Nonprofit Arts Marketing – Drive for Image First; The Road to Revenue Follows

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Or, Drive for Money First; The Road to Oblivion Follows  

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

Over the last couple of columns, we’ve talked about the coming war. I need a break from that, and I’m sure you do, too. Let’s head back over to the land of the living, at least for the moment, and help them support your work. In your nonprofit arts organization, the person leading that effort is the marketing director.

I’m always surprised when longtime executive and artistic directors think about marketing as a necessary evil. These folks think that the development department is similarly evil, but refrain from using language that might offend a development director who has a strong relationship with a particular donor or a cadre of them. Disrespect to friend of a million-dollar donor might cost the company a million dollars (and an executive’s job) whereas disrespect to a marketing director — whose relationship is to thousands of people, any one of whom might disappear with but little financial deficit — is an ongoing battle.

According to the American Marketing Association, marketing is “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” The word “sell” is not in there. Nor is the word “revenue.” But the word “value” is, and that’s the key ingredient to the whole enchilada.

Marketing the arts is about image. It’s the secret sauce.

Marketing directors, in general, make far less than their counterparts in the other revenue-centered departments but are responsible for managing the entire organization’s entire reputation. The average arts marketing director made about 84 cents for every dollar an arts development director made last year, according to statistics at Americans for the Arts. (Your mileage may vary.)

Because so many nonprofit arts organizations are desperately looking for money, money, acclaim, butts-in-seats, money, money, and, of course, money, the misconception that the marketing director is there to “sell tickets” (or worse, “sell subscriptions”) continues to stanch the ability for a charitable organization to prove worth. As discussed in earlier columns and in my book, Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact, butts-in-seats is not a valid nonprofit metric. Otherwise, the Los Angeles Dodgers might qualify as a successful nonprofit because they provided a worthwhile civic activity for the people of Los Angeles and filled 3,837,079 seats in 2023. After all, did your organization sell 47,371 tickets per performance?

A typical Los Angeles Dodger home game. No, the Dodgers are not a nonprofit.

So, here’s the scoop on nonprofit arts marketing: it’s about crafting and trumpeting the image of the organization, not “sell tickets.” Tickets are a byproduct of marketing; image is the product. If done well — and this is completely dependent on all other parts of the organization electing to stick to a primary value worthy of the charitable sector in which the company chooses to do its work — then the revenue should follow.

If, however, the image is that of an elitist company content only to present art for its donors-cum-beneficiaries, the company will never be a safe bet for long-term civic support. Next stop, oblivion.

Simply put, only the rich White folks will care. Just as they always have.

That’s us, dahling.

“But wait,” I hear you skreich, “money is the manner in which people are paid. We can’t pay people a return on value. We need revenue to pay for the art, which, even in your ridiculous world, pays for the good works the company does to help the community.”

You’re right, of course. But revenue — even ticket revenue — is not the job of the marketing department. Raising enough revenue is the task of every damn person who works for the company, from volunteer usher to board member, led by a concerted marketing plan.

So, here’s the scoop on nonprofit arts marketing: it’s about crafting and trumpeting the image of the organization, not “sell tickets.” Tickets are a byproduct of marketing; image is the product.

If the image of the company is consistently strong, easily definable, and causes celebration among community members (and not just those folks in the boat above), more people in your community will buy in. People want to be moved and entertained, and they can get that from any number of for-profit entertainment options. More importantly for your charity and its goals, people want to have a stake in the success of their own community. If that means that they are moved to buy tickets and subscriptions, great.

If the only metric by which your company judges success is sold-out houses, then you’re doomed to the next event that doesn’t sell out. Ultimately, your whole company will fail because the public won’t know why you even exist beyond being yet another place that presents some sort of art. As we’ve learned in the Pre-Post-Pandemic Era, the public has a choice and won’t just choose an arts organization because it produces art and nothing more. Even if they’re the only one in town.

The best marketers in the nonprofit arts world can’t make people buy tickets to something they don’t want to see. Chasing dollars for that uber-intellectual vanity piece that has nothing to do with the community (no matter how “important” it is to your artists) never works.

Arts marketers can only market the organization’s reputation, the impact it has on the community, and maximize the revenue efforts by placing that image in front of the people who are likeliest to respond to it. Then people might put money toward that company.

It’s why your company has to start:

  • eliminating arbitrary ratios or other irrelevant statistics to craft a budget;
  • spending more money on advertising for popular events than for risky ones;
  • trusting its marketing to its marketers, not an artistic director or other R&D folks;
  • basing its budget on revenues first, not expenses;
  • paying its marketing directors the same as its other directors.

Marketing is too important to leave to untrained kibitzers.

The next time you hear someone in your organization get after a marketing director for “not selling enough tickets,” or worse, refer to any revenue stream as a “necessary evil,” get rid of that person. They don’t get it, and likely never, ever will.

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