I’ve Been Wrong This Whole Time

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This blog is about eight years old. If I were to sum up its contents in one statement, it would be this:

With audiences in steady decline, traditional arts organizations need to stop broadcasting how wonderful and important they are and start engaging more humbly, generously and directly with new audiences. If these organizations expect to survive, they must focus on what future audiences want and use more professional, customer-centered marketing to demonstrate how art will satisfy their yearnings.

Sadly, I’ve been barking up the wrong tree for eight years.

The statement is true, but the audience is wrong. Most traditional arts organizations can’t do it, and beating them up over something they can’t do is pointless.

What I’ve come to understand in some 35 years in the arts is that arts organizations – especially legacy institutions from the 20th century – tend to be insular, self-centered and elitist by design. Many were created by people who believed themselves to be superior and who meant to celebrate their superiority by indulging in “high culture” pursuits with others of their class – and, yes, offering such pursuits as aspirational products to others just below them on the social ladder. These institutions served large audiences, to be sure, and they’ve done immeasurable good for their communities, but their essential natures are tied to their origins, and asking them to save themselves by becoming something other than what they were created to be is unrealistic.

I called out the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in my last post for publishing 130 shameless selfies in their season catalog, but the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is no more capable of producing customer-centered communications than any other venerable old orchestra. It’s not in their nature. Never was. Their new young staffers may propose something more outsider-oriented on occasion, but the decision makers – the gatekeepers of the founding mythology – will inevitably suppress such anomalies long before the offending material is deployed.

I showed your new mockups to the board chair and he agreed it’s just not us.”

If lumbering old arts institutions are destined to die in the next few decades, their demise is not a failure of administration, it’s a function of their DNA. They’ll die naturally alongside the generations of elite supporters, executive leaders and insular artists they were created to serve – while the folks on the lower rungs who were once invited to aspire will venture off to find more relevant ways to enjoy artistic expression.

The good news is that art will survive – as it always has – and that people will find new ways of coming together to share creative endeavors. And perhaps they’ll build new organizations around these endeavors that are more flexible, less condescending and more meaningfully engaged with their participants. If we’re lucky, these new organizations will understand that transience is an indispensable component of creative expression — no art form or institution deserves to be permanent — and that the ultimate beauty of art may well lie in its perishable nature. Can you imagine anything more heartbreakingly beautiful than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s final performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

So if you’re an arts marketing professional who works in one of these older organizations, relax. Enjoy the ride. If your institution expects you to publish an endless stream of shameless selfies, publish the best possible stream of shameless selfies you can. Be really, really good at doing what your leaders think you’re there to do and don’t beat yourself up if the world outside is moving on without you. Your job is to do traditional nonprofit arts marketing. If it were to reverse decades of audience attrition and fill theaters, galleries or concert halls with new audiences, you wouldn’t be doing traditional nonprofit arts marketing.

And if you’re a leader of one of these venerable institutions, please stop fretting about new audiences. Sitting in conference rooms talking about younger, more culturally diverse customers when you’re not doing anything about them is disingenuous at best. You don’t know these people, you don’t really want to know these people, and the likelihood of your seeking them out, getting to know them, and letting them teach you how to engage with them on a level they’ll find sincere and persuasive is exceedingly slim. You already have an audience. They really like your selfies. Be good to them. Find others like them if possible. And if their numbers are dwindling, plan your twilight years together with grace and dignity.

Interestingly, as I was drafting this post, I came across this article about Aubrey Bergauer at the California Symphony. Ms. Bergauer is living proof that what I’ve been talking about all these years actually works, but she’s a millennial, she’s the boss, she serves a market that thrives on innovation, she actually wants to engage with outsiders, and she leads an organization with comparatively little institutional baggage. It’s thrilling to imagine that she might be the salvation everyone’s been hoping for, but if history is a guide, her approach is likely to become just another fad that arts leaders earnestly discuss at conferences, but can’t actually implement in their own organizations because…, well…, it’s just not us.

As for me, I’m pretty much done. There are only so many ways you can say it’s not about us anymore in an industry that, in so many high profile cases, never really was, and will probably never be, about them. Fortunately, my blog and book are being taught in arts administration programs around the world and young arts hopefuls have been unusually receptive to the message. I hope they’ll be able to make meaningful change where meaningful change is worth making.

Thank you all for reading. Maybe we’ll meet again one day in Chicago at that amazing Beethoven concert.

130 Selfies at Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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I just read Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2019/20 Season Catalog. The publication contains nearly 130 images and not a single one shows customers enjoying their time together at an event.

Research consistently demonstrates that people go to arts events to share meaningful experiences with people they care about and want to spend time with.

Effective marketing demonstrates how a product will satisfy customer desires.

Thus, if you know your customers want meaningful experiences to share with others, you’ll do two things:

  1. Show people enjoying one another’s company while consuming your product.
  2. Show why your product is the best product to share.

In other words, you’ll do what professional marketers do and make your marketing content about your customers and about how happy they’ll be when they buy what you’re trying to sell.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s marketing shows how wonderful and important the Chicago Symphony Orchestra thinks their customers should think the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is.

In a statement about its current labor dispute, the CSO says it’s working tirelessly every day to earn enough money to keep its artists well compensated.

Given how vitally important it is for arts organizations to be more engaged with their customers’ desires and expectations, I can’t help wondering how much work it would take to replace a few of those 130 selfies with pictures of concert-goers having a great time together at an event.

Two Days To Respond To Ticket Requests?

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.

When Narcissists Look Out At Empty Seats

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?

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.

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.