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.

 

 

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“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?

Engaging Down To The Lesser People

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I used the phrase “business community engagement” recently and was roundly chastised by a fellow arts professional for my transgression:

“We’re not here to engage with businesses. We’re nonprofit arts organizations. We’re here to engage with the community.”

When I asked what distinguished the community she was referring to from the one I was referring to, my colleague described a community made up of people from senior centers, urban schools, ethnic minorities and other marginal groups, all of whom occupied social positions well below hers or those of her colleagues in the cultural sector. In her nonprofit worldview, ‘community’ meant lesser people whose lives might be improved by art, and the intended recipients of her charity bore little resemblance to the folks who had traditionally sustained her arts organization.

I’ve had this conversation often enough to know that when the arts talk about community, we’re usually talking about a subset of the population from which traditional buyers and donors are conspicuously absent. Our core sustaining audiences are affluent, educated, culturally aware consumers who work in businesses and professions and who align themselves with social circles and affinity groups that are consistent with their status. But these are rarely the people or the groups we think about when we set out to engage. ‘Community’ in the arts means people at the lower end of the social ladder and engagement is a benevolent gesture offered to raise them up.

There’s nothing wrong with the charitable mentality that encourages nonprofits to make art available to marginal communities, but applying this thinking to engagement in hopes of building dependable future audiences is counterproductive and fiscally irresponsible. Engagement for charity is a zero sum game. If we keep losing audiences while investing precious resources in populations that lack the potential to replace our customary support systems, we’ll die.

This may be a hard pill to swallow for some, but if your organization expects its community engagement efforts to grow sustaining audiences, those efforts must be directed toward the community members who are most likely to buy tickets. Engagers who want to influence audience development have a fundamental responsibility to identify and isolate their most promising sub-communities, in advance, and focus their engagement efforts where they’ll deliver the strongest ROI.

Marketers do this every day. Marketers have limited resources that must be used in the most responsible way, so they concentrate on the most likely ticket buyers. Engagers, who have even fewer resources, can’t afford to squander them on relationships that offer no useful return. It may sound callous, but arts organizations can’t afford to function as charities when their audiences are shrinking and their own survival is in question.

Of course any arts organization can do engagement for engagement’s sake, but this has to be paid for by funders and it can’t be counted as audience development.

Or, arts organizations can engage productively with potential ticket buyers, create mutually beneficial community relationships AND deliver a reasonable return on their investment.

Some may believe that it’s possible to do both, but anyone who tries it will need a precise set of metrics to determine exactly what the programs cost, how much they’re projected to return and who’s going to cover the losses. Trust me. If you launch engagement programs for charitable reasons and expect them to generate revenue, there will be losses.

So what’s the alternative? Try something like this: If you’re an arts administrator whose job description includes engagement, plan and propose a relationship-building program for your local legal community. Organize an event with a thematic tie-in for an upcoming show. Invite a prominent guest host who’s well known in legal circles and solicit the help of a handful of influential judges to lend their names to the invitation. Get key board members involved and encourage them to invite legal professionals in their social circles. Make it a fun, interactive program designed to better connect your organization’s staff and artists to a promising new audience of affluent, educated community members. And design the event’s messaging to promote long-term participatory relationships between your guests and your organization with an emphasis on ease-of-access to quality ticket inventory.

I know. Heads exploding all over the conference room. “You want to do what?”

Here’s the ultimate question: Are these lawyers any less deserving of engagement than the rest of the community? I have a lawyer friend who’s smart, curious and culturally literate, but a regular Joe for the most part. He doesn’t go to the theatre or attend classical concerts or dance events very often, but there’s no reason he wouldn’t find them rewarding if he did. And there’s every reason to expect that he would if, through his professional circles, he discovered a personal connection to some of the rich cultural offerings in his city.

Why on earth wouldn’t we engage with people like him?

Linking community engagement to audience development is a dangerous business. If engagement is about growing audiences, nonprofit engagers have an unmistakable fiscal duty to use resources in the most prudent manner possible, which means there must be a measurable, predictable financial benefit to the organization. Otherwise, nonprofit arts organizations become pass-through charities with well-intentioned but finite futures.

Time To Get Rid Of Group Sales

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Group sales was developed over seventy years ago for society matrons and seniors who wanted to reserve seats in advance so they could resell tickets. But that was seventy years ago and arts administrators can’t afford to rely on business practices that were created for little old ladies long before most of us were born.

If your organization needs to sell tickets and the only department in your organization with ‘sales’ in the name is group sales, it’s time for a change.

Do This Now

  1. Pick a date in the next six months to end all group sales functions. Fire the staff, erase all traces of group sales from your organizational communications, eliminate every box office policy and procedure having to do with group sales and abandon all group sales accounting processes.
  2. Take some time to imagine how a young, energetic, innovative, customer-oriented  start-up might approach the process of selling tickets if the arts industry’s lumbering old “sales” traditions had never existed.
  3. Create a new department called ‘Sales’ and advertise for a director or VP who answers to the chief executive and whose seniority is consistent with your top development and marketing staffers.
  4. Hire someone from outside the arts bubble. Look for a pro who has experience in sports, theme parks, attractions, hospitality or travel and tourism. Focus on candidates with solid track records who understand business-to-business sales and who have well-established contacts in the marketplace.
  5. Develop a salary-plus-commission compensation package for your new sales executive and don’t cap her earnings. (A well-structured package means that if your sales executive is earning more than her peers or superiors, she’ll be worth the disparity.)
  6. Work with your new senior sales staffer to develop a sales department with new policies and procedures that make no arbitrary distinctions between groups and single-tickets. Focus on buyers who deliver volume sales and structure policies around their needs.
  7. Prepare your organization to develop new service infrastructures for business buyers, wholesalers, community partners and other resellers. If your ticketing system isn’t capable of accommodating B-to-B relationships, get a new ticketing system.
  8. Stop selling discounts and start selling value.
  9. Focus on the development of long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.
  10. Notify your producing/presenting partners and artists that you are introducing new sales methods and that future contracts will reflect innovations with which they may be unfamiliar.
  11. Establish crystal-clear distinctions between customer service, inside sales and outside sales. (If the customer has already decided to buy, it’s customer service). Focus your new sales department entirely on sales.
  12. Foster an organization-wide sales culture so that proactive, persuasive, personal engagement with people in the marketplace becomes an overriding organizational imperative. This will have a profound influence on marketing, which in the arts is passive, self-centered and impersonal. And it will help to add a goal orientation to community engagement.

If after your new sales department is up and running you learn that some people are still looking for that old group sales pigeonhole, feel free to reintroduce it as a part of your new sales initiative. Try not to reintroduce the discounts, bad seats and poor service, though.

And if this all seems wildly difficult or too far outside the nonprofit norm, you can do what arts leaders have been doing for decades: Complain about your group sales department every now and then for not being more proactive.

Ka-MYOO-ni-tee En-GAGE-ment

Once, while traveling across Pennsylvania on a wet snowy night, my partner and I stopped at a dismal little Burger King in a mountain town along Route 80. Greeting us just inside the door was a large white poster with a chart containing simple line sketches of characters from the animated feature The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And under each sketch was a phonetic spelling of the character’s name: ES-muh-REL-duh.

Strange marketing, we thought, then it dawned on us that this wasn’t marketing at all. It was a pronunciation guide that Disney had sent out so Burger King employees could say the names of the promotional toys they were handing out. It was meant to hang in the break room.

Clearly, neither the manager nor his team understood what this poster was or where it belonged. We found it sad and poignant, yet none-the-less humorous, that an internal, administrative tool like this had been posted so proudly for the public to see.

Twenty years later we can still crack each other up by articulating character names from the movie when we come across something tragically stupid.

I thought of this recently when I visited the website of a major American arts organization and found a tab on the primary navigation bar that said “Community Engagement.” I won’t use the name of the organization because it’s just too embarrassing, but they actually published intra-industry administrative jargon on their website as if it were promotional language, and beneath it a pull-down menu of programs and promotions designed to offer ways for the community to engage with them!

KWA-zee-MO-doh.

 

Can You Sell Tickets to Businesses?

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I once sold 3,600 seats to The Phantom of the Opera in one phone call. We were about to release a new block of dates in San Francisco and the National Association of Realtors was planning their conference during the new dates, so I called their meeting planner and she bought two full houses. It was a good day.

I once sold a 2,700-seat performance of Disney’s The Lion King to the meeting planner for the National Urban League. This was a good day, too.

I once sold a 3,000-seat performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre to a healthcare executive I met at a trade show called the Black Business Expo, but the Music Center of Los Angeles wouldn’t move a donor event to accommodate the sale. This was not such a good day.

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You’ll notice that the customers in these examples were business people who were buying large quantities of tickets on behalf of others. They were just a few among a broad range of business professionals I’ve worked with over the years in hospitality, travel & tourism, real estate, human resources, education, meetings & events, destination management, restaurant ownership, nonprofit social services and other industries and professions. And the thing that tied them all together was that they bought tickets in bulk on behalf of other people – millions of dollars worth of tickets.

Broadway started doing business-to-business sales (B-to-B) about twenty-five years ago and sales is now an indispensable part of the industry. But the nonprofit arts continue to work on an exclusive business-to-consumer model (B-to-C) that imposes severe limitations on their ability to tap new sources of earned income.

If you’ve been hearing about successful outside sales initiatives at other arts organizations, and you think sales could be a good thing for you, you may want to take a closer look at your infrastructure to see if it’s capable of servicing the customers a new sales program would cultivate.

Here are a few questions to consider:

Can You Sell Through Third Parties?

Suppose your new outside sales executive comes to you with this scenario: “I’ve just spoken to the head concierge for Premier Properties, the city’s largest luxury apartment and office building owners. They offer concierge services to occupants in twelve buildings. If we can give them a net rate at 15% below face value and access to live seat inventory, they say they can move about $50,000 worth of tickets in the next twelve months – and it’s mostly last-minute sales to people we can’t reach, so its the right target for the most perishable inventory.”

Can your organization offer net rates that enable third parties to sell tickets at face value and keep a 15% cut for themselves? Can you give these concierges access to quality live inventory so they can sell to their constituents out of remote box office terminals? Can your box office manage this company’s account? Can they do it for multiple third-party resellers? Can you reconcile your box office on any given night if this account won’t be paid until the end of the month? Can you empower your sales executive to assemble a network of similar incentivized resellers like this who will sell your tickets for you to audiences you can’t always reach?

If your organization can’t do these things now, when will you be able to do them?

Can You Sell A Whole House?

Whole-house buyouts and large-block ticket sales are an incredibly efficient way to move inventory, not to mention pull in new audiences, but most nonprofits can’t handle them. Some of the roadblocks are structural (ticketing systems, subscribers, artists’ contracts, house seats, sponsor commitments, accounting, etc.) and some are cultural (“But, but, but, we’d have to ask the Blue Ribbon to move their gala!”). All of the roadblocks are surmountable, however, with the right planning and a willingness to open the doors to new markets.

Will your new sales executive be able to sell the whole house? Or most of it? Or maybe just the best 500 seats? If the answer is no, when will she be able to do so?

Can You Give Executive-Level Service to Executive-Level Buyers?

Suppose a Senior Vice President of Sales at a local tech firm has decided to treat his top producers to a premium night out including a fine show and dinner at the best restaurant in town. So he calls your organization to order a block of tickets.

Who is this SVP going to speak to?

If you’re like most arts organizations, he’s going to speak to one of your lowest-level employees who has no decision-making authority and who’s going to quote him peripheral seat locations that were carved out sixty years ago for discount-hungry little old ladies. Your “group sales” pigeonhole is the only point of contact your organization offers him.

Afterward he’ll call his ticket broker and say, “I’m putting together a top drawer night for my team. What can you get us? I thought we might do that Bernstein concert at Symphony Hall but those people don’t want my business.”

Can you accommodate this executive ticket buyer with products and services that fit his status? What if your new sales exec is out in the community meeting with others like him trying to get more of them to buy?

When will you be ready to cultivate executive-level buyers with the service they deserve?

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Hiring an outside sales professional to tap new business markets makes sense. In fact it may be the most important thing your organization can do right now to open new markets and bring in new audiences. But hiring an experienced sales person without preparing your organization to back her up will pretty much ensure failure.

You know your organization needs to change to stay viable. If your new sales exec is going to bring you lucrative opportunities that require new service infrastructures, this would be a good place to start making those changes.

NOTE: If your ticketing system can’t support these changes, they’re way behind the curve. It may be time to start looking for a more dynamic, sales-oriented system. Go check out your local theme parks and sports teams’ ticketing systems. They’ve been supporting B-to-B sales for decades.

 

No Kidding: Sales Really Is The New Arts Marketing

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My recent Halloween post about sales may have been satire, but the message was no joke. Sales is the new arts marketing. If your organization isn’t serious about sales, it probably won’t survive.

If you’re not quite sure what sales is, here’s a definition:

Sales is about engaging with people in the marketplace, persuading them to buy your products, and making sure their transactions are completed.

In the arts we lump many things under the sales umbrella including box office, phone rooms, ticketing system management, websites, etc., but these are really just customer service. If the customer has already decided to buy and has contacted you to make the purchase, it’s not sales.

We also talk about group sales, but this is an archaic pigeonhole that needs to be eliminated.

Sales is a proactive, persuasive endeavor designed to identify potential customers, reach out to them personally, motivate them to buy, and manage their sales transactions to completion. It also involves the development of long-lasting, mutually beneficial community relationships. (Think of it as goal-oriented community engagement.)

I was encouraged to read recently about Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s successful sales initiative. They’ve hired a manager-level salesperson who identifies and then connects with key individuals in the business community who can deliver single ticket sales in bulk. From what I can tell, this is a good example of where most large to mid-size arts institutions should be starting.

If your organization is considering sales, there are several things that require careful consideration. I will be detailing these issues in subsequent posts, but here are a few highlights.

ARTS CULTURE vs. SALES CULTURE

Any arts organization that wants to embrace sales will have to be prepared for seismic changes in its organizational culture. Nonprofit arts organizations are, by nature, self-centered and inwardly focused. Sales culture, meanwhile, is consumer-centered and outwardly focused. Because arts and sales are so diametrically opposed in their fundamental orientations, most arts organizations will find it painful and perhaps even impossible to incorporate sales into their administrative systems.

B-to-C vs. B-to-B

The largest hurdle organizations will face with sales is being operationally capable of satisfying the demand. Nonprofit arts organizations sell tickets to consumers, which means they operate on a business-to-consumer (B-to-C) model. Sales will focus largely on selling tickets to businesses, however, which means that arts organizations will have to modify their operational systems to accommodate business-to-business (B-to-B) practices. Unfortunately, all of our ticketing and box office systems (and cultures) are designed around B-to-C demand and often can’t (or won’t) capitalize on B-to-B potential.

TRADITION vs. SURVIVAL

Arts leaders who have no particular expertise in professional marketing take great comfort in tradition because it gives them something to point to and say, “this is how it’s done.” But there will be no such tradition to fall back on with sales. No one can say, “that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” because it’s never been done this way. Embracing sales will mean doing something new – or at least new for the arts. Theme parks, major league sports teams and popular visitor attractions have been doing sales for decades. Theirs are the traditions that arts leaders will need to rely on.

PERSUASION vs. PROMOTION

Sales is a persuasive enterprise. Arts marketing is a promotional enterprise. The difference between persuasion and promotion is key to understanding why sales is necessary. As self-motivated audiences die off, promotion loses its power. And as under-motivated audiences become our only hope for survival, persuasion becomes paramount. Arts organizations that fail to sell (a.k.a. persuade people to buy) will die.

 

Sales is coming. Every arts organization will have to deal with it sooner or later. Those who deal with it sooner will stand a far greater chance of making it through this audience crisis.

If you’d like to find out how your organization can increase paid participation by selling tickets, join me for a series of posts focusing on sales – the new arts marketing.