Stop Marketing to the General Public: Performing Arts Edition

Waiting for Godot set at Theatre Royal Haymark...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m on a mission to remove two words from every marketing plan on the planet– General Public.  Here’s why:

The general public isn’t a demographic – it’s just a short-hand term for people we don’t know. Attempting to influence people we don’t know is a good way to spend a lot of energy and a lot of cash for very little reward.  Click here to read the rest at Handshake 2.0.

In the linked post I focused on why businesses should avoid the general public (because Handshake 2.0 is  a business centered site) but like a lot of for-profit advice, it absolutely, 100% applies to nonprofits. That goes double for performing arts organizations.

I know how great full (paying!) houses feel to both performers and the box office, but targeting “everyone” doesn’t work any better for you than it does for the cafe down the street–for the same three reasons I listed in original post (are you curious enough to go check them out yet?)

As a bonus, here’s one more reason the general public has no place in the marketing plan for arts organizations:

Targeting “everyone” serves no one

Part of the beauty of the nonprofit arts model is it allows a diverse ecosystem of experiences to emerge.  There is room for old art forms to be preserved and new ones to be invented.  Increasingly, it even means there is room to expand the definition of art itself.  It’s a good system.  It’s a beautiful place where old, comfortable favorites live side by side with new experiences that stretch the senses and everyone experiences art in the ways that most resonate for them.

At least they do until the members of the ecosystem start to worry about the general public.  When that happens, the organizations stop seeing each other as important parts of a healthy system, and start seeing each other as competitors for a very small piece of pie.  This competition blinds them to the interests of their actual audience members and leads them on a wild goose chase after the big generic blog known as the general public.  The results are not good.

The first thing to go is “difficult” work.   The general public will never knock down the door to see Beckett, Brecht, or Bartók.

The work that challenges world-views is next.  The general public goes to performances to be entertained.  There is nothing entertaining about looking the dark parts of humanity in the eye, and recognizing ourselves in the reflection.

This chase creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.  By focusing on the general public, organizations abandon the loyal audiences that know and love them for the chance to woo the faceless hordes–about whom they know nothing.  Is it any surprise that they end up losing both?

A single performance–or even organization–will never satisfy the artistic needs of the general public because each member of the public has unique needs–many of which are diametrically opposed to the needs of other members of the public.

The solution?  Stop chasing the hordes.  Do the work that your organization is called to do.  Do it well.  Make it easy for your right people to find you.  When they get there, treat them like family.  Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

14 thoughts on “Stop Marketing to the General Public: Performing Arts Edition

  1. Thank you, Maureen. This is a must read for any museum, arts organization or other entity trying to build their audience. As for me, I just want to sing your praises (and share this post with my fellow board members) because you are so completely spot on!

    A huge number of organizations waste valuable time and energy going after John Q. Public. They reduce their programs and messages down to the least common denominator. As a result, the entire organization becomes diluted and — well, boring. Not too terribly surprising given their target market, especially when you realize that John Q. Public was invented by the IRS. How interesting can he possibly be?!?

  2. Maureen started to make the point I was going to make. There is definitely some truth to the article. However, there is a value in getting your message or your brand in front of a larger audience. One thing that many non-profits don’t realize is how abusive they are to their “family”. There are a few companies I take in interest in that abuse the fact that I’ve subscribed to emails. They bombard me with pleas for money and purchases. Marketing to the right audience does not always translate to increased sales. There is a finite amount of money that your target audience will be able to spend. Non-profits also need to continually build awareness and new patrons. That can’t be achieved by consistently marketing to the same group. What’s important is knowing when its time to put marketing dollars towards a general campaign, and what message should be assigned to that campaign. If you never market to the general public, you will never grow your audience or your company’s presence. But it must be done with intention, and the success must be measured in a different way.

    • Hi J–thanks for joining the conversation.

      I think we may be defining “general public” differently. I agree that nonprofits need to continue to grow their support base. What I’m suggesting is that targeting “general public” doesn’t do that. Instead they should focus their efforts on reaching a very specific “sort” of person.

      Here’s an example: A friend of a friend just started a nonprofit to protect wild Bengal tigers. The usual target for such an effort are people already interested in wildlife causes–but that’s a huge demographic with tons of organizations competing for attention. So his organization will target fans of the Cincinnati Bengals football team. Whole new market of people with a potential interest in protecting tigers–and yet very different from wearing a “save the tigers” sandwich board on a street corner.

  3. Hi. I worked in the arts for 12 years and grew increasingly frustrated listening to my colleagues blame the media, the government, the school system, and anyone else they could think of for why they weren’t selling tickets. They wanted to force the arts on the masses in a city that is just not an arts city. Various arts products (plays, concerts, exhibitions) serve the needs of various niche audiences, period. So thank you for articulating this so well.

  4. […] Your organization cannot fulfill the artistic needs of every member of your community.  By trying to do so, you waste your own resources and endanger the  entire ecosystem.  Instead, narrow your focus until you find the work that best resonates with you artistically and that you are uniquely qualified to do.  Then, stop doing everything else.  In other words, stop marketing to the general public. […]

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