Arts Marketing Doesn’t Work Because It’s Irrational

I mentioned two posts ago that good marketing is based on a logical formula that looks like this:

We know you want x

We offer x

Thus we can reasonably project that you will do y

The x is the product you sell, of course, and y is the behavior you expect from your customers, i. e. “We know you want a great night out featuring dining, socializing and high quality artful entertainment. We offer a great night out featuring dining, socializing and high quality artful entertainment. Thus we can reasonably expect that you’ll come to our destination with your friends or family, patronize one of our nearby restaurants, and experience a high quality performance event in our venue.

Spock SmilingWhen I studied classical rhetorical theory in grad school (don’t go away; this is good stuff) I learned that the first two parts of this formula are indispensable components of the persuasion process. Aristotle himself said that if you want to get somebody to think a certain way or do a certain thing, first you have to know what they need or want, and then you have to describe how your product will satisfy their yearnings. It’s a surprisingly simple yet immensely powerful idea that smart businesspeople, preachers, politicians and scoundrels have been using for the last 2,500 years.

Sadly, however, it’s an idea that’s completely lost on arts organizations.

In the arts we tend to ignore the first part of the equation and instead slip in all sorts of self-serving alternatives that don’t have the same impact:

We assume you want x

We hope you want x

We think you should want x

We think you need x because we believe it’s good for you

We’re really excited about x

x is so wonderful that your wanting it shouldn’t matter

Our artistic director has staked his career on the expectation that you want x

We knew your grandparents wanted x fifty years ago, but we’re too lazy to find out what you want now

We’re only interested in donors, subscribers and members who want x

Our marketing department actually knows what you want, but our executive director thinks you want x and he approves all the marketing

We think that if we find a clever enough way to get your attention you’ll want x

We’re celebrating our 25th gala anniversary of x

Alec Baldwin wants x

We’re too afraid that you don’t actually want x to find out what you do want

Plug any of these into the strategic equation and you’ll quickly discover that they don’t work. Logic doesn’t function that way. If we want the third part of the equation to remain constant and predictable, the first part has to be grounded in fact, and it must exist in a precise, rational, causal relationship to the second so that, together, they point to an inevitable outcome:

We know you want x

We offer x

Thus we can reasonably project that you will do y

If you want to learn in advance whether your marketing messages are optimally, rationally persuasive, ask yourself these questions:

Have we gathered enough objective, external evidence to know for a fact what our target audiences want?

Have we done a good job of describing how what we’re selling will satisfy our target audience’s stated yearnings?

Since the second question is entirely dependent on there being an affirmative answer to the first, there’s really only one question worth asking. And if the answer isn’t yes, there’s no logical reason to proceed.

Have you gathered enough objective, external evidence to know for a fact what your new audiences want?


10 thoughts on “Arts Marketing Doesn’t Work Because It’s Irrational

  1. Love this one, Trevor! I think you really drove it home that many artists and arts organizations are still leaving the audience out of the equation. No wonder they are not gaining an audience! We can challenge ourselves and our audiences, but we still need to get the basics of what they want down first.

    Another part of the imbalanced equation is when artists/orgs think they should be x since the audience expects x, or it has always been x, but they really aren’t x underneath it all or have dreams of being more than x. Bending over too much and not being yourself or defining yourself properly will get you the wrong audience too. People may show up, but the fact is the real You hasn’t shown up. Identity crisis indeed!

    Start with who you really are and find the audience that matches. Then find out what your matching audiences want (x), and it will be an easy fit to provide and expand (x) for them. That’s the best equation of all.

  2. Great post! I would add that it is equally important to ask the question AFTER you launch/market a program–to test, test, test if the thing you are offering is, in actuality and not in theory, meeting the needs/wants of your audience over time. Even if we are successful at drawing the crowds we want, there are always opportunities to make the experience better for our patrons.

    • It’s not a matter of letting the audience choose the art, it’s a matter of understanding the audience so well that you know how to persuade them to participate. For example, if you know that new audiences are looking for a fun night out with friends listening to great live music, you’re better off showing a picture of young people laughing and enjoying a drink in the lobby bar than you are featuring the stereotypical tuxedo-clad conductor swinging a baton. Research reveals the space where x represents the overlap between what audiences want and what we’re trying to sell.

  3. Reblogged this on Sight/Sound and commented:
    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my roles in publicity and record label sales and how what I have observed can positively affect what I can and should do as a composer. This is a lucidly clear outline of some of the dangerous routes I’ve observed.

  4. Great post. Sometimes I wonder too if arts organizations are selling the same pitch to both funders and audience, when (I believe) they are different and therefore should have a difference in messaging. The two groups may want to support the same institution but for very different reasons. As you illustrated, the latter may do so for the social experience while the former may do so for the social good. Too often I feel I’ve seen grant-speak do double-duty as marketing language to poor effect.

  5. Trevor, I have a client that went below revenue targets on a show they only realized in retrospect was geared to old ladies. The old ladies they heard from loved the show. They gave some wonderful testimonials. Everyone else hated it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t obvious early enough in the season to get the word out to senior centers, etc., and the executive director received so many positive testimonials from old ladies during the run that she could not understand why the house was never full. My question for you: is there anything you can do mid-run when you realize you’ve made a mistake in how you have marketed a show?

  6. Great posting. I agree wholeheartedly that arts organizations should be so in touch with their audiences and stakeholders that participation in their programs, in whatever form that takes, is inevitable. There is also something to be said for risk taking. Apple has distinguished itself by providing products to people before they knew they needed them. This is not only a good business practice for non-profit arts organizations, it is an obligation of any entity that aspires to make a real difference to the communities they serve. Putting on the business hat, it comes down to balance in end. Follow the crowds with your more commercial offerings, and here is where your equation comes into play. Good market research + good marketing – artistic ego = fewer tears when the box office sales report hits the inbox. But a healthy percentage of what you do should be aspirational. Beyond exciting important segments of your audiences and growing new ones, it reinvigorates your staff and simply feeds the soul.

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