Entries by 3 Created

Can right-sizing be as sexy as expansion?

On Thursday of last week, Thomas Cottfeatured several articles on “right-sizing” in the arts in his daily “You’ve Cott Mail.” As many of his emails tend to do, it has stuck with me for days. See his email came at an opportune time for me. I had just gi…

Purposeful Acquisition

Several years ago, I wrote a post entitled “You want to get into trouble? Concentrate on new audiences.” At the time, I was confused and frustrated with the relentless focus on developing new audiences. The field’s obsession with the new to the detrime…

Quick reflections on a changing media landscape

Just a few thoughts on the changing landscape of arts journalism…

Content aggregation vs. reporting. As newsroom staffs are being cut, an alarming number of original source reporting outlets are shifting to content aggregation. Very few media outlets now have dedicated full-time reporters that are assigned to the arts. With an increase in content aggregation and a decrease in original reporting, editorial power is shifting to the fewer outlets that are creating content which in turn feeds the increasing number of aggregators. Just a short time ago, it used to be that a significant story would be covered by several local and national outlets, allowing a well-rounded view of the story to emerge. Today, whatever the view of the originating source becomes the defacto view of aggregating outlets, thereby often times giving a single reporter the responsibility of judge, jury and executioner. That said, I have found that there are some journalists who aggregate content, and then editorially expound upon amassed content. I have found that in doing so, these journalists feel the pressure to produce original editorial based upon what others have said, but they do not view themselves as primary source journalists, meaning that they will comment on previous work, but will not expend the energy to actually conduct interviews or investigate if forgone conclusions are accurate.

The rise of “gotcha” journalism. It used to be that purposefully snarky reporting was the realm of the social blogosphere, or at best, the weekly alternative paper. In a surprising turn of events, the Washington Post, one of the most respected new sources for arts journalism in the country, sent out the following message in late February: “Got a grievance to air about the Washington arts scene? Is complaining your favorite form of catharsis? Our Sunday Arts section is seeking critics like yourself, who are interested in giving our local and cultural scene some tough love.” Why would such a reputable news source specifically solicit grievances and nothing else? Wouldn’t they want a balanced view from the community on the impact of the arts in our nation’s capital? particularly at a time when arts funding is getting slashed? I fear that ill-conceived attempts at gaining readership will result in using tactics that just a few years ago would have been laughed out of the newsroom. Quality arts reporting, as it rapidly diminishes in communities across the nation, should become a strong competitive advantage for those that continue to invest in it. For another viewpoint, please check out Howard Sherman’s excellent post here.

Pay to play, and the abandonment of journalistic ethics. I have a feeling that even prehistoric publicists had to deal with “news outlets” that refused editorial coverage unless advertising money was attached, but it used to be that these outlets were few and came with tarnished reputations in their communities. Today it is almost as likely that a marketing director will arrange an editorial feature via an account rep as it is a publicist via an editor. And outlets aren’t shy about it. Previously a publisher might say to you with a wink that he would see what he could do, but now they flat out tell you if you want to be reviewed, you need to buy an ad! If a feature article, and much more so a review, is attached to an advertising buy, journalistic ethics have been thrown out the door. Just on principle, even when I did have the resources to make an ad buy, if an offer was made, I walked away from the table. There has to be a line.

To tweet, or not to tweet? If you are an executive of an arts organization, and you are considering joining Twitter, here are a couple of things to consider:

  • Twitter is a community. If you do not have the time to adequately nourish online relationships in Twitter, don’t join.
  • You are always on the record. It is an open community in which anyone can ask any question at any time. Don’t let the relaxed environment fool you. Every 140 character response is on the record. For a good laugh, please refer to the top 10 celebrity Twitter scandals. It is easy to understand why journalists encourage joining, as many a good story have come of it.
  • Silence speaks volumes. Thinking about joining, and then side-stepping the tough questions? Often times what you don’t say communicates even more than what you do say. You should be prepared to answer questions that you won’t want to. And in this environment, “no comment” doesn’t go over quite so well.

That all said, if you have the time and are comfortable with complete transparency, then a Twitter feed can provide for strong relationships between you and a wide audience.

Learning from the Past, Looking toward the Future

A little more than a week ago, I announced that I would be leaving Arena Stage to lead the marketing and membership efforts at the Smithsonian Associates at the end of March. I’ve been overwhelmed by the kind words and best wishes sent my way. For that…

Art or Audience; Chicken or Egg?

Doug McLennan, Editor of ArtsJournal, invited me to participate in an online debate on leadership in the arts. To kick things off, a panel of bloggers were asked to respond to the following prompt:

“Increasingly, audiences have more visibility for their opinions about the culture they consume. Cultural institutions know more and more about their audiences and their wants. Some suggest this new transparency argues for a different relationship between artists and audience. So the question: In this age of self expression and information overload, do our artists and arts organizations need to lead more or learn to follow their communities more?”

There has been vigorous debate on this issue, and to check out all the arguments, please visit the “Lead or Follow” online discussion here.

As for me, below is my response to the aforementioned prompt:

This week we examine the nature of leadership in the context of developing the most fruitful relationships with our audiences. Good relationships often strike a healthy balance between competing interests, and frequently this balance is forged over the course of many years. Arts organizations have relationships with their patrons, donors and communities, and those relationships are constantly evolving. As such, I find the framework of this debate limiting, as I would argue that great arts organizations lead and follow, and that we shouldn’t be asking if we should do more of one than the other, but instead ask if we are doing the leading or the following at the appropriate times.

There are moments when arts organizations must lead, and that leadership becomes a catalyst of great change. In 1948, the National Theater in Washington, DC closed its doors rather than integrate, and a twenty-four year old Zelda Fichandler decided it was time for the city to have a producing theater of its own. She was an early proponent of the idea that communities should reclaim ownership of their theaters, and now sixty-one years later, there are more than 1,900 non-profit regional theaters in cities across the nation. It took a leader.

There are also times when we follow. As of 2008, minorities accounted for 48% of all births in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the Asian and Hispanic population will double, African-Americans will increase and the white population will decline by 9%. In addition, the percentage of the population that is elderly will almost double. Look at your board of directors, staff, donors and audiences—do they reflect your community? Is the physical structure of your building suitable for a growing number of elderly patrons? As a field, we are behind the curve, and we have much to learn from following as our communities are changing faster than we are.

In terms of audience development, it is important for arts organizations to play both roles well. Our principal challenge as arts marketers is presenting art as a viable option for leisure activity. We have many barriers—ticket prices, transportation and parking, lack of arts education in our schools, inaccessible and aging infrastructure, etc. Not to mention, the abundance of free and easily accessible alternatives from our competition. A 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts published by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that American arts audiences are getting older, and their numbers are declining at significant rates. In 2011, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman delivered his now famous “supply and demand” speech from Arena Stage, indicating that demand for the arts is currently outpaced by supply, and suggesting that we consider pruning our numbers. We have a problem in this country. And if we have to produce more populist work in order to overcome potential barriers for first time patrons, I am fine with that. In fact, I am more than fine—it is what we should be doing.

Populist work is often, for lack of a better term, a gateway drug. Lure them in with a musical, roll out a comedy, put in a Broadway touring production. Do what it takes. Once they have an exceptional first time artistic experience, art becomes an option and then we work to get them addicted. From the perspective of an arts marketer, once a new patron walks through our doors via a “gateway” play, my job is to get them back. Once they have had a few experiences, my responsibilities shift. I now focus my attention on broadening their experiences and pushing their boundaries. And they will be ready. But forcing them to run before they crawl will end up in a disappointing experience for all.

Each patron has an individual relationship to an arts organization. We have a responsibility to offer up a balanced diet that feeds each artistic soul. For those with a developed palate, we lead, push, challenge and sometimes offend. And for those new to us, it is perfectly appropriate to offer up a piece of cake in order to get them to sample the exotic quiche.

Currently at Arena Stage, we have a tremendous production of John Logan’s Red directed by Robert Falls. In the script, painter Mark Rothko’s assistant Ken delivers a powerful speech, in which he says:

“You know, not everything has to be so goddamn important all the time! Not every painting has to rip your guts out and expose your soul! Not everyone wants art that actually hurts. Sometimes you just want a fucking still life or landscape or soup can or comic book.”

Remarkable arts organizations are more than just temples of art. We are relationship builders. Today we lead, tomorrow we may follow, but we take our cues from our communities, for whom we were built to serve.

Partners or Competitors? My Favorite Frenemies

A little more than a week ago, the Washington Post in an extraordinary effort by a daily newspaper, published a series of articles on the state of theater in Washington, DC. As part of that series, Nelson Pressley, a frequent contributor for the Post, …

Customer Service as a Competitive Advantage

I’ve just returned from the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, the annual gathering of arts marketers convened by Americans for the Arts. I’ve gone to the conference for the past seven years to reconnect with colleagues, learn from case studies and catch up on new trends. As I return home this year, I am mindful that some arts marketers have limited control or influence over mission critical decisions, many of which affect audiences, revenue streams and branding. As marketers position themselves as growing agents of influence in their various organizations, I can’t help but think that perhaps our energies should be spent concentrating on the underperforming areas in which we can be the most impactful.

In this new environment of reduced resources, the ability for an organization to identify its competitive advantages is vital. Some of which, marketers have no responsibilities for. Others, we lead. In listening to Scott Stratten’s opening keynote address at the conference, I was reminded that the general woeful state of customer service provides a prime opportunity for arts organizations to distinguish themselves. In short, Scott reminded us that we should always look for “opportunities to be awesome.”

Some thoughts on how we can achieve awesomeness…

Awesomeness comes from humanness. We have our rules. Our policies and procedures. It is easy and efficient to train automatons. But the greatest value of human interaction from a transactional perspective is our unique ability to empathize, reason and trouble shoot. We have to encourage front line brand ambassadors to use their judgment. Empower them to solve problems. Reward them for breaking the rules when required because by design, rules are created for routine situations, not exceptional ones. Why hire smart and caring people if those attributes don’t influence operations? I left the conference thinking that if we all treated our customers like we would our mothers, our spouses, our best friends, that we might have lifelong relationships with them as well.

Awesomeness is unexpected. In the spirit of a random act of kindness, what if we asked our brand ambassadors to perform one act of unexpected awesomeness each day? It doesn’t have to be a splashy show, as even an understated, thoughtful gesture can make someone’s day. Imagine a scenario where a man calls the box office to get tickets to a performance for his wife to celebrate their anniversary, and the box office associate makes a note and leaves a few chocolates and an anniversary card waiting in their seats when they arrive. Wouldn’t that be awesome? and don’t you think they would remember that gesture for years to come?

Awesomeness doesn’t wait for approval. Many times awesomeness is a derivative of authenticity. If corporate policy dictates that brand ambassadors need to get approval to provide extraordinary customer service, then the window of opportunity to be awesome disappears. Great customer service comes from authentic responses. If we hire caring and helpful brand ambassadors, managers need to step out of the way and let them do what they do best. Don’t lose an opportunity to be awesome because you have to send it up the ladder for approval.

Awesomeness often results from a mistake. We all make mistakes, even the best of us. Even when we have the best intentions. What really matters is how we respond to our mistakes. Mistakes must be viewed as opportunities to provide great customer service. An extraordinary response to a mistake can provide for a lifelong memorable experience for a customer. In 2008, Arena Stage had to cancel a performance due to a substantial snowstorm, and although we contacted all the patrons we had contact information for, we didn’t get through to everyone. Prior to leaving their house in Philadelphia, one particularly adventurous couple called the sales office, and were informed the performance in question was still scheduled to perform. When they arrived, and discovered the show was canceled and the weather had deteriorated, not only were they disappointed, but they were stranded as well. We should have canceled earlier to give our patrons more notice. But before us was an opportunity to be awesome. Without being asked, our sales office worked with a partner hotel to arrange a room for them free of charge that evening using some trade rooms available to us from a previous cross-promotion. We reseated them into the following day’s performance, and the couple headed back to Philadelphia with a fond memory of their visit to Arena Stage. The moment immediately following a significant mistake is crucial. Don’t hesitate. Own the mistake, and resolve it above and beyond a customer’s expectations.

Arts organizations are charged with building communities. Communities are centered around relationships. We are in the relationship-building business. As such, we should approach each patron interaction from a position of “yes” rather than “no.” Policies and procedures should be built with a focus on deepening our relationships within our communities. And each day as we go into work, we should look for opportunities to be awesome.

Rebranding the Traditional Box Office

In a previous post entitled Subscriptions Dead? Maybe Not, I discussed various strategies Arena Stage employed in order to significantly increase its subscriber base. One of the most important was systematically identifying the best subscriber leads in…