legitimate background in professional marketing and whose experience is limited to what you’ve gleaned on your way up through the arts, you have a fundamental responsibility to refrain from inserting yourself into the marketing process. What you’ve learned about marketing in this industry is of highly questionable value, and what you think doesn’t matter. If you don’t know enough to make the best possible marketing decisions, you owe it to your organization, your audiences, your funders, your colleagues and your community to learn what you need to know or get out of the way.

Professional marketing is the only way to build the audiences that most traditional arts organizations will need for survival. At some point we have to stop letting executive leaders who don’t really know what they’re doing make all the decisions.

Shrink-to-Fit Audience Development; Why Didn’t I Think of That?

I was wrong. Time to admit it.

Regular readers know that I’ve been picking on San Diego Opera lately for what I thought was their embarrassingly amateurish approach to post-crisis marketing. But as it turns out, I missed the mark by a wide margin.

I humbly apologize to San Diego Opera – and any other organization that might have felt unfairly criticized – for having failed to understand that new audiences aren’t worth the effort.

I learned of my misguided thinking when The New York Times praised San Diego Opera in a puff piece the other day about the company’s brilliant survival strategy. As it turns out, attracting new audiences has nothing to do with it. I’ve been preaching for years that new audiences can be found and that they’re necessary for survival, but as The New York Times article seems to suggest, survival isn’t about growing arts audiences, it’s about shrinking organizations to fit available demand. The most sensible choice a troubled arts organization can make, apparently, is to stop trying to attract new audiences and start downsizing when traditional audiences disappear.

Yes. I’m surprised, too. It’s so easy. All this time I’ve been thinking that we should be growing arts audiences when the answer has been staring us in the face all this time: Screw new audiences. The easiest thing to do is maintain the status quo, stay focused on old audiences, die along with them, and sit back and let The New York Times pat us on the back for our accomplishments. Why didn’t I think of that?

So please allow me to modify my core recommendations to fit this bold new way of thinking:

Don’t Change

Change is difficult, especially for arts organizations – and especially for older arts leaders. Rather than responding to changes in the marketplace, as real businesses do, it’s easier to keep doing the same things you’ve been doing for the last thirty years and hope for better results. And when traditional methods no longer work, give up.

Don’t Try to Attract New Audiences

Attracting new audiences means changing cherished traditions and upsetting entrenched organizational cultures, so it’s something you’ll want to avoid at all costs. You can talk about new audiences because the funding community eats that shit up, but actually building new audiences would require change and hard work. The easiest way to avoid having to fill empty seats is to reduce the number of seats you have to fill, so if the going gets tough, get a smaller venue.

Don’t Hire Professional Marketers

Professional marketers are a huge pain in the ass. They may know how to develop new audiences, but they want to change comfortable old traditions and they don’t fit our organizational cultures. It’s much easier to cut costs by firing amateur arts marketers than it is to hire professionals and put up with having to sell all those tickets.

Keep Up the Self-flattery

Constantly boasting about how wonderful and important you are may be off-putting to new audiences, but it helps older arts leaders maintain a fragile delusion about the relevance of their art forms (i.e. “We must be wonderful and important because it says so in the brochure I just approved.”). Focusing on audiences will force you to learn what young, culturally diverse people really think, and that’s something you definitely don’t want to do.

Get a Job in a Growth Industry

Downsizing in proportion to diminishing demand means that good arts jobs will steadily disappear over the next couple of decades. If you’re young, smart and talented and want have a productive, long-lasting career, don’t waste time on an industry that’s given up on new markets. Instead, find a growth industry and work with forward-thinking people who are committed to building something of lasting value.

:::

Whew! There’s something oddly liberating about surrendering to cultural sector inertia and allowing external forces to have their way. I don’t know why I’ve resisted it for so long. It’s so much easier and we don’t have to worry about persuading young people to care about dying art forms anymore.

According to Marc A. Scorca, president of Opera America, San Diego Opera’s shrink-to-fit survival strategy is good news. If The New York Times thinks such news is fit to print, who am I to argue?

 

 

 

 

Why Not Just Sell The Friggin’ Tickets?

I’ve been thinking a lot about community engagement lately and have decided that, for large ticket-sales-dependent organizations, it is a colossal waste of time and resources. All the energy and money that community engagement might require of these organizations would be better invested in developing new outside sales initiatives.

What most struggling arts organizations need is to sell more tickets. Sales does that. Community engagement does not.

Engagement is a great idea for small, low-budget, well-funded grass roots organizations that cater to localized community interests and don’t need to earn a lot of revenue, but it’s not going to do much for the big guys – certainly not in the area of audience development. Sadly, it’s being sold to all arts organizations as a solution to their audience development problems when, for the larger institutions, it is no such thing. In many cases, community engagement is a false promise that desperate, highly suggestible arts leaders are buying into because they don’t know how to sell tickets and they don’t know where else to turn. And, tragically, while they’re chasing this elusive dream, they’re neglecting more fiscally responsible alternatives.

The easiest way to develop audiences is to identify people who are likely to want to buy tickets and then go out and sell them tickets. It’s the simplest thing in the world. Unfortunately, arts organizations tend to suck at doing it.

Most arts organizations emerged in a world where there were a lot of people who wanted to buy tickets, so all they had to do was promote their events and wait for the phones to ring. That world doesn’t exist anymore, of course, but arts organizations haven’t figured out how to make the transition. When promotion no longer works, you have to sell, which means you have to reconnect with your community and convince people that it’s in their interest to participate in the art you want them to buy.

Ironically, sales and community engagement are identical processes, with one important exception: Sales has quantifiable goals. Both require personal interaction with the community, nurturing of trust and good will, development of mutually beneficial long-term relationships, honest give-and-take that enables collaborative evolution and a meaningful, institution-wide commitment to the process. But in community engagement, the relationship is the goal, whereas in sales the relationship is expected to deliver useful results. Both are noble pursuits, but only one puts butts in seats and cash in the coffers.

So, if you have the staff and resources to do community engagement, and your survival depends on selling tickets, the smart thing to do is devote those resources to sales because sales will deliver larger audiences and more revenue. Community engagement might be a nice idea, but for ailing arts organizations, doing nice things without doing smart things is irresponsible and counterproductive. Good community relationships can’t save arts organizations that neglect to sell enough tickets to keep the doors open.

If you work for or run a large, ticket-sales-dependent organization, the next time someone tries to convince you that community engagement is the answer to your audience development problems, listen patiently to their lofty advice, attach dollar goals the minute they’re gone, focus on people who are most likely to buy tickets and get used to calling it sales. You can call it engagement on the grant applications if that’ll make the foundations happy (they don’t know anything about selling tickets), but on the ground where it matters, say sales, do sales, and stay focused on selling.

If you do it the right way, all of your community engagement and sales goals will be met.

San Diego Opera Presents a Short White Man in a Brown Suit

I got San Diego Opera’s season brochure today. It doesn’t seem to be posted online so here’s a scan of the cover.

SDO Brochure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can only assume that SDO’s research revealed an untapped demand for short, middle-aged white men in brown suits raising their arms and smiling because that’s the graphic image they chose to:

  • Reintroduce their brand as they emerge from their world-famous near-death crisis
  • Send a clear signal that they’ve learned a hard lesson and made sensible changes
  • Convey the emotional, artistic and entertainment value of their season offerings
  • Make the brochure stand out competitively from all the other junk in the mailbox
  • Motivate younger, more culturally diverse ticket buyers to open the brochure and respond positively to its content

The picture is a shot of an opera singer playing Richard Nixon. I can’t believe I have to say this, but a photo of a middle-aged guy playing Richard Nixon who doesn’t actually look like Richard Nixon, and who is doing nothing more than spreading his arms out and smiling on an empty stage may not have been the best choice for evoking the responses that would motivate fence-sitting entertainment seekers to buy opera tickets.

Just sayin’…

I know. It’s Nixon in China. Opera insiders will get it. But San Diego Opera nearly tanked because insiders were dying and outsiders weren’t buying tickets. If you want an excellent example of why outsiders weren’t responding to San Diego Opera’s marketing, you couldn’t ask for a better example than this brochure. And, tragically, this brochure was produced after the company’s near-fatal audience crisis.

The solution to SDO’s audience problems is professional marketing, but for some reason they’ve chosen to do the same amateur marketing they’ve always done and hope for better results. Professional marketers would have conducted research into the attitudes, expectations and desires of potential ticket buyers and then crafted content that leveraged those desires to motivate customers to buy. Professional marketers would have started with what the audiences said they wanted and then reflected their yearnings in the marketing materials.

“Our focus group research into persuadable audiences revealed a powerful pent up desire for artful leisure entertainment experiences that are centered on short, middle-aged white men in brown suits raising their arms and smiling. Thus, we’ve chosen as our principal motivating image a photograph of a short, middle-aged white man in a brown suit raising his arms and smiling.”

Clearly, this research never happened. Had it happened, persuadable audiences would have revealed what they were looking for in their leisure entertainment options, and the desires they expressed would have had nothing to do with short, middle-aged white men in brown suits raising their arms and smiling. More likely, they’d have talked about special evenings out that they can share with friends or family enjoying drinks, food and high-quality live performances. And if that were the case, among all the possible ways that this brochure could reflect how San Diego Opera satisfies those desires, a photo of a short, middle-aged white man in a brown suit raising his arms and smiling would never have been a viable consideration.

No, if history is any guide, this brochure was crafted by a group of opera company insiders based on “that’s the way we’ve always done it” traditions and without the benefit of objective, external market intelligence or professional marketing expertise. It’s the same amateur process that arts organizations have been using for decades, and it’s the principal reason why they’ve been failing to attract new audiences.

Will the brochure work? Yeah, probably. SDO will almost certainly get better results this season, but it won’t be because of this brochure. They’ll sell more subscriptions this year because of all the “we almost died” publicity they’ve been getting – like the three-legged dog everyone wants to adopt because it was found half-dead on the freeway and then written up in the San Diego Tribune.

But threatening to go out of business every year isn’t a practical marketing strategy so unless they come up with a more dramatic publicity stunt next season, SDO will need to find more strategic, professional, dependable ways to sell tickets. Sadly, If they weren’t inspired to do it this year when the stakes were so high and the entire world was watching, it’s hard to imagine they ever will.

Coming as it does at this moment in history, this brochure suggests that individual arts organizations may not have the will or capacity to save themselves. It also suggests that industry leaders are incapable of useful intervention, and that funders are blindly underwriting ineptitude.

Someone who’s in a position of authority should be helping failing arts organizations do a more professional job of earning revenue and attracting sustaining audiences. At the very least they should be calling them out when they refuse to change in the face of life-threatening challenges. But I don’t think there’s anyone in arts industry leadership who knows enough about the difference between professional, audience-centered marketing, and the amateur, self-centered marketing that arts organizations do, to make a difference.

It’s not brain surgery; it’s just knowing the customers well and making sure the marketing speaks to them in words and images they’ll respond to. Smart businesses do it all the time.

If arts organizations aren’t smart enough to do it, maybe they deserve to fail.

Is This The Best San Diego Opera Can Do?

I popped onto the San Diego Opera website today to see what they were promoting for next season, or rather how they were promoting next season, and found this blurb for Nixon in China.

“Straight from the headlines and live news broadcasts of the day, Nixon in China pays musical witness to President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972 and goodwill meetings with China’s Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and Premier Chou En-Lai. From serious political discussions to a toast-filled banquet scene where every toast tries to outdo another, with Chinese dancers and a fantasy scene with Kissinger, Nixon in China explores an heroic gesture by a sitting American President towards a burgeoning world power. Join us for a whirlwind diplomatic trip which changed history and an opera that has risen to the top rank of 20th century American operas and is arguably one of the most influential of the last few decades.”

I’ve written extensively about just how badly arts marketing sucks and as much as I’d love to write a lengthy discourse on this juicy example, I’m going to let you explore that on your own (this blurb makes it easy) and move onto a more important consideration: How can an opera company that nearly died for lack of new audiences publish marketing content like this?

Survival for San Diego Opera means attracting a sustaining audience and that’s going to require sophisticated, professional marketing. This is not sophisticated, professional marketing. This is an embarrassment. It’s a perfect example of the amateurish “that’s the way we’ve always done it” marketing that got San Diego Opera into trouble in the first place.

And the fact that this sort of marketing is being done mere months after the company’s near-death crisis raises an even more important question: Are there any executive leaders in the opera world who understand the difference between this sort of twaddle and the real world marketing that’ll be necessary to keep San Diego Opera and others like it from collapsing once and for all?

Before he became president, Nixon famously lost an early televised debate with JFK when the camera made him appear pale, sweaty and unshaven. He and his team quickly learned that the world had changed, that the candidate’s inherent appeal was not enough on its own, and that sophisticated, professional marketing was the key to survival.

If good marketing could sell Richard Nixon, opera should be a piece of cake.

 

 

“You Sound Like a Wanker”

If every senior arts executive did this on a regular basis, the arts would be successful beyond measure.

Alan Lane, Artistic Director for Slung Low theatre company in the UK, has taken to the streets to encourage regular people to come to his show. He’s talking to non-theatre goers face-to-face in supermarket car parks – and he’s learning a lot in the process.

One old woman responded to his pitch by saying, “You sound like a wanker,” which, Lane confessed, may have been justified. When he said the process could be “brutally humbling” I couldn’t help thinking there are a lot of arts execs out there who would benefit from being brutally humbled in their local grocery store parking lots from time to time.

Americans don’t use the word ‘wanker’ very much, but it’s the perfect insult for executive arts leaders because it literally means one who masturbates, but is used more generally to refer to someone who acts like a jerk as a result of being egotistical and self-indulgent. (The closest American colloquialism I can think of is the delightful Pittsburgh expression, ‘jaggoff,’ which has the same literal and figurative meanings.)

Are executive arts leaders egotistical and self-indulgent? Yeah, pretty much. If you want proof, just look at the communications arts organizations use to promote themselves, which are almost exclusively self-congratulatory, self-flattering, self-important and self-indulgent, or in other words, shamelessly masturbatory. Imagine any arts executive standing in a parking lot talking to ordinary people in the language of his organization’s promotional materials and you get the idea:

“For this landmark season, I have chosen six breathtaking works which epitomize our theatre’s range as a producing organization and reaffirm its unique place in the American cultural scene. Legends abound in Season 40, from the greatest writers of all time, to the most charismatic characters ever created.”

Blimey.

Read the article. It’s great. And if you’re an executive arts leader whose organization talks like a wanker or a jaggoff (go read your last brochure), maybe it’s time to visit your nearest grocery store and start learning how to actually communicate with people for a change.

 

 

Cockeyed Operamism

Yesterday, Speight Jenkins wrote this on his OperaSleuth blog. It was a great example of the way older arts leaders talk about audiences, and a cautionary tale for younger arts administrators who will be taking over for them when they’re gone.

I’m sure Mr. Jenkins meant well, but at a time when the survival of American opera companies depends on facts, numbers and rational strategic action, this sort of empty cheerleading isn’t very productive – especially when it comes from a respected executive arts leader.

Here are some tips for arts administrators who want to share good news about earned revenue and audience growth in their organizations:

If you’re going to say that sales are improving, provide numbers that illustrate the improvement. Your credibility will be greatly enhanced if you support your claims with actual evidence.

If you’re going to cling to the canard that older people will seek out your art form when their kids move out of the house, prove it with statistics. The stakes are far too high to risk the future of our institutions on a seemingly obvious but unproven hypothesis.

If you do use numbers to support your points, use them wisely. Saying that your education department is “twenty-five times more effective” is dubious hyperbole that undermines the credibility of any more reasonable numbers you might put forward.

If you believe that the current season’s subscription renewal rate is a predictor of an overall increase in sales, describe how those two things are related. A sign that core customers are content isn’t necessarily a sign that new buyers are beating a path to your door.

If you single out social media as an important tool, don’t say, “I know nothing about this stuff, but we have people who do it.” If you’re claiming that this is going to help generate sustaining audiences, you have a responsibility to know personally whether it’s capable of doing what you say it will.

There was a time when the unsupported opinions of seasoned arts executives carried a lot of weight, but with venerable institutions tanking and evidence mounting that traditional arts audiences are in steady decline, these opinions are increasingly subject to rational scrutiny. Older arts leaders who continue to speak the cheerful but vague and often irrational rhetoric of 20th century arts managers run the risk of sounding as if they don’t know what’s going on.

The only thing more powerful than the optimism of last century’s arts leaders is the business know-how and fact-based pragmatism of 21st century arts administrators who stand to inherit the realities their more wishful predecessors leave behind.