Study: Arts Branding Results Down, Values Up

It’s the holy grail of arts marketing: a communications strategy that keeps your loyal fans excited while tempting newcomers to join you, which effectively means you can maintain your core audience while achieving steady growth for your company over time… So simple, right?

It may look neat on paper, but the ever-changing dynamics of today’s marketing and media landscape are making this process increasingly difficult for arts marketers working on the front lines of the hugely fragmented and often saturated promotional spaces right now.

Among the most common nuts to crack for arts companies aiming for growth (and, let’s face it, who isn’t seeking growth?) is how to market your brand in a way that speaks in compelling ways to each new audience demographic you are seeking to attract.

This is especially hard to do when your various target audiences may have wildly different preferences when it comes to where and how they engage with your marketing content. For example, if an audience member in seat E7 bought their ticket after seeing your show advertised in their local newspaper, while an audience member in seat G10 bought theirs after seeing people singing and dancing about it on TikTok, how can your marketing strategy strengthen your connection with both of these fans at once and in equal measure? (Answer = it can’t.)

It’s a dilemma arts marketers have been dealing with for some time, and they are well aware they need a multipronged approach to promotion to reach new fans. But where many fall down is in the area of time and money (rather than strategy), because it takes a lot more of those things to produce the range of promotional content required to stay connected to diverse and disparate audiences.

Yet according to recent research conducted by the global research and learning organisation Advisory Board of the Arts (ABA), which presented its latest findings at the 2024 ISPA Congress held in Perth last week, the arts and cultural organisations that are achieving the strongest audience growth right now are not necessarily those pouring the most money into their branding and marketing campaigns.

Instead, the top performing organisations are those focusing more on maintaining a strong overarching institutional brand, and ensuring that every aspect of what they do is “walking the talk” of that core story.

How well do your insides match your outsides?

It sounds like a terrible cliché, but the results of the latest ABA study, which compared 2018-19 data with that of 2022-23 from 58 arts organisations – located mostly in the US, with some from the UK and South Africa – confirms the old adage that real beauty does in fact start on the inside.

As London-based ABA Research Analyst Brynn Johnson explains, of all the organisations included in the study, the ones that saw the greatest increase in their ticket sales over that time were those with the most consistent and compelling overarching “institutional” branding.

As Johnson says, ‘Our study results showed that, for the top performers, it’s more about how they are marketing rather than to whom they are marketing, and that’s really about how you align your organisation around your core institutional brand.’

She continues, ‘For example, you may be a ballet company that wants to start reaching people who are traditionally considered to be “non-dance audiences”. But even in these scenarios, what is most important to your success in doing that is that you have a strong identity for your organisational brand that conveys who you are on an emotional level to those audiences.’

In other words – your organisation needs to have a firm handle on what your company’s core values are, and how your whole team is using those values on a daily basis to shape your organisation’s core activities, your marketing strategies and your promotional content.

‘We often focus so much on the externals of where and to whom we are marketing,’ Johnson says. ‘But actually, our study shows it’s very important to align, or perhaps realign, your organisation’s core values internally first, and use that strong internal alignment to inform how you market your programs to your audiences.’

Is the future all about digital marketing?

While it may be true that internal brand alignment lays the foundations of marketing success, what if you already know your team is “walking the talk” of your company’s core brand values, but you are still not achieving the audience growth you desire?

This leads to another big question posed by the ABA’s study, which is about how to handle the more routine marketing efforts required to attract stronger audience interest and greater loyalty via your public-facing promotional content.

While the ABA’s study confirms that having a strong presence in the digital space remains crucial for arts organisations in terms of their general marketing outlook, there is evidence that offline engagement experiences can also be a highly influential way to strengthen your audience’s feelings towards your company and bolster their support for what you do.

As Johnson explains, the companies achieving the greatest new audience growth are those providing audience engagement experiences across both digital and in-person spaces that are highly differentiated and emotionally-driven, and which are ultimately aligned with their overarching institutional brand.

‘The top performing organisations reported high levels of some kind of emotional engagement with their audiences, which they could have achieved by the audiences’ front of house experiences or via other in-person amenities they are offering their ticket buyers,’ Johnson tells ArtsHub.

‘But all of those engagement touch points – whether they are online or in-person – show strong alignment with their core goals and their institutional brand,’ she adds.

Read: When you need change to get it right

Johnson also mentions that in a separate but related ABA survey study of 49 Australian arts organisations, the top Australian performers were not necessarily those spending more dollars on online ads or on digital marketing outsourcing. Rather, their in-house marketing staff were devoting more time and effort to digital content creation and to managing the delivery of that promotional content online.

‘Australian organisations dedicate more time to digital marketing, while global organisations dedicate more funds. In both cases, top performers demonstrated a commitment of resources to digital marketing.’

Johnson also reveals that an interesting side note (or “hot tip”) to come out of both of ABA’s recent studies is that organisations that are striking in-kind deals with what she calls “micro” or “nano” influencers are finding this an effective way to boost sales.

‘Whether or not you have access to big data, or tools that help you segment your audiences, many of the study’s top performers are experimenting with micro and nano influencers, simply because these influencers have access to very specific audience segments,’ she says.

‘And if those people you identify as having access to those specific audience segments are being paid in-kind, and you are not actually getting into that messy business of paying people for these services, it’s a great way to simply test these different strategies and help you find out whether or not they are effective ways to generate interest in what you are offering,’ she concludes.

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