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 nonsense.

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.


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Five Outdated Marketing Ideas The Arts Must Abandon Immediately


With audiences in steady decline, ticket sales-dependent arts organizations are destined to shrink or go out of business. The question is not whether this will happen, but how many it will happen to, and which ones will survive.

We won’t know the answer until it happens, of course, but there are a couple of things we can know for certain: The survivors will have abandoned counterproductive nonprofit thinking and they’ll have found new ways to attract sustaining audiences.

If you’d like to count yourself among the survivors, here are a few moldy old arts marketing ideas that need to be tossed right now.


To promote literally means to push forward. Nonprofit arts organizations push forward information about arts events in hopes that avid fans will respond. Unfortunately, avid fans are steadily disappearing and promotion doesn’t work on people who lack avid interest.

In the arts, where survival is now dependent on customers who lack avid interest, promotion is only half the battle. The missing half – a necessary business counterpart to pushing forward – is pulling in. Also known as persuasion or sales.

Tragically, despite decades of chronic audience attrition, arts organizations still rely almost exclusively on pushing forward boastful promotional information.


Anyone who tries to sell you community engagement as audience development is either dishonest or woefully uninformed. Engagement will not, cannot replace sales and marketing as a means of building paid audiences. If your organization has opted to make community engagement a part of your earned revenue strategies, you are wasting valuable resources.

Establishing quality relationships with customers is an excellent idea, but it’s just good sales practice – something businesses have understood for centuries. If you’re a sales-dependent arts organization and you want to earn more revenue, do better sales.

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

Audience Development

The term “audience development” was coined in the 1980s to appease older arts pros who thought “marketing” sounded too commercial and who wanted the crass business of ticket sales to sound more like the genteel practice of fundraising.

Today there may be nuanced semantic differences between audience development and marketing, but marketing is more focused on sales and will deliver more efficient ROI. Any organization that’s having trouble earning revenue should speak the language of marketing so they stay more focused on earning revenue.

The most efficient way to develop audiences is and has always been to sell a lot of tickets.

DIY Marketing Content

If you develop your own sales and marketing content, you should stop right now. Very few arts organizations have the necessary professional expertise to develop the sort of marketing content that’s necessary for survival, so continuing to publish amateur, do-it-yourself materials is just plain suicidal.

Yes. I’m talking about you.

Yes. I know you’re a big city arts institution that’s been developing your own marketing content for decades.

Yes. Even if you’re in New York.

If you still don’t think I’m talking about you, go to Starbucks and read your latest promotional copy to a 28-year-old tech exec on her coffee break. Watch her face and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Self-Important Messaging

Good marketing content is about the customers and how our products will satisfy their needs and desires. Arts marketing content, meanwhile, is about the products and why arts insiders think customers should find them appealing.

The chief problem with letting amateur nonprofit arts administrators develop their own marketing content is that they can’t resist making it all about themselves and about why they think customers should find them attractive.

If good marketing is about the customers and arts marketing is almost never about the customers, we may have an important clue as to why audiences are disappearing.


Arts organizations that survive this audience crisis will be the ones that stop spraying self-indulgent amateur promotional messages at the world in hopes of somehow magically capturing a larger share of a shrinking fan base. They’ll be the ones that refuse to let squishy nonprofit fads distract them from their primary task, which is building and serving sustaining audiences. And they’ll be the ones that turn their attention – and the content of their communications – away from themselves and toward the audiences on which their futures depend.

If you’re a young arts administrator who wants to have an arts management job in ten or twenty years, you might want to start working now to ensure that outdated nonprofit traditions don’t deprive you of that opportunity.

NEA Discovers MASSIVE Audience That Arts Organizations Fail to Persuade


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


Sounds great. Let me grab a coat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who The Hell Is Writing Your Copy?


I read about another dying orchestra last week, so I went to their marketing materials to look for signs of trouble. There I found this blurb:

Blurbology 2

The purpose of sales copy is to persuade customers to buy tickets. And the best way to persuade customers to buy tickets is to answer the question, “Why would I want to go to that concert?”

This copy is just impotent drivel written by someone who knows nothing about strategic messaging and approved by an executive leader who, when it comes to vetting marketing materials, is incompetent. Sadly, it could have appeared in just about any orchestra’s season brochure.

Imagine yourself sitting in a busy Starbucks where the gal sitting next to you is a smart, 28-year-old tech executive who, as it turns out, played clarinet in her high school orchestra. You get to chatting and you decide to persuade her to come to your upcoming concert, so you lean in and say, “Written at the edge of the Baroque Era, the symphony uses a concerto grosso format to pull the curtain on the era as music transitions towards a new Classical aesthetic. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, in imitation of Haydn, exemplifies Neo-Classical style in the 20th Century.”

Suddenly the Starbucks falls dead silent as everyone in the store freezes and stares dumbfounded in your direction. The gal you’re talking to looks nervously from you to the frozen onlookers then back to you where she’s trying to decide if this is a weird joke or she’s talking to a lunatic. She shrugs uncomfortably and, as the din begins to rise again, makes a quick excuse then runs out of the store while you, with yet another empty seat on your hands, sit there cursing the educational system for making her run away.

Now come on. Seriously. What would you say to her? How would you describe that concert to convince a real live human being that it was worth her time and money? You’d probably say something like this: “For this concert we paired up two symphonies that were written 170 years apart – but in the same style. The early one’s by Haydn and the more recent one by Prokofiev. Both pieces are gorgeous examples of their eras, so you get the entertainment value of listening to great live music, but the whole experience becomes more fascinating because of this extraordinary connection.”

Good sales copy is spoken language written down. Period. End of story. If you wouldn’t say it, for god’s sake, whatever you do, DON’T WRITE IT!

Classical music organizations that let inexperienced, inexpert, amateur marketing staffers fill their brochures with silly, pretentious, didactic nonsense can’t complain about not selling tickets – because they’re not actually selling tickets. And executive leaders who vet and approve this kind of non-strategic bullshit in their sales collateral have no one to blame but themselves for their organizations’ failures. 

If you want to sell tickets, you have to talk to real, live human beings in a language they understand about how your products will make them happy. If your organization can’t figure out how to do that, you’re probably too far out of touch with your community to be worth saving.

If You Have To Say You’re Doing Engagement…


I’ve noticed that many arts organizations are including “Community Engagement” sections on their websites and listing engagement activities as if they’re some sort of program offerings or one-off events. One venerable classical music institution says that their education and community engagement programs:

“…offer individuals of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop their relationship with the [organization] and build their ownership of and engagement with orchestral music through high quality, relevant, multi-leveled, and interactive education and community engagement experiences.”

How lucky those little community members must be to have such a high-minded institution offering them this incredible opportunity. (This didn’t come out of a grant application, these people actually published this on their website.)

The thing about engagement that arts organizations don’t get is that it’s not something you talk about or, god forbid, offer to people; it’s what you are. Publishing a list of community engagement programs on your website is like printing a list of interpersonal behaviors on your business card:

Friendly smile √  Firm handshake √  Eye contact √  Warm greeting √  Remembers name √

If someone handed you such a business card, you’d think that person was an idiot. Good interpersonal skills aren’t something you telegraph in printed materials, they’re something you exhibit naturally, or by practice if necessary, in the presence of others. For arts organizations, this translates into being naturally engaging throughout the entire organization as a part of your everyday interaction with the world around you. If you’re not doing it, no amount of promotion will compensate for its absence. And if you are doing it, you won’t need to talk about it on your website.

Sadly, the copy above shows how wide the gap still is between arts organizations’ willingness to do engagement and their ability to be truly engaging.



‘Monumental’ Adjective Abuse at Minnesota Orchestra


Here are some words that executive leaders at the Minnesota Orchestra like to read about themselves in their marketing materials. All were published in just one post-fiasco season brochure:

Extraordinary, brilliant, celestial, dazzling, festive, stunning, shimmering, beautiful, star-studded, never-to-be-repeated, heavenly, glorious, wonderful, tragic, heartbreakingly, sprightly, treasured, superb, brilliant, monumental, tremendous, thrilling, stellar, magnificent, sensual, shocking, radiant, majestic, lush, enthralling, amazing, phenomenal, shining, beautiful, lush, characterful, stirring, distinctive, triumphal, charismatic, brightest, world-class, priceless, thrilling, most famous, lush, romantic, richly dark, tragic, star-crossed, thrilling, tragic, cinematic, comic, most-popular, utterly charming, gorgeous, stirring, wonderful, famous, remarkable, brilliant, striking, timeless, legendary, wonderful, dramatic, lyrical, dramatic, lovely, illustrious, soaring-voiced, spine-tingling, profound, ethereal, beloved, world’s greatest, fantastic, heartrending, unforgettable, greatest, most soul-stirring, transcendent, exquisite, enchanting, always-zestful, magnificent, deeply spiritual, ground-breaking, exciting, demanding, outstanding, blissful, thoughtful, witty, nostalgic, multi-faceted, fiery, famous, other worldly, stirring, great, distinguished, breathtaking, dancing, lyrical, extraordinary, marvelous, youthful, vigorous, esteemed, exhilarating, dance-infused, wildly popular, inimitable, preeminent, magically, mysterious, triumphant, epic, celebratory, historic, glorious, top-class, revered, hottest, immortal, jubilant, renowned, distinguished, extraordinary, delectable, magical, soulful, distinctive, organic, meditative, powerful, spiritual, romantic, glorious, perfect, special, bubbly, magically, rich, first-ever, stunning, wonderful, exquisite, wide-ranging, thrilling, classic, popular, beloved, festive, extraordinary, imaginative, stunning, phenomenal, captivating, beloved, ever-popular, timeless, transcendent, greatest of greats, beloved, stellar, multi-talented, uniquely, consummate, monumental, unforgettable, wonderful, glorious, funniest, bona fide, genuine, dazzling, esteemed, riotous, beloved, great, fantastic, heartrending, unforgettable, greatest, most soul stirring, pure, unadulterated, historic, legendary, glorious, extraordinaire, wondrous, beloved, lively, famous, popular.

Here’s a word that describes the professional qualifications of executive leaders who would approve this much hyperbole in one piece of sales collateral:


Here’s a word that describes the marketing team that would produce such a brochure:


Here’s a word that describes funders who allow their financially troubled grant recipients to do this sort of amateur marketing:


Here’s a word that describes an industry that accepts untethered, narcissistic bombast as acceptable language for public communication:


And in case it isn’t obvious, here’s a word that describes the seats that might otherwise be filled by new audiences who need to be spoken to in a normal, sane, humble, down-to-earth, customer-centered persuasive language:



You’re Too Stupid To Know What You Want: Buy Now!


I’ve often stated on this blog that good marketing requires us to know what our customers want. It is a fundamental principle in marketing and a bedrock truth in persuasion. Aristotle codified this truth over 2500 years ago and smart people have been using it productively ever since.

Kyle Clausen reminded me in a comment on my last post, however, that this truth is something arts leaders often find bothersome and would just as soon ignore:

“Arts organizations feel it is their duty to give the world not what they want, but to push their boundaries and limits and give the audiences what they don’t yet know they want.”

Sounds great. Very noble and generous. But replace just one small word and the whole idea is exposed for the presumptuous nonsense that it is. “Arts organizations feel it is their duty to sell the world not what they want, but to push their boundaries and limits and sell audiences what they don’t yet know they want.”

Here’s another bedrock truth: People don’t buy things they don’t want because some aloof, condescending, we-know-better-than-you arts organization told them they should want it. Traditional arts organizations are increasingly marginal, irrelevant and unpopular and, thanks to nonstop media coverage of conspicuous failures, everybody knows it. Arts pros who run these organizations and who think they’re well-positioned to tell people what they should want are either hopelessly out-of-touch or delusional – or both. And when they try to tell people what they should want in communications that are meant to sell tickets, they’re committing an especially tragic and painful – not to mention obnoxious – form of organizational suicide.

The only way to sell arts products to new audiences is to know who those audiences are and what they want. Armed with that information we can explain how our art will satisfy their yearnings and, in so doing, motivate them to buy. Marketing is a process of motivating behavior by leveraging desires. If we don’t know what those desires are, we can’t use them to motivate behavior. And, believe it or not, you can’t motivate behavior by trying to leverage desires that people won’t have until after they buy the product.

Here’s where arts pros who don’t understand marketing tend to get confused. Learning what new audiences want doesn’t mean we have to start selling them crap, it means finding the overlap between what they want and what we sell so we can establish a meaningful connection. It’s not about pandering, it’s about identifying an optimal context for effective communication. It’s about finding a common language based on mutual interests – one that new audiences are most likely to find persuasive.

Venn 2

In this diagram, the first circle includes all the ways our products satisfy, and the second circle includes all the things that new audiences say they desire. The place where these two circles overlap contains all the information we need to motivate new audiences to participate by convincing them that our products will satisfy their yearnings. But if we never learn what’s in that second circle, we’ll never discover the place where what we sell and what they want come together. And if we insist on filling the second circle with what we wish were there, or what we believe will appear there if they decide to participate, the information in the overlap will be meaningless and motivationally impotent.

Arts professionals who refuse to learn what new audiences want because they prefer to focus on what arts insiders believe they should want – and who make their marketing decisions accordingly – are a danger to their organizations and a detriment to this industry. If we have no respect for the legitimate desires that new audiences already have, independent of their exposure to our art forms, we can’t complain when they ignore the self-important, self-flattering bombast that we insist on publishing in our promotional materials.

The day we decide to engage humbly with new audiences and start learning – with sincere curiosity – about their needs, wants and desires is the day traditional arts organizations will stop hemorrhaging customers and start climbing back on the path toward health and sustainability.

Only then will we be able to help new arts audiences develop healthy and enduring longings for all the wonderful things they may not have known they wanted.

“You Sound Like a Wanker”


If every senior arts executive did this on a regular basis, the arts would be successful beyond measure.

Alan Lane, Artistic Director for Slung Low theatre company in the UK, has taken to the streets to encourage regular people to come to his show. He’s talking to non-theatre goers face-to-face in supermarket car parks – and he’s learning a lot in the process.

One old woman responded to his pitch by saying, “You sound like a wanker,” which, Lane confessed, may have been justified. When he said the process could be “brutally humbling” I couldn’t help thinking there are a lot of arts execs out there who would benefit from being brutally humbled in their local grocery store parking lots from time to time.

Americans don’t use the word ‘wanker’ very much, but it’s the perfect insult for executive arts leaders because it literally means one who masturbates, but is used more generally to refer to someone who acts like a jerk as a result of being egotistical and self-indulgent. (The closest American colloquialism I can think of is the delightful Pittsburgh expression, ‘jaggoff,’ which has the same literal and figurative meanings.)

Are executive arts leaders egotistical and self-indulgent? Yeah, pretty much. If you want proof, just look at the communications arts organizations use to promote themselves, which are almost exclusively self-congratulatory, self-flattering, self-important and self-indulgent, or in other words, shamelessly masturbatory. Imagine any arts executive standing in a parking lot talking to ordinary people in the language of his organization’s promotional materials and you get the idea:

“For this landmark season, I have chosen six breathtaking works which epitomize our theatre’s range as a producing organization and reaffirm its unique place in the American cultural scene. Legends abound in Season 40, from the greatest writers of all time, to the most charismatic characters ever created.”


Read the article. It’s great. And if you’re an executive arts leader whose organization talks like a wanker or a jaggoff (go read your last brochure), maybe it’s time to visit your nearest grocery store and start learning how to actually communicate with people for a change.



Five Markets The Arts Don’t Bother Tapping #3


3. Volume Buyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partial List of Under-served Volume Ticket Buyers

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

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

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

If you don’t have a real sales department that actually sells tickets, you can’t really complain about not selling enough tickets.

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

5 Markets The Arts Don’t Bother Tapping: #2


Second installment in a series beginning here.

Incentivized Resellers

Nine years ago the city of Los Angeles hosted a huge international trade show organized by the US Travel Association for several thousand international tour operators and their North American suppliers. The cultural tourism fad was big back then and somebody had encouraged the arts institutions along Downtown’s Grand Avenue corridor to co-host an enormous promotional party for the visiting delegates.

I remember standing with a senior leader from the Music Center the night of the party on the steps of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion watching the crowds pour in and out of the newly built Disney Hall. At one point my friend said to me, “I’m told we’ll see a huge bump in sales after this.” I said, “You know they’re all wholesalers.” She said, “What?” I said, “They’re wholesalers. They buy destination products at pre-contracted wholesale rates to resell at a markup to their traveling customers. There’s not a box office in this city that can sell wholesale tickets let alone manage B-to-B contract accounts.”

She didn’t know. And neither, apparently, did her peers. There would be no bump in sales because the participating arts organizations were structurally incapable of serving the buyers they thought they were courting. In the arts, we can’t sell seats at a price below what’s printed on the ticket, and we offer no service mechanisms for high volume business buyers.

This was an unusually grand and embarrassing example of the arts’ failure to connect with incentivized resellers, but it happens all the time. For a more pedestrian example, consider the hotel concierge.

ConciergeAt some point in most arts marketing brainstorming sessions somebody says, “Hey, why don’t we reach out to the concierges so they can recommend us to hotel guests.” It’s a lovely idea until you realize that hotel concierges aren’t always the selfless service providers we imagine them to be. Many concierges earn rewards for the services they offer in the form of incentives paid by the restaurants and attractions they recommend. That concierge isn’t just being nice when she offers to personally place your reservation at the local steakhouse. She wants to make certain the steakhouse knows and has a record of the fact that she called because she makes money on the back end.

So. Will a concierge recommend your ticketed attraction? Maybe. But if you’re competing with another attraction that offers cash incentives, probably not. And even if she is motivated to recommend you, the likelihood is that she’ll book tickets through her contact at the local ticket broker, who gives her far better service than a nonprofit arts organization ever would, and rewards her handsomely for all the business she sends his way. If you’re expecting that concierge to call your box office or, god forbid, Ticketmaster, and then get nothing in return, it just isn’t going to happen.

Large theme parks understand the world of incentivized resellers and use them to great advantage. If you have a theme park or large commercial attraction in your community, invite the senior sales executive out to lunch some day and ask him to describe how he works with incentivized resellers (don’t ask him to share his contacts). If he’s willing, he might describe international tour wholesalers, domestic package travel companies and receptive tour companies that get net rates; networks of hospitality and corporate concierges who earn commissions; employee perks companies and affinity group organizers that work on contract rates or commissions; event and meeting planners who get per-person cash incentives; a range of ticket brokers and resellers who work on commissions or net rates; and various welcome centers, ticket & admission bundlers and selling partners throughout the the community.

Then ask him to describe his ticketing system. The more robust systems enable authorized external resellers to log onto the attraction’s ticketing system through their own accounts on their own computers and sell directly out of live or allocated inventory at a pre-negotiated rate – allowing for them to sell to their constituents and know that their incentives are accruing in their account according to whatever relationships have been set up in advance. With ticketing systems like this, concierges can book seats, print vouchers for their guests, and know that their cash rewards are being meticulously tracked.

In the arts, of course, we don’t do any of this. It’s not in our culture. We see an amount printed on the ticket and believe it’s our money. All of it. Even if the ticket is sitting unsold in the box office drawer. And we manage our box offices like mini fortresses with miserly treasurers, bulletproof glass and annoying intercoms (easier to buy a $5,000 computer from a CSR in the middle of an Apple Store). It’s no surprise that we don’t open our systems to outside sales networks or let people who are willing to do our sales work for us earn a cut of the take.

But at some point we may want to ask if our traditional operating culture is more important than earning revenue. Given the most recent NEA report on declining arts audiences, we might want to rethink some of these counterproductive systems and start developing infrastructures that will allow us to maximize some of our most promising untapped markets.

5 Markets The Arts Don’t Bother Tapping


1. Business-to-Business

Arts organizations tend not to employ sales staff who can walk into executive offices, corporate board rooms or professional trade gatherings and engage with executive peers in the commercial sector. It just isn’t part of our culture. If we do invest executive-level energy into our business communities, it’s almost always to raise money.

Imagine for a minute that a senior VP at a local corporation is hosting some thirty executive peers from around the world for a business gathering and wants to show off his city by organizing an event at a local cultural venue. He wants excellent top-dollar seats, a first-rate dinner at the nearest dining establishment and a private reception in the venue at intermission. Assuming your organization is on his radar to begin with (which isn’t a given if you don’t field outside sales execs to engage with the business community), who is he going to call?

In most arts organizations he’s going to call a telephone number that was set up to facilitate discount-hungry little old ladies who were meant to fill the seats that couldn’t be sold to the real customers. There he can leave a message about the tickets he wants to buy so a low-level staffer who knows nothing about his business or how he intends to use the tickets can return the call and quote seat availability and discount pricing. Discount LadiesThe sales rep will probably describe severely limited and largely off-limits inventory in the best seating sections then outline the onerous rules and restrictions that describe how people who want to buy a lot of expensive seats and bring new audiences into the venue must behave in order to earn the privilege of spending their money there. Then, maybe, the staffer will give him the phone number or website for a separate contact at the on-site catering company or a list of nearby restaurants he can call to set up his dinner.

This is where the business executive decides to call his contact at the local major league sports venue instead.

Now imagine a different scenario where the conversation goes something like this: “James, how great to hear from you! I had so much fun at the mixer the other night. That DJ was a nut and Phil Kimball certainly stole the show on the dance floor. I hope he got home OK. Now what can I do for you?…Wow. that sounds like a great evening. Let me start by having my box office manager pull back some house seats and unused subscription inventory so I can get you seating, then I’d like to set up a call with my colleague Joan at Verdigris – our in-house caterer. She was the one at the party in the green outfit with the red hair…Uh-huh. I think Dennis McDaniel introduced you…Yeah. We’ll have a chat about your dinner plans and see what we can put together in the lobby for intermission. I’ll drop a note to your assistant Dana to set up the call so we can walk through your event. I’m really glad you called. Anything we can do to help you show off the city to your colleagues is our pleasure.”

If you can’t imagine your senior outside sales staffer having that conversation (or if you can’t even imagine having an outside sales staffer), it’s time to start thinking more seriously about community engagement. No, not the warm and fuzzy stuff your funders expect you to do for the little people, but real, purposeful, goal-oriented, executive-level engagement with your local business community.

There are many businesses in a variety of industries that would be glad to buy tickets to arts events for a number of social and business-oriented reasons, but they tend to want to do business with other business people, and with vendors and partners who understand and defer to their business needs.

If the arts don’t do business-to-business sales because it’s not a part of our culture, wouldn’t it make more sense to change the culture than to cut artists’ pay or go out of business when we can’t don’t sell enough tickets?

The Ghost in the Business Model


Doug Borwick has an interesting post this week where he suggests that vestiges of the partronage system might be lurking invisibly within the management structures of the arts, and that our blindness to these unseen forces could be what’s preventing us from making necessary changes. I think he may be on to something.

Arts pundits talk a lot about business models, but I wonder if the models we can see and describe are big enough to fully characterize what’s going on. What if there really are ghosts of old patronage models beneath the surface? Can we really change our organizations if there are invisible, ancestral operators pulling strings behind the scenes?

I used to do marketing for a large performing arts center where the management priorities often had little to do with contemporary reality and where board-level decision making made it incredibly hard to sell tickets. I was complaining about this to a friend who’d worked there for decades and he launched into a little tirade that went something like this:

“Your problem, Trevor, is that you actually believe the mission statement, which has nothing to do with why we’re here. This place was created by powerful cultural elites to be a playground for cultural elites. That’s its primary objective. The most important thing that happens here is the annual gala. Everything else – the art, the education, the audience – is there to make sure the gala happens every year. This isn’t an arts center, Trev, it’s a friggin’ Mount Olympus and you’re just a nobody mortal who’s here to keep things running so the Gods have a place to play. So stop trying to sell tickets; that’s not your job. You do marketing. Marketing is all about making pretty brochures that major donors can hold up like hand mirrors and say, ‘My, how very attractive we are!’ That’s all anybody wants from you and nobody cares how many tickets you sell. My advice to you is to recognize who’s really running the show and do as good a job as possible at being exactly what they expect you to be.”

“But what if we end up going out of business?” I said.

“Going out of business? Of course we’re going out of business. This place is a dinosaur. But you’re not going to be able to do anything about that, my friend. Mount Olympus itself went out of business thousands of years ago and everybody else got along just fine.”

I thought he was being facetious at first, but had to admit after a while that what he said made sense. The business model I’d been following up to that point said that the mission was the primary objective, that audiences were paramount and that the role of marketing was to sell as many tickets as possible. This was a surprising shift in perspective but it did a much better job of describing how things really worked, and it went a long way toward explaining why I was having so much trouble making my model fit.

It’s not that his interpretation of reality was any more accurate than anyone else’s, or that the Center was a front for a bunch of cynical, self-serving rich people who wanted to dress up and swill champagne at swanky parties for however long it lasted. The thing that impressed me was that he presented a legitimate but obscure alternate metaphor for understanding how the institution operated, one that, depending on your perspective, was as accurate and useful and reflective of reality as any obvious business model that any mortal management consultant might have described.

If we’re going to continue talking about arts business models, we might want to find one that describes not only the evident functional dimensions of our business structures, but one that’s capable of also describing the intangible cultural, historical and maybe even supernatural forces that work in different dimensions and in sometimes mysterious ways to influence how our organizations behave.

Trying to change one without fully understanding the other is probably impossible.

Engagement or Artificial Affectation?


I ate lunch at a Panda Express the other day. When I walked in the door, a young woman behind the counter mumbled something in my direction that I later learned was, “Welcome to Panda.” I didn’t know what she’d said or whom she was talking to, but somebody else came in right behind me and he got the same greeting. As it turned out this gal muttered the same thing to everyone who walked through the door. It was incredibly creepy.

I can’t say what the executives at Panda Restaurant Group, Inc. were thinking when they asked their employees to behave in such a manner, but I’m guessing it was part of an effort to engage with customers. Presumably, this young woman was trying to connect with me personally by saying something she would never say in real life and then repeating it verbatim to everyone else who entered the restaurant. How embarrassing it must be to work there, I thought, and how out of touch those corporate executives must be to think that this was effective policy.

I mentioned this to a friend who’s a regional manager for a huge retail chain and he told me that engagement is as big a fad in the corporate world as it is in the cultural community. Every week, he said, another directive comes down the pike that’s aimed at turning hourly wage earners into more effusive brand ambassadors. “I can’t make my employees do most of this stuff. It’s bullshit dreamed up by MBAs who don’t have a clue who these people are or what it’s like trying to turn them into Disney employees overnight. Engagement is something you are, not something you do just because some genius at corporate sent an email.”

As an arts professional who’s been following the engagement conversation closely, I couldn’t help thinking that my friend’s wisdom might have some resonance in the cultural sector where engagement has moved from being something art pros just talk about (like so many other fads) to something that funders are actively asking grant recipients to do. Asking people to engage is a great idea in theory, but being genuinely engaging may have a lot more to do with the fundamental nature of an organization than with any new criteria the Underbridge Foundation decides to put in its grant application.

Are arts organizations naturally inclined to engage? Some smaller community organizations certainly are, but a lot of mid-size and larger institutions simply aren’t. In my experience, the professionals who run arts organizations are very much “behind-the-scenes” sorts of people who don’t move beyond their insider’s social milieu to engage meaningfully with outsiders. In general, arts professionals tend to respect the walls, doors and prosceniums that separate them from the ordinary folks who visit their venues, and they aren’t naturally inclined to reach out with warm, humble curiosity in an effort to interact meaningfully and generously with the less well-initiated folks who reside outside the bubble.

There’s nothing wrong with being behind-the-scenes people in an industry that needs to have plenty of good people working behind the scenes. We put on shows. We impress. We make magic. And part of the appeal of that magic may very well be the mysterious things that a select group of arts insiders do out of sight of ordinary audiences. The Wizard of Oz wouldn’t have been the Wizard of Oz if everybody knew what was happening behind that curtain.

But a significant problem arises when elite academics, funders and policy pros begin asking people who’ve spent their entire lives behind the curtain to start engaging with ordinary audience members – or else. There are a lot of veteran arts pros, especially in leadership ranks, who are no more inclined to interact personally with the churning outermost fringes of their community support systems than shy high school girls are to shout heartfelt greetings at fast food customers. Asking these folks to save their organizations by relating to regular folks outside the bubble is like asking them to suddenly become different people, and that’s just not going to happen. If arts leaders and the organizations they run were naturally predisposed to engage, they’d be doing it already.

Engagement is not a new department, program, service initiative or tag line, it’s something that must be an honest, organic extension of who and what we are. Walt Disney built an empire that was infused from the outset with his personal impulse to make meaningful connections with ordinary people. If Disney employees are naturally effusive brand ambassadors, it’s because they learn it the day they arrive on the job and they live it every day they work for the company.

Is engagement a good idea? Yes. Definitely. I’ve been an audience engager my whole life and I’ve seen the astonishing things that can happen when arts organizations step outside their comfort zones to learn from and appeal to non-traditional audiences. Will organizations that don’t have engagement built into their cultural DNA be able to do it? That remains to be seen. Virtually all of the engagement work I’ve done was peripheral to the missions of the organizations I worked for and too far beneath the leaders’ social status to be of any personal or even professional interest to them. None of it was an outgrowth of a fundamental organizational impulse to make meaningful, long-term connections with audiences.

I know from experience that engagement can’t be superimposed on an organization that doesn’t have engaging leadership and isn’t guided by a mission to engage.  Elite policy pros who hope to influence meaningful change might do well to avoid trying to initiate tactical-level behaviors and focus instead on nurturing engagement-oriented leaders who are personally committed to making engagement an integral part of their organizational missions.

We’re not selling orange chicken and fried rice. We can’t afford to have engagement become an artificial affectation that customers must endure as they endeavor (if they endeavor) to buy what we’re trying to sell.

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.

Six Big Data Predictions for the Arts


The era of big data is upon us. If you’re an arts administrator who doesn’t know what that means, you might want to find out because big data has the potential to be one of the most productive – and disruptive – forces to hit the arts in decades.

Essentially, big data enables us to mix our patron data into a broader pool of consumer data and extract correlations that help us know with unprecedented specificity who’s most likely to respond to our appeals. The great thing about data is that it replaces guesswork with facts and gives us reliable answers, clear directions and predictable results. The not-so-great thing is that it replaces personal expertise and human intuition with cold hard math – a process that arts administrators who’ve built their careers on creative management practices might have trouble getting used to.

Normally I focus on communication theory in this blog and urge arts pros to guard against unsupportable opinions, but today I’m going to take a flight of fancy and make a few predictions based on personal observations from over three decades in the arts. Here are six idly speculative and largely meaningless but nonetheless cautionary guesses as to what’s going to happen as we work our way through this data revolution.

1. Many organizations will seize on big data opportunities and use them to improve efficiency and build vibrant communities of engaged participant/supporters. These organizations will generate more earned revenue, more individual contributions and larger, more avid support systems, thus giving themselves a better chance of surviving as audiences for traditional art forms continue to diversify.

2. Many organizations that embrace big data, however, will use it to send traditional marketing messages to wider audiences and thus fail to fully maximize their opportunities. Mining data to find more people who are willing to respond to half-century-old messages is a zero sum game, but the arts industry has a well-established history of neglecting to update its strategic message content.

 3. History also suggests that some organizations will consider data an end rather than a means. The goal of data is to identify individuals with whom organizations can forge deeper, more meaningful human relationships, but many arts organizations will be satisfied with initial transactions and treat new customers as data clusters rather than as individuals. We do this now with small data. Big data will simply compound the efficiency with which we separate the humans who work in arts organizations from the humans who consume our artistic products.

4. Data will frustrate the hell out of seasoned arts pros who’ve succeeded thus far on wisdom, experience, intuition and the authority that comes from being top dog. Many arts leaders will find their noses fully out of joint when they discover that their personal opinions, anecdotal observations, favorite colors and even final executive decisions are not necessarily relevant contributions to the marketing process.

5. Data and engagement will butt heads. Community engagement is as hot a trend in funding circles as big data is in marketing circles, but they may be pointing in opposite directions. Data asks organizations to focus on professional, quantitative bottom line-driven communications strategies while engagement asks them to focus on qualitative community relationship building. Since “audience development” departments will be asked to do both, and only data can drive sustaining revenue, engagement is likely get the short end of the stick.

6. Ultimately, data will end up being a temporary fix. Like fracking, a mining process that extracts leftover gas and oil from spent wells, data can only help us squeeze more productivity out of a finite resource. Audiences for traditional art forms are likely to continue their decline and no amount of analytics will enable us to manufacture new demand.

I’m proud to call myself a data geek and I firmly believe that prudent use of big data is the best chance we have for stopping, and maybe even reversing, current audience attrition. But I also believe that audiences are diminishing largely because we’ve failed to make direct, meaningful, personal, human connections with the younger, more culturally diverse people on whom our futures depend.

We may be able to use data to make more efficient contact with those audiences, but if we fail to immerse ourselves in their cultures and let ourselves be influenced by them, we risk having used our investment in big data for the smallest of returns.

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.

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 Artsjournal.com 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.

Is Bad Framing Killing the Arts?


In fine arts, a good frame can help us appreciate why an artist chose to focus on a particular vision or give us an appropriate context for approaching a work of art. Imagine an elaborately carved gilt frame on a Fragonard or a simple rustic frame on Grant Wood and you get the picture.

In language, a good frame can help us understand a particular idea or view that idea in a more favorable context. You’ve heard the phrase “climate change” a million times, for example, but you might not know that the expression was “framed” by the Bush administration as a value-neutral alternative to the more ominous sounding “global warming.”

Framing is a practice that’s employed by persuasion experts in politics, religion, business and public policy to sway opinion. Listen closely to the debate on same-sex marriage and you’ll hear one side using a “marriage equality” frame while the other uses a “redefining marriage” frame. If you’re hearing more discussions of “intelligent design” than “creationism” these days it’s because evangelical Christians made a calculated choice to frame their perspective with more positive words. Yesterday there was a story on American Public Media’s “Marketplace” about the mining industry’s efforts to replace the word “fracking” with a less aggressive sounding alternative. And there’s no denying that an “emerging nation” is a more positive sounding place than a “third world country.”

Language experts like Frank Luntz and George Lakoff have taught us that if we want to persuade people to do what we want them to do (vote, worship, buy, support, etc.) we have to take control of the language we use and select strategic frames that will sway opinion in our direction. Those who heed their advice stand a far greater chance of succeeding than those who employ passive language and allow the marketplace or competitors to choose which frames will be used to view their products or ideas.

Unfortunately, the only place you’re likely to find strategic framing in the arts is on gallery walls. As an industry we mistake cutesy sloganeering (Ya Gotta Have Arts!) for strategic policy frames, and as organizations we speak a goofy, self-centered nonsense language (Celebrate Live Performance!) that has no credible strategic underpinnings. We do possess the power to seize control of our persuasive communications, and we have the ability to make our language do our bidding, but we squander that power every time we release a message that isn’t part of an overarching, audience-centered strategic messaging plan.

At some point we have to decide if we’re an elite, marginal, diminishing, frivolous, academic, pompous, out-of-touch, narcissistic, old-fashioned, needy, condescending, clichéd, stuffy, whining, artsy-fartsy, [insert existing public frame here] industry, or if we’re a strong, healthy, worthy, relevant, humble, generous, audience-oriented provider of rewarding, uplifting, indispensable, valuable, artful entertainment. The day we decide to choose the frames and use them with deliberate forethought to shape public perception is the day we begin taking control of our destiny. And it’s probably also the day we stop losing and start gaining audiences.

It’s hard to imagine a museum curator allowing the public to choose which frames go on the paintings, yet when we fail to shape audience perceptions with strategic language, we surrender our ability to frame our art in the most attractive manner.

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I’m going to write more about how arts organizations can begin the framing process in subsequent posts, but right now I want to thank my Twitter buddy Dustin Nay for mentioning framing yesterday and helping me stay even more on message.

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…”

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 Artsjournal.com 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 Artsjournal.com 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?

Is Your Arts Organization Humble Enough To Survive?

Doug Borwick published a great series of posts recently about connecting with communities. I think they’re essential reading for elite arts leaders who hope to recover from the pandemic.

Doug says that survival for many will depend on approaching new audiences with respect and uncharacteristic humility.


I tend to agree with Doug, but I wonder how much humility we can expect from institutions that were designed to occupy elevated positions in their cities’ cultural hierarchies. Most legacy arts organizations were created by cultural elites who wanted to hand down the riches of fine art, classical music, theatre, opera, dance, etc. to their communities in an effort to raise people up – to improve their lives – to educate them – to elevate their status – to make them better people.

There’s just no mistaking the top-down “we’re better than you” orientation in this relationship.

And the attitude with which these organizations approached their communities has always been one of benevolent condescension. “We are wonderful and important and you, in recognition of our wonderfulness and importance, should be grateful that we’re here to make your lives so very much better.”

Humility was never part of the equation.

Today we know that new audiences don’t particularly care how wonderful and important arts organizations think they are, and they find their endless streams of self-important boasting to be unpersuasive. “Who the hell are you to tell me what’s wonderful and important? And why would I want to be improved by a bunch of out-of-touch artsy types who occupy positions of no particular status or importance in my worldview?”

This is the disconnect Doug hopes to resolve.

The question I’m struggling with is this: Can arts organizations that were designed to elevate their communities from a position of assumed superiority find a way to convince people of their value, relevance, usefulness and desirability without being condescending?

I’m not sure they can.

How about you? Is your organization a humble, respectful, deferential, coequal member of the community it serves, or does it hold itself above the community and talk down to people whose lives it thinks are in need of improvement?