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 embarrassing 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.

Community Engagement is a Lousy Way to Sell Tickets

Community engagement is NOT audience development. Any arts administrator whose livelihood depends on ticket sales and who doesn’t understand this is operating under a dangerous misapprehension.

Audience development (more accurately referred to as marketing) is about selling tickets. Community engagement is about engaging with the community. The two are related only in that they involve communicating with people outside the organization. Beyond that, they are utterly different things that don’t belong in the same administrative category. Executive arts leaders who put them in the same category risk doing considerable damage to their organizations.

Marketing is driven by dollar goals. Its value is determined by the extent to which it delivers a reasonable return on investment. Marketing may cost a lot of money to do, but it generates measurable results - far in excess of what’s spent - and those results typically demonstrate that the expenditure is worthwhile. There simply is no more efficient way to earn revenue than through smart, sensible, strategic marketing.

Community engagement, meanwhile, has no dollar goals. Its success is measured by the quality of the community relationships. Community engagement costs a lot of money to do, but since it doesn’t generate revenue, it doesn’t cover its costs and must be paid for by the organization or its funders. Engagement proponents suggest that new arts audiences will one day arise from engaged communities, but in the absence of clearly delineated goals, strategies and metrics, this is just wishful thinking that has no real impact on near-term bottom lines.

When arts organizations devote marketing resources to engagement efforts, they may be supporting noble causes, but they are steering valuable resources away from revenue-generating endeavors that are crucial to their organizations’ sustainability. Marketing directors could easily give chunks of their marketing budgets to homeless shelter painting classes, free concerts in the parks or elementary arts education, but that would be fiscally irresponsible. The marketing department isn’t a charitable arm of the organization; it’s there to sell tickets and earn revenue. If community engagement means that arts organizations are supposed to serve as pass-through community charities, that may be fine, but funneling the money through the marketing department is foolish and potentially suicidal.

But what about the mission? Shouldn’t the marketing department support the organization’s mission to become more fully engaged with the community? Yes! The marketing department should support the mission by generating the maximum amount of revenue it can, given the resources it has. The marketing department’s ultimate priority is to generate the sustaining revenue the organization needs to fulfill its mission. If that mission includes engaging with communities for the sake of engaging with communities, that’s all well and good, but the engagement activity should emerge out of a department that has been created and funded expressly for that purpose. Otherwise, it threatens to bleed resources away from, and therefore undermine, indispensable core functions.

EngagementAnd what about engaging with the community to sell tickets? Can’t we attach dollar goals to our engagement efforts so they’re more productive? Yes. Absolutely. But that’s not community engagement, that’s sales. If you are doing sales, you should call it sales so there’s no confusion over how and why you’re doing it, or what the relationship is between the investment and its projected return. Say, for example, your sales department has decided to target law firms (sales) but your executive director says you need to focus on community center bingo games (engagement). Because you’ve elected to do sales, you’ll have financial projections on hand to explain why the law firms offer a dependable return and why the bingo games, by comparison, no matter how warm and fuzzy they may look on the grant applications, are not a fiscally responsible use of your departmental time and resources. (If your ED insists on the bingo games and says it’s a mission-oriented priority, make sure she agrees to cover the sales shortfall from someone else’s budget.)

I wrote last week about a job advertisement I saw for a “Chief Marketing and Community Engagement Officer,” which was a perfect illustration of the damage that can be done when arts organizations conflate marketing and community engagement. Engagement should have only the most tenuous relationship with marketing, but here they were combined into one person’s job title, which means this job is a train wreck in the making. Who knows where else this is happening or how deeply this engagement-as-audience-development misconception has penetrated the industry?

I sense Doug Borwick‘s hackles rising right about now so let me says this: Community engagement is an absolutely essential idea that is destined to become a saving grace for struggling arts organizations. Traditional arts institutions have allowed themselves to become disconnected from the communities they serve and reconnecting through meaningful engagement is likely to be their best chance for survival. And, yes, community engagement will one day eclipse marketing as the ultimate way to make arts organizations optimally responsible to, and thus more relevant, useful and valuable to, their communities.

But engagement is a large, expensive undertaking that can’t be handed off to the marketing department just because they’re the ones who talk to people outside the organization. And it can’t be a buzzword that’s cavalierly slapped onto someone’s job title to make the foundations believe their mandates are being followed. And it can’t be just the next fad that academics and policy wonks talk about at industry conferences but that organizational leaders shove in a corner and ignore. Community engagement is a gravely important responsibility that traditional arts organizations will have to take seriously – and make room for - if they’re going to survive. And it’s something the funding community will have to be prepared to pay for for a very long time because right now, and for the foreseeable future, it does not pay for itself.

There are a lot of things that smart arts marketing professionals can do to attract new audiences, but until community engagement proves itself capable of delivering reasonable monetary returns, it doesn’t belong on the list.

ARTS JOB: Chief Marketing & Janitorial Officer

This morning I saw an ad for this regional theatre job:

CHIEF MARKETING & COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT OFFICER

I was stunned. Marketing and community engagement are two entirely different things so it was shocking to see them combined into one position. Might as well advertise for a “VP of Finance & Catering” or a “Box Office & Costume Shop Manager” or a “Group Sales & Technical Director.”

Given how dependent community engagement is on contributed income, I could see a “Chief Development and Community Engagement Officer,” but marketers have too much on their plates to waste time on qualitative programs that offer no tangible outcomes. At a time when audiences are in steady decline and venerable arts institutions are tanking for lack of earned revenue, making marketers do community engagement is breathtakingly counterproductive.

If you’re an arts marketer who’s thinking of applying for this job, here are some questions you should ask during your interview. If they have trouble answering them, run away as fast as you can.

How does your organization define community engagement?

Is this engagement activity expected to deliver measurable results?

Are these results expected to generate a reasonable return on investment?

May I see a copy of the current community engagement budget?

What return are you currently projecting on this investment?

Can you offer examples of engagement activities that generate acceptable ROI?

Will my performance as an engagement officer be measured in quantifiable results?

What metrics do you currently use to measure engagement success?

If it turns out they do define engagement in terms of measurable results, they’re not talking about community engagement, they’re talking about sales and that’s what they should be calling it. Connecting with people in the community to persuade them to buy tickets is called sales. Engagement is about connecting with the community for the sake of connecting with the community and talking about how, some day, if the communities have been successfully engaged, community members may become people who decide they want to buy tickets – or not.

Engagement advocates like to talk about engagement in relation to audience development, but there is no evidence to suggest that engagement will result in sustainable paying audiences for traditional, revenue-dependent organizations. If you’re going to be asked to do both marketing and engagement, you must know in advance how your performance will be measured because engagement isn’t likely to deliver quantifiable results, and all the energy you divert toward engagement will take time and resources away from sales and marketing, which actually do deliver quantifiable results.

Engagement is a popular fad in the cultural sector right now, especially among funders who like to encourage and support engagement activity. So I’m guessing this organization created the title to appeal to its funders, or they decided they liked having a popular buzzword in the title, or they just don’t understand the difference between marketing, engagement and sales.

Whatever the title’s genesis, smart marketers would be well advised to steer clear of any job that asks them to do both marketing and community engagement. If you’re good at filling theatre seats and earning revenue (a.k.a. selling tickets), look for an employer who’s serious enough about marketing and sales to give you a job with an accurate, sensible, professional name.

 

 

Yes, Andrew, Classical Music Advertising Does Suck

After nearly three years of pissing in the wind on this subject, it’s nice to see this article by Andrew Mellor bearing the headline, “Why Does Classical Music Advertising Suck?”

In the article Mellor says of opera advertising, “It follows the industry’s favorite communicative norm: conceived by people who already love the art form for people who already love the art form.”

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been pointing out for a long time just how badly arts marketing sucks, so it’s nice to see someone else chiming in, however fleetingly. Mr. Mellor has addressed the surface-level issue - arts lovers talking to arts lovers - but unfortunately he misses the root cause, which is executive arts leaders who have no professional marketing expertise making amateur marketing decisions.

norma-desmondTo answer your question, Andrew, classical music advertising sucks because the executive leaders who run the institutions - and who choose the ads you’re likely to see in the tube stations - want so desperately to believe they’re talking to people who love the art form, they’ll talk to them whether they exist or not.

And if it turns out they don’t exist in sufficient numbers to generate a return on all those insiders-talking-to-insiders ads, they can do what arts leaders here in the US do: blame the educational system for not producing enough insiders who want to respond to the advertising they like to do.

Disclaimer: The Artsjournal link is where the headline “Why Does Classical Music Advertising Suck?” appears. The New Statesman article seems to have gotten a tamer one. Not sure why they differ.

 

 

Has Gelb Given Up The Ship?

On June 7, 2014, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said, “We are getting a newer audience, a younger audience, but there aren’t enough new audience members to replace the old audience members who are dying off.” He mentioned this in relation to certain cost-cutting measures that he believes are needed to avoid bankruptcy. Feel free to mark this as the day that American opera admitted defeat and began planning for its demise.

When the leader of the world’s largest opera company says his audience is in irreversible decline, and that the only hope for survival is to start shrinking the organization, it’s a fairly clear sign that American opera is on its way out. The ship is sinking, there’s no land in sight, and the only way to stave off catastrophe is to start rationing supplies.

The fact that such a comment can pass without stirring up a furor in the arts community is testament to how bad things have gotten in the last few years. If Gelb had said five years ago that sustaining audiences were unlikely to materialize, he’d have been roundly rebuked by an indignant and still optimistic cultural community. But he says it today, mere months after the demise of New York City Opera and the crippling crisis at San Diego Opera, and nobody bats an eye. Opera is dying. So what else is new?

Does Gelb really believe there aren’t enough new audiences to replace dying audiences? Who knows? Diminishing ticket sales and disappointing returns on simulcast programs could certainly support such a perspective. But I suspect this recent admission is really about posturing in preparation for upcoming union negotiations. Warning everyone of impending disaster and then blaming the unions is a great way to gain advantage before heading into battle: “The hull is breached, a watery grave is immanent, and the unions are gobbling up more than their fair share of the rations!”

The problem with this strategy is that Gelb has embraced a “new audiences aren’t going to happen” prophesy, and in so doing may have invested himself in its fulfillment. Can the leader of an opera company who has announced to the world that new audiences can’t be found, and who may be planning to leverage the crisis to cut costs, really be expected to devote his energies to finding and satisfying new audiences?

Sadly, this “no new audiences” meme has evolved in just a few short years from a whispered worry into a facile excuse (Ian Campbell said it when he tried to waltz off the deck of his sinking ship) and now it’s a political football. But the real tragedy is that when leaders like Gelb and Campbell speak so publicly about their lack of faith in tomorrow’s audiences, they give the rest of the world permission to agree with them. If the opera world’s veteran insiders are telling the media that the ship is going down, why would any new audience member (or donor for that matter) want to to climb on board?

Is it true? Are opera audiences in irreversible decline? No. Of course not. Arts audiences are abundant and more than willing to respond to organizations that treat them with deference and respect. But the worst way for arts organizations to attract future audiences is for industry leaders to go around telling the world they don’t believe they exist.

 

 

San Diego Opera’s Interim Pick Speaks Wisdom and Nonsense

We learned this week that San Diego Opera has hired a 72-year-old, retired opera industry insider to turn the company around. William Mason, former general director of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, has been retained to serve for six months as temporary artistic advisor.

One of the more encouraging signs in this move is the answer Mason gave when asked about the company’s full-time leadership: “They need somebody new. I’m 72 years old. I have no new ideas, and I’m not trying to formulate any.” It would be refreshing, and probably a huge boon to the industry, if more arts leaders would admit this sort of thing.

One of the less encouraging signs is the answer Mason gave when asked about connecting an elite art form to the community:

“I’ve never liked the word ‘outreach,’ but really, that’s what opera has to do. Whether it’s producing ‘Aida’ or going into the community and doing short versions of operas, or doing zarzuelas or mariachi opera, or doing any of the sorts of things that are out there, you need to do things so the entire community, and not just the opera community, is aware of the existence of the company and realizes what it contributes to the city.”

On the surface it sounds great, but dig a little deeper and you’ll learn why opera and its ailing arts cousins are in so much trouble: The statement is just squishy nonsense.

It would be nice if connecting with the community were the answer but there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that connecting with the community can solve San Diego Opera’s audience crisis. A myth has been emerging in the arts over the last decade or so that says there’s a link between connecting with communities and selling tickets. It’s an enormously seductive myth but it’s not true. If San Diego Opera wants to connect with the community in a way that influences ticket sales, they should go out into the community and sell tickets.

It would also be nice if doing ethnic operas for minorities were a good idea, but if you turn the equation around, you’ll see how ridiculous it is. Imagine that a long-time producer of mariachi concerts who was losing audiences decided to do a mariachi opera to lure more rich white people into his regular mariachi programs. How likely is it that he would succeed? If you can’t imagine large numbers of elite, white opera lovers becoming devoted mariachi fans because someone produced a mariachi opera, it’s absurd – and more than just a little patronizing – to assume that the process will work in the opposite direction. If San Diego Opera wants to sell opera tickets to Mexican-Americans, they should find the Mexican-Americans who are most likely to want to buy opera tickets and go sell them tickets.

And it would be just great if making the San Diego community aware of the company and what it contributes to the city had the power to solve the audience crisis, but it doesn’t. Generating awareness is a passive approach that only works when the marketplace contains pent up demand. Since the San Diego market no longer contains enough pent up demand to support passive, awareness-generating approaches, it would appear that more active approaches are called for. So if San Diego Opera wants people to buy tickets, they should stop trying to generate awareness and start actively persuading likely opera goers to buy tickets.

I have no doubt that William Mason was a good pick for this transition and I don’t mean to single him out. Most performing arts leaders repeat this sort of goofy nonsense because they simply don’t know what else to say about disappearing audiences, much less what to do about them. But the stakes are extremely high in San Diego and the company can’t afford to perpetuate the industry’s counterproductive myths.

What should Mason have said? How about this: “It’s more than just connecting with the community. We have to first prove that we’re a thriving, vital, productive part of the ongoing cultural life of San Diego and that means building a large, diverse, paying audience. To do that, we’re going to replace amateur arts marketing traditions with professional, businesslike approaches. We’re going to field outside sales teams who use goal-oriented engagement strategies. And we’re going to make every newcomer who walks through our doors so welcome, happy and at home that they wouldn’t dream of not coming back.”

Let’s hope that William Mason advises the SDO board to select a new chief executive who not only has the ability to talk about what the company must do to survive, but who has the professional expertise and idea-generating energy to make it happen.

Marketing Advice for a Reanimated San Diego Opera

San Diego Opera nearly died this year because its previous administration wasn’t selling enough tickets to keep the doors open. Ian Campbell said there weren’t enough audiences, but his sales and marketing efforts were woefully amateurish and out of date.

If the newly reanimated company is going to survive, it’s going to have to make fundamental changes in its approach to earning revenue. Here are a few recommendations for getting the process started.

Ignore Opera America

Opera America may be a useful source for advice on fundraising, but I’d suggest going elsewhere for advice on marketing. In an April letter to SDO board members, Opera America outlined how it would address the company’s crisis, and in seven short bullet points mentioned fund-raising four times without ever once mentioning marketing or sales. They did mention “public relations,” but public relations hasn’t been a primary approach to selling tickets or earning revenue for over twenty years.

Survival for San Diego Opera is going to mean selling tickets. Lots of tickets. And the only way to sell lots of tickets is to make professional sales and marketing an ultimate priority. Any person or group that still thinks public relations is an appropriate response to a crisis of this magnitude simply cannot be considered a credible source of professional assistance.

Speak the Right Language

If survival means selling tickets, talk about selling tickets. Stop talking about “communications,” “audience development,” “public relations,” “outreach,” “new audiences,” or, God forbid, “engagement.” These are diversionary indulgences that nonprofit arts administrators have been using for years to avoid facing the fact that, when you don’t sell tickets, you die. Stay focused exclusively on selling tickets and you’ll be amazed at how many tickets you sell.

(Oh all right, you can do outreach and engagement if you want, but don’t pretend they have anything to do with ticket sales unless you can prove with cold, hard facts that they have something to do with ticket sales.)

Burn the Archives

The marketing that San Diego Opera was doing didn’t work. That’s why the company nearly died. To continue doing the same thing would be idiotic. So lest anyone goes digging into the past for inspiration, take the marketing archives out into the parking lot and burn them. But before you do this, pull out a handful of the most embarrassingly self-important, self-indulgent, self-flattering examples (they’ll be easy to find) and post them on the conference room wall under a huge sign that says: “IT’S THE AUDIENCE, STUPID!”

Do Sales

Doing sales means developing and staffing an outside sales department. Start with an experienced VP of sales who reports to the CEO. If you can’t imagine what such a sales department would do, introduce yourselves to the folks at the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, San Diego Padres or Legoland and ask them to show you around their sales departments. Learn what they do and how they do it then borrow the most applicable parts and put them to work selling tickets at San Diego Opera.

Do Real Marketing

Marketing is a science that’s driven by market intelligence and data. Don’t hire anyone who doesn’t understand this – especially the new chief executive. The days of allowing the highest-paid person’s opinion to determine marketing choices are over. Ian Campbell used his “expert” opinions to govern marketing choices and we all know how that turned out.

Come Down Off the Pedestal

You nearly disappeared.

Had this happened, the rest of the world would have gotten along just fine, which pretty much proves that San Diego Opera, for all practical purposes, doesn’t occupy a position of cultural superiority.

If you’re still looking down on the world and wondering when people are going to start looking up again, you might as well give up now. The balance of power has shifted. You need audiences more than they need you and they know it. Your only real option is to climb down off the pedestal and start convincing tomorrow’s audiences - with humility, generosity and deference, and in a down-to-earth language they understand - that San Diego Opera is worth their time and money.

San Diego Opera’s leadership has an interesting choice to make: They can embrace a proactive, professional approach to growing opera audiences or they can continue their passive, quasi-professional “tell the world how wonderful we are and hope people will come” approach and continue shrinking the company as the audience gradually disappears.

I wonder which direction they’ll choose.

 

The Case for Uglier Arts Marketing

The best graphic designer I ever worked with was a self-taught journeyman who produced some of the most inartistic, practical, workhorse sales materials you’d ever want to see. Together, we moved a hell of a lot of tickets.

His designs worked because he knew that his job wasn’t about being pretty, it was about rendering sales messages in the most strategic, audience-centric manner. Some of my more cultured colleagues bristled at the thought of being represented by such inelegant imagery, but we weren’t trying to make art, we were trying to sell art, and understanding the distinction made all the difference in the world.

Sadly, it’s a distinction that’s lost on most arts professionals. In the arts, when given a choice between unattractive marketing that sells and pretty marketing that doesn’t sell, executive arts leaders will choose pretty every time. It’s built in. For most arts leaders, marketing isn’t about selling tickets, it’s about designing and disseminating pretty marketing materials. The sales that result - or fail to result as the case may be - are just byproducts of an accepted and largely unquestioned industry tradition.

Why would we opt for pretty but ineffective marketing when so many arts organizations are struggling to attract audiences? A part of the answer has to do with history. Back in the old days when there were a lot of people who wanted what we had to sell, being pretty worked. It didn’t matter much what marketing materials looked like as long as we got the messages in front of the right people.

Unfortunately, the rest of the answer has to do with inept leadership. Now that there are fewer people who want what we have to sell, we need to use more professional forms of strategic communication and arts leaders don’t know what that means. Ian Campbell didn’t know what that meant, which is why San Diego Opera published such lovely but impotent marketing materials to promote what ended up being its last season. There are few things more painfully poignant than dead arts organizations leaving behind archives full of beautiful but ineffective promotional materials.

In the arts, executive leaders get to decide which marketing materials their organizations will use even though most arrive in their positions with no professional marketing expertise. Arts leaders tend to rise up through the ranks of the cultural sector where marketing is a quirky, insular, quasi-professional, third- or fourth-priority administrative function driven by tradition, habit and the subjective opinions of the people at the top. The widespread ineptitude is only coming to light now because the marketplace no longer contains enough people who want to respond to the outdated materials arts leaders prefer to approve.

Pretty ArtArts executives who lack professional marketing expertise will always opt for the choice that looks nicest or that’s most familiar – or that flatters them or puts forward what they believe is the most attractive representation of their products or organizations. But in more professional settings, the process is quite different. Serious marketers choose marketing content that was crafted in response to objective market data and that was designed to achieve predictable results – irrespective of the highest-paid person’s personal tastes and opinions. While arts executives rely on subjective discernment to guide their choices, real marketers allow rational, external considerations to lead them toward choices that have the best chance of delivering expected returns.

Suppose for a minute that your research demonstrated that new audiences are looking for leisure entertainment opportunities they can share with friends. Armed with such data, professional marketers would naturally populate their materials with images of target audiences having a great time with friends in their venues. But given a choice between a brochure that features audiences having a great time in the venue and one that features photos of tuxedo-clad conductors (or any other self-flattering marketing cliché), most executive leaders will go with the conductor. They just don’t know or care enough about marketing to understand that the research-driven, audience-centered approach will sell more tickets.

Does effective marketing have to be ugly? No. Of course not. But marketing content that looks beautiful to a veteran arts pro who’s devoted his entire life to a certain art form can differ dramatically from that which appeals to a 28-year-old woman who’s looking for an entertaining way to spend an evening out with friends. The 28-year-old woman’s preferences should determine what shows up in the marketing content, but it’s almost always the arts executive’s preferences that appear there instead.

The answer to the arts’ audience crisis is heartbreakingly simple: Learn what new audiences want and then speak to them in words and images that resonate with their yearnings. But for this to happen, somebody’s going to have to tell the GMs, EDs and CEOs – all the future Ian Campbells out there - to remove themselves and their well-meaning but counterproductive personal opinions from the marketing process.