Maybe Atlanta Symphony Should Lock Out Its Marketing Department Instead

I’ve been reading about the musicians’ lockout at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra so I popped on to their season brochure to look for clues as to why the organization is having so much financial difficulty. Turns out the clues were plentiful. But first, some basics.

Good sales collateral must meet five specific criteria:

1. It must be developed in response to objective market intelligence. You can’t sell something if you don’t know who you’re talking to and how your product will satisfy their desires, so every good sales message must be firmly grounded in research.

2. It must show how the product will make customers happy so they’ll be motivated to buy. Doing this usually means making the content as much about customers enjoying the product as it is about how wonderful the product is (something arts organizations find almost impossible to do).

3. It must be crafted according to a legitimate persuasive strategy. Sales is a rational process that follows well-established protocols. We know you want X. We sell X. You will buy X. Make sure the first two exes match up, show how well they match up, and you’re golden.

4. It must be goal oriented. A well-designed sales tool leads the buyer naturally to the close with precision, directness and clarity. Every element has a specific job to do relative to this goal. In politics, this is known as staying “on message.”

5. It must balance the desires of multiple market segments in proportion to their value. If the organization is not attracting sustaining audiences, the sales tool must place increasing importance on appealing to new audiences.

So with this in mind, let’s take a look at the brochure that Atlanta Symphony Orchestra used to sell what has become their abbreviated 70th anniversary season.

1. You should be able to tell what an organization’s research has taught them by looking at their sales materials: “It’s obvious that the people of Atlanta said they want X because this sales material is so obviously selling X.” Apply that scrutiny to this Atlanta Symphony Orchestra brochure, however, and you’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what the ASO thinks it knows about its customers.

“It’s obvious that the people of Atlanta said they want:

  • Naked flying sylphs sporting red ribbons.”
  • To be seduced by a local nonprofit arts organization.”
  • A smorgasbord of educational trivia about artists and their works.”
  • A bunch of random descriptive words.”
  • Guest artists with interesting faces.”

I’ve sat in on a lot of focus groups over the years and have never heard an arts audience ask for these things. Usually they talk about themselves and their desire to enjoy enriching entertainment events as part of a broader social experience.

2. The brochure contains over fifty photographs and images, not a single one of which depicts customers enjoying themselves at a concert. Fully half of these could be dedicated to showing audience members having a good time without sacrificing the orchestra’s desire to remind everyone how wonderful and important they are.

3. If there is a rational persuasive strategy at work here, it is obscure at best. If I were to describe the strategy based on what’s evident, it would go something like this: “Let’s come up with a catchy thematic through line based on what we think people should know about us and design a sexy, attention-getting, upbeat vehicle for delivering what is essentially the same content we send out every year. Important goals will include being creative, following tradition, telling everyone how wonderful we are and coming up with something that senior leadership will approve because they find it flattering and comfortably familiar.”

4. If the goal is to get customers to go online and buy tickets, it is difficult to imagine how most of this content furthers that goal. Much of it is way off message including the thematic through line (unless focus groups said they were yearning to be seduced), the stand-alone descriptive words that seem to have no integral connection to the rest of the content, and the chatty, didactic show blurbs, which were clearly not written by a professional communications strategist in support of an overarching, goal-driven message strategy.

5. This is a rigorously traditional brochure that speaks almost exclusively to traditional audiences using the imagery and language that traditional arts audiences are accustomed to. If new audience research has revealed a different set of desires and expectations among future audiences that points to a different set of images and a fresher, more relevant, audience-centric language, there is little evidence to suggest that this brochure content has been balanced accordingly.

Presumably, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s labor issues are the result of the same underlying forces that are affecting orchestras everywhere: diminishing audiences and diminishing community support. But if the organization is using amateur, old-fashioned, self-centered marketing practices that fail to produce desired results, it seems counterproductive to lock out the artists when locking out the administrators who make bad marketing decisions would probably have more productive long-term consequences.

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