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.”


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 say 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:


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 responsible for 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 the organization has 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.