The History of Arts Marketing: Learning to Say the Wrong Things to the Right People

When I got my first job at a regional theatre in the 1980s, marketing was an incredibly squishy affair.

We knew we had a certain amount of promotion to do and a certain amount of revenue to earn, but the marketing process was mostly a shoot-from-the-hip endeavor that involved making educated guesses and dreaming up clever ideas for getting the word out. It was fun because it was creative; it was easy because we didn’t really have to know anything; and the stakes were low because all we had to do was remind interested people that we were there and the rest pretty much took care of itself.

My favorite part was the message development process, which involved getting bright people together in the green room to brainstorm campaign ideas. Using our collective expertise, talent and creativity, we came up with all sorts of clever concepts and then winnowed them down to three or four top picks so the designer could mock them up and the boss could select his favorite.

On the message delivery side things were similar, although we had more specific constraints to guide our thinking – which lists to use, how many to mail, when to launch, etc. We had a lot to consider, but we had previous campaigns to guide us and plenty of collective experience to apply to the process. Numbers didn’t matter much in the mid 80s so, outside of some response rate projections on the season mailer, we flew by the seat of our pants and, because demand was strong, managed to do a fairly good job.

Things are a lot different now of course. Message delivery technology has evolved radically in the last 30 years and the arts have done a pretty good job of keeping up. Digital technology has given us tools to gather and use patron data and to measure, with extraordinary precision, where our messages go and how people respond. Today, smart arts pros know that delivering marketing messages is a science that’s fueled by hard data and quantitative measures, and that the days of relying on tradition, subjective expertise and intuition have long since passed.

I wish I could say the same for message development, but I can’t. While message delivery was evolving over the last thirty years, message development took an evolutionary detour and wound up at a dead end. If you look critically at most arts marketing messages, once you remove references to contemporary works, artists and venues, you’ll find the fossilized remains of a language that was developed decades ago for an audience that no longer exists. Somehow, probably because nobody was trying to sell us message development technology, we let the most important part of our communications process – our persuasive language – become obsolete.

So today, rather than developing fresh, contemporary, strategic messages to match our up-to-the-minute delivery vehicles, we use state-of-the-art technology to send the same antiquated, self congratulatory, non-strategic fluff that we’ve always sent. The mismatched trajectories of message delivery and message development over the last thirty years demonstrate with sad irony that the arts have done a truly impressive job of learning how to say the wrong things to the right people.

Should the message development process have evolved as well? Absolutely. Thirty years ago there were so many people in the marketplace who cared about what we did that it didn’t matter much what we said or if we said it in a frivolous, nonsensical or narcissistic way as long as we got the information in front of the right people. For a long time, because it didn’t actually have to sell anything, the language of arts marketing was little more than a stylistic device that was there to get attention or dress up information that arts lovers were waiting to respond to.

But that’s not true today. The language we speak has to be specific and intentional. We have to choose words and images that motivate new audiences by promising them that what we sell will make them happy. We have to guarantee a return on their investment. We have to tell them what’s in it for them in an honest, direct, persuasive language that resonates with contemporary reality. We have to apply rigorous, rational, goal oriented methodologies to the process of establishing causal connections between our products and the unmet needs, wants and desires of the people we expect to see filling our theaters, galleries and concert halls for the next twenty years. In short we have to sell, and the language we’ve been using doesn’t do it.

It’s no longer OK to sit in our conference rooms surrounded by elite insiders brainstorming clever ways to get the word out. We have to get out of our venues, go into the marketplace, get to know the fence-sitting audiences on whom our futures depend and then craft fact-based, rationally constructed, audience-oriented strategic sales messages that are worthy of the miraculous little digital devices they all have in their pockets – the devices that are most likely to carry the messages we plan to deliver.

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Image: Mel Bochner
, Nonsense, 2009,
 oil and acrylic on canvas 
60″ x 45.” Photo: Nicholas Knight. Courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Art


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