With audiences in steady decline, ticket sales-dependent arts organizations are destined to shrink or go out of business. The question is not whether this will happen, but how many it will happen to, and which ones will survive.
We won’t know the answer until it happens, of course, but there are a couple of things we can know for certain: The survivors will have abandoned counterproductive nonprofit thinking and they’ll have found new ways to attract sustaining audiences.
If you’d like to count yourself among the survivors, here are a few moldy old arts marketing ideas that need to be tossed right now.
To promote literally means to push forward. Nonprofit arts organizations push forward information about arts events in hopes that avid fans will respond. Unfortunately, avid fans are steadily disappearing and promotion doesn’t work on people who lack avid interest.
In the arts, where survival is now dependent on customers who lack avid interest, promotion is only half the battle. The missing half – a necessary business counterpart to pushing forward – is pulling in. Also known as persuasion or sales.
Tragically, despite decades of chronic audience attrition, arts organizations still rely almost exclusively on pushing forward boastful promotional information.
Anyone who tries to sell you community engagement as audience development is either dishonest or woefully uninformed. Engagement will not, cannot replace sales and marketing as a means of building paid audiences. If your organization has opted to make community engagement a part of your earned revenue strategies, you are wasting valuable resources.
Establishing quality relationships with customers is an excellent idea, but it’s just good sales practice – something businesses have understood for centuries. If you’re a sales-dependent arts organization and you want to earn more revenue, do better sales.
If you want to do engagement, leave it to outreach and education departments that don’t have to generate revenue.
The term “audience development” was coined in the 1980s to appease older arts pros who thought “marketing” sounded too commercial and who wanted the crass business of ticket sales to sound more like the genteel practice of fundraising.
Today there may be nuanced semantic differences between audience development and marketing, but marketing is more focused on sales and will deliver more efficient ROI. Any organization that’s having trouble earning revenue should speak the language of marketing so they stay more focused on earning revenue.
The most efficient way to develop audiences is and has always been to sell a lot of tickets.
DIY Marketing Content
If you develop your own sales and marketing content, you should stop right now. Very few arts organizations have the necessary professional expertise to develop the sort of marketing content that’s necessary for survival, so continuing to publish amateur, do-it-yourself materials is just plain suicidal.
Yes. I’m talking about you.
Yes. I know you’re a big city arts institution that’s been developing your own marketing content for decades.
Yes. Even if you’re in New York.
If you still don’t think I’m talking about you, go to Starbucks and read your latest promotional copy to a 28-year-old tech exec on her coffee break. Watch her face and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Good marketing content is about the customers and how our products will satisfy their needs and desires. Arts marketing content, meanwhile, is about the products and why arts insiders think customers should find them appealing.
The chief problem with letting amateur nonprofit arts administrators develop their own marketing content is that they can’t resist making it all about themselves and about why they think customers should find them attractive.
If good marketing is about the customers and arts marketing is almost never about the customers, we may have an important clue as to why audiences are disappearing.
Arts organizations that survive this audience crisis will be the ones that stop spraying self-indulgent amateur promotional messages at the world in hopes of somehow magically capturing a larger share of a shrinking fan base. They’ll be the ones that refuse to let squishy nonprofit fads distract them from their primary task, which is building and serving sustaining audiences. And they’ll be the ones that turn their attention – and the content of their communications – away from themselves and toward the audiences on which their futures depend.
If you’re a young arts administrator who wants to have an arts management job in ten or twenty years, you might want to start working now to ensure that outdated nonprofit traditions don’t deprive you of that opportunity.