Shifts for Arts Marketers in 2021

I’m not going to use the P word (rhymes with “divot”).

But over the past year, arts marketing as a discipline has weathered as many changes as the industry we support. From the work that we do, to the roles that we occupy within organizations, and the ways that we relate to one another—everything is in the process of evolution right now. In our work with dozens of arts organizations over the course of the last year as consultants, recruiters, and mentors, here are what my team at Tom O’Connor Consulting Group and I see as the three biggest shifts happening for arts marketers.

Special thanks to Rochelle Torres, Director of Marketing & Audience Engagement at New York City’s Signature Theatre Company for joining me in conversation on this and other topics last month as part of the Arts Marketing Coffee Chat Series, a bi-monthly series of informal discussions for arts marketing leaders. Though registration for the series has reached capacity, those interested in learning more about Arts Marketing can visit the National Arts Marketing Project and ArtsU for additional resources.

Shifting Role of Arts Marketers

At long last, walls are being torn down between marketing and other departments within organizations as we all work quickly to support the changing realities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the required collaboration between marketing and programming/artistic teams (and if there has never been a barrier between these two departments at your organization, that is great news).

In the era of digital programming, there is a new opportunity—and a whole lot of available metrics—to help reset this relationship. In many ways, the marketing team serves as the point of connection to the audience and their interests, and we are no longer in a place where the “if [we] build it, they will come” mentality is a responsible or equitable one. We can be, and are, the thought partners that artistic teams need right now in determining what will be worth our time and focus. Additionally, in many organizations the marketing team holds a large portion of the digital literacy in a time when digital programming is our primary source of hope. In many ways, marketers are essential workers in today’s arts landscape.

Balance is key, but there is a seat for marketers at the programming table as contributors to the dialogue. Celebrate that and use it wisely. The opportunities presented by digital programming can be parlayed into an ongoing healthy exchange between marketing and programming teams that will hopefully result in a stronger connection to audiences, and thus communities, in the years to come.

Shifting Marketing Resources

In a crisis, all that a leader has is their credibility. And in a global pandemic when our programming is disrupted, all that we have as a foundation is our relationship to the audience. I don’t know of a single arts organization during COVID that has been able to advertise their way to glory—but I do know of many organizations that have been able to activate their customer databases for fundraising campaigns, share inexpensive but impactful content, and make great use of strong existing customer relationships. Many in the field have been saying it for years, but if you haven’t done so already, isn’t this the year to think critically about where you are investing your marketing dollars?

Through my time as an in-house marketing director in New York and now my work providing structural consultations to organizations across the country, I am often faced with organizations that continue investing in ad/media spends with little means of measuring ROI, but consider additional staff positions to be unjustifiable overhead. In many instances, these staff positions would support email marketing, increased content generation, and community partnerships that will pay off in the long-term. I have never seen anyone hug a billboard or a print ad, but I know that an organization that invests in the tools and the human capital to strengthen their own relationships will go a hell of a lot further than an organization whose only hope is to rent space in someone else’s. This shift is truly no longer optional.

Shifts in How We Work Together

We have had the good fortune over the past year of hosting a recurring roundtable with performing arts marketing leaders from across the U.S., and in nearly every conversation, I am reminded that we are so much more impactful together than we are individually. I mean this as people, but also at the organizational level. Every organization has its nuances, but until we fully embrace the fact that we are all staring down similar challenges, our solutions will remain piecemeal.

As Rochelle Torres pointed out in the January Arts Marketing Coffee Chat, and as similarly arose in a roundtable conversation on the role of arts marketers in anti-racist practice, we cannot limit our view only to our own individual organizations—though that level of thinking is important as well. The opportunity to transform our field and provide a genuine sense of belonging to audiences of all backgrounds must be done in collaboration. Start with your organization, broaden your thinking to your market peers, and continue expanding outward.

Our focus in this moment cannot be solely on attracting eyeballs to one organization—it has to be on cultivating arts engagement writ large. Just as the pandemic has reminded so many in our society of our common welfare, the false sense of competition between arts organizations is hopefully on the way out. We are going to rise or fall together when COVID finally relents, and here’s a secret: we always have. Whether it’s thinking strategically about audience development together, sharing staff or technology resources, or simply comparing notes on a regular basis, our chances of navigating the challenges ahead are better with more minds in the mix.

If I thought the vital work of connecting audiences with art was not essential to our humanity, I wouldn’t spend so much of my life recruiting, advising, and supporting arts marketers. As a field, we are struggling right now, but on the other side of this, there is an opportunity for lasting and impactful transformation. I want every arts marketer to embrace the changes we are undergoing, face our challenges clear-eyed, and remember that our fate is a shared one.