“We Do Such Great Marketing, But People Aren’t Buying Tickets”

Once, while interviewing for a marketing post at a major American opera company, I was asked If I’d brought a portfolio of my previous marketing materials. I hadn’t, of course. I was a marketing professional interviewing for a senior marketing job. I had provided a resume, which outlined a successful track record in strategic sales, revenue generation and audience growth, but it never occurred to me to bring printed collateral and I found myself searching for a diplomatic way to explain why marketing execs don’t bring design portfolios to job interviews.

[Note to job applicants: Telling your interviewers they’re asking the wrong questions is a terrible way to get a job – but it’s a great way to avoid working for the wrong people!]

I understand why nonprofit arts leaders might have wanted to see some lovely printed materials. This is, after all, what many arts leaders think marketing is about. But in an era when audiences are in steady decline and institutions like this are likely to fail, it’s tragic to think that such amateurism persists at such high industry levels.

Marketing is about numbers. Any arts leader worth his salt knows this.

I wrote a few weeks ago about a job ad for a marketing director at a Dallas theatre that focused like a laser beam on strategy, sales and revenue. It looked like a good job working in a professional environment for smart people. But yesterday I saw an ad for a marketing director at a South Carolina orchestra that focused primarily on the production of promotional materials. It looked like a perfect job for a nonprofit functionary working for old school leaders who like to send out a lot of pretty brochures.

[Note to job applicants: Becoming a nonprofit functionary in an industry with steadily diminishing demand for its products is a lousy career move.]

In my career I’ve encountered two fundamentally different approaches to arts marketing, the administrative, which focuses on sustaining customary marketing operations, and the proactive, which focuses on selling tickets. The administrative concerns itself with running marketing departments, while the proactive concerns itself with doing what needs to be done to earn revenue. The two approaches can be compatible under certain circumstances, but given the arts industry’s internal focus and over-dependence on tradition (not to mention the lack of professional marketing expertise among arts leaders), the administrative tends to overwhelm the proactive.

Most nonprofit arts organizations prefer the administrative approach because managing arts organizations and their various departments is what arts leaders do. Marketing departments have traditionally done certain things, so diligent leaders ensure that these departments are sustained and that the customary functions they perform are perpetuated. The source of authority for decision making in these organizations is a combination of tradition, habit, what other arts organizations are doing and the opinions of senior leaders, funders or board members. The ultimate priority for administrative marketers is continuity, while results, such as ticket sales and earned revenue, tend to be viewed as byproducts of the organization’s operations. “It’s so frustrating. We do such great marketing, but people aren’t buying enough tickets to keep us going.”

[Note to any arts administrator who’s ever thought or said something like this: If your product is worth buying and you’re not selling enough tickets, you are not doing great marketing.]

Leaders who adopt the proactive approach, on the other hand, understand that a rapidly changing marketplace requires a deft, nimble, externally focused sales initiative that isn’t hamstrung by tradition, habit or institutional priorities that favor the status quo. Proactive marketers closely monitor the changing needs and wants of the marketplace in order to respond to audience expectations. The source of decision-making authority in proactive organizations is market intelligence rather than insider traditions, comfortable habits or the inexpert opinions of industry leaders. And proactive marketers allow their strategies, tactics, procedures and policies to evolve along with the world outside the bubble. “We realized we weren’t selling enough tickets so we questioned all of our customary practices, shifted our focus from internal to external, and rebuilt our sales functions in response to changes in the world outside our doors.”

How about you? Are you selling enough tickets to ensure a robust future for your art form? Is your marketing function a deft, nimble, customer-centered, proactive sales initiative that isn’t held back by tradition, habit or leadership priorities that favor the status quo?

Or are you doing a really good job of running a nonprofit arts organization’s marketing department?

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