The #1 Reason People Attend Arts Events


The NEA just released its latest survey of public participation in the arts.

When Americans were asked why they attended at least one artistic, creative, or cultural activity during the last 12 months, 82% said it was to socialize with family or friends.

Thanks to the NEA we know that people make their participation decisions primarily for social reasons having to do with their desire to share worthwhile experiences with those they care about and want to spend time with. The emphasis is on the social experience and not necessarily on the event they choose to share.

Or, in other words, it’s really more about them than it is about us.

This is not news. The NEA has been tracking this for a long time. We know that it’s about them, yet the entire canon of culture sector communications – NEARLY EVERY PROMOTIONAL MESSAGE WE PUBLISH – is still entirely about us and how wonderful and important we think people should think we are.

If you’re a marketer and you know what motivates people to buy your product, this is what the content of your marketing should be about. If you’re an arts marketer and you know the primary reason people attend arts events is to socialize with family and friends, your marketing must be about the joys of sharing your products with family and friends – at least as much as it is about the superior attributes of your organization and its products.

It’s not rocket science. Good marketing is about learning what motivates our customers, and then leveraging that information to get them to buy what we’re trying to sell. 

The fact that ailing arts institutions refuse to do this is heartbreaking. And the fact that American arts leaders have never been trained to understand that this is how marketing actually works is a tragedy.

Every couple of years the NEA hands us this insanely useful information. Every couple of years I write this post. And every couple of years American arts institutions continue to send out the same insipid, selfie-stuffed nonsense they’ve been spraying at the world since Danny Newman first screamed SUBSCRIBE NOW! back in the 1970s.

The answer to this audience crisis is simple: Find out what people want then help them understand how our products will satisfy their yearnings.

The NEA just told us what our customers want (again). Our job is to use all of the extraordinary communications resources at our disposal to convince tomorrow’s audiences that among all of the ways they could possibly spend quality time with the people they care about, our arts events are their best possible choices.

If you want to increase sales, start using photos of happy people enjoying one another’s company at your events. And when you write copy, always start by answering the question, “When I look for ways to enjoy quality time with friends or family, why the hell should I choose you?”



“We Do Such Great Marketing, But People Aren’t Buying Tickets”


Once, while interviewing for a marketing post at a major American opera company, I was asked If I’d brought a portfolio of my previous marketing materials. I hadn’t, of course. I was a marketing professional interviewing for a senior marketing job. I had provided a resume, which outlined a successful track record in strategic sales, revenue generation and audience growth, but it never occurred to me to bring printed collateral and I found myself searching for a diplomatic way to explain why marketing execs don’t bring design portfolios to job interviews.

[Note to job applicants: Telling your interviewers they’re asking the wrong questions is a terrible way to get a job – but it’s a great way to avoid working for the wrong people!]

I understand why nonprofit arts leaders might have wanted to see some lovely printed materials. This is, after all, what many arts leaders think marketing is about. But in an era when audiences are in steady decline and institutions like this are likely to fail, it’s tragic to think that such amateurism persists at such high industry levels.

Marketing is about numbers. Any arts leader worth his salt knows this.

I wrote a few weeks ago about a job ad for a marketing director at a Dallas theatre that focused like a laser beam on strategy, sales and revenue. It looked like a good job working in a professional environment for smart people. But yesterday I saw an ad for a marketing director at a South Carolina orchestra that focused primarily on the production of promotional materials. It looked like a perfect job for a nonprofit functionary working for old school leaders who like to send out a lot of pretty brochures.

[Note to job applicants: Becoming a nonprofit functionary in an industry with steadily diminishing demand for its products is a lousy career move.]

In my career I’ve encountered two fundamentally different approaches to arts marketing, the administrative, which focuses on sustaining customary marketing operations, and the proactive, which focuses on selling tickets. The administrative concerns itself with running marketing departments, while the proactive concerns itself with doing what needs to be done to earn revenue. The two approaches can be compatible under certain circumstances, but given the arts industry’s internal focus and over-dependence on tradition (not to mention the lack of professional marketing expertise among arts leaders), the administrative tends to overwhelm the proactive.

Most nonprofit arts organizations prefer the administrative approach because managing arts organizations and their various departments is what arts leaders do. Marketing departments have traditionally done certain things, so diligent leaders ensure that these departments are sustained and that the customary functions they perform are perpetuated. The source of authority for decision making in these organizations is a combination of tradition, habit, what other arts organizations are doing and the opinions of senior leaders, funders or board members. The ultimate priority for administrative marketers is continuity, while results, such as ticket sales and earned revenue, tend to be viewed as byproducts of the organization’s operations. “It’s so frustrating. We do such great marketing, but people aren’t buying enough tickets to keep us going.”

[Note to any arts administrator who’s ever thought or said something like this: If your product is worth buying and you’re not selling enough tickets, you are not doing great marketing.]

Leaders who adopt the proactive approach, on the other hand, understand that a rapidly changing marketplace requires a deft, nimble, externally focused sales initiative that isn’t hamstrung by tradition, habit or institutional priorities that favor the status quo. Proactive marketers closely monitor the changing needs and wants of the marketplace in order to respond to audience expectations. The source of decision-making authority in proactive organizations is market intelligence rather than insider traditions, comfortable habits or the inexpert opinions of industry leaders. And proactive marketers allow their strategies, tactics, procedures and policies to evolve along with the world outside the bubble. “We realized we weren’t selling enough tickets so we questioned all of our customary practices, shifted our focus from internal to external, and rebuilt our sales functions in response to changes in the world outside our doors.”

How about you? Are you selling enough tickets to ensure a robust future for your art form? Is your marketing function a deft, nimble, customer-centered, proactive sales initiative that isn’t held back by tradition, habit or leadership priorities that favor the status quo?

Or are you doing a really good job of running a nonprofit arts organization’s marketing department?

Marketer Wanted: Must Be Deeply Skeptical Of The Arts


Take a look at just about any employment ad for arts marketers, and you’ll find passion for the art form listed among the essential qualifications for the job. Often it is the single most important criterion.

Ironically, this is just about the last thing arts leaders should be looking for in their marketing personnel. In fact, passion for the art form could be your candidate’s least useful qualification.

Here are five things arts marketers should be more passionate about than art:


Arts marketers should be just crazy about customers – especially new customers. They should be driven to spend as much time as possible engaging with them, learning about them, understanding what motivates them and discovering where their needs and desires overlap with what the organization wants to sell. The best marketers will be the ones who see the world through the eyes of unpersuaded outsiders, identify with their lack of avidity and know how to move them to respond.

Marketers who have a passion for the art form are often least likely to identify with those who don’t, and those who don’t are tomorrow’s audiences.


Marketing is a strategic enterprise rooted in research, logic and numbers. A marketer should be passionate about the marketing process – making sure that the right communication is occurring among the right people in the right places, utilizing optimized content to elicit predetermined responses, synthesizing available data for maximum efficiency and always measuring, measuring, measuring.

If you were hiring a plumber to fix a malfunctioning toilet, you’d want someone who was passionate about the system, not what’s flowing through it.


In a business that’s steadily losing customers, good marketers must be passionate about sales – not the mechanics of satisfying demand; that’s customer service – but the process of motivating people to come. Arts marketers today need to be passionate about persuasion. They need to have an evangelist’s zeal for satisfying the needs and desires of willing but under-motivated outsiders.

Marketers who are passionate about their art form can’t wait to tell people how wonderful the product is. But marketers who are passionate about persuasion can’t wait to show people how happy they’ll be when their yearnings are satisfied by the product.


Marketing is a process of monitoring, adapting to and capitalizing on constantly changing external conditions. Good marketers welcome change with enthusiasm and they respond to it with inquisitiveness and innovation. And the best marketers function as change agents who, because they bring external perspectives into their organizations, keep them flexible, relevant and robust.

The sad state of affairs in the arts today is that marketers who are passionate about art have been regurgitating the same self-indulgent promotional nonsense for the last half century with little regard for what’s happening outside their doors – and with steadily diminishing results.

Making Money

Good marketers are passionate about making money. They choose jobs that reward them for their talent and hard work and that help them build resumes that will maximize their career opportunities. And good marketers naturally expect to be well compensated for the results they produce.

Marketers who are passionate about their art forms, however, are often willing to work cheap and to sacrifice professional marketing careers for arts marketing, which is a largely amateur enterprise.

Leaders who buy cheap passion to avoid paying for professionalism will get what they pay for.

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Back in the old days when arts audiences were abundant, it made sense to hire passionate marketers: “Hey! We love this thing were doing and you love this thing were doing so let’s get together.” But those days are gone.

Today arts marketing is a process of finding and persuading people who might come, but who lack self-motivating enthusiasm for the product: “Hey! We love this thing we’re doing and you… well… uh… you… Did we tell you how much we love this thing we’re doing?”

When potential customers lack self-motivating interest, passion alone is unpersuasive and may actually be off-putting. Under-motivated customers need to know what’s in it for them, not what’s in it for you.

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Are there good marketers in the arts who are also passionate about their art forms? Yes. Absolutely. And they should be recognized and rewarded for their achievements. There’s nothing wrong with having passion for the product.

But the arts organizations that survive this audience crisis are likely to be marketed by clear-eyed professionals from outside the bubble – audience-oriented strategists who are as passionate about the process of filling venues as they are about what those venues are there to do.




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 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 claim 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, resource-intensive 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 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.

Can Technology Save the Arts?


If you follow ongoing public discourse about the arts, you’ll quickly discover that traditional art forms are losing audiences, that younger, more culturally diverse audiences must be found to replace graying audiences, and that finding new audiences means adopting the technologies that younger, more culturally diverse people use to communicate.

alexander_graham_bell_500pxTry following arts pros on Twitter for a while and you’ll experience a barrage of breathless advocacy for up-to-the-second technological answers to the arts’ most pressing marketing problems. Peruse breakout session schedules for industry conferences and you’ll see that mobile technology is the panacea we’ve been waiting for. Or dive into the blogosphere and you’ll discover that anyone who’s not already on [new social media site name here] is hopelessly behind the curve. If the question is, “How do we build new audiences?” the answer is almost always new technology and, sadly, it’s almost always the wrong answer.

If building new audiences were a simple matter of getting the same old marketing messages in front of younger, more culturally diverse targets, it might be the right answer, but that’s not how it works. New audiences are less interested in the arts than old audiences. If we want to convince them to participate, we need to stop focusing on getting our messages in front of them and start motivating them by talking to them about why they should come. These are two entirely different things and the latter is concerned not with technology, but with the uniquely human process of persuasion.

The accepted language of arts marketing is vapid, trite, amateurish, self-congratulatory bullshit that was developed for patrons who were so interested in the arts that it didn’t matter what we said as long as we gave them the information they were waiting for. But new audiences don’t respond to bullshit and they’re not sitting around waiting for our information. They may not care about our information and their lack of enthusiasm for our products won’t be overcome by novel technology. If we want to persuade them, we have to make a compelling case with direct, relevant, customer-oriented language – and language is not about technology, it’s about content.

The new media world accepts as a truism that content is king, but in the arts we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that digital innovation will somehow render the tedious puffery we publish in our brochures and emails suddenly persuasive – that technology is capable of taking idiotic phrases like “Celebrate the Experience of Live Performance” and delivering them more persuasively to a smartphone in a young hispanic person’s pocket. We’ve allowed shiny new objects to blind us to the limitations in our outdated promotional content and distract us from making fundamental, necessary changes in the way we speak to the world around us.

The answer to the problem is easy and surprisingly inexpensive. It involves knowing who we’re talking about when we say things like younger, more culturally diverse audiences. It involves learning what they want, which means talking to them – and listening to them. And it involves developing a fresh, direct, relevant promotional language that enables us to describe how what we sell will satisfy their yearnings.

Is technology important? You bet it is. It’s the vehicle that will carry our content to its intended recipients, it’s the conduit that will facilitate our loyalty building conversations with new audiences and it’s the convenience factor that will make buying faster and easier than ever before.  And, yes, it can even shape and enhance our message content to make it more appealing and possibly even a tiny bit more persuasive to people who prefer one technology over another. But we can’t allow ourselves to believe that shiny new technology will mitigate the need for thoughtful, strategic, audience-focused new content development.

Asking technology to be persuasive is like asking the mail carrier who drops off the same old subscription brochure you’ve been cranking out for the last thirty years to convince the mail recipient to subscribe. It’s not his job, it’s not what he’s there for and he’s not going to do it.

A Brand Is Not A Shiny Object


I never really understood the concept of branding until the day I learned that brands don’t actually exist. You can’t see, touch, taste, smell or hear a brand because brands have no tangible form and therefore can’t be apprehended through the senses.

A lot of the things we refer to as brands – logos, design schemes, corporate identities, tag lines, product names, service directives, customer experiences, etc. – aren’t brands, they’re tools we use to shape brands, and understanding the difference between brands and the tools we use to shape them is extremely important. In an industry with steadily diminishing audiences, any brand discussion that takes place in the absence of this understanding is likely to be a waste of valuable time and resources.

Marketing guru Seth Godin says that brands are bundles of consumer expectations. You can’t see bundles of consumer expectations because they have no tangible form. You can’t experience bundles of consumer expectations through any senses because they exist in the minds and hearts of consumers. Your brand is the bundle of consumer expectations that surrounds your organization or product. It’s how people who are aware of you think about you and whether they’re inclined to respond to the promises you make.

The place where arts professionals get in trouble when discussing brands is the difference between the abstract, external bundle – Brand with a capital B – and the various tools we use to shape that brand. Unfortunately, the word ‘brand’ has been used historically to refer not only to big picture Brands, but to a whole host of brand management tools so it’s no wonder that so many people are confused. For a while there, back in the middle of the last century, the words ‘brand’ and ‘logo’ were virtually interchangeable so it’s not uncommon to find older arts pros who can’t quite get past the brand/logo association.

But today the word refers to the collective disposition of the marketplace toward the organization or its products. And the reason it’s so important to understand the distinction between Brands and brand management tools is that good branding always begins outside the organization with an investigation into marketplace attitudes and expectations. The only way to know how to manage a brand is to measure it, and the only way to measure a brand is to research consumer expectations as they relate to the organization or the product in question.

Many arts professionals, however, because they don’t distinguish between Brands and brand management tools begin the process by examining their tools to consider whether they need to be repaired, redesigned or sharpened, or whether they’re the right tools for the job. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it makes no sense to sit around polishing your tools if you haven’t bothered to learn what they’re meant to do. The most gorgeous, exquisite, elegant logo in the world is meaningless if it wasn’t designed in response to consumer attitudes and expectations.

So why do we spend so much time and money futzing with our brand management tools when we should be focused on what’s happening in the minds of consumers? Three reasons come to mind:

1. Arts people love shiny objects. It’s much more satisfying to sit in a conference room talking about things you can see than it is to talk about abstract concepts that can only be described in terms of dry market data. Who wouldn’t rather watch the designer unveil her first round of logo ideas than pore over reams of research results? Both are necessary for serious brand conversations, but the research is far more important because it actually describes the Brand, while the logo design – which should come much later in the process – is just one of many brand management tools.

2. Agencies sell shiny objects. Agencies make a lot of money selling creative services so they tend to focus on the visuals that come with the branding process. Good full-service agencies will sell complete packages that include both research and brand development (better described as brand management tools development), but a lot of smaller agencies sell branding services that consist primarily of graphic design and marketing message enhancements. The most effective agency is one that will devote the bulk of its energies toward gathering and analyzing market intelligence and then helping the organization respond with practical tools that will shape and activate the Brand. All smart agencies know, however, that abstract ideas – no matter how potentially useful or productive – don’t sell agency services, and arts organizations will usually go with the agency that shows them the shiniest objects.

3. Arts organizations tend to be inner-focused. Unlike commercial marketers, we place far more faith in our products and in their inherent value than we do in our potential customers and their attitudes, tastes and expectations. We believe the arts transcend the marketplace so we tend to devote our promotional energies to extolling our products’ virtues rather than responding to market demands. In the arts, we often bypass the marketplace entirely and develop our brand management tools as reflections of our own attitudes and values, which is why arts brands tend to be so exclusive.

If the arts are serious about growing audiences, we’re going to have to shape brands that are broad, inclusive, enthusiastic and active. And to do that we’ll need brand management tools that respond to and stimulate new audience expectations. The key to doing this, as far as I’m concerned, lies in looking past the shiny objects, achieving consensus on what the word ‘brand’ means, and making sure that whatever definition we choose asks us to think first and foremost about the audience.

Can Amateur Marketing Rescue Professional Art Forms?


History may tell us that one of the greatest tragedies in the arts was that our generation gambled away the survival of professional art forms on the promise of amateur marketing.

Classical concert music, for example, employs the most talented, highly trained, technically proficient professional musicians in the world, yet we market their output with the efforts of workers who rank nowhere near the top of the marketing profession. Arts marketing is somewhat of an oddball in the broader marketing realm. It stands apart from the mainstream, it answers to its own set of quirky norms and traditions, it doesn’t evolve with the markets it expects to influence and it takes its marching orders from executive leaders who have no particular expertise. Unlike artists who at the top of their professions work for nonprofit arts organizations, marketers at the top of their profession work in successful businesses, corporations and political campaigns where strategic communications are far more sophisticated.

I mean no disrespect to arts marketers. There are many talented, trained, experienced, technically proficient arts professionals who do marketing, but the standards the cultural sector expects from marketing fall so far short of the standards upheld by the marketing profession in general that any critical comparison will reveal a disturbing imbalance.

What fascinates me about this imbalance is that amateur marketing is so deeply ingrained in the culture of culture that we rarely, if ever, step back to consider the damage it might be doing – or bother to ask if we should expect our communications staff to perform at the same level of professionalism as their counterparts on the stage. Venerable institutions that represent the highest imaginable achievements in artistic excellence are teetering on the verge of insolvency because they can’t sell enough tickets – yet they refuse to apply the same rigor to the process of persuading new audiences as they do to producing and presenting classical concert music, theatre, dance, opera, fine art, etc.

Take a look at the promotional language used by just about any troubled orchestra that’s making news these days and you’ll find communications that bear the unmistakable hallmarks of having been created by amateurs. Those hallmarks – as I’ve stated so often on this blog – are self-flattery, self-indulgence, self-importance, condescension, presumption, cloying clichés, off-putting stereotypes, frivolous poetic metaphors, artifice, unrestrained hyperbole, mindless repetition and a cavalier, if not arrogant, disregard for the perspectives of persuadable but skeptical outsiders. Seldom will you find customer-centered messages that were crafted by knowledgeable communications strategists using objective, external market intelligence and rational methodologies. That sort of thing may be commonplace in professional marketing circles, but it’s just not how we do things in the arts.

I find it ironic that local cultural communities can rally around obscenely expensive and unnecessary building projects that saddle arts organizations with massive long-term overhead, but can’t scrounge up enough money to hire marketers with enough expertise to keep the doors open. And I’m amazed that the cultural sector as a whole continues to undervalue marketing as if it’s the shameful concession people thought it was back in the 1980s – or fundraising’s bastard stepchild, or a common sense endeavor that any passionate intern can learn, or the operational department that makes all those pretty posters and brochures.

Traditional sales-dependent arts organizations need a steady supply of new audiences to guarantee their survival. This is a simple fact. The only way to get those audiences is to persuade new people to come, and the only way to do that is with new, more effective, more persuasive forms of strategic communication. We can’t fundraise new audiences (unless the funding community wants to pay their way). We can’t find new audiences through public policy. We can’t educate new audiences when it takes a generation to see returns. We can’t engage new audiences by constantly telling people how wonderful we are. We can’t get new audiences to come by doing what we’ve always done and hoping for better results (which appears to be the dominant strategic approach). We can’t compete for new audiences if we fail to match the sophistication of our commercial competitors. And we can’t attract new audiences by placing all of our faith in data and technology when the strategic impact of the content of our communication is what makes the primary difference.

Can the arts professionalize marketing? Sure. With the right industry leadership, the right expertise, the right allocation of resources and an influx of educated, experienced, properly compensated marketing professionals, it’s well within the realm of possibility. But can the arts make the changes that will be required to make it happen? This I’m not so sure about. Comprehensive change would have to originate with leaders who understand the issues, know where to find help and have enough influence to move the industry quickly and decisively away from counterproductive traditions and toward more productive business practices. Given the cultural sector’s preoccupation with fundraising and public policy, however, and the notable scarcity of qualified marketers on industry leadership rosters, such change is unlikely to occur any time soon.

Meanwhile we sit and watch as a long line of organizations creeps inevitably toward the brink, all the while preening and strutting and flirting and boasting as if it’s 1959 and the world is overflowing with avid arts lovers who find them irresistible. This is not the case, of course, but it appears that somebody forgot to tell the people who approve all the emails, press releases, banners and brochures.

Professional marketers wouldn’t let their organizations talk endlessly – and almost exclusively – about how wonderful and important they were unless they had plenty of objective, external evidence to suggest that self-proclaimed wonderfulness and importance were compelling factors in new audiences’ decision-making processes. The likelier scenario is that they’d learn what new audiences actually believe is wonderful and important – in their realities and on their terms – and talk about that in equal measure.

The arts can be forgiven for having taken so long to accept marketing. Nobody wanted to believe back in the 1970s and 80s that art needed to be sold. But now that we know that attracting and keeping new audiences for many traditional arts organizations is the only thing standing between survival and obsolescence, shouldn’t we at least give professional marketing a try?

Why Did You Put Your Conductor on that Brochure?


I read about another financially troubled symphony orchestra yesterday, this one in America’s heartland – in a world-famous music capital, no less – where folks are finding it difficult to pay for their shiny new concert hall.

When I hear about these orchestras I usually go to their websites and look at their season brochures for clues as to why they’re having so much trouble building audiences, and what I find there is depressingly familiar:

A multi-page brochure that was designed in the 1970s when Danny Newman wrote Subscribe Now! The details change of course, but the overarching format and message is relentlessly consistent. Here’s a tip for struggling orchestras: if you want to attract audiences that are under thirty-five years old, you might want to avoid using marketing materials that were developed before they were born.

A cover shot of a formally clad conductor waving a baton. This is often just one of several shots of the same conductor scattered throughout the brochure. In the rare instances where the conductor is a bona fide celebrity who has measurable drawing power with new audiences, this could be a good idea. But if he’s not, it’s an absolutely terrible idea. Note to conductors: If you’re using your organization’s sales materials to try to make yourself famous or further your career, or if you’re allowing your staff to flatter you by slapping you all over the brochure, you are a big part of the problem.

Pictures of everything but target audiences enjoying themselves at the events. Every professional marketer knows that one of the most effective ways to convince customers that their products are worth their time and money is to show those customers enjoying the product. If you’re a marketer at a financially ailing orchestra who publishes 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 shots of your conductor in the same brochure (yes, it happens), cut the number down to 1 next time and fill all that extra space with pictures of the people you’d like to see in your venue enjoying themselves in your venue. (Note: pictures of people clapping at your conductor don’t count.)

Bullshit. The copy in these brochures is dreadful. One of the great tragedies in classical music is that an industry on the brink of collapse continues to publish hackneyed, archaic, artificial, amateurish, formulaic, masturbatory gobbledegook in its marketing materials in a vain attempt to appeal to shrinking audiences of avid fans. If you disagree, go find one of those young, culturally diverse new audience members you’ve been talking about for the last 20 years and read them your brochure copy as if you’re trying to persuade them to come to a concert. You’ll be so embarrassed, you won’t get past the first page.

Formal trappings of the concert experience. Music is an extremely difficult thing to photograph so most orchestras photograph the things that have traditionally gone along with classical music-making and assume they’ll resonate with the needs, wants and desires of new audiences. If you’re a marketing director of an ailing music organization whose new audiences say they want fun nights out with friends that include drinks, food and great live music, stop publishing pictures of tuxedo-clad artists operating 18th century music making machinery and start using pictures of young, diverse people enjoying drinks, food and great live music in your venue.

Joshua Bell. Yes. Guest artists need to be promoted and, within the world of people who care about such things, notable artists continue to influence sales. But outside the world of people who care about such things – the place where new audiences come from – guest artists may be secondary considerations. If you’re a financially troubled institution and you’re wall-papering your brochure with every guest artist on the roster (yes, it happens), it might make more sense to focus on the marquee names and use the remaining space for explaining why one of your faithless churners might want come back for another concert – irrespective of who’s on the program.

Institutional baggage. The season brochure and its cousins are there to sell tickets. Unfortunately, the world of nonprofit arts blurs the line between messages that are meant to earn revenue and messages that are meant to further the institution’s mission-oriented objectives. The result is sales tools that talk about how excited the executive leader is about the upcoming season, the great work the education department is doing, which composers took their cues from folk traditions, who showed up at the gala, why the money we’re asking you to spend isn’t enough and how important the whole thing is to the continuity of Western civilization. If you’re a marketer at an institution that needs to sell tickets in order to survive, it could be a good idea to make sure your sales messages focus exclusively on persuading people to buy tickets.

I know I’ve said it all before and I apologize to regular readers who’ve already gotten the message, but I can’t help it. It’s painful to watch so much effort on the part of so many talented, passionate dedicated people go down the tubes when one of the industry’s core problems is so glaringly obvious and so easy to fix.

Do New Audiences Think You’re Nuts?


The ubiquitous Twitterer Howard Sherman called me out the other day for claiming that arts organizations don’t do research. Many do conduct research, of course, so it’s unfair of me to have made such a sweeping generalization.

I stand corrected, Howard.

But I remain deeply concerned about the type of research that arts organizations do and the extent to which the results of that research influence marketing practice. Anyone who’s followed this blog knows that I am convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that the arts really suck at talking to new audiences. I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions that the content of our strategic communications is overwhelmingly hackneyed, old-fashioned, impotent, insidery and self-indulgent, and that we’ve grown so accustomed to yakking at dying fans that we’ve lost the ability to speak meaningfully to the new audiences on which our futures depend.

When I make sweeping generalizations about research, I’m talking about the kind of research that connects us to the younger, more culturally diverse audiences we’ve been whining about for the last twenty years. I’m talking about research that taps into their yearnings so we can draw motivating connections between what we do and what they want. I’m talking about research that teaches us not what radio stations people listen to, but rather what they need to hear us say so our ads will move them to buy the things we’re trying to sell. If we’re serious about speaking persuasively to new audiences, we have to know them as well as we know our old audiences so the fresh new language they expect to hear comes out of us as naturally as the tired old language that we refuse to stop speaking.

The only hope the arts have for sustaining and growing audiences is a constant supply of new participants, and the only hope we have for motivating those fresh young audiences is knowing what motivates them. The alternative is to sit in our conference rooms imagining what they want, telling them what we think they should want, pretending they want what their grandparents wanted or, God forbid, offering up reasons for wanting us that might not have occurred to them yet. It’s the kind of thinking that gives us crap like this:

Celebrate Spring!

What better way to celebrate than with the unsurpassed joys of live music? From intimate performances of chamber music to majestic orchestral concerts, we’ve got just what you need to refresh your mind and spirit.

Cute isn’t it? Could have arrived in your inbox yesterday from just about any arts organization. But the problem is that it is the polar opposite of strategic communication.

Had the organization that published this done research into what motivates ticket-buying audiences, they’d have learned that there is no pent up desire among potential concertgoers to celebrate spring. And they’d have learned that even if there were such a desire, sitting in a dark concert hall is just about the last place anyone might claim to want to do it. You can funnel ten thousand prospects through a thousand focus groups with hundreds of moderators asking an infinite number of penetrating questions about what people want, and not a single respondent is likely to say anything about celebrating spring by buying tickets to a classical music event.

What they will talk about is personal motivating impulses like enjoying live music, going out with friends, trying new things, drinks and dinner, bragging rights, belongingness, social interaction, inspiration, uplift, personal development and those intangible intrinsic benefits that people feel so deeply but find so difficult to describe. They’ll also talk about the things that turn them off like stuffiness, condescension, expense, exclusivity, inconvenience, artifice, arrogance and alienation. All of this is necessary knowledge for strategic communicators who want to know what they should and should not say.

No strategic message developer armed with such market intelligence would dream of talking about celebrating spring when it has nothing whatsoever to do with what their audiences have told them they want. The person who wrote this obviously didn’t have access to such information and instead decided to use his instincts, insider experiences, creative imagination and agility with poetic metaphor to come up with a fanciful suggestion about what a concert series might do for you if you stopped to think about it – in a certain way, with the lighting just right, an orchestra playing softly in the background, bluebirds flitting about and a soft breeze blowing through the lacy window curtains.

You wouldn’t sit down with a young friend or relative and try to get them to celebrate spring by coming to one of your concerts. They’d think you were nuts. It’s more likely that you’d use what you actually know about them to describe why you think they’d want to spend time and money on your products. “I remember how excited you were the night you heard Arvo Pärt in that club and I couldn’t help thinking this would be something you’d really like.”

The same goes for new audiences. If you talk silly, self-important nonsense they’ll know you’re out of touch with their reality. But if you do research and find out what they actually want, then use that information to bridge the divide between their yearnings and your products, they’re more likely to listen and then do what you so desperately need them to do.

Big data? Great. Pricing analytics? Great. Intrinsic impact research? Eh, I suppose, but none of it can save an organization that refuses to learn how to make rational, direct, personal, relevant, motivating communicative connections with its future audiences.

It’s Time to Stop Promoting the Arts


I’ve been thinking a lot about promotion and persuasion recently and I’m convinced that the reason the arts are losing audiences is that we don’t understand the difference.

The culture of arts marketing is one of promotion, of course. Always has been. And this was just fine back when demand was high, but the fact that audiences are in steady decline suggest that we need to be more persuasive, and we don’t seem to know what that means.

Fortunately, the good people at Merriam-Webster online dictionary offer a concise delineation:

Promote: To present a product for buyer acceptance through advertising, publicity, or discounting

Persuade: To move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action

There it is, right there in the first two words. To promote is to present while to persuade is to move. Promoters offer information in hopes of stimulating pre-existing demand while persuaders motivate people to act through the use of reasoned arguments or appeals. Put another way, promoters present their stuff and wait for audiences to happen while persuaders make audiences happen by motivating people to attend. The difference is profound.

For a useful example, look at the concert industry. Concert promoters select acts that have built-in demand and then advertise or publicize them so that fans will buy tickets. They don’t build audiences; they exploit pre-existing demand through promotions. If the demand is weak and the acts don’t draw, the promoters stop booking them because you can’t successfully promote something for which there is insufficient demand. Promotion alone, because it is by definition passive, doesn’t work on audiences that need to be moved.

The tragedy in the arts is that our industry is built on a promotional model that’s incapable of delivering the audiences on which our future depends. We’re like concert promoters pushing acts that we believe in, but that don’t have enough fan support to satisfy the bottom line. We promote vigorously – and expensively – but because our promotional efforts lack strategic rigor, we can’t motivate enough new customers to keep ourselves in business.

The solution of course is to stop promoting and start persuading, but that’s easier said than done. Resistance to persuasion goes deeper than semantics. In the arts there are a lot of people – especially among older artists and administrators – who believe that persuasion is beneath their dignity and that having to appeal to under-motivated buyers diminishes the integrity of the art they’re there to provide. Art, to them, is too valuable to have to be sold.

And the problem is compounded by the fact that embracing persuasion as a survival strategy means accepting a reality in which people don’t like or value us as much as they once did, and that’s an extremely difficult thing for veteran arts pros to do. Some would rather continue promoting their endeavors with vain, bombastic, self-flattering, self-important, self-deluding marketing content than admit that they’re dependent on customers who lack a self-motivating interest in what they do. Persuading fence-sitting audiences means shifting the emphasis of our strategic communications from us to them, and that’s a change that few established arts leaders are willing to endure.

The good new is that the industry has plenty of young, well-educated arts administrators who grew out of the ambivalent, relativistic cultures that older arts pros find so frustrating. They have an intuitive understanding of what it will take to get their peers in the door and strategic persuasion, to them, is a given. The big question is whether they’ll be able to persuade the arts administrators who hire them to let them do what must be done.

Arts Marketing Doesn’t Work Because It’s Irrational


I mentioned two posts ago that good marketing is based on a logical formula that looks like this:

We know you want x

We offer x

Thus we can reasonably project that you will do y

The x is the product you sell, of course, and y is the behavior you expect from your customers, i. e. “We know you want a great night out featuring dining, socializing and high quality artful entertainment. We offer a great night out featuring dining, socializing and high quality artful entertainment. Thus we can reasonably expect that you’ll come to our destination with your friends or family, patronize one of our nearby restaurants, and experience a high quality performance event in our venue.

Spock SmilingWhen I studied classical rhetorical theory in grad school (don’t go away; this is good stuff) I learned that the first two parts of this formula are indispensable components of the persuasion process. Aristotle himself said that if you want to get somebody to think a certain way or do a certain thing, first you have to know what they need or want, and then you have to describe how your product will satisfy their yearnings. It’s a surprisingly simple yet immensely powerful idea that smart businesspeople, preachers, politicians and scoundrels have been using for the last 2,500 years.

Sadly, however, it’s an idea that’s completely lost on arts organizations.

In the arts we tend to ignore the first part of the equation and instead slip in all sorts of self-serving alternatives that don’t have the same impact:

We assume you want x

We hope you want x

We think you should want x

We think you need x because we believe it’s good for you

We’re really excited about x

x is so wonderful that your wanting it shouldn’t matter

Our artistic director has staked his career on the expectation that you want x

We knew your grandparents wanted x fifty years ago, but we’re too lazy to find out what you want now

We’re only interested in donors, subscribers and members who want x

Our marketing department actually knows what you want, but our executive director thinks you want x and he approves all the marketing

We think that if we find a clever enough way to get your attention you’ll want x

We’re celebrating our 25th gala anniversary of x

Alec Baldwin wants x

We’re too afraid that you don’t actually want x to find out what you do want

Plug any of these into the strategic equation and you’ll quickly discover that they don’t work. Logic doesn’t function that way. If we want the third part of the equation to remain constant and predictable, the first part has to be grounded in fact, and it must exist in a precise, rational, causal relationship to the second so that, together, they point to an inevitable outcome:

We know you want x

We offer x

Thus we can reasonably project that you will do y

If you want to learn in advance whether your marketing messages are optimally, rationally persuasive, ask yourself these questions:

Have we gathered enough objective, external evidence to know for a fact what our target audiences want?

Have we done a good job of describing how what we’re selling will satisfy our target audience’s stated yearnings?

Since the second question is entirely dependent on there being an affirmative answer to the first, there’s really only one question worth asking. And if the answer isn’t yes, there’s no logical reason to proceed.

Have you gathered enough objective, external evidence to know for a fact what your new audiences want?

A Human-Centered Approach to Arts Marketing?


Last Sunday night, CBS’s 60 Minutes profiled a design consultant and Stanford University professor named David Kelley who founded a fascinating company called IDEO.

David Kelley - IDEO

David Kelley – IDEO

IDEO is a “global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.” The company’s philosophy is simple but it’s nothing less than revolutionary: create better products by watching people actually using them.

Here’s a brief exchange between Kelley and 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose:

Charlie Rose: The main tenet is empathy for the consumer – figuring out what humans really want by watching them.

David Kelly: If you want to improve a piece of software, all you have to do is watch people using it and see when they grimace and then correlate that to where they are in the software and you can fix that, right? And so the thing is to really build empathy, try to understand people through observing them.

Charlie Rose: In other words, their experience will communicate what you need to focus on.

David Kelly: Yeah. Exactly.

According to Kelley, a group of like-minded insiders sitting in a room trying to design something for outsiders will inevitably miss the mark, while a diverse group of creative thinkers paying close attention to how people actually use a given product will be far more likely to succeed. It’s the empathy with the user and the understanding of how they interact with the product that holds the key to innovation. (If you’re using a mouse right now, or one of its descendants, you are in direct contact with one of Kelley’s innovations – something he and his team developed for a young tech entrepreneur named Steve Jobs.)

As an arts professional, I couldn’t help listening to Kelley’s “grimace” comment without thinking of people reading arts marketing materials. We know the grimaces happen­ – arts marketing materials are among the least innovative and most grimace-worthy design products imaginable – but if we take some time to understand when, where and why those grimaces occur, we may be able to make our messages more effective.

I think arts marketing is long overdue for a human-centered design overhaul. The only way to know how to design effective marketing materials is to develop a deeply empathic sensitivity to the way our potential customers interact with our messages. If the grimaces occur as soon as they see the product or brand there may be no hope, but if potential customers start grimacing when they see the vanity shot of the tuxedoed conductor, the tedious welcome letter from the board chair, the hokey production shot from last season, the arcane academic jargon, the artsy wordplay, the hackneyed blurb, the hoary old clichés, the imperious ballerina in the tutu, the sterile architectural shot, the fawning society pics, the thrilling anniversary celebration, the endless barrage of vainglorious hype or the conspicuous absence of anything having to do with them, there may be some room for improvement.

Can human-centered design work on marketing materials? Absolutely. Brand and communications strategies are right up IDEOs alley. It’s true that most arts organizations can’t afford companies like IDEO, but there’s no reason we can’t start paying attention to how our marketing messages work – not the response rates or click-through rates they generate, but how potential customers engage, or fail to engage, with our strategic message content.

Imagine for a minute that your organization could afford IDEO and you hired them to put together a task group of independent auditors to watch a test group of young, culturally diverse people reacting to your marketing materials. What would the auditors observe? Where would the grimaces occur? What would this task group recommend to you after having seen the way new audiences react to your marketing messages?

The business world is rapidly embracing the idea that its products should be designed not according to what companies think they should be selling, but rather how customers want to use the products they sell. In the arts, we don’t necessarily want to change our products to meet the comfort and convenience expectations of our customers, but there’s no reason we can’t empathize with our customers’ attitudes and dispositions in order to improve the way we persuade them to participate.

10 Marketing Myths That Arts Leaders Still Believe


Arts pros love to talk about the various reasons audiences are disappearing, but few are willing to discuss the industry’s less than professional approach to marketing. Here are a few widely held misconceptions that I think should be part of the discussion.

Myth 1. Marketing is Common Sense

Reality: Marketing is a profession. Its practitioners benefit from in-depth academic study, insight into communication theory, practical business experience, knowledge of current trends and innovations, ongoing professional development and, as with all professions, plenty of accumulated expertise. Marketing is no more common sense than finance, law, engineering or playing the violin.

Myth 2. Executive Leadership Confers Marketing Expertise

Reality: The belief that marketing is common sense allows many arts leaders to think they possess marketing expertise by virtue of their rank. But arts leaders seldom arrive at their positions with enough knowledge or legitimate professional experience to claim such acumen. Most are under-prepared amateurs who, fit or not, make high-stakes decisions that impact the health and sustainability of their organizations.

Myth 3. Arts Marketing is Like Business Marketing

Reality: Arts marketing is unique, unusual and unlike business marketing in many significant respects. While business marketing tends to be current, customer-centered, rational and bottom line-driven, arts marketing is tradition-bound, self-centered, subjective and driven by multiple, overlapping and often contradictory institutional goals and objectives.

Myth 4. The Arts Do A Fairly Good Job of Marketing

Reality: The arts have been losing audiences steadily for the last three decades and all the while relying on the same loopy, hackneyed, repetitive, self-indulgent marketing content: “Celebrate Live Performance!” “Take a Journey of the Imagination” “If Music be the Food of Love…” “Experience the Magic” “It’s a Zany, Madcap Romp!” etc., etc., etc.

Myth 5. Technology is the Answer

Reality: Content is the answer. Always has been. Technology is a tool for delivering content so it’s more akin to your mail carrier than anything else. If you don’t expect your mail carrier to sell tickets, you shouldn’t expect technology to do it either.

Myth 6. Marketing is a Creative Enterprise

Reality: Marketing has a lot more to do with math and science than it does with creativity. Creativity is to marketing what paint color is to building a house. It’s an important and necessary part of the process, but it’s of no use whatsoever while the architects, engineers and builders are drawing up the plans.

Myth 7. We’re Selling Tutus, Tuxes and Tights

Reality: A casual observer could be forgiven for believing this is true, but the arts are actually selling customer experiences, which means – though you’d never know it by looking at our marketing – that it’s all about the customer. The frivolous, clichéd, self-flattering trappings we use to decorate our marketing materials are old-fashioned insider shorthand that curious outsiders often find obscure and off-putting.

Myth 8. Brainstorming is the Same as Strategy

Reality: Putting a group of artsy insiders in a conference room and having them dream up creative ways to tell the world about upcoming events is the worst possible approach to developing strategic sales messages – yet it’s the way we do marketing in the arts. A more professional approach would be to identify targets, gather objective market intelligence about their needs, wants and desires, then construct rational persuasive appeals that describe how the products will satisfy their yearnings.

Myth 9. Self-Congratulatory Bombast is a Good Way to Sell Tickets

Reality: This may have been true back in the olden days when there were a lot of people who thought we were as wonderful as we think we are, but it doesn’t appear to be true today. New audiences need to be told explicitly why our wonderfulness is of value to them or, in other words, how our products will satisfy their yearnings.

Myth 10. Audiences Need the Arts

Reality: While it may be true on a collective, philosophical level, it’s not true on a pragmatic, individual level. No single person needs any particular arts organization so if an organization’s “you need us” attitude creeps into its marketing messages, no matter how coy or clever the packaging may be, the message ends up being false, presumptuous, and condescending.

UPDATE: Followup post – “Ten More Marketing Myths That Arts Leaders Still Believe”

The “Lost Opportunity for Joy” School of Arts Marketing


Andrew Taylor has a post over at this week called “Filling the house, or filling the heart. In it he mentions an executive search consultant who recruits for arts organizations and who is:

“concerned about the shift in senior-level marketing director candidates, who see their work increasingly as a job rather than a calling (an empty seat is a missed metric rather than a lost opportunity for joy).”

Personally, I think this is wonderful news. The arts need dispassionate marketers who want good marketing jobs. We need skilled professionals who understand that every empty seat is a missed metric and that the joy it represents is useful only to the extent that it can be leveraged to persuade someone to sit in it. For years we’ve been hiring insiders who are passionate about the arts, but what we need now are skilled practitioners with outside perspectives who are passionate about marketing. That may seem heretical to arts leaders who subscribe to the old “opportunity for joy” school of arts marketing, but it’s really the only sensible way forward in an era of diminishing demand and intense competition.

If you take a critical look at the “lost opportunity for joy” / “missed metric” dichotomy, you can’t help noticing that one is poetry while the other is math. One is an insider’s lament while the other is an objective description of reality. One is an emotional response to a sorry turn of events while the other is a statement of fact about a failed business strategy. They both do a good job of describing what happened, but only one sees the issue from a rational perspective and only one points to appropriate real world solutions.

Ask yourself this: What does an arts organization do when faced with lost opportunities for joy? If you’re like most arts pros, your answer will be to find more compelling ways to communicate how inherently joyful your products are. You’ll pursue strategies for developing more expressive copy, more dramatic photography and more creative design concepts. And if history is a guide, you’ll produce promotional materials that do a slightly better job of telling the world how wonderful you are and how lucky folks will be to experience the joy you believe your products can deliver.

But ask what an organization must do when confronted with missed metrics and the answer will be dramatically different. Metrics are measurements. Missing metrics are gaps in the strategic equation – necessary information that the marketers failed to gather or consider. Who were the people who didn’t buy those seats? Where were they? What did they do instead? What are their needs, wants and desires? What might we have done differently to persuade them to choose us over the competition? How can we go about gathering the information we need about this audience – and others like them – so we have the necessary metrics for developing successful new audience marketing initiatives?

The missed metrics approach asks us to use data rather than opinion, tradition or instinct. It tells us to gather objective, external intelligence so we can create rational persuasive strategies. It insists that we take a businesslike approach to marketing – no matter how unbusinesslike the rest of our organizations insist on remaining. And it forces us to plug the gaping holes in our joy-expressing strategies with audience oriented facts so our sales campaigns will be efficient, effective and predictable. In short, it demands that we learn why and how our new audiences seek joy long before we presume to tell them where they should find it.

Marketing is more about science and math than it is about creative expression. The arts didn’t need to know this back when there were plenty of people in the marketplace who actively sought joy in the products we sold. But those people are dying and young people aren’t looking for joy in the same places so we have a lot of quantitative catching up to do.

If we want stop losing audiences and start finding new audiences, we have to leave the poetry to the poets, hire smart, professional, businesslike marketers and then give them the support they need to do their jobs.

How Many Tuxedos Does It Take To Sell A Concert Ticket?


I saw a subscription brochure for a major American orchestra recently that was just plastered with pictures of people in formal attire. And I do mean plastered. I started counting individuals in tuxes and gowns and lost track at around the 350 mark. There were several shots of the orchestra, which accounted for quite a few, then there were chorus shots, which nearly doubled the number, then there was a shot of the full orchestra and chorus together, which must have been at least 200 more, plus various shots of guest artists, society types at the gala, and no fewer than ten close-ups of the conductor – all in black formal wear!

In economics, the law of diminishing returns suggests that adding too much of a useful thing to a given process will at some point reduce the desired output. If a farmer uses the right amount of fertilizer, for example, the crop yield is high, but if he keeps adding fertilizer he’ll reach a point where the nutrients go out of balance and the yield begins to diminish.

I’m fairly certain there’s a point of diminishing returns in arts marketing. It’s the point where the comfortable old clichés we’ve been using for the last six or seven decades – things like tuxedos, for example – start doing more harm than good. The nutrient mix of a fertile marketing message, if you will, requires balance to produce the best results. Old audiences may welcome images of tuxes because they evoke positive memories of previous concert experiences. But new audiences may find them off-putting because they convey a formality or stuffiness that diminishes the appeal of going out with friends to enjoy some live music.

If you want to know how many tuxes you should use for best results, start by knowing for certain how appealing they are to old audiences and how unappealing they are to new audiences, then decide how important these targets are to your organization. If your research shows that tuxes are a turnoff to new audiences and new audiences are extremely important to you because without them you’ll eventually go out of business, you might want to use fewer images of tuxedos.

Given how many tuxes there were in the brochure above, It seems evident that either this organization’s research revealed an unusually positive response to formal wear among new audiences, or the organization had no interest whatsoever in appealing to uninitiated outsiders. My guess is that neither is true and they did what most arts organizations do: They talked a lot about how important younger, more culturally diverse audiences were, but didn’t actually do any research into what motivates them – or offends them, as the case may be – and then simply gave their graphic designer the photos they had, which were of people in tuxes and gowns, and encouraged said designer to use whatever pictures she thought would make the executive director happy.

I mentioned in passing some months ago that if a picture is worth a thousand words, it might be a good idea to write a thousand-word essay about how your product satisfies the needs, wants and desires of younger, more culturally diverse audiences and then choose a photograph that best illustrates the process. If you were to actually research and write such an essay, chances are you’d be using shots of young, diverse-looking people laughing and enjoying drinks together in your lobby bar – and there wouldn’t be a tuxedo in sight.

I’m being a bit simplistic here to demonstrate a point. Tuxedos are a quantifiable cliché that classical music executives can begin to count and ratchet downward in hopes of restoring balance to their persuasive endeavors. But the broader point is that all arts marketing messages have to be properly balanced and that different people tend to respond to pictures of tutus, swooning sopranos, marble busts and mugging Shakespearean clowns in different ways. If we want to motivate new audiences, we have to know in advance how they’ll respond to our most beloved – but potentially offensive – iconography and then produce marketing messages that attract rather than repel them.

Technology Won’t Save The Arts


If you follow ongoing public discourse about the arts, you’ll quickly discover that traditional art forms are losing audiences, that younger, more culturally diverse audiences must be found to replace graying audiences, and that finding new audiences means adopting the technologies that younger, more culturally diverse people use to communicate.

Try following arts pros on Twitter for a while and you’ll experience a barrage of breathless advocacy for up-to-the-second technological answers to the arts’ most pressing marketing problems. Peruse breakout session schedules for industry conferences and you see that mobile technology is the panacea we’ve been waiting for. Or dive into the blogosphere and you’ll discover that anyone who’s not already on [new social media site name here] is hopelessly behind the curve. If the question is, “How do we build new audiences?” the answer is almost always new technology and, sadly, it’s almost always the wrong answer.

If building new audiences were a simple matter of getting the same old marketing messages in front of younger, more culturally diverse targets, it might be the right answer, but that’s not how it works. New audiences are less interested in the arts than old audiences. If we want to convince them to participate, we need stop focusing on getting our messages in front of them and start motivating them by talking to them about why they should come. These are two entirely different things and the latter is concerned not with technology, but with the uniquely human process of persuasion.

The accepted language of arts marketing is vapid, trite, amateurish, self-important, self- flattering bullshit that was developed by aloof insiders for people who were so interested in the arts that it didn’t matter what we said as long as we gave them the information they were waiting for. But new audiences don’t respond to bullshit and they’re not sitting around waiting for our information. They may not care about our information and their lack of enthusiasm for our products won’t be overcome by new technology. If we want to persuade them, we have to make a compelling case with direct, relevant, customer-oriented language – and language is not about technology, it’s about content.

The new media world accepts as a truism that content is king, but in the arts we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that digital innovation will somehow render our passive, non-strategic content suddenly persuasive – that technology is capable of taking a mind-numbingly inane phrase like “Celebrate the Experience of Live Performance” and delivering it with more meaningful potency to a smartphone in a young hispanic person’s pocket. We’ve allowed shiny new objects to blind us to the limitations in our archaic promotional content and distract us from making fundamental, necessary changes in the way we speak to the world around us.

The answer to the problem is easy and surprisingly inexpensive. It involves knowing who we’re talking about when we say things like younger, more culturally diverse audiences. It involves learning what they want, which means talking to them – and listening to them. And it involves developing a fresh, direct, relevant promotional language that enables us to describe how what we sell will satisfy their yearnings.

Is technology important? You bet it is. It’s the vehicle that will carry our content to its intended recipients, it’s the conduit that will facilitate our loyalty building conversations with new audiences and it’s the convenience factor that will make buying faster and easier than ever before.  And, yes, it can even shape and enhance our message content to make it more appealing and possibly even a little more persuasive to people who prefer one technology over another. But we can’t allow ourselves to believe that shiny new technology will mitigate the need for thoughtful, strategic, audience-focused new content development.

Asking technology to be persuasive is like asking the mail carrier who drops off the same old subscription brochure you’ve been cranking out for the last thirty years to convince the mail recipient to subscribe. It’s not his job, it’s not what he’s there for and he’s not going to do it.

Are We Selling Art or Destinations?


One of the most valuable arts marketing lessons I ever learned came from attending a trade show for Asian tour operators back in the 90s .

I was working for Broadway producer Cameron Mackintosh selling blockbuster shows to travel industry buyers and was sent to a conference designed to introduce North American travel products (hotels, attractions, culture, restaurants, etc.) to some of Asia’s largest travel packagers. It was my first international show and my first solo sales trip so I was nervous, but willing to watch, listen and learn.

Much to my chagrin, though, this wasn’t a show for wallflowers. On the first day I was informed that I’d be participating in an itinerary development contest that involved putting together a three-day stay for Asian travelers with a full schedule of sights and activities –including my products of course – built around a theme of my choosing. And I’d be presenting that itinerary to the entire delegation on the last day of the conference!

Now I was just there to sell my shows and hadn’t thought much about travel itineraries, much less how to package Broadway musicals into a themed experience with other destination products. But I figured I’d give it my best shot and suffer the inevitable embarrassment of competing against real pros who’d been dealing with the international travel industry longer than I had.

Here’s what I did. The Phantom of the Opera was one of my shows and the emerging Goth style was just heating up so I developed a “Gotham City” weekend in New York centered on Phantom, the newly opened musical Jekyll & Hyde, a dark revival of Cabaret, a mid-town theme restaurant called Jekyll & Hyde’s, a magic themed restaurant called Copperfield’s, a nighttime sightseeing tour of haunted Manhattan, a shopping excursion to some East Village fetish stores and a club crawl culminating at one of the city’s hottest Goth clubs.

On the last day of the conference I stood up in front of the delegation, did my dog and pony show and sat down again certain that the folks from the Chicago Convention and Visitors Bureau would take away the prize for their incredible architecture weekend: “We Built It: You Should Come.”

The arts marketing lesson I learned that day was that however good my product was and however appealing it might have been on its own, it was only as good as the destination it was in, and that there were plenty of other equally attractive – maybe even more attractive  – destinations competing for my customers. I had arrived at the trade show a cocky New Yorker representing the most popular musical in the world, and left three days later knowing that no matter how popular the show was, customers would choose the most attractive package.

I’ve tried to keep that lesson front-of-mind since then and apply it whether I’m selling art or commercial entertainment, and whether my customers are traveling from China or from the other side of town. Some of those customers will want what I’m selling so badly they’ll do anything to get there. But others – and this is especially true for new audiences – will judge the appeal of my products based on the overall value of the experience and whether it’s worth going where I want them to go. For new audiences, the dining, shopping and related leisure entertainment can be just as compelling as the core product, and the relative appeal of the package can be the ultimate determining factor.

The other lesson I learned that day was that my customers needed more from me than just information about my product. They needed me to put my product in context so they could better understand why it was worth all the time, energy and money it would take to get there.

And the contest? Well naturally I won. “We Built It: You Should Come?” Phffft.

Narcissus and the Executive Director: A Story about Love


Once upon a time a young maiden fell madly in love with a beautiful youth, but when she declared her love for him he rejected her callously as was his habit. So the maiden cursed the haughty youth and prayed that he, too, would come to know unrequited love.

One day the youth stopped in the woods to drink from a pool of water. When he bent toward the still pool he saw his reflection and fell madly in love with it. But when he reached out to embrace his new love, he found that he was unable to possess the object of his passions. So transfixed was he by this beautiful but elusive reflection that he sat and stared at it for days on end, foregoing all movement or nourishment, allowing his body to weaken and his beauty to fade.

Soon the maiden found the youth and took pity on him, even though his looks no longer elicited her passion, but she was unable to break the curse.

Eventually the youth died and the despairing maiden wandered off into the countryside never to be seen again.

It’s Echo and Narcissus, of course, a tale about the dangers of being so self-consumed that you lose your connection to those who sustain you. I’m repeating it here because it illustrates a curious dynamic that exerts a powerful – and perhaps even tragic – influence on the the way we in the arts communicate with the world around us.

In the cultural sector, the captivating reflection in the pool is comprised of all the places we look for validations of our worth: rave reviews, feature articles, press releases, quote ads, social media, glossy brochures, street pole banners, adoring fans, loyal audiences, elbow-rubbing celebrities, big donors, envious colleagues, bitter competitors, fawning socialites, prying media, cheering crowds, ambitious employees, flattering wannabes, needy artists, and sometimes even the actual integrity of the artistic products we place in our venues. People who work in the arts, especially those who’ve made it to the top, don’t have to look far for flattering reflections, and most find them irresistible.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking affirmation in the world around us, of course, but arts leaders have the unique ability to manipulate some of those reflections, and that’s where the danger lies. To illustrate how the dynamic works, consider a typical marketing meeting where the executive director is about to weigh in on some new campaign ideas. The marketing team has been hard at work developing concepts and they’ve come up with three to present.

The first idea is a traditional approach with pumped up, self-congratulatory language, star photos and flattering media quotes. The second idea overlays a clever thematic through-line onto the season lineup and uses a witty bit of wordplay as its principal attention-getter. The third idea is less flashy, but it’s based on research showing that less-avid consumers lack the ability to envision themselves enjoying time in the venue. It focuses on the audiences and the good time they’ll have coming to the events.

Which idea will generate more revenue? The third one. It’s based on research and it focuses on the customers. There’s no substitute for doing homework and structuring appeals that demonstrate how your product will satisfy what the market wants.

Which one will the executive director pick? The first one, of course. The one that tells the world how wonderful his organization is. There’s not an arts leader in the industry that doesn’t want to open the Sunday paper and see something printed there that makes him look successful — even if he designed it and placed it there himself. In that exquisite moment when a senior decision maker has to choose what his (or her) reflection will look like — in the Sunday paper or any other medium — every instinct, every emotion, every experience he’s had in the industry will compel him to go with the option that casts him in the most favorable light.

Arts executives, because they are almost universally amateur marketers, cannot separate their ego investments in their organizations from the cool, rational decision-making skills that are necessary for effective marketing. Trying to convince them to opt for the strategic audience-centered route is tantamount to Echo tapping on Narcissus’ shoulder saying: Rise up, dear youth, from yonder bank; pray look in my direction. Tis death for him whose eyes stray not from love’s inverse reflection.

Narcissus’ only hope for survival was to resist the temptation to dwell on his reflected wonderfulness and recognize that he was dependent on the simple, unremarkable people in the village whom he held in such disdain.

If being wonderful and constantly reminding the world how wonderful we are isn’t enough to sustain the arts, maybe we need to focus a little bit more on the people who will be taking care of us when our wonderfulness is no longer evident.

[This post is adapted from my book “Marketing the Arts to Death: How Lazy Language is Killing Culture.”]

It’s Time for Arts Execs to Zip It


It’s a time-honored custom in the arts to allow executive leaders to vet campaign ideas and select the content of the communications that will be used to market their organizations. Unfortunately, these leaders often have no academic background in communications and no meaningful experience with professional marketing practices, so their choices tend to be more about tradition, gut instinct, ego and personal opinion than they are about objective, external considerations.

The problem with this, of course, is that objective, external considerations are the only worthwhile considerations. The expert opinions of under-educated, inexperienced arts executives are of extremely limited value and the process of letting the highest-paid person set marketing strategy – whether or not that person arrived in the position with sufficient expertise – is outdated, amateurish and increasingly counterproductive.

This will be painful news for arts leaders who believe that rendering opinions on marketing is an important part of their jobs, but the arts can’t afford to let that happen anymore. With arts organizations closing their doors from coast to coast, it’s time for senior arts execs to stifle their subjective marketing impulses, keep their opinions to themselves and start letting objective market data tell them what to do.

The only way to understand the potential effectiveness of a communications strategy is to determine if it promises to satisfy the needs, wants and desires of its target audience. And the only way to do that is to know exactly what the target audience needs, wants or desires. If you’re an executive leader, your job when vetting marketing materials is not to insert your personal opinion into the process, it’s to make sure your marketing staff can answer these questions:

  • Who are we targeting?
  • What have our target audiences told us they want?
  • How do we know that? Have we guessed or have we gathered reliable information?
  • Have we established motivating connections between what the target has told us they want and what’s true about our products?
  • Is this the most effective way to convince target audiences that our products will satisfy their yearnings?
  • Does this message strategy appeal to old audiences and new audiences alike? How?
  • Does this message strategy compete effectively for their attention and interest? Are the attention getters and enhancements consistent with the strategy?

As for considerations that the arts normally use to evaluate materials – How did we do it last time? What do other arts organizations do? Will the artistic director freak if we don’t use his photo? What will my industry peers think? Wouldn’t it be easier to do what we’ve always done? How will the board chair react? Shouldn’t the Arts Council credit be larger? I like the one that tells the world how wonderful I am we are. Shouldn’t we be mentioning the education program? Will the foundations be pissed if we do something they don’t understand? Can’t we slip in a funding pitch on the last page? I just know it would be prettier in blue. Will people think we’re tacky if it looks too salesy? Why’s the logo so small? Isn’t the logo the brand? I thought the logo was the brand. What if they find out I don’t really know that much about marketing? – You can use them if you want, but arts leaders who are genuinely concerned about the fiscal health of their organizations would be well advised to set aside self-centered concerns and begin approaching marketing strategy from the perspective of the people who matter most.

Effective marketing starts with the audience – not with a group of insiders sitting in a conference room filtering spontaneous creative inspiration through a gauze of tradition, subjectivity and dubious expertise. The senior executive’s role in this process is to keep the focus on the customer and make certain that strategic communications are developed in response to reliable, external market intelligence. I’m well aware that this is a radical departure from accepted practice and that professional, audience-centric marketing is not part of our culture, but audiences have been disappearing for several decades now and there’s no excuse for perpetuating amateur methods that fail to prevent – or perhaps even hasten – their departure.

If you’re an arts administrator who’d like to give professional marketing strategies a try, the simplest and perhaps best first step is to do this: No matter who you are, how high you are in the food chain or how much you think you know, when it comes to marketing, if you’re inclined to start a sentence with “I think…, say “We know…” instead.

If you can’t finish the sentence because you don’t know, find out.

Had a Fascinating Chat with my Mailing List the Other Day…


I once worked for a performing arts organization that sent out a steady stream of repetitive, self-centered, shamelessly boastful marketing messages that, for all their bravado, were about as interesting as old wallpaper. One day in a marking meeting I said, “I wonder if it might be useful to step back and think about the audiences we’re targeting to see if what we’re saying resonates with them. I mean, who are we talking to?” And the marketing director said with withering condescension, “Trevor, dear, we’re talking to everyone.”

I hope it goes without saying that talking to everyone is the same as talking to no one, but I’ll say it anyway: Talking to everyone is the same as talking to no one. The essence of marketing is appealing to the needs, wants and desires of a particular audience, so if you’re talking to everyone, you either have to appeal to every need, want and desire in all of humanity or you have to put your information out there and hope that it hits enough people who’s needs, wants and desires fit with what you’re selling. The latter, of course, pretty much sums up what arts marketing has been about for the last half century.

If you can’t describe exactly who you’re talking to when you craft your marketing messages, you can be absolutely certain that those messages are NOT strategically persuasive. They may be informative and they may even be enticing, but persuasion means knowing what your audience wants and then demonstrating how your product will satisfy their yearnings. If you can’t describe who you’re talking to, you can’t possibly know what they want. And if you don’t know what they want, you can’t describe how your product will make them happy, which is what satisfying yearnings is all about.

“Oh, but Trevor, we know who we’re talking to. We’re talking to arts lovers and we’re telling them about things they’ll really be interested in.”

Yeah, well, that’s really quite charming but this is 2012 and the likelihood of there being enough self-motivated arts lovers within your sphere of influence is getting slimmer every day. Arts marketing messages can’t just appeal to the pre-motivated. They have to motivate, which means they have to be strategically persuasive, which means they have to promise to satisfy the needs, wants and desires of the people you’re talking to – especially if you’re hoping to attract new audiences. If you’re talking to some abstract population of generic arts lovers and there aren’t enough of them in the marketplace to meet your sales goals, you’re not going to sell enough to stay in business. Period.

So here’s a tip for replacing those generic target audiences with actual people so you can start motivating more of the behavior you want. Divide your current audience into archetypes. Group them into categories like, perhaps, empty nesters, the founding generation, busy moms, gay professionals, etc. (Don’t just make it up, examine your data and your actual audiences carefully.) Then, do the same thing for new audiences. Decide who you want to see in those empty seats or galleries and craft archetypes for them as well.

Next, describe those archetypes in terms of their demographic characteristics, levels of interest in your product and lifestyle choices. Using the market intelligence you’ve gathered, craft profiles that describe your submarkets in detail, taking care to include information on what they want and how your product can satisfy their yearnings. Be honest, be as objective as you can and never make assumptions that aren’t supported by data.

Phil and Honey

Then – and this is the really important part – create and name characters that personify your archetypal profiles. Give them lives and personalities and make them as real and vivid as you possibly can. Find or take photos that bring those characters to life, blow them up and place them on your conference room walls. Work with your administrative colleagues to create a family of audience prototypes, make them part of your daily administrative conversations and get used to referencing them, by name, whenever you discuss marketing strategies.

Here’s a promise: If those photos and profiles are on the walls in your conference room the next time you sit down to develop marketing messages, your messages will be far, far more effective. Knowing exactly who you’re talking to will force you to speak to them rather than at them, it will force you to address their needs, wants and desires, and it will help you steer clear of the lopsided, narcissistic self-flattery that so often passes for strategic messaging in the arts.

Next time, try talking to individuals rather than to your database and I guarantee you’ll have a much more interesting conversation.

Three Questions Every Arts Exec Should Ask when Vetting Marketing Materials


Selecting the right marketing messages is one of the most important parts of an executive leader’s job. The messages will have a profound impact on earned revenue and they’ll be the most influential tools for shaping the organization’s brand. But more importantly, they’ll be responsible for growing and sustaining the audience on which the organization’s future will depend. It’s a daunting task that every executive leader should approach with prudence and discernment.

I’ve been developing marketing materials for nearly thirty years and during that time I’ve made presentations to all sorts of executive leaders from people who knew very little about marketing to some of the most brilliant minds in the arts & entertainment industry. The leaders I respected most were the ones who asked the most astute and insightful questions and – no surprise here – they were the ones who made the most productive choices.

Here are the questions I appreciated most. They’re the ones that kept me on my toes and they’re questions that I believe every executive leader should have a right to ask.

1. Who are we talking to?

It’s impossible to develop persuasive marketing messages if you don’t know who you’re talking to. One of the easiest ways to know who you’re talking to is to decide in advance who you expect to be in your audience, so a reasonable answer to this question might go something like this: “We’re projecting sales at 94% of capacity broken down as follows: Subscribers/members = 34%, Singles from in-house databases = 22%, Special target audiences (millennials, game enthusiasts, sci-fi/fantasy readers) = 18%, Students = 11%, Adult groups = 9%.”

If your team can’t describe in detail exactly who they’re talking to, the messages they’re presenting are guaranteed to be off target.

2. How does this message work?

This is a new one for most arts professionals, but it’s probably the most important question anyone can ask. At a time when arts audiences are shrinking, messages have to do more than just get the word out; they have to persuade.

Persuasion involves describing how a product satisfies an audience’s needs, wants or desires so marketers who want their messages to work have to convince audiences that the product will satisfy their yearnings. One good answer to a question like this might be: “Our research into millennials revealed that their entertainment decisions are based on social factors and that they need to understand how the product relates to them. That’s why this approach includes photos of young people enjoying drinks with friends in the lobby bar.”

To be acceptable, answers to this question must include verifiable facts about target audiences (no more guessing) and rational descriptions of how the information is being used to motivate message recipients.

3. What results are you projecting?

Unlike message delivery, message development has always fallen into a squishy area where cause and effect relationships couldn’t be sorted out or measured. But since persuasive messages are built on cause and effect models (you want X, my product offers X, therefore you will do Y), it’s OK to begin attaching expectations: “We’re confident that our 94% goal will be met or exceeded because our messages are built on sound research and they contain appeals that satisfy across multiple targets. Plus, we’ve been refining similar audience-oriented messages over the last three seasons and have seen a 14% increase in sales.”

Think of those credit card come-ons that were so common before the economic downturn. The messages in those letters had been honed with scientific precision over thousands of campaigns to a point where marketers could pinpoint to the penny exactly what responses they’d generate. Arts marketing may never reach that level of sophistication, but there’s no reason we can’t start down the same road.

In the arts we’ve allowed message content to lag way behind message delivery. If we want to get serious about strategic messaging, we need to start asking serious questions about whether or not our messages are doing their jobs. But before we do that, we need to make sure that marketers understand the questions and that they’re given the support they’ll need to find the answers.

As an industry, we’re losing audiences every day so the sooner we start asking the questions, the sooner we’ll start reversing the trend.

Engage with New Audiences? Somebody Get Me an Intern!


I was speaking to a group of arts pros recently about the importance of knowing what motivates marginal audiences (a.k.a. new audiences) and someone asked me how we might go about learning that. It was a good question, but the fact that it had to be asked speaks volumes about how arts administrators relate – or fail to relate – to the people who keep them in business.

The answer, of course, is to talk to them. If we want to know what motivates people to come to our events, the easiest thing to do is to stand in the lobby, introduce ourselves to arriving guests – especially the ones who look least at home – and ask them what motivated them to come.

The people we most need to know – those who occupy the outer fringes of our audiences – come in and out of our venues every day. Getting to know them and learning why they come is a simple matter of saying hi and striking up a conversation. And the more we know about them, of course, the more we’ll know about what it takes to get others like them to come too.

The sad thing about this is what’s likely to happen if an arts organization tries it. The idea will be proposed by the marketing staff, the program will be approved by senior management, forms will be drafted and a team of clipboard wielding interns will be dispatched to the lobby to accost guests and check off little boxes. In typical arts management style, the people who most need to engage directly, sincerely and humbly with new audiences – the senior decision makers – will assign their lowliest staffers to mix with the common rabble who pass through the venue doors.

If you’ve ever wondered why arts marketing materials are such repetitive, ineffective, self-congratulatory crap, the answer lies in the fact that we don’t know the people we’re talking to when we create them. It’s impossible to develop strategic messages when we haven’t bothered to learn what motivates the individuals we’re trying to persuade. The essence of persuasion is describing how our products satisfy the needs, wants and desires of our target audiences, but if we don’t have a direct, intimate, personal understanding of those yearnings, we’ll never be able to appeal to them.

I once oversaw marketing for a multi-year run of The Lion King in Los Angeles. About a year into the run demand started to wane so I started hanging around the lobby introducing myself to newcomers and asking what prompted them to buy tickets. Over time I met hundreds of people who handed me a wealth of information about the motives of fence-sitting audiences – information that directly influenced the creation of effective new marketing messages. It was astonishingly easy to do and it didn’t cost a cent.

So when people ask me how to learn what motivates new audiences, here’s what I recommend: Make certain that everyone who has input into the marketing process spends time getting to know new audiences. Insist that executive leadership, artistic leadership and the marketing staff all sign up for regular shifts in the lobby where they’ll converse with real, live first-time ticket buyers.

Make it about establishing rapport and developing sincere personal connections, but make it also about learning what motivated each person to act: “Jennifer, I’m curious to know what made you and your friends come down to the arts center tonight. Was there something in particular that prompted you to place the order?” After the conversations, and well out of sight of the patrons, record what you learned and begin aggregating the data.

For an industry that talks so much about engagement, we have a surprising reluctance to initiate meaningful contact where it matters most – between arts leaders and the new audiences that will decide how long they can keep their jobs. The fatal flaw in arts marketing is the chasm we’ve allowed to develop between the people who decide what to say and the people who should be telling us what needs to be said.

Since survival may depend on closing that gap, why not grab your ED and wander down to the lobby tonight to say hello to tomorrow’s audience?

Freud und Churn


I was chatting about audience development recently with a fellow who manages a prominent performing arts institution and the discussion turned quickly toward the subject of churn. He was having problems with uncommitted single ticket buyers who returned infrequently or never at all and it was driving him crazy.

The more he talked about his churn problem, the more disdainfully he spoke about his unreliable, marginal, inconstant customers and the more obvious it became that he resented them deeply for the damage they were doing.

Later in the same conversation we talked about new audiences and he began to speak eloquently and surprisingly optimistically about untapped markets of loyal ticket buyers that he was certain lay just beyond his grasp. He was convinced that there were new audiences out there that weren’t being properly courted and that, if they could be found, would be the answer to his audience development problems. I could tell by the way he spoke that he was tremendously fond of these people, imaginary though they were.

What fascinates me about this, and other conversations I’ve had just like it, is the disparity in affection we maintain for the audiences we have and the audiences we wish we had. I admire the optimism that allows some to envision an enthusiastic, loyal, well-behaved audience that has yet to be properly persuaded, but I worry that belief in such an ideal may be preventing us from facing an unwelcome truth, which is that the new audiences we’re looking for are going to be found among, or near, our least favorite customers.

You know those folks who bought half-price tickets through that online discounter? Or the people who got vouchers through their HR office? Or the kids who used Grandma’s subscription seats that one time when she was in Florida? Or the couple who came with that other couple who bought some extra singles at the last minute? Or the folks who were at the hotel down the street and popped in for lack of anything better to do? Or the business guy who came because his client was an arts fan? Or that gaggle of young people who decided to try something different but left at intermission? Or the out-of-place-looking young couple in the cheap gown and hand-me-down jacket? Or the folks who came once because a starchitect designed the new venue? Or the people who were more interested in drinks and dinner than they were in the show? Or the people who came to the one event that featured people like them but then never came back? Or the folks who came on the bus with the person who placed the order with the intern who returns the messages on the group sales line? You, know; those people?

Uh huh.

We can dream all we want about external, ideal, as-yet-undiscovered audiences that are comprised of younger, more culturally diverse people who behave just like the audiences we have now, but those audiences don’t exist. The audiences that do exist are the ones that are coming now – and others very much like them who are not as well motivated but who are nonetheless more likely than the rest of the world to give us a try. These are our marginal and adjacent audiences – our new audiences – and they’re our future.

A few months after our conversation, my churn-weary friend’s organization sent me a subscription brochure that was every bit as old-fashioned, cliché-ridden and insider-oriented as the stuff that arts organizations started sending out when Danny Newman wrote Subscribe Now! thirty five years ago. He wanted the churn to stop, but he couldn’t bring himself to face, let alone speak to, the dreaded churners on whom his survival depended.

“Displacement” is a word that Freudian psychologists use to describe what happens when people substitute an imaginary ideal for an unacceptable reality. It’s a defense mechanism that helps otherwise healthy people cope with difficult situations. Unfortunately for some, displacement can become a debilitating delusion that prevents them from recognizing and dealing with the world as it is.

Crazy, huh?

Deadly Arts Marketing Cliché #5: Travel Metaphors


Poetry is not marketing.

Poets use language to evoke images, ideas and feelings in reader’s minds. The goal is usually some sort of transcendent synthesis that creates a connection between the writer, the reader and whatever broader realm the poet wants his readers to inhabit.

Marketers use language to describe how their products will satisfy their customers’ desires. The goal is to motivate customers to buy the product.  Big difference.

The brilliant marketer Scott Boilen didn’t use poetry to sell the Snuggie.  He showed people sitting on their couches eating popcorn and flipping channels without having to unwrap their blankets because that’s exactly what his customers wanted.

I got an email from an arts organization the other day that wanted me to “take a journey around the world” by subscribing to a concert series featuring composers from different countries. It was an attempt to use a poetic metaphor – in this case travel – to sell me tickets, but as I just mentioned, poetry isn’t marketing so it didn’t work.

It didn’t work because: 1. The poetry sucked. Any good writing teacher will tell you to steer clear of overwrought clichés – and travel metaphors in the arts are about as hackneyed as you can get.  2. It didn’t describe the product in terms that reflected my desires. I wouldn’t want to go to a concert hall to travel around the world even if the idea were fresh and original.  3. When it comes right down to it, it’s not a trip around the world, it’s a classical concert series fercrissakes. If I want a vacation, I’ll call my travel agent.

Traditional sales-dependent art forms are in big trouble, but for some reason we still allow ourselves to publish vapid, self-indulgent amateur poetry in our marketing materials when we should be speaking a direct, persuasive, customer-oriented language that motivates new audiences. The only reason anyone should ever use a travel metaphor in a promotional message is if their research revealed a hunger for metaphorical travel among the audiences they were targeting:

“Our focus group participants expressed a strong desire to engage in imaginary travel to foreign countries by listening to music from time to time that was written by international composers.”

Sounds silly, doesn’t it?  Of course it does.  It’s absurd.  The likelihood of those younger, more culturally diverse audiences we’ve been whining about expressing such desires is ludicrous. Try slipping some of your own fanciful promotional poetry into that sentence and see if it fits.

Our focus group participants expressed a strong desire to celebrate live theatre.”

Or better yet, do some research to find out what your fence-sitting audiences actually do want, then sell them your product by telling them in direct and un-ornamented words and images exactly how it will fulfill their desires.  It is impossible to write inane promotional poetry when you’re talking to real people in real language about the things they told you they really care about.

I know some of you are arguing with your computer screens right now, “But, but, but we’re the arts! We’re not selling Snuggies, we’re selling transcendent experiences. Our marketing would be dull and lifeless if all we did was satisfy the mundane desires of couch potatoes.” And you may be right; poetic metaphors may be necessary to fully express what’s so special about the products we sell. But it’s not up to us to assume what new audiences want, or tell them what they should want or, god forbid, try to awaken wants they didn’t even know they had. That’s a job for poets who aren’t looking for a cash return on their investment. The rest of us have to start where Scott Boilen starts – on that couch in front of that TV – and learn what’s going to motivate people to get off their lazy, polyester-wrapped asses and come to our events.

Poetic metaphors may help to make our language more expressive, but when it comes to travel, the only journey we should care about is the one that begins on that couch and ends at our venue doors.

Next up: “…set against the backdrop…”

Classical Virtue Signaling

I found the paragraph below in a job ad for an arts marketing manager.

Somebody needs to encourage the ten highest-paid executives at the Philadelphia Orchestra to print out this paragraph, fan out into city neighborhoods, read it to people gathered in hoagie shops and pay very close attention to the looks on their faces.

For about a week.

“Leading with our bold vision to inspire and connect humanity through the Philadelphia Sound, we at The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc. are vital influencers and conveners, emblemizing our values of being exceptional, innovative, diverse and inclusive, and authentic. IDEAS—Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Strategies—is a comprehensive transformation process, guided by our vision and values, to assess and improve all aspects of our operations, concerts, and programs, and to spur sustainable change.”

Note to job applicants: Make sure you learn what ‘emblemizing values’ is before anyone asks you to do it.

Patti LuPone’s “Dumbing Down” Comments Insulting

According to Variety, Patti LuPone managed to insult millions of Broadway ticket buyers AND a host of Broadway producers recently with this comment:

“I think we’ve spent — not we, but whoever’s in charge of, whatever — has actively dumbed down the audience. And so the attention span of the majority of the audience, I think, is much less than it was in the past, and I don’t think plays are going to have long lives on Broadway — I feel as though it’s turning into Disneyland, a circus and Las Vegas.”

Calling someone who spent a small fortune to spend an evening with you ‘dumb’ is probably counterproductive.

If Ms. LuPone wants more sophisticated shows with smarter audiences, she should create and produce her own material and do her own marketing aimed at drawing only smart people with long attention spans to her shows. Only then will she have the right to call her customers dumb or compare her work to theme parks, circuses or popular entertainment destinations.

And it’s not just Patti. Arts professionals everywhere regularly insult the people who pay their salaries by lamenting the ‘dumbing down’ of audiences, criticizing their shortened attention spans, and complaining about having to produce ‘popular’ entertainment to get people to buy tickets. Seldom do these folks venture outside their artsy bubbles long enough to immerse themselves in the lives and cultures of the distracted dummies they so casually disparage.

To her credit, Patti is suggesting that she’s stepping away, which is probably a good idea. If you are old, and you have strict standards that were established several decades ago, and you are disturbed by changes that are happening around you, it’s probably best to pull away from the mainstream and hold onto whatever stability you can find for however long you have left.

Meanwhile, the world will continue to change, art and entertainment will endure, and audiences – however dumb and distracted they may be – will continue to decide who belongs on the stage.

Should Arts Orgs Dump Social Media?

A Denver dance company did and they’re just fine.

According to a recent article in The Denver Gazette, the Wonderbound dance company chose to take the time, money and energy that once went into social media, and direct it instead into personal engagement with their audience.

According to Artistic Director Garrett Ammon, the decision had no noticeable negative effects and sales are actually up. Ammon confessed that he’s “a total lifelong tech-geek,” but suspected that the tech his company had adopted was distancing people, rather than connecting people, to dance.

“Our stated mission is to deepen humankind’s common bond, and I feel that the way social media has evolved, it is doing the exact opposite.” – Garrett Ammon

I think Ammon has touched on a deeply unsettling truth about human art forms and digital media. They may be two entirely different and, ultimately, incompatible things.

Read the article and listen to the Ezra Klein podcast that Ammon mentions. It’s really fascinating stuff.

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Thanks to for the heads up.

Unhelpful, Hyperbolic Blatherskite

If you believe that artists deserve to be paid, or that arts organizations deserve to exist, you’ve got to read this great post from Alan Harrison.

My favorite quote: “Outside of a very few, no one cares if a nonprofit arts organization closes except its current staff, leaders, board members, artists, and its core audience. Politicking folks may experience temporary wringing of hands, but only for show.”

Alan has committed the ultimate nonprofit blasphemy of revealing that the community is the measure of the value of an arts organization.

It’s about them.

Who knew?

How to Overcome Strategic Stalling in Your Organization

Any young arts administrator whose attempts at innovation are thwarted by change-averse leaders should read this article: “What Stops Managers from Looking to Other Industries for Inspiration.” 

The Harvard Business Journal article does a great job of describing why organizations insulate themselves from external influences, and why it’s so hard for internal change agents to obtain and exploit useful information from outside their industry bubbles.

Fortunately, the article also offers pragmatic advice for overcoming these obstacles and finding ways to introduce productive innovations.

The arts belong to a business category where customers are asked to secure access (seats, tickets, admissions) to something that takes place outside the home. This means there is a natural kinship between the arts and a broad variety of businesses that do similar things: theme parks, attractions, sports venues, popular entertainment providers, special events & festivals, travel destinations, travel service providers, tour operators, etc. All of these businesses specialize in getting customers to come out and do something, and then selling them the access they’ll need to do it. 

And they all offer opportunities for the arts to learn about and embrace new ways of getting customers to participate, and new ways to sell them the tickets or admissions they’ll need to secure their access.

This pandemic has made innovation more important than ever before. It’s time for young, smart, well-educated arts managers to infuse their organizations with fresh knowledge from outside sources, and to circumvent the efforts of well-meaning but inert leaders to stop them.

Thanks to for including this article in their excellent roundup.

An Absolute Must-See Video for Arts Leaders

Ruth Hartt has hobbled together a demo video that every executive director of every traditional arts institution should see. It’s a raw mockup she’s created to illuminate the future of arts marketing and it may well be the salvation that audience-hungry arts organizations are searching for.

Click the link above, read the post carefully and watch the video.

If you’re member of the funding community, this is what you guys should be paying for.

If you’re an arts policy wonk, this is what the policy community should be advocating.

If you represent an arts industry trade organization, this is an initiative your group should be spearheading.

If you’re a leader of an arts organization who thinks your old-fashioned, self-centered promotional boasting is a good idea, you need to stand down, get out of the way and let this happen.

Promoting shows doesn’t work anymore. We have to sell the personal, emotional, customer-centered value of going to shows and Ruth has just given us a template for doing that.

It’s time.

L. A. Times Skewers ‘Paranoid’ Art Museum

If you like stories about arrogant, imperious, out-of-touch arts organizations getting their comeuppance, read this L. A. Times article now.

In the grand scheme of things, news stories about museum directors are about as important as summer corn salad recipes or things to do over the Labor Day weekend. And news stories about publicists trying to control news stories about museum directors are of dubious journalistic relevance.

But if you’re a Covid era arts administrator who still communicates with your support systems from a position of self-important superiority, Christopher Knight’s takedown of the Museum of Contemporary Art is a cautionary tale worth heeding.

It’s also a deliciously juicy good read.

Is it a Brochure or a Text Book?

In a recent blog post on her Culture for Hire website, Ruth Hartt reminds us that it’s not a good idea to be overly didactic in arts marketing content. It’s useful advice for organizations that need to replace audiences lost to the pandemic.

New audiences don’t possess the same background knowledge that older audiences do, so arts administrators often try to fill in the gap by slipping educational content into their marketing. It comes out of an ernest but twisted sort of thinking that says, “We know you lack this knowledge so we’re going to feed it to you in this promotional material in hopes of making you a better prepared – and thus better motivated – consumer.”

You know what I’m talking about: Ibsen exposed the plight of women in male-dominated 19th century Norway; Balanchine broke free from restrictive classical ballet traditions; Kodály incorporated Hungarian folk music in his compositions; Italian opera was once a popular art form; DaVinci dissected stolen cadavers to teach himself anatomy…

Some of it is innocent, and basically harmless, but a lot of it is pedantic to the point of being insulting. And, in case it isn’t obvious, insulting new customers in an effort to make them worthy of becoming our customers is a lousy marketing strategy.

If your pre-Covid sales content was peppered with educational tidbits and you’re not sure whether it was harmless or insulting, here are three questions you might want to ask before publishing your first post-covid promotional lesson.

Are you answering the questions your new customers are asking?

These questions tend to be things like: Will I enjoy this experience? Will the people I’m with enjoy this experience? Is it worth the money? Is it going to be obscure or intimidating? Will we be safe?

You can be certain they’re not asking about Russian ballet history or late nineteenth century Norwegian class structures. If you want to educate potential audiences, find out what they’re curious about first, and then use your communications content to answer the questions that are uppermost in their minds.

Does the information promise to satisfy desires that your new audiences expressed?

If your focus groups said they just couldn’t wait to hear how early 20th century ethnomusicologist/composers incorporated folk music traditions in their works, by all means, lecture away. But chances are they said they wanted to share a meaningful entertainment experience with friends or loved ones, in which case filling your communications content with history lessons is a truly terrible idea.

Even if your audiences tell you they want to be educated, which is just great, marketing is there to promise them the educational lift they desire, not deliver it.

Are you telegraphing a lack of respect for your customers’ existing level of knowledge?

If your communications content makes people feel ignorant or under-educated or ill-prepared to be a part of your audience – or that coming to your venue will be like going to school without having done their homework – you’re probably doing more harm than good.

Instead of feeding new audiences what you think they should know, learn what they do know and reward them for their knowledge: “You know good music.” “You love great stories well-told.” “You don’t have to be a TikTok star to know that dance is the best way to express certain powerful emotions.” “Mona Lisa is absurdly famous, of course; but have you ever wondered…”


The key to all this is learning what new audiences are curious about, learning what they yearn for, and respecting what they already know. Arts organizations that aren’t doing this have no business trying to teach people how to be their customers.

Three Survival Tools for Post-Pandemic Arts Leaders

Climbing out of the hole this pandemic has dug will not be easy.

Arts organizations are likely to see sharp drops in audience participation, which will be compounded by a slow build toward a new normal that could lag well behind pre-covid levels. Developing audiences during this process will be a delicate dance requiring a new set of attitudes and practices that arts leaders are likely find disturbingly unfamiliar.

Here are three survival tools that arts organizations will need in order to build sustaining audiences after the pandemic.


Nobody will be writhing in the aisles with their guts hanging out during your next Noel Coward play. Calling it a side-splitting, roll-in-the-aisles romp may be cute and catchy, and it may ring comfortingly familiar to older arts leaders, but it isn’t true and it’s not effective communication.

New audiences don’t respond to frivolous hyperbole. They want clear, honest, useful information that explains why your products matter to them. If what they’re looking for is a fun, stimulating way to create lasting memories with family, friends or loved ones, your job is to sell social experiences that offer lasting memories; i.e. if that memory is about sharing a funny play, you should probably say something like, “You’ll remember laughing together for a lifetime.”

Same goes for orchestral concerts, operas, dance events, gallery shows, etc. Take a closer look at your pre-covid communications and ask yourself, “Is this literally true?” “Is it fresh, direct and conversational?” “Does it accurately reflect what new audiences have told us they’re looking for?” “Does it honestly describe the experience newcomers will have when they attend our events?”

The pandemic has made new audiences more important than ever before. We’re talking survival-level importance here, so it’s time to stop spraying hokey nonsense at old insiders and start talking openly and honestly with young outsiders about how the art we sell will give them what they told us they want.


Older arts leaders will find it extremely difficult to humble themselves before the audiences on which their futures depend. It goes against everything they’ve ever believed about what they’re there to do: Creating and presenting art is a higher pursuit, administered by elevated people, for the benefit of lesser souls who might be motivated to aspire.

But new audiences aren’t motivated to aspire. They don’t recognize the elevated status of arts institutions and they lack an internal impulse to ascend into the ranks of an elite cultural class. Research tells us that arts audiences want stimulating ways to share quality entertainment with people they care about. For new audiences, the relative value of an arts event may be persuasive only to the extent that it can facilitate a rewarding social experience. (Talk about humbling.)

Take another look at those pre-covid communications. What have you been selling? If you’re like most arts organizations, you’ve been boasting about how wonderful and important you think your products are without bothering to ask the folks on the outer edges of your support systems (a.k.a. your future) what they think is wonderful and important.

Arts leaders who want to grow post-pandemic sustaining audiences would do well to embrace this crisis as a chance to reconnect with their communities – not as self-important, condescending purveyors of cultural elevation, but rather as humble members of diverse societies who have as much to learn as they have to offer.


It’s not about you anymore.

It really hasn’t been about you for a long time, but the pandemic is about to drive this truth home with painful urgency.

Take one more look at your pre-covid communications and measure how much content was devoted to boasting about how wonderful and important you are vs. how much was devoted to your audience and how satisfied they’ll be when they attend one of your events. If you’re like most organizations, the ratio is about 95% / 5%.

Consider the Noel Coward copy above. The side-splitting stuff is about you. The laughing together line is about them. They’re both designed to indicate that the play will be enjoyable, but the laughing together line is immensely more meaningful, relevant and persuasive because it started with them and it leverages real motivating desires. (The side-splitting line started with a marketing staffer who, using no credible market intelligence, regurgitated the familiar cliches her executive director likes to read when he approves promotional materials.)

If there’s any overlap between what new audiences have told us they want and what the art we’re trying to sell is capable of delivering, this is the world arts administrators need to start living in.



Ultimately, if we’re lucky, the pandemic will have had a great leveling effect, bringing the arts down off their pedestals and giving elite arts leaders the opportunity to relate to people in their communities as equals. Only then will we be able to talk with one another honestly, humbly and selflessly about what is truly wonderful and important.

Covid Could Accelerate Downward Audience Trends By Ten Years

Michael Vincent writes at Ludwig Van Toronto about a scary new trend in classical music: Orchestras that have seen incremental audience declines in recent years may be headed for a frightening fast forward.

If your cultural organization has been steadily losing audiences, the pandemic could accelerate the trend by ten years, says NYU Stern School of Business professor and New York Times best-selling author Scott Galloway. If true, this could mean a devastating plunge in paid participation for already vulnerable arts organizations.

For the last ten years I’ve been begging classical music organizations to abandon their outdated, amateurish promotional traditions and get serious about new audiences, which most have neglected to do. Now it may be too late. The classical music industry has proven itself unable to prevent decades-long audience attrition, let alone reverse downward trends, so it’s pretty clear that a ten-year jump forward – on top of 2020/21 losses – will be catastrophic.

Newer, smaller, more nimble organizations may rise to the challenge, but I fear that larger, less flexible organizations won’t be able to adapt. Survival for many legacy institutions will require a radical overhaul of deeply entrenched organizational cultures and a top-to-bottom restructuring of the way they relate to their support systems. Anyone who has ever worked with a large orchestra or opera company knows that the chances of this happening are slim.

The good news here is that this acceleration will force organizations to do what they’ve been avoiding for so many years, which is to humble themselves before the people on whom their futures depend and find more democratic ways of making themselves relevant to a broader cross-section of their communities. This is, and for some time now has been, the key to cultivating new audiences.

How about your arts organization? Are you prepared to survive a ten-year acceleration in the trends you’ve seen in the last ten years? Or, put another way, if you’ve projected where you’re likely to be in 2031 under normal circumstances, are you ready to be there tomorrow without having had ten years to prepare?