Did Amateur Marketing Kill San Diego Opera?

As the arts world rushes to point fingers at San Diego, allow me to chime in with this: The cause of death might also be crappy marketing.

Every time a major arts institution announces financial difficulties, I go to their season brochure to look for clues as to what might be preventing them from selling enough tickets. I did this today with San Diego Opera’s season brochure and found a marketing tool that was designed and written in the late 1970s when Danny Newman wrote “Subscribe Now.” The names and dates are different, but this brochure was developed to sell tickets to my grandmother (who died, by the way, back in the 1980s). My guess is that if you took all the subscription brochures out of the SDO’s archives and lined them up on the conference table, you’d see a chain of unrelenting sameness dating back more than 30 years.

General & Artistic Director Ian Campbell said, “The demand for opera in this city isn’t high enough.” I think what he meant was, “We’ve been doing the same marketing we do every year and it’s not working anymore.”

Professional marketers respond to changing market conditions, which means their marketing strategies evolve to keep pace with changes in the world around them. Arts organizations, meanwhile, tend to do what they’ve always done and then blame the world for not producing the sort of consumers who respond to the marketing they do.

A part of me laments the tragic passing of institutions like this. Another part believes that arts organizations that refuse to learn how to persuade new audiences deserve the fates they create for themselves.

My heart goes out to the thousands of young, culturally diverse people in San Diego who won’t have a chance to become opera fans. I’m sorry we never bothered to learn how to talk to you.



11 thoughts on “Did Amateur Marketing Kill San Diego Opera?

  1. Lots of same ol’ same ol’ going on in arts marketing. Can you expand on why you think the SDO’s brochure appears as though was designed and written in the 70s?

  2. The posters are lovely. The graphic design is great. But even just spending 2 minutes to flip through the brochure my first take aways include: Too many words! And a boring season. Nothing innovative either on stage or in terms of marketing. San Diego is way too big of a city to offer boring opera.

    • It’s not the season or the design that’s at issue, it’s the fact that the brochure (and most likely the campaign for which it serves as a foundation) is silly, recycled, artsy-fartsy nonsense. Real marketers start with the audiences on which their survival depends. They find out what motivates them and then develop their strategies in response to factual market intelligence that describes what audiences said they were looking for. This “strategy” was pulled out of a file drawer in the Opera’s administrative offices marked “The way we’ve always done it.”

  3. As someone who worked on the marketing brochure in question, I can tell you that this was indeed directed, written and designed by someone’s who idea of marketing is to “beat them over the heads until they buy a ticket out of submission.” Those actual words were used on more than one occasion by leadership. The marketing staff is young, visionary, passionate and fought tooth and nail for changes. Now they are frustrated and mad as hell. Your analysis is indeed correct.

  4. I can’t tell you how sorry I am you had to go through this. I’ve been there many times myself (although not with such dire consequences) and I know how painful it is to have to take direction from older arts leaders who don’t know what they’re doing. Sadly, marketing isn’t something you have to know in order to become an executive leader of an arts institution. Even sadder is that fact that most arts leaders believe they possess marketing expertise by virtue of having become executive leaders. And sadder still is the fact that the funding community is equally clueless: they don’t understand marketing because they don’t have to do it.

    I know the arts are full of talented, smart, insightful young marketers who know what needs to be done, but who are constrained by old, stubborn, change-averse executive leaders. I meet people like you every time I speak at industry conferences. Tragically, the refrain I keep hearing is “We’d love to do the audience-oriented marketing you recommend, Trevor, but our bosses would never let us do it.”

    I honestly wish you the best of luck. Traditional arts organizations may not be worth fighting for, but the art is, so I hope you won’t give up.

    • Hi, LaNeshe,

      There’s nothing wrong with a traditional brochure, but the content has to appeal to new audiences. This content was derived from the organization’s marketing traditions, not from in-depth research into what motivates younger, more culturally diverse potential audience members. You have to know exactly who you’re marketing to and what motivates them before you can develop persuasive marketing content. Take that blurb from the Pagliacci page and try reading it to one of your friends as if you’re trying to convince her to go to the opera. Right away you’ll realize that it’s crap. Your friend will look at you like you’re crazy. This is what happens when out-of-touch arts insiders sit in conference rooms recycling 50-year-old pablum and pretending that it’s going to matter to someone who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about murderous Italian clowns.

      But if research reveals adventurous young people who are curious about opera and who seek social occasions where they can enjoy drinks and listen to great live music, then that’s an entirely different story. What photo and copy would you put in a brochure aimed at these people?

      If the traditional brochure format works, that’s great. But if the content is self-indulgent nonsense that has no connection to new audience attitudes, expectations and desires, it’s just plain irresponsible.

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