Arts organizations can generate significant increases in paid participation by simply changing the way we talk to new audiences. Here are a few steps you can take right this minute at no cost to start the process.
Stop Bragging. Talking endlessly about how wonderful you are is about as interesting as the guy you meet at a party who blathers on about his superior exploits and never asks about you. Put yourself in the position of a fence-sitter who has to hear that pompous litany coming out of your marketing department and ask yourself honestly whether you’d rather have someone describe what’s in it for you instead. Tip: When you develop promotional messages, focus less on yourself and more on the audience and the good time they’ll have enjoying your events.
Talk to Somebody. Most arts marketing is self-centered bravado that insiders dream up in conference rooms to tell the world what they’re up to. But guess what? The world doesn’t care. The reality is that there’s a predictable population of people in your market who do care, and a few more who might care if you talked to rather than at them. Tip: Develop promotional materials that speak directly, honestly and persuasively – in a natural language – to the individual human beings you’d like to see at your next event.
Know Your Audience. A couple of years ago over at Artsjournal.com a senior arts administrator wrote about having been invited to an orchestral concert where she was forced to sit in the balcony – clearly not her natural habitat – and wound up chatting with a humble subscriber named Bob. The epiphany she described having had during her exile was that people like Bob actually matter to arts organizations. The epiphany I had reading her story was that senior arts administrators need to spend a hell of a lot more time in the balcony. Tip: (I’m not even going to say it. If it’s not obvious, there’s no hope.)
Make your Case. The only way to persuade people to buy is to let them know how your product satisfies their desires. Back in the 20th century, there were a lot of people who had a deep-seated, self-motivating hunger for the arts so all we had to do was say “we’re here” and they came. But today those people are dying and their heirs don’t have the same built-in motivators so we have to make the case more explicitly: “We’re here and this is why you should come.” Tip: Get in the habit of spelling out for potential audiences, in every single promotional message, why you’re worth their time and money.
Be Humble. Young people can live their entire lives without ever setting foot in our venues and get along just fine. It doesn’t mean they’ll be deprived of art; it just means they’ll choose forms of creative expression that they find more appealing. If we want new audiences, we’ll have to accept the fact that we need them more than they need us, and then compete as equals in a broader, more democratic, non-hierarchical, user-controlled creative marketplace. Tip: Stop producing promotional messages that talk down to the world and start listening to the conversation to learn how best to participate.
I’m aware that most arts leaders didn’t go into the arts to sell increasingly unpopular products, fraternize with little people like Bob, compete with Youtube videos or swallow their egos once they’ve reached the top, but if they’re the ones who decide how to speak to a changing world, they’re going to have to learn a new language.
And as for young arts marketers, it’s up to you to teach that language to your tradition-bound bosses and insist that they let you speak it. They may be retiring before the audience disappears so they may not care enough to change. But if you want a life-long career in the arts – and maybe want to have have your boss’s job some day – you can’t afford to wait.