How Do You Know Your Marketing Is Persuasive?

I mentioned elsewhere on this site that my professional background in marketing and my academic background in persuasion theory inspired me to write this blog and book. Today I’m letting my inner geek out to talk a little bit about the mechanics of persuasion and why arts pros are having such a hard time making it work on new audiences.

Simply put, persuasion means using strategic communication to get people to do what we want them to do. It’s motivational. It’s about leveraging an audience’s desires to get them to think or act in a particular way.

If you know your audience has a pent up desire for California plein air painting, for example, and you want to persuade them to come to your exhibit of California plein air paintings, you’ll develop marketing messages that demonstrate how your exhibit will satisfy their desire. This is persuasion at its most basic: recognizing an unsatisfied yearning in the marketplace, then describing how a certain action (coming to the museum) will solve the problem.

For many decades this is how the arts motivated audiences:

  • We know you have a desire for X.
  • We are presenting X.
  • You will do Y.
  • We know you have a desire for California plein air painting.
  • We are presenting California plein air painting.
  • You will come to our gallery.

For a long time, marketing the arts was a simple, straightforward process because there was an abundance of unsatisfied desire in the marketplace and all we had to do was find attractive ways to describe our products to people who already yearned for them.

But what happens when the hunger for our products diminishes and there’s not quite as much unsatisfied desire in the marketplace? What happens when younger audiences don’t have the same motivating appetites as their parents did? What happens to persuasion when the pent up desire is removed from the equation?

  • We really, really hope that you have a desire for X.
  • We’re presenting X because we think it’s important (whether you desire it or not).
  • You might do Y, but then again we don’t have a clue what you’ll do because we don’t actually know you and we haven’t bothered to find out what you want so it’s not possible for us to describe X in a way that makes it relevant to your desires, and instead we’re going to do what we’ve always done, which is focus on the loyal audiences we do know, and hope that somehow you’ll end up coming, too.

The key to building new audiences lies in fixing this bloated equation and getting back to the elegant X+X=Y equation we started with. And the key to fixing the equation lies in being able to say “We know you have a desire for X.” And the key to finding out what X stands for is to figure out who those new audiences are and ask them what they want.

  • We know you have a desire for authentic arts experiences you can share with friends in a setting that provides numerous amenities for leisure entertainment and social interaction (because you told us this when we did our research).
  • We’re presenting beautiful, rare, original oil paintings for you and your friends to experience in an extraordinary setting that includes food, drink, shopping and an entertaining array of additional exhibits and attractions.
  • (And because we took time to understand your yearnings and describe our product accordingly) we can predict with confidence that you’re going to come.

When it comes to persuasion, arts pros have a choice to make. We can continue to produce the same old passive marketing messages knowing that their persuasive power is waning, or we can reenergize our persuasive power by learning who our new audiences are, finding out what they want and then creating a new motivating language that describes how our products will make them happy.

There’s a danger in this, of course. We may learn that new audiences are difficult to identify, that they don’t value us as much as we wish they did, that to them we’re just another choice among dozens of equally attractive but lower-brow leisure entertainment options, or, in the most daunting scenario, that their diminishing enthusiasm for our products is chronic and irreversible.

But if the alternative is to hide in our conference rooms paying lip service to imaginary new audiences and blithely ignoring them in our marketing messages, we can’t complain when actual new audiences fail to materialize at our doorstep.


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