Where The NEA Blows It

In my last two posts I reported on fascinating new research from the NEA, which delves into the motives that drive people to participate in the arts, as well as barriers that stand in their way.

Unfortunately, the folks who published this research stepped beyond their realm of expertise and made some rather inane suggestions for how to use the data to “reach the missing audience.” Here are the four recommendations from their infographic:

  • Couple low-cost admissions with learning-focused programming
  • Increase community engagement
  • Provide opportunities to socialize and experience new art forms
  • Market to couples deciding on “date night” options

On the surface these seem like great ideas – but that’s just the problem: They’re surface-level ideas. Any intern could have blurted them out in a marketing meeting. It’s the kind of simplistic thinking that nonprofit arts organizations have been using for decades, and it’s disappointing to find such amateur stuff coming from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Most professionals who conduct research into consumer motivations do it to improve their persuasive communications. Politicians learn what motivates voters so they can develop campaign strategies. Sellers of consumer products learn what motivates their customers so they can develop more effective marketing content. Lawyers research jury motives so they can develop more persuasive arguments. If your industry’s persuasive communications suck – as arts industry communications certainly do – and you’ve discovered a veritable gold mine of insight into audience motives – as the NEA certainly has – then the recommendations you put forward should be all about developing new, research-based, audience-centered strategic communications.

The closest the NEA comes to this is their facile “date night” idea, which might as well be singles nights, family four packs, girls’ nights out, flex passes, casual Fridays or any one of a dozen other decades-old arts marketing clichés. And the other three recommendations are about changing programming and administrative culture, which is great, but also quite difficult and expensive – and still needs to be effectively marketed in order to have any value.

Meanwhile, creating marketing content in response to what research has revealed about audience motives costs absolutely nothing and stands to deliver substantial returns. Why change what you sell when you can change the way you sell and generate better results?

<><><>

Good research requires professional expertise and sophisticated methods. It also requires industry leaders who understand the value of collecting useful data – especially in an industry that suffers from chronic, long-term audience attrition. And it appears that, when it comes to research, the National Endowment for the Arts does indeed have the expertise, methods and leadership they need to provide the industry with useful market intelligence.

But knowing how to use the data also requires professional expertise, sophisticated methods and industry leadership, which, when it comes to attracting audiences, is sorely lacking in the cultural sector. Had the NEA executives who developed this material applied professional marketing expertise in preparing their report, their recommendations might have looked something like this:

  • Design communications around audience motives, not around your products
  • Sell what your customers say they want to buy, not what you want to sell
  • Identify, address and neutralize obstacles in your strategic messaging
  • Know your new audiences personally to better understand their motives

I can understand the NEA’s wanting to toss out a few casual suggestions to stimulate thinking, but the stakes are far too high to be cavalier about the application side of the research equation. Arts administrators don’t know how to use research data to make their communications more persuasive. It’s a skill that executive leaders have never been asked to master and that amateur arts marketing practitioners have never been expected to learn. All the audience motivation data in the world won’t get that conductor’s photo off the cover of the brochure if the CEO never learns why it doesn’t belong there.

Arts marketing is obscenely narcissistic. It’s all about the art, the artists and the organizations – and almost never about the audience. We assume the purpose of strategic communication is to tell the world how wonderful we are and we publish endless amounts of self-important, self-indulgent, self-centered, self-congratulatory, self-flattering promotional content that barely, if ever, reflects what audiences (especially new audiences) have told us they’re looking for. It seems incredible that an entire industry could be doing something so important so badly, but there’s just not enough legitimate marketing expertise among industry leaders to understand, let alone solve, the problem.

If the National Endowment for the Arts can’t offer professional suggestions for using research data, who can?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s