Do New Audiences Think You’re Nuts?

The ubiquitous Twitterer Howard Sherman called me out the other day for claiming that arts organizations don’t do research. Many do conduct research, of course, so it’s unfair of me to have made such a sweeping generalization.

I stand corrected, Howard.

But I remain deeply concerned about the type of research that arts organizations do and the extent to which the results of that research influence marketing practice. Anyone who’s followed this blog knows that I am convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that the arts really suck at talking to new audiences. I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions that the content of our strategic communications is overwhelmingly hackneyed, old-fashioned, impotent, insidery and self-indulgent, and that we’ve grown so accustomed to yakking at dying fans that we’ve lost the ability to speak meaningfully to the new audiences on which our futures depend.

When I make sweeping generalizations about research, I’m talking about the kind of research that connects us to the younger, more culturally diverse audiences we’ve been whining about for the last twenty years. I’m talking about research that taps into their yearnings so we can draw motivating connections between what we do and what they want. I’m talking about research that teaches us not what radio stations people listen to, but rather what they need to hear us say so our ads will move them to buy the things we’re trying to sell. If we’re serious about speaking persuasively to new audiences, we have to know them as well as we know our old audiences so the fresh new language they expect to hear comes out of us as naturally as the tired old language that we refuse to stop speaking.

The only hope the arts have for sustaining and growing audiences is a constant supply of new participants, and the only hope we have for motivating those fresh young audiences is knowing what motivates them. The alternative is to sit in our conference rooms imagining what they want, telling them what we think they should want, pretending they want what their grandparents wanted or, God forbid, offering up reasons for wanting us that might not have occurred to them yet. It’s the kind of thinking that gives us crap like this:

Celebrate Spring!

What better way to celebrate than with the unsurpassed joys of live music? From intimate performances of chamber music to majestic orchestral concerts, we’ve got just what you need to refresh your mind and spirit.

Cute isn’t it? Could have arrived in your inbox yesterday from just about any arts organization. But the problem is that it is the polar opposite of strategic communication.

Had the organization that published this done research into what motivates ticket-buying audiences, they’d have learned that there is no pent up desire among potential concertgoers to celebrate spring. And they’d have learned that even if there were such a desire, sitting in a dark concert hall is just about the last place anyone might claim to want to do it. You can funnel ten thousand prospects through a thousand focus groups with hundreds of moderators asking an infinite number of penetrating questions about what people want, and not a single respondent is likely to say anything about celebrating spring by buying tickets to a classical music event.

What they will talk about is personal motivating impulses like enjoying live music, going out with friends, trying new things, drinks and dinner, bragging rights, belongingness, social interaction, inspiration, uplift, personal development and those intangible intrinsic benefits that people feel so deeply but find so difficult to describe. They’ll also talk about the things that turn them off like stuffiness, condescension, expense, exclusivity, inconvenience, artifice, arrogance and alienation. All of this is necessary knowledge for strategic communicators who want to know what they should and should not say.

No strategic message developer armed with such market intelligence would dream of talking about celebrating spring when it has nothing whatsoever to do with what their audiences have told them they want. The person who wrote this obviously didn’t have access to such information and instead decided to use his instincts, insider experiences, creative imagination and agility with poetic metaphor to come up with a fanciful suggestion about what a concert series might do for you if you stopped to think about it – in a certain way, with the lighting just right, an orchestra playing softly in the background, bluebirds flitting about and a soft breeze blowing through the lacy window curtains.

You wouldn’t sit down with a young friend or relative and try to get them to celebrate spring by coming to one of your concerts. They’d think you were nuts. It’s more likely that you’d use what you actually know about them to describe why you think they’d want to spend time and money on your products. “I remember how excited you were the night you heard Arvo Pärt in that club and I couldn’t help thinking this would be something you’d really like.”

The same goes for new audiences. If you talk silly, self-important nonsense they’ll know you’re out of touch with their reality. But if you do research and find out what they actually want, then use that information to bridge the divide between their yearnings and your products, they’re more likely to listen and then do what you so desperately need them to do.

Big data? Great. Pricing analytics? Great. Intrinsic impact research? Eh, I suppose, but none of it can save an organization that refuses to learn how to make rational, direct, personal, relevant, motivating communicative connections with its future audiences.


5 thoughts on “Do New Audiences Think You’re Nuts?

  1. I enjoy your blog, and agree with much of what you write. However, I’m getting a little tired of the same posts over and over again (ie. telling us all the things we’re doing wrong). Would you consider rounding up some examples of arts organizations who are doing it “right” and posting about that occasionally? I think there’s a lot to be learned from “what not to do” posts, but I would love to see what you consider to be smart, data-driven, successful marketing slogans/campaigns/ideas/etc. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Kyle. Your point is very well taken. I am actually aware of the repetitive nature of what I write and I appreciate the effect that may have on long-time readers. In the past couple of months however, my readership has nearly quadrupled and I’ve made a conscious choice to stress some core messages that you may have already encountered.

    I’d love to feature examples of arts organizations that are doing it right. To do so, however, requires not just the public evidence of good marketing practices in the form of published marketing messages, but the detailed research results on which those messages were based, which is often proprietary. I will seek out some examples, though, and see if I can feature some more positive, constructive content in future posts.

    I’m genuinely grateful for your feedback and I hope you’ll continue to let me know what’s on your mind. After all, I wouldn’t be much of a marketer if I didn’t heed and respond to audience members who tell me what they want!

    • Trevor, thanks for having the courage to stand up and point out that “the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes”, i.e. telling us honestly that we suck at promoting what we’re passionate about. I am a publicist at a museum and a living heritage site, and think “heritage” is easily substituted for the word “arts” in your posts. I unfortunately recognize us and our methods sometimes, although we are working hard to discover what is wanted by our visitors and supply it, rather than create something and offer it hopefully. I see we can work much harder on this. Thanks very much, keep it coming, it’s inspiring us!!

    • Thanks Trevor. I second Kyle’s comment and I’m glad to read that examples of organisations getting it right are part of the bigger plan. Many of us have been very conscious of our sucky, inadequate or stale messages, even before coming across your book and blog. It would be encouraging and inspiring to see more examples of what works.

      I think it would also be interesting to occasionally examine where some of the cliched ideas come from. To use the example in this post, season-linked promotions (Celebrate Spring, Winter Warmers, Summer Sizzle, etc.) seem to be quite prevalent in retail, for example – perhaps minus the poetry. Is it the case that this sort of strategy works in retail (if so, why/how?) but not elsewhere? Or is it a case that marketing can suck in other industries too and they sell stuff despite themselves?

  3. I like what the folks at the Dallas Museum of Art are doing – they are actually *asking their visitors what they are interested in*, and using what they learn about those visitors to tailor communications to *people like them*. I’m reminded why Marketing is the most misunderstood and often worst-practiced craft, because the best marketing is invisible.

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