Marketing the Arts to Death

Yesterday, I found out about a new book, Marketing the Arts to Death, by Trevor O’Donnell – an arts marketing pro who has an impressive list of credentials including marketing campaigns for Disney, Broadway shows and not-for-profit arts organizations.

The title intrigued me, since I preach to my students incessantly about the fact that one of the biggest reasons we’re losing audiences is that we are using marketing methods that simply do not work.   We concentrate primarily on “getting the word out,” we refuse to do market research, and we’re reluctant to target audiences since we’re supposed to be serving everyone — and so we fall back on standard methods: the poster with the title of the show and either an unknown person in a tuxedo or something related to the play that nobody understands; the press release that places great emphasis on all of the personnel involved; hackneyed brochures which use phrases like “Celebrate!” and “Experience the Wonder!”  And we wonder why new audiences don’t come.

I downloaded the (really inexpensive, e-only) book and within minutes was devouring it like it was bacon.  At last- someone saying what I’ve believed for a long time, using direct language, and with far more street cred than I could ever have.  First, a few of the sins:

1. How many times have you seen the word “celebrate” on an arts ad? (How many times have you used it?  Guilty here!)  When you use the word “celebrate,” what exactly are you asking of your audience?  Can you think of a reason why the word “celebrate” should cause people to get off the couch and come – especially when there’s no real celebration involved?

2. How many times do we see the same phrases: “something for everyone” – “experience the (insert word here – power/wonder/magic)” – “proud to present” – “all the world’s a stage” ?  How many times do we see the same images: a classical musician in a tux – actors in period costumes – theatrical masks – clever graphics with a treble clef?

3. How many times have we counted on the quality of our organization or our art to form the message?  “Come to Wisconsin’s most renowned art gallery!”

And how do we solve this problem?  I’m not going to diminish Mr. O’Donnell’s sales by giving the whole thing away, but here’s a little exercise that he presents that might help explain his theory for what might work better.

Imagine your intended audience – not a group of people, but an individual.  If you sold 144 tickets to your last show, imagine this person as number 145.  She might have come.  She might have even considered it.  But she didn’t come.  Why not?  Give this person a name and a history.  Imagine sitting down over a coffee and trying to persuade her to come.

Then imagine yourself starting out with something like “Jennifer, the Curd County Community Theatre is proud to present a Wisconsin premiere event!  Come join us for a celebration of the play that has been a smash hit on the East Coast – an unforgettable journey of the imagination set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, directed by Andy Andersson and starring Curd County’s own Dorothy Miller!”

Do you want to go?  Me either.

So, what would you say if you were sitting across from someone and trying to persuade them to come?

You’ll have to read the book.

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About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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5 Responses to Marketing the Arts to Death

  1. Ellen, how wonderful to find a kindred spirit. I love your three forbidden phases! And I’m so glad you’re teaching this to the future arts pros who will be cleaning up after us when we’re done celebrating. Thanks for your good words and for (I almost said “spreading the word”) persuading others to take up the cause. Trev

  2. Nice to “meet” you, Trev! Thanks for commenting and you can count on me to keep trying to find my best persuasive rhetoric when it comes to marketing the arts.

  3. Betsy says:

    Ellen – I am FINALLY buying this book. This week (and it is still early in the week), I am feeling like our organization is not only a dinosaur, but one with its feet planted so firmly in the ground that each leg needs to be loosened and finally ripped out before we can move along. Yesterday, after realizing that I had been here for coming on two years, I told our Office Manager that we needed to review the PR list. Who are we contacting with exhibit announcments and about events? I found out that our list has not been updated in…ahem…more than 6 years. I am in major need of some inspiration.

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