American Orchestra Enjoys a 36% Increase in Classical Ticket Sales

I’ve mentioned Jason Nicholson, Director of Marketing at the The Austin Symphony, in previous posts.

A few days ago Jason wrote to tell me that The Austin Symphony saw a 36% increase in ticket sales for classical concerts this past season and a 20% increase in year-over-year sales for all programming. In an era of shrinking audiences for classical music organizations, this is extraordinary news.

How did Jason and his colleagues do it? They made the marketing about the customers’ experience with the product. Take a look at this brochure and you’ll see an astonishing amount of real estate dedicated to photos of audience members enjoying themselves at a show. Compare this to marketing materials generated by other arts organizations and I guarantee you won’t find this much audience-centered content. Most arts organizations are far too self-centered and self-important to allow themselves to do this.

But good marketing is as much about the customer as it is about the product. Jason knows this and he applies it in all of his marketing messages. Meanwhile, classical music marketers around the world still behave as if good marketing is all about them – even though the results prove otherwise.

It’s no surprise, really, that audience-centered marketing is performing so well while self-centered marketing is failing to attract new audiences; customer-centered marketing is standard practice in the commercial world. What’s surprising is the way ailing arts organizations cling so desperately to old marketing methods that don’t work.

My favorite part of Jason’s email was when he said this:

“We are seeing an increase of people of color attending which we are really excited about. We are going to the communities and inviting instead of expecting. How do I know this is working? I’m asking them at the concert. It’s amazing what information you’ll get if you just take the time to listen.”

(Note: If you’ve been wondering what motivates younger, more culturally diverse audiences to attend arts events, the most effective and least expensive way to find out is to talk with them in your venue. Not interns with clipboards, you, the senior decision maker.)

Jason was recognized by the League of American Orchestras a while back for his customer-oriented marketing materials. I hope the League notices these impressive results and encourages some of its larger, more self-centered members to follow his lead.

Congratulations, Jason. Keep up the great work.

A Museum Branding Horror Story


I was once hired to help a struggling museum generate an increase in weekday admissions. It was a simple process of doing some qualitative research, dusting off a few under-exploited opportunities and engaging with local partners that served a similar audience.

I worked with the marketing team to develop a plan that involved creating packages and promoting them with marketing materials that were based on what we’d learned about our target demo during our investigations.

Unbeknownst to me, however, there was an old gal on staff at the museum whose job was to “protect the brand.” She was a graphic designer, primarily, but she’d been there for many years and was highly regarded by several board members and the executive director.


I had developed a set of recommendations for creating audience-centered campaign materials and we were all set to begin the process when this woman stepped in and squelched everything we’d been working on. According to her, it didn’t fit the brand.

So, instead of making changes that would have improved results, the folks who ran this museum – in an effort to protect their brand – did what they’d always done and, not so surprisingly, achieved no increase in weekday admissions.


Consultants who work with nonprofit arts organizations occasionally discover that the problems they were hired to solve are the people who hired them.


This designer meant well, of course, but she had no professional marketing background, no real marketing education, and her knowledge grew out of a mid-20th century brand understanding that was tied to graphic design. Back in the 1970s when she learned about brands, people still thought they were logos and design schemes that dictated what the organization’s communications should look like.

Today, of course, marketers have a far more sophisticated understanding of branding. Most professional marketers know that brands – to the extent that they can be said to exist at all – exist well apart from the organization or its products: Brands live in the minds and hearts of people who come in contact with the organization.

Graphic design isn’t the brand because the brand doesn’t live in the marketing messages. Graphic design is just one of many brand management tools that organizations can use to shape public perceptions, and good designers continually hone their tools in response to the way people on the outside think, feel and behave. Or, in other words, in response to what they learn about the status of their brand.

Fundamentally, organizations that manage quality brands do three things:

  • They assess public perceptions in order to measure the brand
  • They stay focused on what they want people to do
  • They develop and use tools that shape perceptions and motivate behavior

The only way to protect a brand is to learn what people think and feel, and then use that information to further influence perceptions and behaviors. The purpose of branding is to engender favorable predispositions in the marketplace and motivate consumers to buy (or attend or give), so a well-protected brand is one that engenders favorable predispositions and motivates desirable behavior.

A poorly protected brand, meanwhile, is one that remains unmeasured, and that is managed by an organization that tries to tell people what they should think and feel, rather than asking them what they actually do think and feel. You can’t protect a brand if you don’t know what the marketplace thinks and feels because the brand is what the marketplace thinks and feels.

This museum wasn’t protecting its brand; it was protecting an image that it wanted to project and that’s not branding, it’s narcissism. Deciding what image you want to project in the absence of input from the outside world and then stubbornly clinging to that image in the face of diminishing results is just plain nuts.

Arts organizations that want to have vibrant, active, productive brands need to abandon outdated conceptions of what brands are. They need to place the responsibility for managing their brands in the hands of staffers – preferably young marketing staffers – who have the most regular personal contact with the community (which means interaction with the brand), and they need to take their brand management cues not from venerable internal gatekeepers, but rather from the community where the brands they presume to manage actually live.

If your organization is projecting an image that doesn’t motivate enough people to respond, that image isn’t worth protecting.

Taking a Cheap Shot at Community Engagement

In my last post I took a cheap shot at community engagement and I’d like to make amends for that here.

I began by saying that community engagement is not audience development and that arts organizations that need to sell tickets should stay focused on selling tickets. These two things are true and I stand by them 100%.

The cheap shot came when I said this:

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

This comment was aimed at arts leaders who don’t understand engagement and who think it’s something that can be tagged onto an arts organization as a low-level administrative function (“Of course we’re doing engagement; we just hired an outreach and community engagement manager.”) or, God forbid, programmed (“Join us for a special community event!”) or, worse, dumped on the marketing team (“We’re changing the marketing director’s title to Director of Marketing and Community Engagement.”).

These things aren’t engagement, they’re amateur nonprofit foolishness, and I don’t believe for a minute that outreach or education or any other administrative department should be expected to “do” engagement.

Engagement isn’t something you do, it’s something you are, and no amount of administrative wheel spinning will compensate for an organization that hasn’t fully integrated engagement into its organizational culture – beginning at the very the top of the management hierarchy. If you’re looking for a place to put engagement on your flow chart, the appropriate spot is in the square that says CEO or Executive Director. If community engagement isn’t happening there, it is highly unlikely that it’s happening in a meaningful way anywhere further down the line.

Community engagement is the single most important idea being discussed in the cultural sector today. Arts organizations that don’t endeavor to fully understand it, embrace it, absorb it into their operations, and allow it to change the way they relate to their support systems are virtually guaranteeing that they won’t survive this audience crisis. Arts organizations can’t exist without the support of their communities, and the people who comprise those communities won’t support arts organizations to which they have no relevant personal connections.

If your organization still isn’t quite sure what engagement is, or you’re doing engagementy things without the participation of fully engaged leaders, or you’re making frivolous engagement-like noises because funders have been browbeating you into “doing” engagement, you owe it to yourself and your community to go back to square one and start over.

126.The_Prophet_EzekielAnd if you’re not sure how to do that, you might want to talk to Doug Borwick, who is a saint and possibly even a prophet. Doug has been thinking, writing and talking about engagement for a long time. But more importantly, he’s been in the field helping organizations become more successful engagers. He knows what engagement is and he knows how to help organizations make it work. In a time of great uncertainty, when so many traditional arts organizations are destined to fail, Doug is holding up a beacon in the darkness and pointing the way toward salvation. Those who intend to survive would do well to follow his lead.

I’m happy to call Doug a prophet because at the heart of his message is an idea that prophets have been sharing for millennia. It’s both simple and profound and it goes like this:

Love and be loved in return.

If your ailing arts organization is demanding love from an increasingly indifferent community, it’s probably time to venture out into that community and share some love with the people on whom your survival depends.

Or as Doug Borwick would say: Engage!

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.