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.

Two Days To Respond To Ticket Requests?

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In my last post I took issue with the troubled Washington Ballet for their narcissistic marketing content.

Today I’d like to point out another sign of nonprofit foolishness in DC.

On the Washington Ballet’s website, in the section promoting Nutcracker party packages for groups of 20 to 200, you’ll find this little gem:

“Please complete the form and a member of our ticket services office will contact you within two business days to assist you with your event.”

Two days.

TWO DAYS!!!

I want to buy 200 tickets to your most profitable annual event and you don’t have time to pick up the phone? And you want to take two days to respond to my request? Are you fuckin’ kidding me?

If I want 2 of the cheapest balcony seats, I can go online and get instant satisfaction, but if I want 200 orchestra seats, I have to sit on my ass and wait for your organization to dig up some low-level staffer who may or may not have the time to call me back?

How dare you?

Here’s a little bit of basic math for the folks at Washington Ballet: The customer who books 20 seats is ten times more important than the customer who books 2 seats. And the one who books 200 is one hundred times more important. These volume ticket buyers are among Washington Ballet’s most valuable patrons, but the folks who run the company are just fine with making them fill out a form and wait for two days to get basic customer service.

And then these leaders have the audacity to complain in public about empty seats!

I’m sorry, but if you can’t pick up the phone and talk to someone who wants to buy 200 tickets – or even 20 tickets – you don’t deserve to be in business.

If you don’t understand why this is true – for the Washington Ballet or any other arts organization that squanders this type of demand – consider these facts about volume ticket-buying clientele:

1. People who buy tickets in volume have numerous options. Every restaurant, party venue, attraction and entertainment provider in the area is competing for their business, and the smart ones employ commissioned sales professionals who know that if they don’t pick up the phone when it rings, somebody else will.

2. Volume buyers who get the service they deserve become repeat buyers. Volume buyers who don’t get the service they deserve go someplace else.

3. Volume buyers resell your tickets to people your marketing doesn’t necessarily reach. In other words, they’re out there doing your job for you – at no cost!

4. Volume buyers are among your most vital links to new customers. The people these buyers bring with them are the new audiences that you and your peers have been whining about not being able to reach for the last 20 years.

5. Volume ticket buyers comprise one of the few remaining under-developed markets that arts organizations have yet to explore. Many of these folks are business people who’d be happy to patronize your organization, but who have no interest in being treated like your least important customers.

Here’s some serious sales advice for the Washington Ballet:

  • Cut that horrible “fill out the form” line and replace it with this: “Call our VIP Party Sales Line to reserve the best seats and begin planning your event.”
  • Make sure a sales professional who can go into the system and reserve seats out of live inventory picks up this line every time it rings.*
  • Forward the line to a dedicated salesperson’s cell phone after hours.
  • If the call can’t be answered immediately, make sure the client gets a call back ASAP.
  • Take the credit card and sell the seats on the spot if the customer is ready to buy. Otherwise, hold the seats and offer terms designed to help the client follow through on the purchase (not terms designed to uphold box office traditions).
  • Offer a web-based form if you like, but make sure somebody responds to inquiries  regularly throughout the day.

Getting into the holiday party business without offering professional customer service is foolish and counterproductive. Offering lousy customer service to the people who buy the most tickets is unprofessional and, well, just plain stupid.

If you’re an arts leader who thinks your organization has too many empty seats, rather than talk about it with your daily newspaper, why not wander down to the group sales office, pick up the phone for a change, and talk about it with someone who wants to buy a lot of tickets?

 

*Some organizations have ticketing infrastructures that prevent their outside sales personnel from reserving seats out of live ticket inventory for their clients. If this is true in your organization, change the system now, even if it means renegotiating venue contracts or facing down an entrenched box office union. There is absolutely no legitimate excuse for withholding open ticket inventory from a willing volume buyer when single-ticket buyers get instant access. None.

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When Narcissists Look Out At Empty Seats

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I just read about troubles at the Washington Ballet. Seems they’ve got a lot of empty seats.

Followers of this blog know that when I read about troubled arts organizations I go straight to their marketing materials to look for problems.

So I went to the Washington Ballet’s website, read the entire thing, including the online season brochure, and found content there that was almost exclusively about the organization and how wonderful and important they think they are. Nowhere in all that copy and all those images could I find an answer to the question, “Why would someone like me want to go to one of these performances?”

Here’s my advice for the Washington Ballet: Cut 50% of the self-important, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory nonsense you call communications and replace it with content that’s about your customers and how happy they’ll be when they plan a night out that includes one of your shows.

It’s not about you anymore.

Hasn’t been for decades.

This is something you should have learned by now.

Make it about them and you’ll sell more tickets.

Geez.

 

 

Painting by Jody Kelly

Content or Data? Which Is More Important?

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Here’s a little thought experiment:

Imagine an arts organization that has accumulated reams of valuable market intelligence, used that intelligence to develop powerfully persuasive, audience-oriented marketing materials, and then sent those materials to a purely random list of people in the community.

Next imagine an arts organization that has accumulated vast amounts of useful patron data, synthesized it into precisely targeted subcategories and then used that data to disseminate marketing content that the executive director thought looked pretty.

It would be idiotic to pour enormous amounts of energy and resources into professional content development and then squander the investment by using random data. No sensible arts marketer would do it and no reasonable executive leader would approve it.

And it would be equally idiotic to pour enormous amounts of energy and resources into collecting and managing patron data only to squander the investment by sending content that was based on the highest-paid employee’s opinions. Yet in most arts organizations this is standard operating procedure.

As good as the arts may be with data, we’re a half century behind with content – and we’re falling further behind every day.

Why do we do such a good job with data and such a lousy job with content? It’s a complex question, but it pretty much boils down to this snippet of conversation from a typical marketing meeting:

MARKETING DIRECTOR

Hi, everybody. Today we’ll be addressing two issues.

First, we’ve learned that our ticketing software is no longer robust enough to manage and deploy our data. We’ve identified new software that will enable us to upgrade our systems to a professional industry standard. The price tag is $25k.

Next, we’ve discovered weaknesses in our marketing content, which is out of touch with the desires and expectations of our sustaining audiences. We’ve identified research and creative services that will help us upgrade our content to a professional industry standard. The price tag is $25k.

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

If you’re sure this new software is necessary, I’ll approve the expenditure.

But we don’t need to hire a research company to tell us that people want to stay home and watch Netflix. And we’re not here to give people what they want. Nobody knows better than we do why people should buy our tickets. It’s not a question of content; as far as I’m concerned we do beautiful marketing. The problem is that people aren’t getting the message.

Clearly the board should fire this executive director immediately. But if this were grounds for termination, a majority of arts executives would be out of work.

Here’s how a professional leader might respond:

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

If you’re sure this new software is necessary, I’ll approve the expenditure.

I’m aware that our content is outdated and may not be connecting with sustaining audiences, but I think we need more information. I’d like to approve a limited preliminary study to measure the disconnect, if any, between our traditional messaging and new audience expectations. Please ask your research firms for proposals. From there, I’d like to develop a set of metrics for making reasonable financial projections that I can share with the board. And I’d also like to meet with these potential creative service providers to learn how they plan to use market intelligence to shape content and how they will measure ROI.

It makes no sense to invest in data without also investing in content. Good work everyone.

If your boss sounds more like the former than the latter, it’s probably time to get a new job.

 

 

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.

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.

A Few Things Art Museum Virgins Should Know

If you’re a young person who’s thinking about visiting an art museum, here are a few things you should know that are not likely to be evident when you walk through the doors:

The minute you step through those doors, you are the most important person in the museum.

Everybody who works in the museum from the guards to the executive director is there to make sure you have a rewarding experience.

The rich people whose names are carved into the walls gave the museum a lot of money to make sure you have a rewarding experience.

Your experience in the museum is every bit as valuable and important as anyone else’s.

The artists are all speaking to you.

Yes, you.

The artists are trying to speak to the people with the headphones, but they can’t hear because they’re wearing headphones.

You are fully qualified to decide what is good and bad.

You don’t have to like anything.

You don’t have to understand anything.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find a few things you do like and want to understand.

You can spend your whole visit with the things you like.

You’re free to ignore things that look boring.

You’re free to laugh at anything you find silly.

If the sign next to the art sounds like pretentious nonsense, it’s because the lady who wrote it was talking to people who work in other art museums.

People who run art museums are mega nerds.

Most of the art you see was never meant to be in a museum.

You’re allowed to find the whole thing amazing or ridiculous or both.

The museum is extremely fortunate that you decided to come (art museum attendance is in steady decline).

You can leave and never come back, or you can leave and come back often: Both options are valid.

Now, the message you’ll get from the museum will be very different, but don’t let that concern you. People who run art museums have decided that they are unusually important, and many have forgotten that you’re the reason they’re there.

So print this list before you go, take it with you, read it just before you walk through the doors – and feel free to hand it to anyone who looks like they’ve been made to feel small.

Be the most important person in the museum.

Find art you like.

Laugh when it’s funny.

Have a great time.

 

 

 

 

Part II: When Dubious Arts Leaders Nix Innovation

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.

 

 

 

When Dubious Arts Leaders Nix Innovation

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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 will 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 for 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 your skeptical co-workers to follow as you lead them into uncharted territory.