Is it a Brochure or a Text Book?

In a recent blog post on her Culture for Hire website, Ruth Hartt reminds us that it’s not a good idea to be overly didactic in arts marketing content. It’s useful advice for organizations that need to replace audiences lost to the pandemic.

New audiences don’t possess the same background knowledge that older audiences do, so arts administrators often try to fill in the gap by slipping educational content into their marketing. It comes out of an ernest but twisted sort of thinking that says, “We know you lack this knowledge so we’re going to feed it to you in this promotional material in hopes of making you a better prepared – and thus better motivated – consumer.”

You know what I’m talking about: Ibsen exposed the plight of women in male-dominated 19th century Norway; Balanchine broke free from restrictive classical ballet traditions; Kodály incorporated Hungarian folk music in his compositions; Italian opera was once a popular art form; DaVinci dissected stolen cadavers to teach himself anatomy…

Some of it is innocent, and basically harmless, but a lot of it is pedantic to the point of being insulting. And, in case it isn’t obvious, insulting new customers in an effort to make them worthy of becoming our customers is a lousy marketing strategy.

If your pre-Covid sales content was peppered with educational tidbits and you’re not sure whether it was harmless or insulting, here are three questions you might want to ask before publishing your first post-covid promotional lesson.

Are you answering the questions your new customers are asking?

These questions tend to be things like: Will I enjoy this experience? Will the people I’m with enjoy this experience? Is it worth the money? Is it going to be obscure or intimidating? Will we be safe?

You can be certain they’re not asking about Russian ballet history or late nineteenth century Norwegian class structures. If you want to educate potential audiences, find out what they’re curious about first, and then use your communications content to answer the questions that are uppermost in their minds.

Does the information promise to satisfy desires that your new audiences expressed?

If your focus groups said they just couldn’t wait to hear how early 20th century ethnomusicologist/composers incorporated folk music traditions in their works, by all means, lecture away. But chances are they said they wanted to share a meaningful entertainment experience with friends or loved ones, in which case filling your communications content with history lessons is a truly terrible idea.

Even if your audiences tell you they want to be educated, which is just great, marketing is there to promise them the educational lift they desire, not deliver it.

Are you telegraphing a lack of respect for your customers’ existing level of knowledge?

If your communications content makes people feel ignorant or under-educated or ill-prepared to be a part of your audience – or that coming to your venue will be like going to school without having done their homework – you’re probably doing more harm than good.

Instead of feeding new audiences what you think they should know, learn what they do know and reward them for their knowledge: “You know good music.” “You love great stories well-told.” “You don’t have to be a TikTok star to know that dance is the best way to express certain powerful emotions.” “Mona Lisa is absurdly famous, of course; but have you ever wondered…”


The key to all this is learning what new audiences are curious about, learning what they yearn for, and respecting what they already know. Arts organizations that aren’t doing this have no business trying to teach people how to be their customers.


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