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Now, New, Next: arts marketing evolution post Covid-19

This article was first published under the headline ‘How might the marketing and communications of arts organisations evolve post Covid-19?’ in the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy e-magazine Now, New and Next in February 2021.

Few can recall such a shake-up in priorities as we’ve all experienced in 2020/21, writes Rob Macpherson.

With the relentless addictive cycle of news and social media, along with the outpouring of data and analysis, the sands shift faster than we can follow.

Over the last few months, I’ve done several deep perception surveys (internal and external) and audience consultations for clients, digging into their brands to help rebuild as the dust settles. Many revealing insights, frustrations and anxieties point at an overdue evolution for marketing and communications in the subsidised and commercial arts.

“we would have been coming down the curve even without Covid”

One well-respected producer lamented that the explosive boom period from the mid-2000s was already on the downturn by 2019 and had shown signs of peaking: “we would have been coming down the curve even without Covid”. Others bemoaned the many arts voices claiming to be interested in audiences without adding real value, and the often fractured or fragmented relationship between the stage and the customers.

What’s marketing’s role anyway? Is it ‘making people want things’, or ‘making things people want’?  It is of course a ‘both/and’ answer. For any sort of viable future security, a whole-team marketing effort is essential – including artistic planning, customer service and great tech support – orientated directly around actual audience needs. Probing what data tells you from multiple angles will help you to differentiate and communicate your unique offer.

If you’re thinking about plotting a new course to recovery, here’s my view on some likely evolutions  in marketing and comms.

Build true local partnerships

When long-term common ground is the priority aim and ‘rock bottom is the firmest foundation’ (h/t JK Rowling), why not invest now to get this right? My perception reviews proved repeatedly that arts organisations are renowned (to an embarrassing degree) for reaching out largely when they want something.

This does not go un-noticed amongst civic, education, health and media contacts. But ongoing ‘compacts’ or strategic delivery agreements across the wider public sector may be a route both to coordinated indirect funding and to future audiences. This could also reinforce the community relevance we’ve all seen during the crisis as theatres have partnered on so many local initiatives, which should strengthen future fundraising messaging.

Stand for something to help you stand out

An obvious brand maxim perhaps, especially amongst charities. But in our world, what do arts organisations really stand for? In the past at least, too often it’s been just more of the same. There still appears, to the external view, to be very little distinctiveness and a limited sense of purpose. But whatever you rally around as you update or reassess your values, ensure it is legitimate and credible and chimes directly with your foundations or you’ll create an Astroturf rather than grass roots solution which will rapidly fade.

A different sort of ‘even-ing out’

As part of the expected post-Covid ‘new normal’, changes to many people’s working lives may result in more evenly spread demand for live performance. Lockdown’s need for work-from-home flexibility may now intensify the push towards increased work/life balance, with compressed hours and job shares on the rise and far less clock-watching.

With the probable increase in freelancers and the UK’s ageing audience, venues might want to revisit their scheduling promoting increased daytime performances. Some untapped revenue streams may yet start to flow in a diversified recovery business model.

Realistic tech

As a vital tool, digital is delivering extended engagement for those audiences able to access new online experiences. Some excited analysts talk of a decade’s advance in just six months. But amidst the experimentation, perhaps resist the urge to chase after every digital fad, every sparkly platform. And don’t forget that alongside increased digital consumer confidence, it’s been proved that many older or disabled audiences (and those with less advanced devices) still find it very difficult to engage.

As one older theatre-lover commented to me: “with all these computers, it feels like there is a party going on and we’re not invited”.

Extending the brand narrative

If transactional sales messaging is less appropriate now, this is still a time to tell your wider, values-led story. The pandemic and the US election have seen massive subscriber growth for serious news journals, and a boom in podcast listening. Long-form opinion pieces including more considered multi-part features, or themed interviews from internal teams and guest contributors are all worth considering as part of a strategic content plan.

Aligning marketing, comms and fundraising through this approach can be a strong follow-up to socially-distanced or digital activity. Much of the content creation can be reformatted for adapted use in future if it is not time sensitive.

The old ways may still cut through

Some traditional channels are still there for the taking and are potentially hugely effective. Direct mail, outdoor, and outbound calling have barely been used in the current crisis, and the few postcards and info packs I have received have had little competition, unlike my inbox and social feeds. Obviously, to justify the budget you’ll need to be super targeted. Outdoor hoardings (referred to as OOH, out of home) may not be for everyone but there are attractive deals for strong suburban presence in major cities (so attractive that some are using sites for brand reinforcement alone – rarely seen in the arts, and therefore more striking).

Historically commercial brands that continue to invest in visible presence during recessions are quickest to recover. Some arts organisations might prefer a joint or consortium approach to share the load.

Repeated, honest reassurance

Future lockdowns may mean a continued stop-go process of announcements, withdrawals and late changes, so sales terms need to allow for maximum flexibility for refunds and exchanges to reassure buyers. A festival-style, pop-up, experimental attitude is worth exploring in the way this is communicated.

Several arts organisations were firing out clear new messaging within minutes of the government’s recent lockdown announcements, others holding back patiently and deferring launches to avoid confusion. And for internal comms too, remember the stress everyone is processing amidst redundancies, illness, the detachment of working from home (aka ‘living at work’), and balancing family life.

Textbook crisis comms recommends specific regular update moments, so gossip and misunderstanding is minimised. I’ve seen and heard that where this is happening well already, it is hugely appreciated by those further down the decision-making chain.

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