Five Outdated Marketing Ideas The Arts Must Abandon Immediately

With audiences in steady decline, ticket sales-dependent arts organizations are destined to shrink or go out of business. The question is not whether this will happen, but how many it will happen to, and which ones will survive.

We won’t know the answer until it happens, of course, but there are a couple of things we can know for certain: The survivors will have abandoned counterproductive nonprofit thinking and they’ll have found new ways to attract sustaining audiences.

If you’d like to count yourself among the survivors, here are a few moldy old arts marketing ideas that need to be tossed right now.


To promote literally means to push forward. Nonprofit arts organizations push forward information about arts events in hopes that avid fans will respond. Unfortunately, avid fans are steadily disappearing and promotion doesn’t work on people who lack avid interest.

In the arts, where survival is now dependent on customers who lack avid interest, promotion is only half the battle. The missing half – a necessary business counterpart to pushing forward – is pulling in. Also known as persuasion or sales.

Tragically, despite decades of chronic audience attrition, arts organizations still rely almost exclusively on pushing forward boastful promotional information.


Anyone who tries to sell you community engagement as audience development is either dishonest or woefully uninformed. Engagement will not, cannot replace sales and marketing as a means of building paid audiences. If your organization has opted to make community engagement a part of your earned revenue strategies, you are wasting valuable resources.

Establishing quality relationships with customers is an excellent idea, but it’s just good sales practice – something businesses have understood for centuries. If you’re a sales-dependent arts organization and you want to earn more revenue, do better sales.

If you want to do engagement, leave it to outreach and education departments that don’t have to generate revenue.

Audience Development

The term “audience development” was coined in the 1980s to appease older arts pros who thought “marketing” sounded too commercial and who wanted the crass business of ticket sales to sound more like the genteel practice of fundraising.

Today there may be nuanced semantic differences between audience development and marketing, but marketing is more focused on sales and will deliver more efficient ROI. Any organization that’s having trouble earning revenue should speak the language of marketing so they stay more focused on earning revenue.

The most efficient way to develop audiences is and has always been to sell a lot of tickets.

DIY Marketing Content

If you develop your own sales and marketing content, you should stop right now. Very few arts organizations have the necessary professional expertise to develop the sort of marketing content that’s necessary for survival, so continuing to publish amateur, do-it-yourself materials is just plain suicidal.

Yes. I’m talking about you.

Yes. I know you’re a big city arts institution that’s been developing your own marketing content for decades.

Yes. Even if you’re in New York.

If you still don’t think I’m talking about you, go to Starbucks and read your latest promotional copy to a 28-year-old tech exec on her coffee break. Watch her face and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Self-Important Messaging

Good marketing content is about the customers and how our products will satisfy their needs and desires. Arts marketing content, meanwhile, is about the products and why arts insiders think customers should find them appealing.

The chief problem with letting amateur nonprofit arts administrators develop their own marketing content is that they can’t resist making it all about themselves and about why they think customers should find them attractive.

If good marketing is about the customers and arts marketing is almost never about the customers, we may have an important clue as to why audiences are disappearing.


Arts organizations that survive this audience crisis will be the ones that stop spraying self-indulgent amateur promotional messages at the world in hopes of somehow magically capturing a larger share of a shrinking fan base. They’ll be the ones that refuse to let squishy nonprofit fads distract them from their primary task, which is building and serving sustaining audiences. And they’ll be the ones that turn their attention – and the content of their communications – away from themselves and toward the audiences on which their futures depend.

If you’re a young arts administrator who wants to have an arts management job in ten or twenty years, you might want to start working now to ensure that outdated nonprofit traditions don’t deprive you of that opportunity.

An Old Arts Marketing Joke

A publicist, a marketer and a salesperson walk into a bar where they see three gorgeous women sitting across the room. The publicist asks the bartender to send them a round of drinks and say, “The good-looking guy at the bar sent these over.” The women nod their polite thanks.

Next the marketer draws a clever picture with a provocative message on a cocktail napkin and tips the bartender to send it to them. The women read the napkin, smile and acknowledge the men, but return to their conversation.

Finally the sales guy walks over, speaks briefly, sits with the women for a while and eventually the four of them get up and leave together.

The next day the publicist and the marketer ask their colleague how he did it and he says, “Simple. I asked them which one worked better, the drinks or the note, and then listened intently for a very long time.”

Is Orchestra Marketing Designed To Fail?

The great management theorist Edwards Deming once said:

“Every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it is producing.”

It’s a fascinating way of saying that if your organization isn’t getting the results it wants, the flaw is in the current design. The takeaway is that if your current design isn’t delivering the results you want, you have to fix the design.

It’s an idea that can be applied broadly to organizational systems, or narrowly to sub-systems within an organization, like marketing.

Is your marketing delivering the results you want?

If not, is there something about its design that needs to be changed?

wile-e-coyote-supergenius1I took a quick tour through several brand new season brochures for America’s top orchestras today and found publications that could easily have been produced thirty years ago. The content and design were historically consistent right down to the conductors on the cover, the shamelessly self-adulatory copy, the stuffy classical music clichés and the complete absence of anything having to do with customers and their experience with the product. The world has changed at lightening speed in the last three decades, yet orchestra administrators remain stubbornly committed to decades-old marketing strategies that produce increasingly unsatisfactory results.

Any business marketing expert will tell you that good marketing is about the customers and the way the product satisfies their needs and desires. American orchestras either haven’t heard this or they refuse to believe it (or they think they’re too far above their customers to come down to their level) because they continue to make their marketing all about themselves and how wonderful they think everyone should think they are. “We don’t design our persuasive appeals around your needs and desires; we tell you how much you should want us… and… and… and… well, you really should want us, because, well… because… Did we tell you how wonderful we are?”

You might find a couple of token nods to audiences in these brochures, but they’re usually shots of concert goers gazing adoringly at the stage (which is a clever way of pretending to make the content about the audience while actually making it about the product) or obligatory shots of young people at an education program. Out of the hundreds of photos I saw, none depicted classical music consumers enjoying themselves with one another at a show – even though socializing with friends & family tops the list of desires that lead people to attend arts events.

(Hint: If you know what motivates your customers to buy your product, you should make it the primary focus of your marketing content.)

(Hint: Read that last hint again. Click the link just above it. Then go get your latest season brochure and do an honest assessment of how much real estate is devoted to the product and how much focuses on the consumers and the extent to which their needs and desires will be satisfied by what you have to offer.)

(Hint: If you’re more than 90% about you, you probably forgot somewhere along the line that it’s not about you anymore.)

Arts audiences are in steady decline throughout the cultural sector and classical musical audiences are declining faster than the rest. Orchestra marketers who want to stop this attrition would do well to ask if their marketing materials, in being designed to focus exclusively on themselves, might be more effective if they were designed to focus on the audience in equal measure.

What Indiana Can Teach Arts Pros About Brands

Poor Indiana.

A misguided political maneuver has backfired spectacularly and in just a few days that innocuous midwestern state with the annual car race and famous hoosier hospitality has become a bloodied battlefield in the culture wars.

By enacting legislation designed to enable Christians to discriminate against gay people the state has found its reputation being ripped to shreds in the media, and its economy is now the focus of a boycott that continues to grow as I write these words. Not the sort of subject I normally cover here, but there are lessons aplenty for anyone who cares about brands.

Here are a few observations on Indiana’s situation that contain cautionary lessons for brand managers in the arts.

Your brand is your reputation. Many older arts pros still think that brands are logos, tag lines or the images we use to decorate our communications, but that’s not the case. Your brand is what people think and feel about you and how those thoughts and feelings influence the way they behave toward you. A week ago Indiana had a great brand, but today it’s in tatters. The state hasn’t really changed, but the brand, which lives in people’s hearts and minds, has been damaged in ways that will take many years to repair.

Managing a brand that exists in the minds and hearts of other people means paying close attention to what those people are thinking and feeling – something arts organizations find difficult to do.

Brands are dynamic. Many arts organizations tie their brands to the universal importance of their art forms and thus assume they are unassailable. But brands, because they live in the hearts and minds of people, are destined to change as attitudes, beliefs and values change. Ten years ago Indiana might have gotten away with a craven ploy to snatch rights away from gay people, but the world has changed and the failure of Indiana politicians to change with it has cost the state dearly.

Managing brands in a changing marketplace means continually adapting brand management tools and strategies – something arts organizations find extremely difficult to do.

Brands can’t be built on bullshit. Arts organizations, because they pay so little attention to their customers’ thoughts and feelings, tend to fill their marketing materials with meaningless bullshit. Indiana governor Mike Pence tried to bullshit his way out of his brand disaster in a now-famous interview with George Stephanopoulos, but it only added fuel to the fire. Others have since tried to finesse Pence’s bullshit, but the world has seen through it and Indiana’s brand has lost its credibility.

Managing a successful brand in a media savvy marketplace means speaking simple truths with deference and humility – something arts organizations find almost impossible to do.

<> <> <>

Most arts organizations won’t have to go through what Indiana’s going through, but that doesn’t make the brand lessons any less important. Arts administrators who don’t quite get brand management, and who design their brands to project their own thoughts and feelings, rather than taking meaningful, proactive steps to shape other people’s thoughts and feelings, have a great deal to lose.

So my advice to arts organizations is this: Engage with your new audiences to learn what’s in their hearts and minds. Change the way you communicate with the world to reflect the way it has changed. And cut the bullshit. You need audiences more than they need you and everybody knows it. Start speaking simple truths with humility and deference and new audiences will beat a path to your door.

As for Indiana, it looks like the good guys are going to prevail and the state’s reputation will be restored. But the cost of earning back the brand equity that Pence and his cronies squandered will be absolutely enormous.

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.

<> <> <>

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.