Oh, Dear God, Not Another Business Model

Lord knows the arts industry loves to talk about business models, but there’s one model that nobody ever talks about and it’s probably the only one that can help us solve our problem with shrinking audiences.

Having marketed the arts for nearly thirty years I’ve become intimately familiar with this model and I think I’ve been able to extract it’s essential elements.

Here’s a description:


Take a group of elite industry insiders, place them in a room together and ask them to brainstorm ideas for promoting an upcoming event or series. Encourage them to use industry expertise, intuitive assumptions, anecdotal evidence, spontaneous inspiration, groupthink, research results (if available), tradition, historical templates and plenty of innate creativity. Filter the creative output with subjective critical analysis, encourage the top ideas to bubble upward, mock up final choices for presentation and allow senior leadership to pick a winner by applying years of accumulated experience and wisdom.

Granted the model varies depending on the situation, but I think this is pretty much on target. If you disagree or would like to offer an alternative, by all means chime in.

There are all sorts of problems with this model, but rather than launch into a lengthy analysis, I’ll mention three underlying issues beginning with a lack of external perspective. The accepted process for developing arts marketing messages begins with insiders deciding what they want to say. But strategic messaging starts with the recipients of the message and seeks to understand their motives. Marketers who start by addressing the question from the audience’s perspective focus not on what they want to say, but rather on what needs to be said and the difference is profound.

Leonardo: Scientist

Next is the inherent subjectivity of the process. Arts pros seldom stop to ask if their intuition, talent and creativity are appropriate tools for message development, but in an era of diminishing results, it’s a question that must be asked. Marketing is a science, not an art, and science requires objectivity. The only tools worth applying in science are precision instruments and hard data. If we’re applying opinions and spontaneous inspiration in pursuit of predictable, repeatable outcomes, our work is destined to fail.

And the third issue is history. If there’s one overriding principle that governs the development of most arts marketing messages, it’s “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” And the worst possible manifestation of this principle is the custom that allows senior arts leaders to use their insiders’ perspective, subjectivity, and accumulated experience to decide which messages make the cut. If the arts have been steadily losing audiences over the last three decades, using historical wisdom as a guide is probably counterproductive.

Fixing our broken message development model could be the simplest, least expensive way to increase audiences without increasing costs. But doing so would require building a new model that: 1. Starts with the needs, wants and desires of new audiences, 2. Relies on rational methods and hard data, and 3. Looks forward rather than backward.

It’s not an impossible task, but it could mean changing the culture of arts management by turning certain arts pros into scientists – and that could be the most daunting challenge of all.

Next up: A New Model


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