2013: The Year of Reality Based Arts Marketing [Oh, well…]

I posted this in January of this year hoping to offset the ever-deepening audience crisis and to prevent venerable institutions from tanking. Some losses are unavoidable, such as the sad passing of the great Rick Lester. But others, such as the failure of organizations that refuse to learn how to attract new audiences, are completely avoidable. Here’s hoping that 2014 bring us closer to the reality I predicted, and further from the reality we’ve been experiencing.

I said to Rick Lester at TRG the other day, in full agreement with his brilliant “You’ve Cott Mail” prediction for 2013, that I was planning to dub this the Year of Reality Based Arts Marketing. Rick mentions the medieval guildhall mentality that governs how arts organizations make management choices and suggests that in this new year we’ll embrace a more fact-driven approach to developing tomorrow’s audiences.

Here’s my take on what that approach will look like:

Reality Based Arts Marketing will be Non-traditional

Whereas most arts marketing is rooted in longstanding cultural sector traditions, reality based marketing will focus on the present and future. All options and choices will be derived not from how things were done previously, but rather from current market intelligence and strategic goals and objectives. A reality based orchestra marketer, for example, will feature a photograph of her tuxedo-clad conductor only if she has enough objective, external evidence to suggest that it resonates with her target markets’ needs, desires or expectations.

Reality Based Arts Marketing will be Audience-centered

Whereas arts marketing is almost exclusively self-centered, reality based arts marketing will be focused on potential audiences and the extent to which the products promise to satisfy their stated needs, desires or expectations. Rather than filling season brochures with self-congratulatory information about the events, artists and institutions, reality-based marketers will devote a reasonable portion of their promotional real estate to the audience and to demonstrating how the products they’re selling will make them happy.

Reality Based Arts Marketing will be Data-driven

Whereas arts marketing tends to be driven by gut instinct, creativity, insider opinions and the subjective judgements of under-qualified executive leaders, reality based marketing will be driven by hard data. Reality based marketers understand that the only way to know how to satisfy a potential audience’s needs, wants or expectations is to know exactly what those needs, wants and expectations are, and the only way to do that is to gather, aggregate and analyze objective market data.

Reality Based Arts Marketing will be Rational

Whereas most arts marketing is rooted in a desire to disseminate messages that are eye-catching, informative and enticing, reality based marketing will employ pre-meditated strategic persuasion. Persuasion is a technical process that involves not simply sharing information, but describing how a product meets a need, want or expectation in such a way that it triggers predictable behaviors. Reality based marketers don’t get the word out, they structure rational persuasive appeals that motivate people to come in:

We know you want x; we offer x; thus we can reasonably predict that you will do y.

In traditional arts marketing the formula looks like this:

We think you might want x; we offer x; but since we don’t actually know what you want, we’re going to do what we’ve always done and then sit here and hope that you will do y.

Reality Based Arts Marketing will be Professional

Whereas most arts marketing conforms to the unique and often eccentric standards of the nonprofit sector, reality based arts marketing will strive to adhere to the standards and practices of the broader marketing profession. Reality based arts marketers will look beyond the traditions, habits and horizons of their small, insular, diminishing industry for professional real world solutions.

Reality Based Arts Marketing will be Personal

Whereas the language of traditional arts marketing is formulaic, artificial, hyperbolic, self-important and uni-directional, the language of reality based marketing will be fresh, authentic, humble, generous and conversational. Reality based arts marketers – because they’ll be personally and meaningfully engaged with new audiences – will converse with them in a naturally persuasive language they understand.

The problem with traditional arts marketing isn’t that it’s unrealistic, but that it’s based in a reality that no longer exists. Most of our communications traditions date to the middle of the last century. If we’re already thirteen years into a new century, it’s time to develop a new set of traditions. Or better yet, abandon tradition altogether and embrace an approach to strategic communication that changes with the markets on which our futures depend.


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