Part III: When Dubious Arts Leaders Nix Innovation

This is the third in a five-part series about working with arts leaders who stonewall marketing innovation. For a full introduction, click here for Part I and here for Part II.

If you don’t want to read the other posts, here’s the bottom line: Arts leaders who have no training in professional marketing (which is most of them) and who learned marketing in the nonprofit arts (a terrible place to learn marketing) tend to cover for their incapacities by clinging to tradition. They don’t know any better. This is why every brochure in your archive looks the same – and has for the last forty years.

If your boss has a tendency to uphold tradition when the world outside is changing at lightning speed, here’s a recommendation that will help you and your colleagues move in a more professional direction.

Recruit Outside Expertise

Marketing experts love to be asked for advice.

If you want to propose changes in a change-averse organization, go outside your organization to get advice from the best marketing experts you can find. Make it your business to learn everything you can and to amass a trove of impressive knowledge from the best minds in the marketing profession.

Here are five places to start:

Colleges and Universities – Find every marketing expert who teaches in your area. Research their publications to find ones that are most likely to be helpful to you. Ask them if they’re willing to help. Arrange to meet them. Plan to speak with them about your marketing challenges. Ask pertinent questions that are relevant to your situation. Listen carefully to what they say. Write it down. Thank them sincerely. Reward them for their assistance by giving them tickets to your events or in-kind donor benefits. And keep the door open for future conversations.

Books and Authors – Read marketing books and articles. Read as many of the most relevant ones as you can. Master what they say. If you find certain writings especially valuable, contact the authors and ask for their assistance. Arrange to speak with them about your marketing challenges. Ask pertinent questions that are relevant to your situation. Listen carefully to what they say. Write it down. Thank them sincerely. Reward them for their assistance with tickets to your events or in-kind donor benefits. And keep the door open for future conversations.

Local Marketing Professionals – Your community is full of commercial marketers who do what you do, only in more professional environments with higher stakes and higher standards. Find the best ones – preferably those who serve the markets you most want to reach – and assemble an informal advisory council. Focus on the ones who specialize in getting people to go places and do things like sports, entertainment or travel. Arrange to speak with them about your marketing challenges. Ask pertinent questions that are relevant to your situation. Listen carefully to what they say. Write it down. Thank them sincerely. Reward them for their assistance with tickets to your events or donor benefits. And keep the door open for future conversations.

Professional Marketing Associations – Research and join professional marketing associations. Maintain active participation in your local chapters and establish relationships with others in your community who are most likely to be of benefit to you. Take advantage of every professional development opportunity these associations provide and maintain personal/professional relationships with as many fellow marketers in your community as you can.

Board Members – Find out if any of your organization’s board members have legitimate professional marketing expertise. If they do, form a marketing committee and lead it. Keep any smart marketers on you board involved with what you’re doing and solicit their assistance whenever possible. (NOTE: Some executive leaders will limit staff contact with board members. If you’re the best-trained marketer in your organization and your boss won’t let you lead the board’s marketing committee, get a job working for a more competent leader.)

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Now, as with the last two posts, there’s a catch. The more you learn about professional marketing in the commercial sector, the less happy you’re likely to be with the self-centered, amateurism you find in the cultural sector. Also, exposing yourself to real-world marketing and challenging yourself to embrace its professional standards can place you at odds with colleagues who prefer their insular, amateur arts traditions.

The good news is that the networking you do in the professional marketing community will lead you to connections and potential job opportunities in much more productive settings. The arts are not a growth industry and arts marketing is poor preparation for a lucrative, long-term marketing career, so it can’t hurt to have prospects lined up on the outside.

But if the leaders you work for are smart and capable, they should welcome your authoritative external perspective and help you bring productive changes into the organization.

The only hope most traditional arts organizations have for survival is to persuade and satisfy a steady supply of new audiences.

Without fresh, state-of-the-art, professional marketing, this is not likely to happen.

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