The Four Most Horrifying Words in Arts Management


I started this blog about four years ago and have written 174 posts to date. Some posts have gone viral, generating thousands of hits, while others have seen fair to moderate readership for a blog on arts marketing. Most posts eventually faded into the past, which is the nature of blogs, but a few continue to attract readers years down the line – presumably because of the phrases people type into search engines.

By far the most widely read and most consistently accessed post on this blog appeared on March 6, 2012 and its title was: Never Say “Get the word out.” People access this post almost every day.

There’s nothing earthshaking about the post. I’ve written many more provocative essays, but there’s something in this title that continues to draw people to my site. Clearly, these visitors have entered four particular words into their search engines looking for ways to sell more tickets or attract more audiences, and they are, by far, the most destructive words in the cultural sector:





I’ve already said that arts administrators who speak these words need to be fired immediately, so there’s not much to add, but since people continue to search for them, I will say this:

If you’re not selling enough tickets and your prime communications directive is summed up by these four words, your failure is your fault. Getting the word out is an amateurish and fiscally irresponsible way to sell tickets.

If on the other hand you’d like to change that directive and sell more tickets, here are four words you might want to use as the foundation of your new communications philosophy:





Examine these two phrases carefully. Look at the underlying differences in their meanings and the actions they impel. Ask yourself honestly which one is likely to produce more productive communications and the answer is clear.

‘Get the word out’ is a one-way mechanical process with an inside-out orientation. ‘Persuade people to come’ is a two-way human process with a outside-in orientation. The difference is nearly palpable. One is about spraying information while the other is about connecting with people and guiding them toward something that will fulfill their desires.

Communication strategies developed within a ‘persuade people to come’ strategic framework will work better because they’ll have been designed to persuade people to come.

The alternative is to keep spraying information at the world until the last person who cares dies, and that’s an idiotic way to build new audiences.

Language matters. In the arts, where marketing is still an amateur process, it means a great deal. The language we use to describe the work we do will determine what sort of work we do. If we talk about spraying information at the world, that’s all we’re going to do. But if we talk about persuading people to come…

Stop saying get the word out.


3 Questions Union Musicians Should Ask About Marketing


If you’re a classical musician who has studied hard, practiced endless hours and earned significant professional expertise, and the nonprofit organization you perform for says it can’t sell enough tickets to keep you gainfully employed, you have right to know what “can’t” means.

Sadly, what it often means is, “We’ve been selling the same thing the same way to the same people for several decades and they’re not buying anymore.” So when arts leaders say “can’t,” what they may actually be saying is “don’t know how to” and that’s an entirely different argument. Not knowing how to sell tickets is a dubious excuse for curtailing artists’ pay.

If you’re faced with this situation and you’re interested in learning why your employer “can’t” sell enough tickets, here are three questions you might want to ask:

  • Who is making the marketing decisions for this organization?
  • Where did this person study marketing?
  • Where did this person earn his or her professional marketing expertise?

Responsibility – In most organizations, final marketing decisions are made by the chief executive, although artistic directors often have considerable influence. In organizations with weak leaders or poorly defined leadership structures, board members and major donors can have significant influence on marketing decisions. And in some organizations, marketing decisions are arrived at by consensus among staff, designers, artists and executives without without the guidance of an authoritative expert. If your organization says it “can’t” sell enough tickets, it may be useful to identify exactly who is responsible for that incapacity.

Scholarship – Like classical music, marketing is a profession that is complex and difficult to master. Good marketers can study for years to acquire the necessary theoretical basis for honing their skills, and they continually refresh their knowledge through professional development, ongoing practice and high stakes performance. In the arts, meanwhile, you’d be hard-pressedBoy raising hand to find executive decision makers with academic backgrounds in marketing – or significant professional training for that matter – even though their positions call for them to make life and death marketing decisions on a regular basis. If the executive leader is asking you to sacrifice because she can’t sell enough tickets, and she’s the one making the final marketing decisions, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask if she has the necessary education.

Professional Expertise – Classical musicians earn their positions through hard work in rigorous professional settings. Many perform under the finest and most demanding conductors in the industry. The classical music world expects an exceedingly high level of professionalism and artistry from its musicians, and the best – who work for large nonprofit arts institutions – enjoy status at the very pinnacle of their art form. But marketing in these nonprofit institutions is usually a quasi-professional affair that’s governed by amateurs. Arts marketers take their cues not from the marketing profession at large, but rather from insular, self-centered nonprofit traditions and leaders who have limited professional marketing expertise. You won’t find marketers who’ve risen to the top of the marketing profession in the arts; the standards are too low and the people they report to, when it comes to marketing, are underprepared to lead. If you’re being told that your organization can’t sell enough tickets, and the person who makes the ultimate marketing decisions learned what he knows on his way up through the nonprofit arts – which is a terrible place to learn marketing – you might want to ask for an in-depth, external, professional examination of what the word “can’t” actually means.

In past months I’ve written about amateur marketing at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, San Diego Opera, Nashville Symphony, Vancouver Opera, Hartford Symphony OrchestraPittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and various other organizations that made headlines for financial difficulties. And in recent weeks we’ve been reading about continuing woes in Pittsburgh, Fort Worth and other communities. The link between amateur marketing and shrinking audiences is becoming clear enough to cast doubt on leaders who say they can’t afford to fully employ professional artists when they refuse to employ professional marketing practices.

Understanding how the lack of sophisticated marketing influences ticket sales – and thus the industry’s ability to support professional artists – won’t necessarily win labor disputes; amateur marketing traditions are too deeply woven into classical music industry culture. But refusing to accept the word “can’t” from leaders who lack the education, experience and expertise to defend such a claim may provide useful leverage.

You studied and worked hard to make it to the top of your profession. There’s nothing wrong with asking the people who sell the tickets to be as well prepared to do their jobs as you are to do yours.

If Industry Leaders Don’t Get Marketing, Is There Any Hope?


Audiences for traditional art forms such as classical music, theatre, opera, ballet, fine art, etc. have been declining steadily for decades. If the decline continues – and there’s not much evidence to suggest that it won’t – venerable arts institutions that we now take for granted will eventually falter and die. One need only glance at daily arts headlines to know the process is well under way.

Solving the problem is relatively easy, but it requires leadership that appears to be in short supply.

Reversing audience declines and building dependable future audiences demands sophisticated, professional, audience-centric marketing practices, but the cultural sector clings to a marketing tradition that’s simplistic, amateurish and self-centered. We don’t market effectively because we don’t do marketing the way it’s done outside our artsy bubbles. We may be OK at marketing to the audiences we have, but we stubbornly resist learning how to market to the audiences we’ll need when the ones we have are gone.

A broad view of marketing in the arts reveals a troubling deficiency. Marketing expertise has never been a prerequisite for becoming an arts leader so most arts leaders don’t actually know much about professional marketing. Some arts marketers know professional marketing, but most learned their craft inside the bubble and thus merely perpetuate insular industry traditions or strive to appease executive leaders who don’t know what they’re doing. And the greatest tragedy lies in the fact that funders don’t understand marketing because it isn’t a part of their world. Funders are probably the only people who have the influence necessary to initiate a shift from amateur to professional marketing practices, but because they don’t do marketing, they don’t know what that means.

Professional marketing at its core is fairly straightforward: Learn what your customers want and then use that information to show how your products will satisfy their yearnings. This has been true since Aristotle first described persuasion 2500 years ago. But take a look at struggling arts organizations and you’ll find a communications approach that grows out of an entirely different strategic imperative: Tell the world how wonderful and important we are and hope that enough people still care to meet our sales goals. (The first words in these two approaches tell the whole story.)

Fifteen Commandments

If traditional arts institutions are going to survive, some person or group that’s in a position to influence significant change will have to step forward, demand a higher level of professionalism across the sector and then help the industry shift its communications focus from being self-important, condescending and boastful to being curious, humble and tuned in to the needs, wants and desires of tomorrow’s audiences. Unfortunately, with so little expertise among executive leaders, so few good marketers rising into leadership positions and a funding community that isn’t equipped to understand the problem, that person or group isn’t likely to arise any time soon.

Building sustainable long-term audiences is the only hope most earned revenue-dependent arts organizations have for survival. Fundraising won’t do it. Cutting artists’ pay won’t do it. Advocating for better public policy won’t do it. Emergency bailouts by deep-pocketed philanthropists won’t do it. New buildings certainly won’t do it. Education won’t do it – not fast enough at any rate. And the community engagement fad, while it’s a lovely idea, won’t do it either. If large paying audiences are the key to survival and marketing is the most sensible, effective way to get them in the doors, using sophisticated, professional, real-world marketing to develop sustainable new audiences should be an ultimate arts industry priority.

The fact that it’s not a priority points to an embarrassing vacuum in arts industry leadership, a bleak future for traditional arts organizations and a devastating loss for the millions of potential new audience members who won’t have been properly persuaded to participate.

The audience problem can be solved. Figuring out where to find leaders who will solve the audience problem, however, is a problem that may have no solution.

If Your Message Strategy Isn’t Written Down, I’ll Bet You Don’t Have One


Here’s a tip that will guarantee any arts organization a significant increase in sales. It’s easy to do, it doesn’t cost a cent and you can start today:

Write a “strategic messaging statement” every time you set out to develop a marketing piece. Before you engage in any creative discussions, take the time to think through and describe in writing exactly who the piece is talking to, what they want and how your product will satisfy their desires.

Here’s an example:


MEDIA: Spring Postcard/Email

TARGET: Fall/winter single-ticket buyers with emphasis on one-off buyers

OBJECTIVE: Reduce churn rate by stimulating return visits among one-off buyers

MESSAGE STRATEGY: Our research into younger one-off buyers revealed a desire to enjoy live music periodically with peers, but they were put off by a perceived lack of connection and a distaste for the formal trappings and presumed superiority of the traditional classical concert experience. Thus, this postcard will be written in a casual, conversational style and will feature images of young people enjoying themselves in the venue bar. The piece will focus on the buyers rather than the institution, and will describe the emotional rewards of enjoying live concerts with friends. Traditional classical music clichés will be strictly avoided.

At first glance it probably seems obvious: “Well, sure, we do this sort of thing all the time.” But I’m willing to bet that’s not true. There’s a big difference between sitting in a conference room with fellow insiders dreaming up creative marketing ideas, and doing the work it takes to research, develop and codify a legitimate persuasive strategy. Here’s how the differences tend to break down:

First, a well crafted strategy requires factual information about the target market’s desires and expectations. A lot of arts organizations don’t do research into what motivates new audiences, however, because they worry that it’s too complicated or expensive, and instead of knowing what motivates audiences, they tend to imagine what motivates audiences based on their own insider’s perspectives. This is why the language of arts marketing is so embarrassingly insular, exclusive and self-congratulatory.

Next, a well crafted strategy describes a motivating relationship between what’s being sold and what the audience wants. In the example above, the marketers learned that their audience wanted to enjoy live music with peers in a relaxed setting that was conducive to socialization, so they were able to craft a message that leveraged those desires in order to motivate the target to buy. If they’d done what arts marketers normally do and put a sweaty conductor swinging a baton on the cover, it wouldn’t have had the same motivating power – because sweaty conductors have nothing to do with what the targets said they were looking for.

And finally, you have to write the strategy down and get it approved by everyone who has a say in the marketing process. The postcard above looks nothing like the materials your boss is accustomed to vetting. If she’s dreaming about sweaty conductors and you’re showing her young people drinking in the lobby, it’ll never fly. But if you do your homework, develop a written strategy and have everyone – including your boss – sign off on it before anyone thinks about copy or design, you’ll stand a far greater chance of breaking the cycle of mindless self-absorption that keeps the arts from appealing to people outside the bubble.

I’m well aware that the sticking point here is research and that most arts organizations believe they don’t have the staff or resources to gather the necessary information, but I don’t buy it. There are all sorts of ways to gather credible market intelligence without having to hire outside firms or employ trained statisticians. I list fourteen of those methods in my book and will share several of them in subsequent posts.

But in the meantime, I recommend creating, writing down and disseminating well-supported message strategies long in advance of any creative marketing discussions. It’s a simple first step away from our industry’s hoary old traditions and toward the development of a disciplined, professional, fiscally responsible approach to strategic marketing. As I said above, It’s easy to do, it doesn’t cost a cent and you can start today.

So why not try it? If you do it right, I guarantee you’ll get better results.

Yinz Aingna Bleevis: Pittsburgh Symphony $1.5 mil. in the Hole

Here’s a late summer re-post in response to yet another headline about Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s financial woes:



Originally Posted in July of 2015

Today I read that the venerable Pittsburgh Symphony is suffering a precipitous drop in ticket sales for their classical concert series. So I went to their marketing materials to look for signs of trouble, and there I found this brochure.

What’s most striking about this sales collateral is its startling resemblance to Hartford Symphony’s brochure. Check it out:

Pittsburgh ArtHartford Art

Two orchestras in the news for declining ticket sales and both chose images of women playing instruments with blobs of paint coming out of them. What are the odds? Clearly, these marketers have tapped into some universal longings that transcend geography. People in Pittsburgh and in Hartford, it would appear, have a burning hunger for women playing instruments with artsy blobs of paint coming out of them.

I would love to have been in those focus groups when young, culturally diverse respondents began talking about their pent up longings for women playing instruments that churn out paint blobs. How fortunate these marketers must have been to have gotten such rich data that gave them such clear direction.

And look at those tag lines. In Hartford, the focus group participants said they had a yearning to be transformed, while in Pittsburgh, they expressed a poetic desire for art that is somehow also play.

“When I look for ways to spend leisure time and money, I respond to abstract, artful imagery that symbolizes my deep-seated desire to morph into a different plane of reality through some sort of mystical process that includes young female musicians, musical instruments, colorful bursts of paint and an eventual transformation into something light and carefree like a butterfly.”

“When my friends and I plan our social outings, we give careful consideration to the complex, semantic interrelationships of art and play and we’re just nuts for poetry so when someone uses clever double entendres that combine these two interests, we jump at the opportunity to buy what they have to sell.”

It’s fascinating to think that new audiences in these cities would have expressed yearnings that come so close to matching the artsy images and cutesy phrases that out-of-touch arts administrators like to put in their classical music brochures.

The focus group research that I’m familiar with, meanwhile, tends to reveal more concrete desires. Rather than talking about abstract metaphorical yearnings, people talk about having a good time with friends or family, seeking entertainment that’s memorable and enriching, enjoying food, drink and art, doing something special, etc. And since motivating these people is a process of leveraging their desires, effective strategic messaging usually involves reflecting these desires and demonstrating how they can be satisfied by purchasing the product. You know, like showing people having a great time enjoying one another’s company at a concert.

I’m not privy to the research that the folks in Hartford or Pittsburgh did to understand what motivates new audiences to buy classical concert tickets, but I can’t help thinking there are young, culturally diverse people in those markets who would be better motivated to participate if they saw themselves and their actual, stated personal yearnings reflected – and satisfied – in local orchestra marketing materials.

[Title translation: You ones are not going to believe this…]


Time To Fire People Who Say ‘Get The Word Out’

As the audience crisis worsens, arts organizations should seriously consider weeding out administrators who say ‘get the word out.’

Getting the word out is the equivalent of using a typewriter, running off mimeographs or keeping patron data on index cards. It’s a business tool that was once useful, but is now obsolete. Arts administrators who continue to say it – or god forbid do it – are doing serious harm to their organizations.


Back in the mid 20th century, getting the word out was something arts organizations did so people who were waiting for the word could respond. Older arts administrators remember those days fondly and many still believe that getting the word out will solve their audience problems. But it won’t. It can’t. Today there aren’t enough people waiting for the word to make getting it out useful.

If you’re an older arts administrator who says ‘get the word out’ when you’re talking about selling tickets or growing audiences, it’s probably time for you to move on. If you’re a young arts administrator who says ‘get the word out,’ you might want to find the nearest marketing MBA program and sign up for some courses.

If you don’t understand why the phrase is so dangerous, here are three things worth knowing:

It Describes a One-Way Process

The phrase literally describes a process where insiders send information to outsiders. Older arts administrators learned a 20th century promotional approach to marketing that involves informing the public about upcoming events, so they prefer to send the word out and hope it hits enough of the right people.

Arts Organization  >>>  Word  >>>  Customers

Unfortunately, the phrase fails to describe an equally important part of the process, which is engaging with the customers and learning about their needs and desires.

Customers  >>>  Desires  >>>  Arts Organization

Arts Organization  >>>  Word  >>>  Customers

Arts leaders who say ‘get the word out’ are describing only half the market process and, as a result, doing only half the marketing job.

It Describes a Passive Process

Sending out one-way messages and waiting for people to respond is lazy.



If people aren’t waiting for the word, and don’t really care about the word, and all you’re doing is spraying the word at them, you might as well take your marketing money and throw it out the window.

People who don’t care about the word need to be moved to act. They need to be convinced that buying your product will satisfy their desires. If the word doesn’t motivate people to act by promising them something they need or want, getting it out is a waste of resources.

Look at your most recent marketing content. Does it focus on your customers and promise them something they actually told you they want? Or is it all about you and how wonderful and important you think they should think you are?

It Enables Narcissism

Older arts leaders are deeply invested in the belief that marketing is there to tell the world how wonderful and important they are. Having spent so much time back in the 20th century getting the word out to people who thought they were wonderful and important, they grew accustomed to describing their products in hyper-inflated, self-flattering promotional language, which is what people who were waiting for the word wanted to hear.

Today, people who aren’t waiting for the word don’t give a shit about the flattering things you say about yourself in your marketing content. They care about themselves and how your products will satisfy their needs and desires.

If your marketing isn’t about your customers and how your products will make them happy, and all you’re doing is telling people how wonderful and important you are, you’re just kissing your own ass in public.

Out of touch arts administrators who devote the bulk of their marketing content to kissing their own asses in public – and then complain about not being able to attract new audiences – are a major part of the reason why the arts are enduring such devastating audience declines.

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Here’s a change that any arts organization can make immediately to improve sales: Strike the phrase ‘get the word out’ from your organization’s business lexicon and replace it with ‘motivate customers to buy.’ If you make this one small change in the language you use, your entire communications philosophy will change and your sales will improve dramatically.

Suddenly you’ll realize that all those brochures with your conductor on the cover have nothing to do with motivating customers to buy, and that the ‘word’ you’ve been working so hard to get out is mostly just self-indulgent boasting.

But when your business language shifts from getting the word out to motivating audiences, you’ll find yourself endeavoring to develop more meaningful connections with your customers so you can better persuade them to participate.

It’s the simplest thing in the world and it doesn’t cost a cent.

And if you still have administrators who refuse to make the change, you should probably encourage them to find another calling. Or you could always give them a cubicle with a mimeograph machine, a typewriter and a set of index cards – and name them your new Director of Getting the Word Out.


# # #

If Orchestra Marketing Were A Guy On A Date

Here’s a quiz to help you determine if your marketing content is doing its job:

Imagine that your latest season brochure is a guy on a date who’s trying to get laid, and you’re the person he’s dating. Dinner is over and you have to decide if the evening’s going to continue. To help you decide, complete the following statements by selecting one of the four numbered options:

He talked mostly about…

  1. Himself
  2. Himself and how much other people liked him
  3. Things he thought I should like
  4. Me and the things he knew I would find interesting

He asked questions about…

  1. He never asked me a question
  2. How impressed I was with him
  3. Which radio stations I listened to
  4. What sorts of things made me happy

The manner in which he spoke was…

  1. Artificial and formulaic
  2. Florid, dense and pretentious
  3. Commercial-sounding and educational but upbeat
  4. Down-to-earth, natural and conversational

wine-snobHis bearing was…

  1. Imperious
  2. Aloof
  3. Eccentric
  4. Easy-going

He described himself with…

  1. Overblown self-flattery
  2. An abundance of exaggerated adjectives
  3. Thoughtful but self-indulgent prose
  4. Assured self-confidence, but with generous respect for my perspective

He dressed…

  1. Like it was 1916
  2. Like he was planning to meet more sophisticated friends afterward
  3. A bit too formally but nonetheless tastefully
  4. With style and easy grace that made me feel comfortable with him

He really wanted me to know…

  1. A long and complex list of names of people he thought were important
  2. A dizzying array of arcane historical trivia
  3. How much I was supposed to like spending time with him
  4. How interested he was in satisfying my needs and desires

He showed me a lot of pictures of…

  1. Himself
  2. Himself and his inner circle of friends and associates
  3. Things he thought I should find interesting
  4. Things I told him I liked that he also liked

For someone who appeared to be so rich, he…

  1. Complained about not being able to make ends meet
  2. Tried to get me to pay my share plus 40% of his
  3. Stiffed the waiter
  4. Took me someplace less stuffy and a lot more fun

He asked me to…

  1. Celebrate him
  2. Support him
  4. Be with him all night and make sweet love

Now, add up the value of the choices you made to see how the rest of the evening is likely to play out.

If you’re a classical music marketer and you answered honestly, your score has to have been somewhere between 10 and 20 – most likely closer to ten. The chances of that brochure getting laid tonight are extremely low.

If you scored between 20 and 30, you probably need to re-check your work.

If you scored between 30 and 40, send me a pdf right now. I don’t believe it.

Classical music marketers talk exclusively about themselves and how much other in-the-know people admire them. They don’t apply market research findings to content creation. The language they speak is artificial, florid and pretentious. Their brand imagery is imperious and aloof. They describe their products with overblown self-flattery and grossly exaggerated descriptions. They publish only photos of themselves and other insiders – wearing way to many tuxedos. They try to improve potential new customers by inserting educational content in their marketing messages. And they don’t know how to clinch the deal.

The secret to selling tickets meanwhile is talking about what your research has told you will make your customers happy. It means speaking in a natural, conversational language. It means being relaxed and approachable. It means speaking honestly about your products’ merits without overselling them. It means showing pictures of the kinds of people you’re trying to attract enjoying themselves at your venue. It means nixing as many tuxes as possible. It means never using educational marketing content to try to make people worthy of being your customers. And it means consummating the relationship by closing the sale.

If your communications content is the marketing equivalent of a stuck up, condescending, know-it-all narcissist who desperately wants something from you but can’t bring himself to take an interest in your life, it’s time for a peck on the cheek and a hasty escape.

And if the evening’s still young, maybe a stop at a popular night spot with real people and some great live music.



Marketing Advice for Arts Admin Grads

With graduation right around the corner, I thought I’d once again share some advice for senior arts administration majors who are thinking about starting out in marketing. I’ve met several young people in recent years who’ve expressed interest in arts marketing and who asked me if I thought it was a good direction. Here’s what I said to them:

1. If you’re planning to become an executive leader, don’t go into marketing. Arts leaders tend to emerge from art, management and fundraising, which are, and have always been, the legs that hold up the cultural sector stool. At about 35 or 40 years old, arts marketing is a relative newcomer that the cultural sector still regards as somewhat of an alien encroachment. This isn’t a growth industry and insiders rise further faster, so don’t waste time on an outside track.

2. If you’re serious about marketing, the arts are a terrible place to learn how to do it. Arts marketing is a quirky, idiosyncratic, quasi-professional hybrid that’s informed primarily by history, habit and the egocentric opinions of well-intentioned but inexpert executive leaders. Better to get a job in the commercial sector, learn real marketing, then return to the arts if you still want to later on. The professional expertise you bring with you will be invaluable.

3. If you do decide to forego marketing on your way to the top, try not to become a well-intentioned but inexpert arts leader. Marketing is an increasingly sophisticated professional discipline that requires hands-on experience, professional development and in-depth understanding of statistics and communication theory. Contrary to what most senior arts administrators believe, becoming the boss won’t make you a marketing expert so you’ll need to learn as much as you can along the way.

4. Whatever direction you choose, make sure you master data and learn to let it tell you what to do. The era of marketing by expert opinion is over.

5. If current trends continue, centralized big money institutions that offer traditional, passive artistic experiences like classical concerts, ballet, theatre, opera and to some extent fine art will give way to smaller, more participative, community-centered organizations that encourage individual creative expression. As this happens, senior staff positions that pay decent salaries (like marketing directors or marketing VPs) will grow fewer, and well-paying jobs will be reserved primarily for chief executives and fund raisers.

6. If you’re planning to reverse audience declines by changing the way big arts institutions do business, you might want to recalibrate your expectations. Large nonprofits and their executive leaders are change-averse by design. It’s built in. Stability, consistency and risk avoidance are fundamental aspects of traditional arts management because big, expensive art can only thrive in safe, predictable environments. Ironically, these qualities also make traditional organizations vulnerable to rapidly changing market forces so many of them will fail as a result of being inflexible. If you expect to influence change in the arts, don’t waste time trying to rescue the dinosaurs. Be the change you expect.

7. If you are not naturally inclined to interact personally, warmly, humbly, generously and sincerely with ordinary arts participants you might want to select another profession. The crumbling arts infrastructure we’re so desperately trying to prop up was created by aloof cultural elites, fourth wall-loving artists and behind-the-scenes administrators who erected massive institutional barriers to genuine audience engagement. Our job coming out of this mess will be to reconnect on a personal, human, democratic level with the people we’re here to serve.

8. If you’re tempted at any point along the way to believe that it’s about you, your organization or the art you make or sell, get up out of your chair, leave your office, exit the building, find some of those younger, more culturally diverse people you’ve been wanting to attract and ask them what they think it’s about. If there’s overlap between what you think it’s about and what they think it’s about, that’s what it’s about.

9. If you think sales is something icky that happens in the telemarketing room or when the intern listens to the messages on the group sales line, think again. Sales is today what marketing was back in the 1970s – the future of audience development.

10. If deep in your heart of hearts marketing is what you want to do, by all means do it. Be really good at it and don’t let some jaded old-timer tell you it’s not worth doing. The arts need good marketers who are as passionate about marketing as they are about art. And the arts need leaders who, because they rose out of audience development, know how to make policy decisions that influence audience growth and earned revenue.

So if you’re graduating this spring, congratulations and welcome. There’s never been a more interesting or important time to get involved with growing arts audiences because the sales, marketing and engagement work we do today will determine, to a large extent, whether there will be arts jobs we can all do tomorrow.

[This post was originally published in 2013.]

Donald Trump: A Model for Arts Marketers

Arts marketers who can’t sell enough tickets should pay attention to Donald Trump. He’s a surprisingly effective persuader.

Trump talks simply about things his people care about. He knows that persuasion requires clear, direct communication and he does this extremely well, using plain, down-to-earth language. And even though he talks about how wonderful he is, he somehow avoids talking down to people.

imgresHe also knows that persuasion is about emotions so he focuses on what people feel and tells them how he’ll solve their problems. His followers may feel strongly about some truly frightening things, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is not the content of the language, but rather the techniques he uses to get the results he wants.

Barack Obama used the same techniques.

Speaking simply about things people care about is a good way to get votes, and it’s a good way to sell tickets.

Take a look at your latest promotional piece. Did you speak simply about things your new audiences care about? Did you appeal to their emotions? Did you describe how your products would solve their problems? Did you describe your best attributes without being condescending?

If you’re a traditional arts organization, the answer is most likely no.

If you’re like most arts marketers, you talked in a fancy, superior, self-centered, self-flattering and possibly even academic language about how wonderful you are without having bothered to address what new customers care about. They’re probably trying to figure out how to enjoy an evening out with friends while you’re telling them how important Ibsen or Shostakovich or Balanchine is.

In the arts, we don’t focus on what our new customers want; we focus on what we think they should want, and this is why we’re failing so miserably at attracting new audiences.

Speaking in fancy language about things we wish other people cared about as much as we do is an absolutely terrible way to sell tickets, yet it remains the primary strategic approach used by traditional arts organizations.

Will Donald Trump prevail? Probably not. He appeals more to what people fear than he does to what they hope for. He’ll probably lose to a candidate who appeals to more aspirational yearnings.

Ironically, in the arts, where aspiration is the name of the game, we don’t bother to learn what new audiences want, so we can’t tell them how our products will satisfy their desires.

In arts and in politics, the winners will be those who do the best job of learning what their audiences aspire to, and then describing how what they’re selling will make people happy.

Why would new audiences vote for you?













A Miracle at San Diego Opera

I’ve been a bit tough on San Diego Opera in the past. Especially here, here and here.

But the other day I got a brochure that contained a miracle. San Diego Opera actually published photos of audience members enjoying one another’s company at the show!

SD PEEPS 1I was shocked. It is astonishingly rare to find arts organizations depicting customers having a good time with one another at the venue. Research consistently demonstrates that people choose arts events for social reasons, but arts organizations remain stubbornly resistant to the idea of focusing on their customers’ motivating impulses. Arts organizations use marketing materials to promote what they think their customers should want, not what the customers actually do want, so it was a thrill to see San Diego Opera giving priority to their customers’ social experiences for a change.

Arts leaders want to see themselves reflected in their marketing materials, not their customers, so I know this was probably a tough sell. But I think San Diego Opera deserves to be recognized for stepping outside the self-centered, tradition-bound, nonprofit bubble and doing some customer-centered marketing for a change.

If customer-centered marketing is common practice in professional marketing, it should be common practice in the arts as well.

Great work, SDO. I hope it’s the beginning of a very productive new direction.