Cheap, Easy Research Tip 6: Test Your Creative

This is the last installment in a six-part series about research. Many arts organizations avoid research because they think it’s expensive or complicated, but that’s not a good excuse for staying ignorant. There are plenty of ways to gain useful insight into new audience motives without having to spend a lot of money.

Before you send out new marketing messages, test them on new audiences to see if they work.

My favorite way to test creative is one I’ve mentioned before: find a young person who embodies the characteristics of the new audiences you’re looking for and read her your copy. Try it. Read your promotional copy as if you’re actually trying to persuade a young person to come to your next event. If it sounds artificial, self-congratulatory, overblown, condescending, presumptuous and disconnected from the person you’re talking to (which is what 99% of arts marketing copy sounds like), start over.

Develop an advisory group of people who don’t care all that much about you. Identify opinion leaders in the community who represent the distant but nonetheless persuadable fringes of your patron universe and recruit them to help you evaluate the effectiveness of your messages. Show them your mock-ups and encourage them to tell you honestly if they work on people like them. If they say, “They don’t really tell me why I would want to go to this event,” develop new materials that tell them why they’d want to go to the event.

Find art directors who work for local agencies or companies that market to younger, more culturally diverse targets. Recruit them to serve as a second set of eyes and ask them to weigh in on your creative. These folks have access to all the research their companies have done, so getting their input can plug you into a vast and expensive knowledge base that wouldn’t otherwise be available. It’s tough to get pro bono work out of agencies these days, but there’s nothing to stop you from asking for expert advice from their employees. And of course you’ll want to thank them with tickets or other meaningful in-kind rewards.

Use social media. Ask your friends and followers to weigh in on campaign ideas as they’re being developed – or ask them to submit promotional ideas of their own. Including social networks in the message development process is an organic means of generating meaningful interaction with interested communities. It brings audience-centric voices into the discussion, it turns supporters into advocates and it disseminates marketing messages to desirable target audiences.

Test your churn. Pull those stubborn one-off buyers out of your database, divide them randomly into test groups and send them two emails. One email should be the canned, self-centered, preaching-to-the-choir stuff you normally send out. For the other, try a fresh, colloquial, audience-centered, this-is-what’s-in-it-for-you message. If you find that telling new audiences what’s in it for them is effective, you may want to start developing fresh messages that tell new audiences what’s in it for them.

Or why not just talk to people. New audiences come in and out of our venues every day. If you have three mock-ups of next season’s membership brochure and you need to learn which one will work best, mount them on some nice presentation boards, set up a display in the lobby and ask visitors who look like the audiences you’re trying to attract to pick the one they find most persuasive. Give them a free drink voucher for their trouble. People love to be asked for opinions and your new audiences will be flattered that they were invited to have a say in the process.

Learning how your marketing messages work before you send them out doesn’t cost much and it stands to significantly improve the results of your persuasive messaging efforts.

Suggested Guidelines

As with all research, there are a few guidelines to follow to make sure you gather the most accurate, useful information.

1. Keep everything you learn in perspective. The methods above are all qualitative so the information must be evaluated according to its source, its context and its relationship to the other research you conduct. You’re the professional so it’s your responsibility to glean the most appropriate, relevant and useful knowledge from the data you collect.

2. Don’t cherry pick results that correspond with what you already believe or that point to the marketing materials you want to produce. Solicit, accept and be willing to honestly consider legitimate external input.

3. Ask people how they’d respond, not what they’d do if they were you. Most people think marketing is common sense and everybody wants to be Don Draper so unless you’re asking for advice from real marketing professionals who know what they’re talking about, limit the discussion to initial responses. You can ask people why they responded a certain way, but the minute they start playing armchair ad exec, their input is of limited value.

4. Weigh external perspectives honestly against internal imperatives. Your organization will want to keep producing boastful, self-flattering, presumptuous marketing materials because they reinforce all the things we arts professionals want to believe about ourselves. But if those messages aren’t resonating with new audiences, it’s time to take off the rose colored glasses and start dealing with the world as it is.

Go get some input from skeptical outsiders and let it influence the way you talk to them.

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