San Diego Opera’s Interim Pick Speaks Wisdom and Nonsense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing Advice for a Reanimated San Diego Opera

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

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

Ignore Opera America

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

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

Speak the Right Language

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

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

Burn the Archives

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

Do Sales

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

Do Real Marketing

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

Come Down Off the Pedestal

You nearly disappeared.

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

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

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

I wonder which direction they’ll choose.


The Case for Uglier Arts Marketing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Arts’ Shameful Habit: Masturbatory Marketing

Stroking yourself can be an enjoyable way to generate short-term satisfaction, but it’s a terrible way to engage with the community and it’s not likely to accomplish much in the way of productive growth.

When ailing arts organizations do it in their marketing materials it’s just plain embarrassing.

What is masturbatory marketing? It’s a self-gratifying type of communication – common throughout the nonprofit arts - that’s distinguished by three primary characteristics:

1. It’s executed without the participation of a partner. In the case of arts organizations, it’s done by marketers who huddle up in conference rooms fantasizing about the new audiences they wish they had rather than venturing out into the real world and interacting personally with the audiences they can actually get.

2. It’s done primarily to satisfy the strokers. Most arts marketing is designed for senior decision makers who have limited professional marketing expertise and who tend to approve the content they find most personally stimulating, which is usually the content they find most familiar or flattering. Some older arts pros use masturbatory marketing to bolster a fragile belief in the perennial desirability of their art forms. In most arts organizations, marketing materials are designed to serve as mirrors of a kind that insiders can gaze into and tickle themselves into fits of self-reflective ecstasy.

3. It’s habit forming. People who engage in masturbatory marketing tend to develop a finely honed capacity for doing it just the way they like it. Many arts organizations pump out the same promotional content they’ve been producing for the last thirty years, not because it sells any better than the old marketing content, but because it hits their most sensitive sweet spot in the easiest possibly way.

How do you know if your marketing is masturbatory marketing? Here are three easy ways to find out:

1. If audiences aren’t in the conference room with you when you develop your marketing strategies, you’re probably doing masturbatory marketing. They don’t have to be there in person; they can be there in the form of research results – authoritative, objective, relevant data that tell you who you’re talking to, what they want and what you need to say in order to motivate them to participate. But if you’re just dreaming about attractive, young, culturally diverse people and imagining how appealing they’d think you were if they were sitting next to you, you might just as well be looking at porn.

Geraldo Selfie2. If the content of your marketing is all about you, it’s masturbatory marketing. Consider the promotional content you produce in any given year – every photo, graphic image and copy line. How much of it is about you? How much is about the audience? Fertile, productive, growth-oriented marketing is about demonstrating how your products will satisfy your audiences’ yearnings, which means it has to be as much about your potential customers enjoying your products as it is about how wonderful you think you are. If new audiences think you’re old and out of touch, and your marketing is an endless stream of vain, clueless selfies, it’s probably time for a more outsider-oriented approach. Invisible place holder.

3. If the essential content of your marketing hasn’t changed in thirty years because you get a charge out of doing it the way you’ve always done it, it’s masturbatory marketing. Marketing isn’t self-satisfying habit; it’s a constantly evolving process of understanding and responding to external market conditions. And the real truth is that you’re not even supposed to get off on your own marketing. That’s not what it’s there for. If you do it the right way, you probably won’t even like it because it won’t be about you and the things that turn you on anymore; it’ll be about tomorrow’s audiences and the things that turn them on instead.

The days of self-centered, self-important, self-flattering, self-indulgent, self-deluding arts marketing are over. Arts marketing today is about engaging personally, humbly, selflessly and persuasively with real, living, breathing human beings who thrive outside our artsy bubbles and who probably aren’t anything like the audience’s we’ve been dating for the last fifty years. And it’s about convincing these new audiences, based on their longings and expectations, that the art we want them to know more intimately is worth getting excited about.

So the next time you’re tempted to duck into your conference room and rip off a quick email, postcard or blurb, try doing something audience-oriented instead. Tuck in your shirt, fix your hair, go outside and find some of those younger, more culturally diverse people you keep talking about. Ask them what they think is sexy, listen carefully to what they tell you, and then use what you learn to create some hot, new consumer-oriented content for your next marketing campaign.

Who knows, if you do it right, you might just get lucky.


I learned this week that the San Diego Opera is about to be brought back from the dead. Some folks think this is wonderful, but I’ve read enough sci-fi books to know that bringing dead things back to life is never a good idea. In most cases the result is a grotesque monster that wreaks havoc on the community and ends up killing its creator.

San Diego Opera died because its leaders didn’t know how to respond to changes in the marketplace. It’s not a very noble or respectable way to go, but it went, and that should be the end of it. Bringing it back to life makes sense only if the board can find a smart leader who knows how to attract the audiences the company needs to stay alive, but that’s not likely to happen. Traditional opera administrators don’t grow audiences; they promote operas and hope that audiences will come. Big difference.

UnknownDr. Frankenstein made two mistakes that form a cautionary tale for San Diego Opera board members: He chose the wrong person to do an important job and he wound up inserting the wrong brain into his reanimated creation.

Folks who want to bring the SDO back to life might do well to seek professional assistance from beyond the insular, self-centered world of opera and then, if the project is determined to be feasible, make sure they have the right brain in place before attempting to stitch the company back together.

If they bring the company back to life only to have it be led by another opera insider who doesn’t know how to sell tickets, the good people of San Diego will have every right to get out the torches and pitch forks and make sure the beast is returned to the grave where it belongs.




Did Amateur Marketing Kill San Diego Opera?

As the arts world rushes to point fingers at San Diego, allow me to chime in with this: The cause of death might also be crappy marketing.

Every time a major arts institution announces financial difficulties, I go to their season brochure to look for clues as to what might be preventing them from selling enough tickets. I did this today with San Diego Opera’s season brochure and found a marketing tool that was designed and written in the late 1970s when Danny Newman wrote “Subscribe Now.” The names and dates are different, but this brochure was developed to sell tickets to my grandmother (who died, by the way, back in the 1980s). My guess is that if you took all the subscription brochures out of the SDO’s archives and lined them up on the conference table, you’d see a chain of unrelenting sameness dating back more than 30 years.

General & Artistic Director Ian Campbell said, “The demand for opera in this city isn’t high enough.” I think what he meant was, “We’ve been doing the same marketing we do every year and it’s not working anymore.”

Professional marketers respond to changing market conditions, which means their marketing strategies evolve to keep pace with changes in the world around them. Arts organizations, meanwhile, tend to do what they’ve always done and then blame the world for not producing the sort of consumers who respond to the marketing they do.

A part of me laments the tragic passing of institutions like this. Another part believes that arts organizations that refuse to learn how to persuade new audiences deserve the fates they create for themselves.

My heart goes out to the thousands of young, culturally diverse people in San Diego who won’t have a chance to become opera fans. I’m sorry we never bothered to learn how to talk to you.


Five Markets The Arts Don’t Bother Tapping #3

3. Volume Buyers

In the arts we cater to three types of buyers. If you’re one of them, you have a reasonably good chance of accessing our products, although some of you will get better service than others. If you’re not among these three types  – and many are not – you may be out of luck.

1. If you’re a performing arts consumer who wants to subscribe or a museumgoer who wants to become a member, we will roll out the red carpet and do every thing we can to make you happy. Many of our institutions were built around you and we will gladly nudge others aside to make sure you get the very best we have to offer.

2. If you’re not the commitment type, we welcome consumers in pairs and handfuls too, although you’re not our first priority and we may make you buy through an impersonal third-party ticketing system that adds unwelcome fees. There are so many of you, though, that we will do what we can – given our traditions – to get you in the door.

3. And if you are a consumer who wants to buy more than a handful of tickets, we may let you do it, but we’ll probably give you limited access, dreadful service, low-level staff support, third-class patron status – and we may even force you to sign a contract before we’ll let you and your friends pass through our venue doors.

Back in the 1950s performing arts providers on Broadway and elsewhere recognized demand from a limited but persistent market segment comprised of society ladies and seniors who wanted to attend shows together. But these customers said they couldn’t just plop down cash for un-returnable tickets until they knew how many of their people were coming, and they couldn’t invite people to come unless they knew they had the tickets, so box offices reluctantly carved out a reserve-now/pay-later pigeonhole and called it “group sales.”

PigeonholeSurprisingly, even though that was 70 years ago and society ladies and seniors are a small part of the volume ticket market, this pigeonhole remains the industry model we use today, and most volume buyers are expected to squeeze through it whether they fit or not. Since many don’t fit, only the most avid or complacent bother to buy.

Here’s a surprise: Of all the places you might look for untapped demand from new audiences, your volume sales department, even though it’s the last place you want to look, is likely to be where the most untapped potential lies. Below is a list of buyers that don’t necessarily fit into the three categories above, many of which, depending on your market and the relative popularity of your products, can be found sitting outside your old “group” sales pigeonhole waiting to be invited in through the front door.

But first, know this: Groups don’t buy tickets.

In every instance where multiple tickets are sold, there is an individual decision maker, often a business person or professional, who purchases tickets in large quantities on behalf of others, or purchases tickets to resell to others, or has the power to influence bulk ticket sales through proprietary social or business networks. Volume buyers are remote extensions of our single-ticket sales infrastructure who carry our marketing messages to places they wouldn’t otherwise go, motivate their various constituencies to respond by adding or passing along value, manage the logistics of ticket sales and distribution, and, in many cases, physically deliver patrons to our doorstep. Treating these people like discount-hungry little old ladies is utterly irresponsible, if not outright incompetent, and it’s a profound disservice to funders who expect the organizations they support to be earning revenue in a reasonably professional manner.

Partial List of Under-served Volume Ticket Buyers

  • International wholesale tour operators
  • Receptive tour operators
  • Domestic long-haul package tour operators
  • Local/regional day-trip tour operators (pre-formed & retail)
  • Ground transportation & sightseeing company operators
  • Meeting & event planners
  • Broad range of businesses/corporate buyers (executive event & client entertainment)
  • Destination management companies
  • Employee perks & recreation service providers
  • Corporate & hospitality concierges
  • Fundraisers
  • Destination partners (restaurants, hotels, non-competitive attractions, etc.)
  • Ticket brokers/resellers/agents
  • Affinity & membership organization managers
  • Premium access clients (ongoing accounts)
  • Educators & educational system administrators
  • Semi-professional group event organizers
  • Social media based event organizers

Do this tomorrow: Dismantle your entire “group” sales operation including all the box office traditions, procedures and protocols and throw the whole mess away for good. Now, go out into the world – well outside your artsy bubbles – and engage with representatives of these various market segments (as appropriate to your market/product). Ask them what you can do to give them extraordinary services that will enhance their ticket purchase potential. Listen carefully to what they say and learn as much as you can about how and why they use the products you sell. Then, rebuild your sales infrastructure from the ground up with no arbitrary group/single divisions, no unnecessary discounts, no archaic box office procedures, no superfluous contracts (if you’re still using group sales contracts, stop it right this minute), no punitive deposits, no holding back inventory for “more important” customers, etc.

When your organization begins to engage meaningfully with people in the business and professional communities listed above, you’ll realize that the low-level staffers in the old “groups” office aren’t equipped for the executive-level engagement you’ll need to make your new volume sales department optimally productive. Instead, try recruiting an experienced VP of sales who reports to the CEO, give her the support she needs (yes, even if it means changing your organization’s culture), help her build a new, bottom line-oriented sales department, and pay her a fair base and commission for the results she generates.

You can’t say, “We couldn’t sell enough tickets,” if you don’t have a real sales department that actually sells tickets.

Group sales is dead. Sales is the new marketing. Welcome to the 21st century.