Who’ll Teach Arts Execs About Marketing?

I met a lot of enthusiastic and optimistic arts marketers at the Artsreach conference last week who were eager to take new skills back to their organizations. But the one refrain I kept hearing was this: “I’d love to do the things you suggest, Trev, but my boss will never go for it.”

You’d think I was pushing some sort of subversive agenda that threatens to bring arts organizations crashing down all around the cultural sector, but the situation is quite the opposite. Arts organizations are doing a fine job of collapsing on their own – without any help from me – and I’m suggesting inexpensive, effective, businesslike ways to speak more persuasively to new audiences.

I’ve been in the trenches long enough to know that the conversations these marketers have when they return home go something like this:

Marketer: Hey, Boss, we’ve developed some new marketing materials that speak more persuasively to new audiences and we’d like you to take a look.

Boss: But these don’t look like our old marketing materials.

Marketer: No, they don’t. We did some research into new audiences and developed messages they find more appealing. It meant pulling back on some of the old clichés and focusing more on the people we’re targeting and what they’ll get out of coming to our events.

Boss: Well, you know me, I’m all about change, but…, um…, Is the arts organization down the street doing this?

Marketer: No. They laid off most of their marketing staff so I doubt they’re doing anything new over there.

Boss: Well… I’m not sure our funders will appreciate this. We can’t afford to jeopardize those relationships. I’ll show it to Millicent Underbridge at the next board meeting, but in the meantime I suggest you put together something that’s more us. We can’t afford to take any risky steps in this economy, especially with our sales numbers so far in the hole. Maybe we can try new things when we get back to normal, but for now we have to stick to what we know works.

Unfortunately, the executive leaders who make these decisions are seldom marketing experts. They have no academic background in marketing; they have limited hands-on experience in arts marketing; they have scant exposure to the way marketing functions in business or corporate environments; and they have little understanding of accepted standards and practices in the broader marketing profession. When it comes to marketing, arts leaders are, by and large, amateurs, yet they’re called upon to make high-stakes decisions that determine whether their organizations will survive in the face of chronic, industry-wide audience attrition.

And that would be fine if those leaders hired and trusted professional marketers to guide them, which is what business leaders do, but they don’t typically do that. More often than not they hire marketers whose experience is confined to the insular nonprofit world and then make certain those marketers conform to the status quo. It sounds like an indictment, but it’s really just a description of a dynamic that’s part of the arts business model – a part we might want to recognize and fix before it’s too late to make productive changes.

The arts have been suffering steady audience declines for the last three decades yet we’ve been sending the same marketing messages the entire time. No industry with professional marketing would do that.

It’s time for the arts to make a major professional upgrade in the way we communicate with the world around us. We need to know exactly who our new audiences are; we need to do the necessary research to understand what they want; and then we need to develop sophisticated messaging strategies that describe how our products will satisfy their yearnings. And on the flip side, we have to stop preaching to a shrinking audience of dying fans with hackneyed nonsense language and off-putting imagery. We need new audiences as much as we need old audiences and it’s time to start talking to them both at the same time.

So if you’re an arts exec and your marketer comes home from a conference with good ideas for motivating new audiences, embrace those ideas and put them to work – even if it means changing comfortable old habits. Or better yet, come with your marketer to the next conference and get the eduction you need to become the executive marketing expert that your arts organization deserves.


1 thought on “Who’ll Teach Arts Execs About Marketing?

  1. I think as arts marketers we must do our homework very well. Before presenting an idea we need to gather facts and figures to present a solid case and reason why we need change. In my experience not just casually presenting an idea but putting a strategy like a business plan behind it, goes a long way with arts execs.

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