Can Technology Save the Arts?

If you follow ongoing public discourse about the arts, you’ll quickly discover that traditional art forms are losing audiences, that younger, more culturally diverse audiences must be found to replace graying audiences, and that finding new audiences means adopting the technologies that younger, more culturally diverse people use to communicate.

alexander_graham_bell_500pxTry following arts pros on Twitter for a while and you’ll experience a barrage of breathless advocacy for up-to-the-second technological answers to the arts’ most pressing marketing problems. Peruse breakout session schedules for industry conferences and you’ll see that mobile technology is the panacea we’ve been waiting for. Or dive into the blogosphere and you’ll discover that anyone who’s not already on [new social media site name here] is hopelessly behind the curve. If the question is, “How do we build new audiences?” the answer is almost always new technology and, sadly, it’s almost always the wrong answer.

If building new audiences were a simple matter of getting the same old marketing messages in front of younger, more culturally diverse targets, it might be the right answer, but that’s not how it works. New audiences are less interested in the arts than old audiences. If we want to convince them to participate, we need to stop focusing on getting our messages in front of them and start motivating them by talking to them about why they should come. These are two entirely different things and the latter is concerned not with technology, but with the uniquely human process of persuasion.

The accepted language of arts marketing is vapid, trite, amateurish, self-congratulatory bullshit that was developed for patrons who were so interested in the arts that it didn’t matter what we said as long as we gave them the information they were waiting for. But new audiences don’t respond to bullshit and they’re not sitting around waiting for our information. They may not care about our information and their lack of enthusiasm for our products won’t be overcome by novel technology. If we want to persuade them, we have to make a compelling case with direct, relevant, customer-oriented language – and language is not about technology, it’s about content.

The new media world accepts as a truism that content is king, but in the arts we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that digital innovation will somehow render the tedious puffery we publish in our brochures and emails suddenly persuasive – that technology is capable of taking idiotic phrases like “Celebrate the Experience of Live Performance” and delivering them more persuasively to a smartphone in a young hispanic person’s pocket. We’ve allowed shiny new objects to blind us to the limitations in our outdated promotional content and distract us from making fundamental, necessary changes in the way we speak to the world around us.

The answer to the problem is easy and surprisingly inexpensive. It involves knowing who we’re talking about when we say things like younger, more culturally diverse audiences. It involves learning what they want, which means talking to them – and listening to them. And it involves developing a fresh, direct, relevant promotional language that enables us to describe how what we sell will satisfy their yearnings.

Is technology important? You bet it is. It’s the vehicle that will carry our content to its intended recipients, it’s the conduit that will facilitate our loyalty building conversations with new audiences and it’s the convenience factor that will make buying faster and easier than ever before.  And, yes, it can even shape and enhance our message content to make it more appealing and possibly even a tiny bit more persuasive to people who prefer one technology over another. But we can’t allow ourselves to believe that shiny new technology will mitigate the need for thoughtful, strategic, audience-focused new content development.

Asking technology to be persuasive is like asking the mail carrier who drops off the same old subscription brochure you’ve been cranking out for the last thirty years to convince the mail recipient to subscribe. It’s not his job, it’s not what he’s there for and he’s not going to do it.

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