About Trevor O'Donnell

I'm an arts & entertainment consultant who's developed successful marketing and/or sales initiatives for Disney Theatrical Productions, Cameron Mackintosh, Cirque du Soleil, the Music Center of Los Angeles, Center Theatre Group, Blue Man Productions, Broadway’s Nederlander Organization and for numerous Broadway shows, performing arts presenters and nonprofit arts organizations across the US. I help my clients build larger audiences and earn more revenue by using smarter message strategies, tapping non-traditional audiences and employing innovative approaches to sales.

Part II: When Dubious Arts Leaders Nix Innovation

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This is the second in a five-part series about working with arts leaders who stonewall marketing innovation. For a full introduction, click here to read Part I.

Does your boss have a way of supporting new ideas one day and then finding ways to reverse direction the next?

“I know we talked about those new audience images yesterday, but we decided in the development committee meeting to use the production shots instead.”

As we discussed in Part I, arts leaders who have limited professional marketing expertise often take great comfort in tradition. Many will pay lip service to innovation yet work in roundabout ways to preserve the status quo.

“We had a little confab about this at the board meeting and the consensus was that we should hold off on doing anything too risky until we see if the situation improves.”

This isn’t a criticism of inept leadership so much as a description of a flaw in the nonprofit arts model: The arts don’t uphold professional marketing standards, and leaders aren’t expected to possess professional marketing expertise. Thus, under-trained executives often find themselves clinging cautiously to the past rather than moving decisively into the future.

If you’re a well-trained marketer who would like to help your organization move more decisively into the future, you may find that tweaking the model is the most productive way forward. Here’s a modest administrative process you can introduce that should keep your marketing on the right track.

Get Written Approvals on Everything

In the quote above, the marketing team had achieved consensus on a well-thought-out course of action. Armed with plenty of research data, the marketers proposed to make their content more reflective of the customers’ experience by including more pictures of them in the messaging. But shortly thereafter, their boss reverted to a more traditional “it’s-all-about-us-and-how-wonderful-we-are” approach and there was nothing the marketers could do.

If decision-making in your organization is similarly slippery, institute a formal program that requires everyone who has say in the marketing process to sign off on approved plans. Whenever a marketing plan is approved, no matter how large or small, circulate a one-sheet that contains the following:

A description of the approved plan and its essential tactics.

“This plan calls for replacing 25% of the self-centered images we typically use with images of people who reflect our new audience demographic enjoying their experience in our venue. Images will focus on new audience members’ social interaction with one another.”

A summary of the objective market intelligence on which the plan is based.

“Research consistently demonstrates that younger targets need to see their needs and desires being satisfied in our message content. Most say they are looking for quality arts experiences they can share with peers.”

A brief description of how the plan is expected to work.

“By publishing images of young audience members enjoying one another’s company at our events, we will show potential new audiences how our events will satisfy their desires and expectations, thus motivating them to buy more tickets.”

A set of projections that describe anticipated results.

“Based on year-over-year performance, and taking into account an unprecedented shift toward audience-centric content, we anticipate a 7% overall increase in sales and an 18% increase in repeat sales to first-time single-ticket buyers.”

A place for everyone to sign and date.

“Your signature below indicates your approval of the plan as described.”

NOTE: Make sure the market intelligence in the second part is rock solid. If any of it is based on unsupported opinion, this process will be a waste of time.

Will it work? It should if the plan is grounded in facts and rational methods. If your boss is an otherwise competent leader, she’ll be far less likely to make unilateral changes after having approved such a plan in writing. Plus, having given her written assent, she’ll know that altering course arbitrarily will make her responsible for the results. (And she’ll know there’s a signed memo in your files that shows exactly where the process went off track.)

Now there is a caveat: I’ve worked for several executive leaders who kept their organizational decision-making deliberately slippery so the staff were never on firm footing and the boss was always in control. If you work for a leader who won’t allow you to institute an approval process like this, or worse, someone who signs her approvals and makes changes anyway, get another job. Arts marketing is a questionable career move to begin with so there’s no sense wasting time working for leaders who derail innovation.

Marketing in new ways to new audiences is the only hope most traditional arts organizations have for survival. If timid, poorly prepared leaders aren’t up to the task, it’ll be up to confident, well-prepared young administrators to show them the way.

 

 

 

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When Dubious Arts Leaders Nix Innovation

For several years now young arts marketers have been complaining to me that their bosses won’t let them make changes. They’re prepared to introduce more professional methods, but the leaders they work for are committed to the status quo.

“My boss thinks the answer to declining audiences is to hammer the market over the head with more of the same marketing. The fewer tickets we sell, the harder he says we have to hit.”

“When my boss wants to avoid approving something new, she gets her cronies on the board to back her up: “I showed this to Ginny Underbridge and she said it just wasn’t us.””

“When I presented new ideas to my boss, he actually sent me into the marketing archives to learn how to produce the marketing he was prepared to approve.”

Marketing is a mysterious process for most arts leaders. Few have studied marketing formally, few came to their positions with professional marketing expertise, and few have had the time or inclination to enhance their knowledge through professional development. Most learned what they know about marketing on their way up through the nonprofit arts – which, as I’ve often said, is a terrible place to learn marketing – and most aren’t secure enough in their knowledge to screw around with a process they don’t understand.

This is why young arts administrators who do understand marketing find themselves banging their heads against a wall. Their bosses are painfully dependent on tradition to hide their incapacities and, even though innovation is the only clear path to survival, most older leaders will stick with what they know rather than risk doing something unfamiliar.

If you’re a young marketer who has the knowledge and training to bring your organization’s marketing up to a more professional standard, and your boss has a way of making sure that nothing changes, here’s a recommendation that will give you some useful leverage.

Make a Rock-Solid Case

In the arts, most marketing policy is driven by opinion, and the highest paid person’s opinion usually carries the day. If you want to elevate your organization’s marketing process to a professional level, come to your meetings armed with an abundance of authoritative, unimpeachable, objective evidence to support your proposals. Your colleagues will offer up all manner of spontaneous, top-of-the-head insights, which is what they’re accustomed to doing, but very little of what they contribute will have legitimate strategic value. You, meanwhile, will have come with a folder full of relevant facts that will raise the standard of acceptable discourse and neutralize the well-intentioned but squishy contributions of your peers.

Whatever you do, never express an opinion you can’t back up with an air-tight, rational argument that’s built on a foundation of cold, hard evidence. The minute you state an unsupportable opinion, you’ll have abandoned the professional high ground and descended to the level of your inexpert colleagues. And the contributions you make from then on will have no more authority than those of your boss or the intern who started last week.

Arts administrators have long believed that marketing is a creative, intuitive enterprise to which creative people are unusually well suited, but this is a suicidal delusion. Marketing is about numbers and empirical data. Marketing is a process of applying rational methodologies to facts in order to deliver predictable outcomes. And marketing is a science that’s getting more sophisticated every day (anyone following the Cambridge Analytica scandal should know this). Creativity is important to some extent, but only after the data have been analyzed and the appropriate methodologies have been applied.

Introducing a fact-based approach to arts marketing may not be easy, especially when it comes to content (arts marketing content is where opinion-driven amateurism rises to the level of absurdity), but empirical evidence and rational methods will give you a firm foundation on which to build, and a dependable roadmap for skeptical co-workers to follow as you lead them into uncharted territory.

 

 

 

 

Which Of These Images Sells More Tickets?

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In professional business settings, marketers typically show customers being made happy by their products. They do this because it’s an incredibly effective way to sell things.

If you’re a consumer who sees someone very much like you (or a person you’d like to be) being made happy by a particular product, you are likely to want that product. This isn’t just a truism; it’s a time-tested formula that’s backed by decades of theory, research, testing and practical application. If you’re a marketer who wants to sell something in a competitive marketplace, show your customers being made happy by your product and they’ll beat a path to your door.

In the amateur world of arts marketing, meanwhile, marketers never show customers being made happy by their products. Arts marketers focus almost exclusively on the superior attributes of their artists, events and organizations while presupposing an audience of avid potential consumers.

Consumer-centered marketing just isn’t part of our arts marketing traditions – most of which were formed at a time when the arts were popular aspirational luxury products. Emphasizing customer satisfaction back then was a non-issue because, if customers were eager to buy our products, and they already knew our products would make them happy, we didn’t need to focus on them.

Today of course the arts are increasingly marginalized niche products struggling to survive in a competitive marketplace. The demand for theatre, opera, dance, classical music and fine art is diminishing steadily, and potential new customers – if they bother to consider traditional art forms at all – don’t necessarily assume these products will make them happy. The arts aren’t popular anymore, few consumers consider them aspirational, and the only reason we’d call them luxury products is the prohibitive price of admission.

If you’re a marketer who’s trying to sell unpopular products and you want to persuade indifferent consumers to become first-time buyers, you might want to start showing customers how your products will make them happy, which means showing people like them being made happy by your products.

If you’re not quite sure how to do do this, start by cutting 50% of the photos you plan to use in your next marketing campaign and replacing them with pictures of consumers enjoying one another’s company at your venue. Let’s say, for example, that you’re an orchestra marketer preparing to design your next season brochure and you’ve selected twenty shots of your conductor (yes, orchestra marketers actually do this). Cut ten of them and replace them with pictures of people who look like the people you’d like to see buying tickets arriving eagerly together, enjoying pre-show dining, running into friends, gazing in anticipation as the lights dim, chatting over drinks at intermission, etc. Make it as much about your customers’ experience with your product as it is about your product. And make sure to make it about their experience with one another, because sharing the experience is why they’re there.

NOTE: Those photos of actual audiences that you shot from the side aisles don’t count. If you can afford professional photo shoots of your artists, you can afford professional photo shoots of model audiences, too.

New audiences don’t buy art; they buy worthwhile experiences they can share with other people. If you want to attract new audiences who don’t know why they should come, show them pictures of people like them having a good time together in your venue.

Or, you could just keep publishing absurdly insular, painfully stereotypical, impersonal, stuffy and embarrassingly self-congratulatory images that are all about you and that have nothing whatsoever to do with the experiences your new audiences are likely to have with your art form.

Making marketing more about our customers is cheap and easy, and it sells more tickets.

Why not give it a try?

 

A Brilliant Example For Selfish Arts Marketers

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If you’ve been thinking about making your arts marketing more about your customers and less about how wonderful and important you are, the video at the link below is a great example of how to do it.

If you’re not thinking about making your arts marketing more about your customers and less about how wonderful and important you are, you should be preparing to go out of business.

This video does a brilliant job of selling the product because it shows people being made happy as a result of using it. It also focuses on the extraordinary quality of the product, but it allows content that sings the product’s praises to take a back seat.

The video is proprietary so go to this site and click “PLAY VIDEO.” Watch it carefully and compare it to your own marketing content. Then ask yourself honestly if your marketing balances your customers being made happy against you telling everyone how wonderful and important they should think you are.

Also, pay careful attention to the first two words in the copy because they tell the whole story.

Marketing content that sells is about the place where customer and product come together – to the benefit of the customer.

Nobody Cares What Arts Administrators Are Passionate About

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Greg Sandow wrote an interesting post last week where he said that arts administrators might be more effective marketers if they learned how to better communicate their passion for their products. He proposed “visioning” workshops designed to help artists and administrators explore and describe their passions so they can be more articulate in sharing them with outsiders – a process that he says might allow a new brand to emerge from the deepest vision of why the orchestra exists.

“Ideally we’d involve staff, board, musicians, and even people from the audience. Once we had some genuine ideas, genuine feelings, love for the orchestra coming honestly and authentically, straight from the heart, and described in simple, direct language — well, then we could start finding ways to tell all that to the outside world.”

I admire Greg’s writing, and he and I are often on the same page, but not here. We’re not even in the same book on this one, and I think we might be in different libraries.

Even if classical music industry professionals became incredibly good at describing their passion for what they do, it wouldn’t matter. It’s not persuasive. Nobody cares what a bunch of classical music insiders feel about their products. Nobody buys tickets to an orchestral concert for the first time because the insiders who produced it say they’re just crazy in love with what they do. Classical music marketers’ feelings are all well and good, but if orchestras are too busy indulging in their own passions to learn what their customers are passionate about, they’re going to appear hopelessly self-absorbed and out of touch – and they’re going to continue losing audiences.

[If you want to see marketing content that says hopelessly self-absorbed and out of touch, pick up a subscription brochure from just about any major American orchestra. Greg singled out the Philadelphia Orchestra in his post so here’s theirs.]

Customers, believe it or not, are moved by the things they’re passionate about. If you want them to buy tickets, you have to focus on their yearnings and communicate how happy they are going to be when they buy your products because it’s all about them. It’s not about you. It’s about them.

I know. I know. It used to be about you and you used to be able to talk endlessly about how wonderful and important you are, but that was a long time ago. The world has changed. You don’t matter anywhere near as much as you once did, so it can’t be just about you anymore. It has to be about them.

Did I mention that it’s about them?

Greg Sandow was almost on to something here, but he missed the mark when he said, “even people from the audience,” as if the audience were an afterthought. Communicating passion for the product is an excellent idea and testimonial marketing can be a powerfully persuasive tool for motivating ticket buyers, but the message can’t come from the inside, it has to come from the outside. It has to come from a credible third party. It has to come from a source that potential customers trust and can easily identify with, which means that it has to come from someone who’s part of their world. Ideally, someone very much like them.

Let’s say your organization has decided to appeal to younger audiences and your research suggests that they’re motivated by social status, quality live music and spending leisure time in special places with people they care about. You could ask a young cellist to record a testimonial describing how she loves creating music, or you could ask a young audience member who loves coming to the symphony with friends to record a testimonial describing what a wonderful time she’s been having there.

Guess which one will sell more tickets? (Hint: It’s the one that’s about them.)

I know what Greg was getting at: Nonprofit arts organizations produce inane, meaningless marketing content because they haven’t taken time to honestly examine – and learn how to express –  their deep-seated passion for what they’re selling. But I disagree with his premise. Non-profit arts organizations produce inane, meaningless marketing content because they haven’t learned what their audiences care about so they don’t know what to say to ignite their passions.

We’re all passionate about what we do and our passion plays an indispensable role in providing high-quality arts experiences. But when it comes to selling these experiences, the thing that matters most is our customers’ passion for what we’re trying to sell.

Because it’s about them.

Want Good Copy? Say It, Then Write It

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I set out to find some truly dreadful arts marketing copy for this post, so I picked a respected LORT theatre at random, went to their website and clicked on a show.

BINGO! Struck gold on the first try:

“Friendship and betrayal, love and jealousy. Once Othello’s most trusted confidante, Iago’s envy-fueled passions unleash a betrayal with catastrophic results for Othello and his beloved bride Desdemona. Shakespeare’s profound tragedy is an enduring story of race, love, envy, and repentance. This stripped down retelling is the portrait of an unraveling mind amid a society engulfing and destroying its very best.”

Oh. My. God.

How does this happen? Who approved this for publication? Who the hell would want to go to this show? And who was the focus group respondent who said, “I’m just aching to see a portrait of an unraveling mind amid a society engulfing and destroying its very best.” This would be absolutely horrifying if it weren’t typical of the way arts organizations have been talking about their products for the last forty years.

Wait a minute… It is horrifying. Theatre audiences are disappearing. How can professional theatre companies afford to do such incompetent marketing?

This language is supposed to make people want to see the show. The copy is there for a reason. It has an important job to do. It’s purpose is to anticipate the customers’ desires and describe how the show will make them happy. When people read it, they’re supposed to think, “Wow. This sounds like a really fascinating story and a richly rewarding night in the theatre.”

But this copy fails painfully on all counts. At best it suggests an unsettling experience watching nasty people do disturbing things to one another. I’ve been researching ticket buyers’ desires for decades and have yet to come across pent up demand for this sort of thing.

The fact that a respected professional theatre would endeavor to sustain itself by speaking to customers this way is an embarrassment to the entire industry. One can only hope that the quality of work on the stage is better than the quality of work coming out of their executive offices.

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If you write copy for your arts organization and you’d like to avoid producing this sort of mindless drivel, here is a simple, no-cost formula that will put you on a more professional track.

Get a young person from outside your organization to join you in some role playing. Have them ask you the following questions and audio-record your answers so you can transcribe them later.

What’s the next show at your venue?

What’s it about?

Why would someone like me be interested in seeing a show like this?

Sounds like a big commitment; what do I get in return for my investment of time and money?

Go through the process several times. Keep it light, conversational and informal. Try having the questioner play different roles and answer the questions honestly as if you’re really eager to convince them to see the show. Keep going until you’ve landed on the most naturally persuasive conversational answers. Afterward, listen to the recorded dialogue and isolate the language that was most effective in motivating the questioner. [Hint: It will be the language that recognizes your questioner’s desires and describes how the show will make her happy.]

Now here’s the important part: Take the material you isolated and edit it into a potent little nugget of fresh, engaging sales copy. Don’t change it. Don’t make it sound like a regional theatre blurb. Don’t formalize it or, god forbid, “punch it up.” Just ‘speak’ to your customers plainly and honestly as if they’re thinking, feeling human beings who you know would enjoy a night out in your venue watching a really good show.

And one more thing. Get someone who wasn’t sleeping through 7th grade English to check the grammar.

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People who run performing arts institutions have no right to complain about diminishing audiences when they publish idiotic nonsense like this in their marketing materials. Professional theatre should be marketed by professionals. If the regional theatre industry and its support systems (i.e. foundations and major donors) think this is an acceptable way for the arts to talk to tomorrow’s audiences, they’re just engulfing and destroying their very best.

Whatever the hell that means.

 

 

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

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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?