The Feds Know Why Arts Marketing Doesn’t Work (No, Not the NEA, the SBA)

I popped onto the Small Business Administration’s website today and found a section called “Marketing 101.” Here’s the first thing it said:

“In order to successfully grow your business, you’ll need to attract and then work to retain a large base of satisfied customers. Marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business, and has two guiding principles.”

Take a look at the wording in the second sentence:

Marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business…

They didn’t say “marketing emphasizes the value of the business to the customer,” they said “marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business.” It’s a monumentally important distinction that goes a long way toward explaining why the arts are in so much trouble.

In the arts, we devote all of our marketing energy to emphasizing the value of the business to the customer, which is completely ass backwards and self-serving, not to mention counterproductive. The SBA understands that effective marketing puts the customer first, which is something arts administrators are loathe to do. We put ourselves first, which is where we believe we belong. If you doubt it, look at marketing materials from just about any orchestra, opera company, dance company, arts center, theatre or museum (start with your own) and you’ll see marketing content that’s exclusively focused on the product.

In the same sentence the SBA mentions two guiding principles, the first of which says:

“All company policies and activities should be directed toward satisfying customer needs.

In the arts, all company policies and activities are directed toward satisfying the organizations’ needs. Marketing in the arts is an entirely self-centered affair that exists to tell the public how wonderful we are, how much they should like us and how fortunate they are to have us in their Lovecommunities. We’re hemorrhaging audiences, but rarely, if ever, do we bother to learn about our sustaining customers’ needs, much less promise to satisfy them in our communications. Marketing that’s directed toward satisfying customer needs focuses on the fulfillment the customer will enjoy as a result of participating, not on what we believe are the most worthy and desirable attributes of our artistic offerings.

Back when traditional art forms were popular, these distinctions didn’t matter so much. We could afford to be self-centered because there were a lot of people who agreed with the flattering things we said about ourselves. But today we’re not popular anymore and our self-flattery – falling as it does on indifferent and increasingly skeptical ears – is beginning to sound like delusion. We’re in desperate need of customers, but we’re too busy boasting to notice that we don’t have a clue what tomorrow’s audiences need, and we don’t seem to care about finding the places where what they need and what we offer overlap.

If we don’t know what our new audiences need, we’ll never be able to talk to them about how the art we sell can be of value. And if we continue trying to tell audiences what we think they should need, rather than responding to what they actually do need, we’re nothing more than a bunch of presumptuous amateurs who have no business complaining about empty venues.

The arts are failing to attract sustaining audiences because our grasp of the fundamentals of marketing is about as sophisticated as that of small business hopefuls who turn to the SBA’s website for advice.

But here’s the real kicker: In the arts, there’s no place to go for advice of this quality. When it comes to marketing, there just aren’t any industry leaders or institutions that have the professional expertise to be able to offer it.


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