The Feds Know Why Arts Marketing Doesn’t Work (No, Not the NEA, the SBA)

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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.

Are You Selling Drills or Holes?

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I rediscovered this old adage while scanning some marketing blogs today:

Never sell drills when what your customers are looking for is holes.

It’s a pithy way of saying that marketing should be about the customers and their needs, not about the product and its features. What drill buyers want is holes. The right drill for them is the drill that will give them the holes they need. So the right marketing for the drill manufacturer is the marketing that demonstrates how the drill will give the customers the holes they’re looking for. The most effective way to sell a drill to someone who needs holes is to focus on how satisfied the customer will be when he buys the drill that does the best job of giving him the holes he’s looking for.

In the arts, the holes can be many things:

  • Ways to spend a quality night out with friends or loved ones
  • Ways to experience enriching and edifying entertainment
  • Ways to feel connected to a community or social stratum
  • Ways to impress a date
  • Ways to enjoy leisure time

As the drill adage points out, the role of arts marketing is to focus on these needs and how satisfied the customers will be when they’re met. Given the needs described above, the most effective arts marketing content would naturally focus on:

  • People enjoying one another’s company in a given arts venue
  • Customers describing how the art they’ve experienced improved their lives
  • Depictions of people who represent a desirable community enjoying the art
  • Couples bonding at an arts event
  • People having a great time enjoying an arts event

And how often do arts marketers focus on customers having their needs met by the arts product?

Never.

We don’t do audience-centered marketing in the arts. It’s not part of our holier-than-thou culture. We do self-centered marketing that focuses exclusively on the superior features of the products we believe our audiences should want to buy. In other words, we sell drills, and rather than focusing on the holes, we promote the drills’ features relentlessly in a vain attempt to convince people that the drills we prefer to produce and promote are more important than the holes our audiences need to make.

Drills are a meafriends-at-a-bar-720x430ns to a hole. The arts are a means to various types of personal fulfillment. If the drill manufacturer should be marketing the hole, arts marketers should be marketing customer fulfillment, which means the content of our marketing should be about customers having a good time participating in the arts.

How many photos did your organization publish in marketing materials in the last twelve months? How many of them depicted customers having their desires fulfilled by attending one of your events?

If you’re like most arts organizations and your marketing content is exclusively self-centered, you’re spending way too much time talking about drills when you should be talking about how happy your customers will be with the holes that only you can help them make.

Take The “Gal in a Starbucks” Test

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Say you’ve just been named CEO of a major North American symphony orchestra. Would you approve this copy for publication in your new sales brochure?

“Mendelssohn’s extraordinary symphonic cantata Hymn of Praise, heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a seminal moment in human history: the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Appropriately, Mendelssohn chose the Bible as the subject matter for his commission, and created a work that has been celebrated through the centuries for its sublime beauty.”

Before you answer, take the “Gal in a Starbucks” test that I mentioned a few posts ago:

Imagine yourself sitting in a busy Starbucks where the gal sitting next to you is a smart, 28-year-old tech executive who, as it turns out, played oboe in her college orchestra. You get to chatting and you decide to persuade her to come to your upcoming concert, so you lean in and gutenbergpresssay, “Mendelssohn’s extraordinary symphonic cantata Hymn of Praise, heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a seminal moment in human history: the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Appropriately, Mendelssohn chose the Bible as the subject matter for his commission, and created a work that has been celebrated through the centuries for its sublime beauty.”

Would you approve it now?

Of course not. It’s didactic horse shit that has nothing to do with the young woman you’re talking to. If you actually spoke to someone like this – someone who represented an excellent shot at attracting new audiences – you’d come off as wildly out of touch, pompous and condescending. Or in other words, you’d sound like a typical classical music brochure.

The brilliant advertising guru David Ogilvy once said,

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”

Clearly, this is not the language that new arts audiences use every day. It’s not even the language old arts audiences use every day. It’s the language boring history teachers use every day. Arts organizations that should be speaking to new audiences in a fresh, conversational vernacular about things those audiences actually care about are instead lecturing the world about things they think people should know – a practice that is presumptuous, amateurish and fiscally irresponsible. The entire cultural sector is desperate to understand why audiences are disappearing, but nobody seems to realize that we’re boring new audiences to death by trying to educate them in our marketing materials.

Here’s a shocker: Marketing is a terrible vehicle for arts education. New audiences want to know how attending arts events will satisfy their personal desires, not how those events fit into the history of western civilization. And even if new audiences do have an interest in being educated about the art form, the job of marketing is to promise that education, not to deliver it. Johannes Gutenberg belongs in the program notes, not in the brochure.

The reason arts audiences are shrinking is that arts administrators are too far out of touch with new audiences to know how to talk to them. And instead of learning how to talk to them, we hole up in conference rooms with fellow out-of-touch insiders filling our marketing content with pedantic puffery that’s designed more to appeal to artistic directors and CEOs than it is to persuade outsiders.

How would you describe that Mendelssohn piece to the 28-year-old former oboe player in the Starbucks? If you can find language that will tap into her personal desires in such a way that she’ll be motivated to come to your Mendelssohn concert (or La Bayadère or Miss Julie or Tosca or an exhibition of Renaissance paintings), then that’s the language that belongs in your marketing content.

Arts administrators who understand intuitively that lecturing the gal in the Starbucks isn’t a good way to motivate her to buy tickets, should apply that intuition throughout their organization’s strategic sales communications.

Dating Advice for Arts Marketers

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In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, here are five suggestions for successful dating, designed specifically for arts marketers. Follow these tips and the relationships you’re looking for can’t fail to materialize:

1. Look Nice – But Don’t Overdo It

When you’re dating, it’s important to present an attractive appearance that honestly reflects your personality. Arts marketers have a tendency to over-accessorize so you might want to pare down to the essentials. Keep it simple. Try to see yourself through your date’s eyes or get some good advice from a friend. Oh, and that diamond treble clef brooch your grandmother gave you? Leave it at home.

2. Talk Normal

Chances are your date speaks plain old conversational English. Arts marketers speak an artificial language filled with overblown adjectives, indulgent self-flattery and creaky old clichés. There’s a slight chance that a relationship with you will be a roll-in-the-aisles, side-splitting, zany madcap romp or a compelling descent into madness and intrigue set against the backdrop of pre-apocalyptic twenty-first century urban America, but it’s not something you’ll want to project on a date. Just talk like a regular person.

3. Don’t Talk About Yourself

If you want your date to like you, ask questions. Learn about what interests them and focus your conversation on the areas where your interests and their interests overlap. Arts marketers talk exclusively about themselves and the things they think other people should find interesting about them. They almost never ask questions, so they don’t learn about other people’s interests, and they blithely prattle on about how wonderful they are, hoping that by promoting their inherent wonderfulness they’ll make themselves more attractive. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of this sort of thing, however, can tell you that it’s a lousy dating strategy.

4. Don’t Lecture

A relationship with you may end up being a valuable learning experience, but that’s something you’ll want to avoid telegraphing on a date. Arts marketers have an annoying habit of trying to educate everyone, as if to suggest that a successful relationship with them would be contingent on a certain level of academic achievement. Yes, late nineteenth century Norwegian societal constraints may have made strong women do crazy things, but that’s no subject for a dinner conversation, Hedda. Find out what interests your date and talk about those things instead. Who knows, you might end up learning something useful as well.

5. Ask

If you want to get lucky, you have to ask. Arts marketers do endless promotion but they don’t do sales, so they don’t know how to close the deal. You can spend the whole evening talking about how wonderful you are and then sit back and wait for your date to make the move, but that only works for marketers who are totally super hot. If you’re just reasonably attractive, but smart and worth getting to know, you’re going to need a more proactive, less self-centered approach.

So if your old relationships haven’t been working out so well and you’re looking forward to getting to know somebody new, put on a nice simple outfit, talk like a normal human being, take a sincere interest in others so you can talk about common interests, don’t try to improve people before you get to know them and, when you’ve earned the permission, move in for the kiss.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Love,

Trevor

Where The NEA Blows It

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In my last two posts I reported on fascinating new research from the NEA, which delves into the motives that drive people to participate in the arts, as well as barriers that stand in their way.

Unfortunately, the folks who published this research stepped beyond their realm of expertise and made some rather inane suggestions for how to use the data to “reach the missing audience.” Here are the four recommendations from their infographic:

  • Couple low-cost admissions with learning-focused programming
  • Increase community engagement
  • Provide opportunities to socialize and experience new art forms
  • Market to couples deciding on “date night” options

On the surface these seem like great ideas – but that’s just the problem: They’re surface-level ideas. Any intern could have blurted them out in a marketing meeting. It’s the kind of simplistic thinking that nonprofit arts organizations have been using for decades, and it’s disappointing to find such amateur stuff coming from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Most professionals who conduct research into consumer motivations do it to improve their persuasive communications. Politicians learn what motivates voters so they can develop campaign strategies. Sellers of consumer products learn what motivates their customers so they can develop more effective marketing content. Lawyers research jury motives so they can develop more persuasive arguments. If your industry’s persuasive communications suck – as arts industry communications certainly do – and you’ve discovered a veritable gold mine of insight into audience motives – as the NEA certainly has – then the recommendations you put forward should be all about developing new, research-based, audience-centered strategic communications.

The closest the NEA comes to this is their facile “date night” idea, which might as well be singles nights, family four packs, girls’ nights out, flex passes, casual Fridays or any one of a dozen other decades-old arts marketing clichés. And the other three recommendations are about changing programming and administrative culture, which is great, but also quite difficult and expensive – and still needs to be effectively marketed in order to have any value.

Meanwhile, creating marketing content in response to what research has revealed about audience motives costs absolutely nothing and stands to deliver substantial returns. Why change what you sell when you can change the way you sell and generate better results?

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Good research requires professional expertise and sophisticated methods. It also requires industry leaders who understand the value of collecting useful data – especially in an industry that suffers from chronic, long-term audience attrition. And it appears that, when it comes to research, the National Endowment for the Arts does indeed have the expertise, methods and leadership they need to provide the industry with useful market intelligence.

But knowing how to use the data also requires professional expertise, sophisticated methods and industry leadership, which, when it comes to attracting audiences, is sorely lacking in the cultural sector. Had the NEA executives who developed this material applied professional marketing expertise in preparing their report, their recommendations might have looked something like this:

  • Design communications around audience motives, not around your products
  • Sell what your customers say they want to buy, not what you want to sell
  • Identify, address and neutralize obstacles in your strategic messaging
  • Know your new audiences personally to better understand their motives

I can understand the NEA’s wanting to toss out a few casual suggestions to stimulate thinking, but the stakes are far too high to be cavalier about the application side of the research equation. Arts administrators don’t know how to use research data to make their communications more persuasive. It’s a skill that executive leaders have never been asked to master and that amateur arts marketing practitioners have never been expected to learn. All the audience motivation data in the world won’t get that conductor’s photo off the cover of the brochure if the CEO never learns why it doesn’t belong there.

Arts marketing is obscenely narcissistic. It’s all about the art, the artists and the organizations – and almost never about the audience. We assume the purpose of strategic communication is to tell the world how wonderful we are and we publish endless amounts of self-important, self-indulgent, self-centered, self-congratulatory, self-flattering promotional content that barely, if ever, reflects what audiences (especially new audiences) have told us they’re looking for. It seems incredible that an entire industry could be doing something so important so badly, but there’s just not enough legitimate marketing expertise among industry leaders to understand, let alone solve, the problem.

If the National Endowment for the Arts can’t offer professional suggestions for using research data, who can?

NEA Discovers MASSIVE Audience That Arts Organizations Fail to Persuade

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New research by the NEA has revealed an enormous untapped reservoir of willing arts participants. Thirty-one million Americans said they wanted to attend arts events, but weren’t sufficiently motivated by arts organizations to do so. The research points to a shocking inability among arts marketers to get persuadable customers off their lazy asses and into theaters, concert halls and museums.

Man-on-sofa-watching-TV--010Why the resistance? Turns out that going to arts events is inconvenient: Not enough time, too hard to get to, nobody to go with, blah, blah, blah. There’s no shortage of folks who want to attend arts events, but they appear to lack the necessary drive to overcome the common obstacles that stand in their way. Arts fans have been facing these obstacles for decades, of course, but for some reason, thirty-one million modern American arts enthusiasts don’t have the drive to get themselves to the venue and experience the art.

And why can’t American arts organizations motivate these people? Because we absolutely suck at persuasion. We’re brilliant when it comes to telling people how wonderful they should think we are, but when it comes to moving customers to buy, we’re essentially incompetent. We’ve perfected the art of self-centered, self-important boasting, which worked great on highly self-motivated twentieth century arts patrons, but we’ve lost sight of how to appeal to the less-well-motivated new audiences on which our futures depend.

Persuasion, as we’ve discussed often on this blog, is all about leveraging desires to motivate behavior. If you want people to do something, you have to understand their desires so you can demonstrate how doing the thing you want them to do will satisfy their yearnings. Preachers have long known that people want to live forever and they’ve been exploiting that yearning to sell religion for millennia. Nigerian spam scammers know that people want to get rich quick and have been conning suckers since the advent of email. And Girl Scouts know that people desire cookies – and want to avoid the guilt of bypassing a group of adorable uniformed girls on their way into the grocery store – and have thus been filling my freezer with Thin Mints for the last thirty years. Persuasion is an extremely powerful tool, but if you plan to use it, you have to understand your audience’s desires and know how to use them to motivate behavior.

For a more personal example, consider Jennifer who’s trying to persuade her boyfriend Hector to go to a movie:

JENNIFER

Hey, Hector, why don’t we go see Birdman tonight. It’s over at the Regal. You know, the one with Michael Keaton that’s getting all those awards? You said you really wanted to see it.

HECTOR

Eh. I don’t know. We’d have to get over there and figure out where to eat and parking’s always a mess. Seems like a hassle.

There you have it. The quintessential arts marketing challenge. Jennifer knows her target audience wants to attend the cultural event she’s trying to sell, but she’s discovered that inconveniences are standing in the way. She could do what arts organizations do and ‘promote’ the movie by playing up its critical acclaim, its award nominations, its star performances, etc. And she could use all sorts of overblown promotional language to make it appear exciting or attractive or enticing – as arts organizations do – but chances are that Hector is well aware of the show’s positive attributes and repeating them will have limited influence on his behavior.

Fortunately, Jennifer is an adept persuader who is intimately familiar with Hector’s desires:

JENNIFER

I know. Let’s stop at that gourmet burrito truck that parks in front of the museum on our way. We’ll grab a bite and see the movie then swing by the brewpub afterward for an IPA. I’ll text Shawn and Kyle and tell them to meet us at the truck in thirty minutes.

HECTOR

Sounds great. Let me grab a coat.

Jennifer and Hector are engaged so she knows him fairly well. Here are some of the things she knows he desires in addition to seeing good movies:

  • Burritos from trendy gourmet food trucks
  • Fast, easy solutions to filling his stomach with tasty food
  • Craft-brewed IPAs
  • Simple solutions to mundane problems like planning to go to a movie
  • Doing fun things with their best friends Shawn and Kyle

Jennifer, as it turns out, because she is a brilliant communications strategist, was able to leverage Hector’s desires to motivate him to act. She knew that his desire to see the movie wasn’t enough to overcome the inconveniences of getting there, so she tapped into additional related desires to make her pitch more appealing. Plus, she neutralized several of the perceived inconveniences by offering up a package that made the decision easy. If Jennifer were in charge of strategic communications for your arts organization, you’d be successful beyond measure.

2_zps11697305If we want to persuade interested but under-motivated audiences to participate in our cultural events, we have to know who those audiences are. We have to immerse ourselves in their lives so we have an intimate understanding of their desires. We have to leverage those desires by addressing them explicitly in our strategic communications – even if it means selling more than just the art. And we have to do whatever we can to neutralize the perceived inconveniences of accessing our products. The way to do this is to cast aside old-fashioned, amateur, self-centered promotional traditions and replace them with professional, audience-centered, persuasive marketing approaches.

Out of touch arts administrators who hole up in conference rooms dreaming up creative ways to tell the world how wonderful they are can’t complain when tomorrow’s audiences lack the necessary motivation to respond to their marketing. If audiences lack motivation, it’s our job to supply it, and that means making our marketing content as much about what they want as it is about what we’re trying to sell. And we’ll never do this if we don’t step outside our artsy bubbles and start learning about the people we intend to persuade.

According to the NEA, there are thirty-one million people out there waiting for American arts organizations to stop blathering about themselves long enough to motivate them to come to our events.

How many of those people do you suppose live in your community?

Time To Stop Selling Art and Start Selling Audiences

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According to a new set of studies released by the NEA, the number one reason people participate in the arts is to socialize with friends and families. It’s not the play or the concert or the exhibition, necessarily; it’s the social event. People participate in the arts so they can enjoy doing interesting and enriching things with other people.

Hmmm.

If I were a marketer who understood that my audience’s primary motivation was to have a good time with other people at arts events, my marketing would be mostly about people enjoying themselves with other people at my events. It wouldn’t be quite so much about the art, the artists or the organization because that would mean focusing on less compelling motivators. No, it would be about the emotional impact of sharing a quality artistic experience with friends and family at my venue.

Professional marketers understand this dynamic well. Tune into any commercial TV station for a few minutes and watch some ads. You’ll quickly discover that advertisers almost always show their customers enjoying their products because they know that their job is to demonstrate how their products will satisfy their customers’ desires. If they’re selling a minivan, they show a happy family enjoying the minivan. If they’re selling jeans, they show happy people having fun together wearing those jeans. If they’re selling a restaurant, they show happy people enjoying food together. It’s fairly straightforward: The essence of persuasion is demonstrating how your products will make people happy, and that usually means showing happy people enjoying your products.

Unfortunately, arts marketers haven quite grasped the concept. Take a look at marketing materials produced by just about any traditional arts organization and you’ll find marketing content that’s almost exclusively about the art, the artists and the organization. We don’t focus on audience members having a great time enjoying one another’s company in our venues because that would mean making it about them and, well, when it comes right down to it – if we’re being honest – despite what we profess in our mission statements and grant applications, we’re really, mostly, pretty much, well, actually entirely about us.

Check out this Philadelphia Orchestra brochure. Fifty-two pages, over a hundred and five photographic images and only a scant handful of oblique references to the audience. Seventy-three percent of arts patrons told the NEA they go for social reasons but only about three percent of the content in this brochure even references the audience, and none of it puts forward the idea that people might enjoy spending time with one another at a concert. Given what the NEA has revealed, I can’t help wondering what would happen if a more reasonable percentage of those pages and photos were devoted to what audiences are actually looking for, which is people like them having a good time together with other people like them.

Useful Tip: Pictures of audiences clapping at your stage or fawning over your artists don’t really count. Neither do those obligatory shots of kids at education events or mucky mucks at the gala. If people are looking for excuses to share arts experiences with one another, make sure your marketing features regular people having a great time together – and have the courage and humility to let your product take a back seat.

This isn’t really news, by the way. Any arts organization that’s well engaged with its audience knows that people attend for myriad reasons, most of them having to do with their own needs, wants and desires. And organizations that do professional marketing tend to respect and reflect those predispositions. But the overwhelming majority of arts organizations still cling to an amateur mid-20th century communications philosophy that says, “Our job is to tell the world how wonderful and important we are and assume that there are enough people out there who want what we’re boasting about to keep us in business.”

I’ve been making the following recommendation on this blog for the last three years and it’s become absurd to have to keep repeating it, but here it is one more time – with a big fat chunk of objective support from the NEA: If you’re not selling enough tickets, try making your marketing about the customers for a change.

Your artistic director and CEO may lose their shit and do everything in their power to try to stop you, but it’s not about them anymore and now the whole world knows it.