What the Arts Can Learn from Obama’s Victory

Last week I wrote about unfortunate similarities between the arts and the Republican party.

Today I’d like to turn that post into a positive set of suggestions for building stronger constituencies – primarily among younger, more culturally diverse audiences.

Here are six lessons the arts can learn from last week’s Democratic victories:

Build a Bigger Tent

Obama appealed to a broad, diverse constituency. He didn’t just talk about younger, more culturally diverse audiences, he sought them out, engaged with them and spoke to them in a language that resonated with their yearnings.

If the arts want new audiences, we have to stop aiming our persuasive communications at subscribers, members, donors and industry colleagues, and start talking to tomorrow’s audiences in a language they understand.

No More Gut Instinct Marketing

Obama never uttered a word that wasn’t fully vetted by his campaign strategists. He’s a smart guy whose instincts are probably spot on, but he knows that marketing is not his job.

Arts leaders have to stop using “that’s the way we’ve always done it” approaches to marketing, and start using persuasive strategies that are guided by up-to-date market intelligence and rational methodologies. Imagine an Obama campaign guided by arts marketing tradition and you get a sense of how vitally important this is: “Experience the Magic of Barack! Join us for a Sensational Second Term.”

Reconnect Leaders with Audiences

Obama’s path to the presidency wound its way through countless diners, church basements, community centers, VFWs and middle-class living rooms. He had an intuitive understanding of how to connect with undecided voters because he knew the undecided voters with whom he needed to connect.

Arts leaders, meanwhile, tend to live insular lives surrounded by artists, colleagues, donors and like-minded supporters – far removed from the worlds of the younger, more culturally diverse audiences on whom their futures depend.

If we want to speak persuasively to younger, more culturally diverse audiences, senior decision makers will have to engage with them so they know how to talk to them.

No More Tutus, Tuxes and Tights

All smart politicians know to avoid words and images that trigger negative associations in the minds of voters. It’s why Romney got in so much trouble when his ‘private’ comments about the “47%” went public, and why Obama focused so much on the future rather than the less attractive here and now.

Arts marketers who want to attract fence-sitting audiences need to learn how to emphasize the universally appealing aspects of their products while de-emphasizing some of the less important – and potentially offensive – secondary characteristics. A photo of attractive young people enjoying a drink in your lobby bar, for example, may be far more persuasive than yet another vanity shot of your sweaty conductor.

Strive for Balance

According to Propublica, Obama’s victory cost $1.83 per vote while Romney’s loss cost $6.35 per vote, suggesting that fundraising may not be as important as appealing to the right people and knowing how to talk to them.

The arts may not have as many deep-pocketed donors standing by, but the organizational culture of the arts is still heavily steeped in fundraising. Always has been. Marketing is a relative newcomer that isn’t anywhere near as well integrated into our industrial DNA.

The quandary the arts face now, of course, is that marketing is more important than ever and no amount of fundraising will save us when we can’t attract enough customers to warrant keeping the doors open.

Speak a Universal Language

Obama spoke a simple, natural, conversational language that was pitched to a diverse array of undecided outsiders. He had many individual expectations to satisfy, yet he talked like a regular person who was chatting with his contemporaries about the fulfillment their dreams an aspirations.

The arts, meanwhile, speak a loopy nonsense language that was developed for affluent white arts lovers in the middle of the 20th century. Most of those people are dead now, but for some reason we still speak as if they’re on the receiving end of every season brochure, radio ad and email.

If the arts want to reach new audiences, we have to find out exactly who they are and what they want out of life, and then speak to them in an honest, original, down-to-earth language that describes how our products will make them happy.

If we can’t do that, we probably don’t deserve their votes.


4 thoughts on “What the Arts Can Learn from Obama’s Victory

  1. Reblogged this on Mezzaphonically Speaking and commented:
    Trevor O’Donnell offers sage advice for the arts, outlining “a positive set of suggestions for building stronger constituencies – primarily among younger, more culturally diverse audiences.”

    He urges those in the arts to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk. Taking a lesson from Obama, the arts must actively seek out new audiences and engage them in relevant and compelling ways — “…start talking to tomorrow’s audiences in a language they understand.”

    Marketing efforts should be based on up-to-date information and emphasize the vital importance of the arts in a strategic and rational way. Building a strong connection between new audiences and the arts will help to break down barriers and gain news supporters. The arts must be willing to adapt and be more flexible in their approach. Moral of the story: Attracting younger, more diverse audiences will require marketing efforts and arts experiences that are perceived by these individuals as relevant, compelling, interactive, and engaging. Show them that you know how to speak their language.

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