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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A Few Things Art Museum Virgins Should Know

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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

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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.

 

 

 

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.