Is This The Best San Diego Opera Can Do?

I popped onto the San Diego Opera website today to see what they were promoting for next season, or rather how they were promoting next season, and found this blurb for Nixon in China.

“Straight from the headlines and live news broadcasts of the day, Nixon in China pays musical witness to President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972 and goodwill meetings with China’s Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and Premier Chou En-Lai. From serious political discussions to a toast-filled banquet scene where every toast tries to outdo another, with Chinese dancers and a fantasy scene with Kissinger, Nixon in China explores an heroic gesture by a sitting American President towards a burgeoning world power. Join us for a whirlwind diplomatic trip which changed history and an opera that has risen to the top rank of 20th century American operas and is arguably one of the most influential of the last few decades.”

I’ve written extensively about just how badly arts marketing sucks and as much as I’d love to write a lengthy discourse on this juicy example, I’m going to let you explore that on your own (this blurb makes it easy) and move onto a more important consideration: How can an opera company that nearly died for lack of new audiences publish marketing content like this?

Survival for San Diego Opera means attracting a sustaining audience and that’s going to require sophisticated, professional marketing. This is not sophisticated, professional marketing. This is an embarrassment. It’s a perfect example of the amateurish “that’s the way we’ve always done it” marketing that got San Diego Opera into trouble in the first place.

And the fact that this sort of marketing is being done mere months after the company’s near-death crisis raises an even more important question: Are there any executive leaders in the opera world who understand the difference between this sort of twaddle and the real world marketing that’ll be necessary to keep San Diego Opera and others like it from collapsing once and for all?

Before he became president, Nixon famously lost an early televised debate with JFK when the camera made him appear pale, sweaty and unshaven. He and his team quickly learned that the world had changed, that the candidate’s inherent appeal was not enough on its own, and that sophisticated, professional marketing was the key to survival.

If good marketing could sell Richard Nixon, opera should be a piece of cake.




6 thoughts on “Is This The Best San Diego Opera Can Do?

  1. Well you’re right, the copy is terrible. But shouting from the stands solves nothing, this would have been much more worthwhile to show how it could be better. To dissect what’s wrong.
    And really I’m not sure there’s a huge connection between copy / success of arts orgs, it deserves time of course, but if San Diego Opera is failing (and I truly have no horse in that race, not being in the same continent) then it’s not because of this. There’s a plethora of arts orgs with atrocious copy, I’ve written a good deal of it, and they manage to be successful.

    • Hey, Andre,

      I’ve been writing for years about how to do it right. Sometimes I assume folks have been reading all along. I’m sorry I didn’t repeat any of that information here, but I’ll be glad to send you my book under separate cover.

      I singled out this copy not to suggest that it was the sole reason San Diego Opera nearly tanked, but rather to provide a single, vivid example of a systemic problem. Again, I apologize for using a shorthand to continue ideas I’ve been discussing here for some time.

      As for defending bad copy, you make an interesting point, but bad copy only sells when demand is high. Demand for opera is low in San Diego so there’s really no excuse. And good copy sells more tickets when demand is high so I can’t agree that bad copy is worth defending under any circumstances.

      • Hi Trevor,

        Thanks for your response – I have actually been reading for some time, and have found really insightful work, I still find myself going back to your posts on The Austin Symphony even now.
        I suppose I felt this particular post was almost mean spirited and quite different from usual. Ultimately I think I was just left a little unsatisfied really when I thought you were going to dissect from the penultimate para, and then the post ended!
        And to explain, my organisation places such little importance on copy nowadays, with the strategy going towards perfecting each stage of the funnel individually through digital means.
        I’m tempted to settle on the idea that bad copy can sink an arts org, but brilliant copy can’t save one – I’m curious to what you think?

    • Hi, LaNeshe,

      Yes. Of course. I’ve mentioned Austin Symphony Orchestra where Jason Nichols is doing a great job of making his messaging relevant to new audiences.

      Rather than looking to other arts organizations, though, I would suggest looking at commercial marketers and pay close attention to the extent to which they include their customers in their marketing. Make a point of watching 20 television commercials and, as you watch, ask these questions:

      How much of the commercial content was devoted to the product?

      How much of the content was devoted to the customer?

      To what extent did the creators of this advertisement depict customers enjoying the product?

      Then start looking at arts marketing materials and asking the same questions. You’ll be absolutely shocked at how skewed the percentage is toward the product and how underrepresented the audiences is in the marketing content.

      There are many reasons for this, but in general the arts assume that they are better than their audiences and, by extolling their products’ virtues, they will lure people up to their level. This worked back when the world agreed that the arts were superior and there were a lot of people who wanted to aspire to their level, but it doesn’t work now.

      The best places to look for good examples of marketing content that sells are in areas where professional marketers are selling well, and that’s not likely to be in the arts.

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