Time To Stop Selling Art and Start Selling Audiences

According to a new set of studies released by the NEA, the number one reason people participate in the arts is to socialize with friends and families. It’s not the play or the concert or the exhibition, necessarily; it’s the social event. People participate in the arts so they can enjoy doing interesting and enriching things with other people.

Hmmm.

If I were a marketer who understood that my audience’s primary motivation was to have a good time with other people at arts events, my marketing would be mostly about people enjoying themselves with other people at my events. It wouldn’t be quite so much about the art, the artists or the organization because that would mean focusing on less compelling motivators. No, it would be about the emotional impact of sharing a quality artistic experience with friends and family at my venue.

Professional marketers understand this dynamic well. Tune into any commercial TV station for a few minutes and watch some ads. You’ll quickly discover that advertisers almost always show their customers enjoying their products because they know that their job is to demonstrate how their products will satisfy their customers’ desires. If they’re selling a minivan, they show a happy family enjoying the minivan. If they’re selling jeans, they show happy people having fun together wearing those jeans. If they’re selling a restaurant, they show happy people enjoying food together. It’s fairly straightforward: The essence of persuasion is demonstrating how your products will make people happy, and that usually means showing happy people enjoying your products.

Unfortunately, arts marketers haven’t quite grasped the concept. Take a look at marketing materials produced by just about any traditional arts organization and you’ll find marketing content that’s almost exclusively about the art, the artists and the organization. We don’t focus on audience members having a great time enjoying one another’s company in our venues because that would mean making it about them and, well, when it comes right down to it – if we’re being honest – despite what we profess in our mission statements and grant applications, we’re really, mostly, pretty much, well, actually entirely about us.

Check out this Philadelphia Orchestra brochure. Fifty-two pages, over a hundred and five photographic images and only a scant handful of oblique references to the audience. Seventy-three percent of arts patrons told the NEA they go for social reasons but only about three percent of the content in this brochure even references the audience, and none of it conveys the idea that people might enjoy spending time with one another at a concert. Given what the NEA has revealed, I can’t help wondering what would happen if a more reasonable percentage of those pages and photos were devoted to what audiences are actually looking for, which is people like them having a good time together with other people like them.

Useful Tip: Pictures of audiences clapping at your stage or fawning over your artists don’t really count. Neither do those obligatory shots of kids at education events or mucky mucks at the gala. If people are looking for excuses to share arts experiences with one another, make sure your marketing features regular people having a great time together – and have the courage and humility to let your product take a back seat.

This isn’t really news, by the way. Any arts organization that’s well engaged with its audience knows that people attend for all sorts of reasons, most of them having to do with their own needs, wants and desires. And organizations that do professional marketing tend to respect and reflect those predispositions. But the overwhelming majority of arts organizations still cling to an amateur mid-20th century communications philosophy that says, “Our job is to tell the world how wonderful and important we are and assume that there are enough people out there who want what we’re boasting about to keep us in business.”

I’ve been making the following recommendation on this blog for the last three years and it’s become absurd to have to keep repeating it, but here it is one more time – with a big fat chunk of objective support from the NEA: If you’re not selling enough tickets, try making your marketing about the customers for a change.

Your artistic director and CEO may lose their shit and do everything in their power to try to stop you, but it’s not about them anymore and now the whole world knows it.

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