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.


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