Marketing Advice for a Reanimated San Diego Opera

San Diego Opera nearly died this year because its previous administration wasn’t selling enough tickets to keep the doors open. Ian Campbell said there weren’t enough audiences, but his sales and marketing efforts were woefully amateurish and out of date.

If the newly reanimated company is going to survive, it’s going to have to make fundamental changes in its approach to earning revenue. Here are a few recommendations for getting the process started.

Ignore Opera America

Opera America may be a useful source for advice on fundraising, but I’d suggest going elsewhere for advice on marketing. In an April letter to SDO board members, Opera America outlined how it would address the company’s crisis, and in seven short bullet points mentioned fund-raising four times without ever once mentioning marketing or sales. They did mention “public relations,” but public relations hasn’t been a primary approach to selling tickets or earning revenue for over twenty years.

Survival for San Diego Opera is going to mean selling tickets. Lots of tickets. And the only way to sell lots of tickets is to make professional sales and marketing an ultimate priority. Any person or group that still thinks public relations is an appropriate response to a crisis of this magnitude simply cannot be considered a credible source of professional assistance.

Speak the Right Language

If survival means selling tickets, talk about selling tickets. Stop talking about “communications,” “audience development,” “public relations,” “outreach,” “new audiences,” or, God forbid, “engagement.” These are diversionary indulgences that nonprofit arts administrators have been using for years to avoid facing the fact that, when you don’t sell tickets, you die. Stay focused exclusively on selling tickets and you’ll be amazed at how many tickets you sell.

(Oh all right, you can do outreach and engagement if you want, but don’t pretend they have anything to do with ticket sales unless you can prove with cold, hard facts that they have something to do with ticket sales.)

Burn the Archives

The marketing that San Diego Opera was doing didn’t work. That’s why the company nearly died. To continue doing the same thing would be idiotic. So lest anyone goes digging into the past for inspiration, take the marketing archives out into the parking lot and burn them. But before you do this, pull out a handful of the most embarrassingly self-important, self-indulgent, self-flattering examples (they’ll be easy to find) and post them on the conference room wall under a huge sign that says: “IT’S THE AUDIENCE, STUPID!”

Do Sales

Doing sales means developing and staffing an outside sales department. Start with an experienced VP of sales who reports to the CEO. If you can’t imagine what such a sales department would do, introduce yourselves to the folks at the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, San Diego Padres or Legoland and ask them to show you around their sales departments. Learn what they do and how they do it then borrow the most applicable parts and put them to work selling tickets at San Diego Opera.

Do Real Marketing

Marketing is a science that’s driven by market intelligence and data. Don’t hire anyone who doesn’t understand this – especially the new chief executive. The days of allowing the highest-paid person’s opinion to determine marketing choices are over. Ian Campbell used his “expert” opinions to govern marketing choices and we all know how that turned out.

Come Down Off the Pedestal

You nearly disappeared.

Had this happened, the rest of the world would have gotten along just fine, which pretty much proves that San Diego Opera, for all practical purposes, doesn’t occupy a position of cultural superiority.

If you’re still looking down on the world and wondering when people are going to start looking up again, you might as well give up now. The balance of power has shifted. You need audiences more than they need you and now everybody knows it. Your only real option is to climb down off the pedestal and start convincing tomorrow’s audiences – with humility, generosity and deference, and in a down-to-earth language they understand – that San Diego Opera is worth their time and money.

San Diego Opera’s leadership has an interesting choice to make: They can embrace a proactive, professional approach to growing opera audiences or they can continue their passive, amateurish “tell the world how wonderful we are and hope people will come” approach – and continue to shrink the company as the audience gradually disappears.

I wonder which direction they’ll choose.



4 thoughts on “Marketing Advice for a Reanimated San Diego Opera

  1. Trevor

    So refreshing to read smart, intelligent, savvy advice that avoids all the meaningless jargon and centers on cold, hard reality. One can only hope more will listen. I couldn’t agree more. Great post.


    Sent from my iPad

  2. Yes, you probably knew I would weigh in, Trevor. I agree with you on some of your ideas. However, as you know, just focusing on selling tickets is not the right answer either. You can create a butts in seats mentality, but without forming relationships via audience development, they are not guaranteed to come back. Then you only have the expensive marketing cycle to rely on and a very fickle audience (if you get an audience in the future). Rotational audiences via only focusing on marketing has gotten us into this mess. You need the connections to be the backbone of your organization, period. Without forming these relationships with your stakeholders, which includes your audiences, you might as well be selling toilet paper. The arts are a subjective, emotional business and the management of such a business needs more finesse.

    Thank you though for pointing out that the same old is not cutting it, but audience development is a new concept that would be wise to look in to, assuming people begin to understand what it really is and what it can do for the artist/organization.

    Marketing is a piece of the puzzle, yet again, it should not be the only focus. It would be dangerous to do so, but I do agree a more educated approach is needed.

    • Hi, Shoshana. Thanks for chiming in.

      I hear what you’re saying, but I’m going to stick to sales and marketing. No other approach moves as many tickets and no other approach has such precise metrics for measuring ROI. San Diego Opera needs to sell a lot of tickets in the most efficient manner and the best way to do that is with sales and marketing. When it’s a choice between life and death (as it is for so many arts organizations), there’s really no other viable option.

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