(cross-posted from the Arts Marketing Blog Salon on ArtsBlog)

In my last post, I talked about one reason that arts marketers are becoming increasingly important to the cultural ecosystem. Here, I’m going to talk about another – though I’m warning you, this one is going to be a bit of a downer.

ArtsJournal’s Doug McLennan has written and spoken extensively about the implications for arts institutions of the face that we live in an era of infinite choice: suddenly, and within a very short period of time, the quantity and variety of aesthetic experiences that are available to us has exploded beyond all recognition. In their Green Paper on digital infrastructure for the creative economy, Fractured Atlas, Future of Music Coalition, and the National Alliance for Media Arts & Culture pointed to the role of “disintermediation” in making this phenomenon possible, defining it as “the fracturing of the system of bottlenecks and gatekeepers that controlled some of the major means of production, distribution and access to audiences.” More than ever before, it is possible for content creators (and their marketers) to have meaningful, direct interaction with consumers dispersed across diverse cultures, geographies, and social networks. For those just seeking to break in for the first time and who don’t need a mass market to stay afloat, this change is nothing short of inspiring: an opportunity to reach audiences faster and with less interference from tastemakers than could ever have been possible otherwise. For more established institutions with networks of artists and professional staff to support, however, the ramifications range from mixed to terrifying, as the sudden rush to enter the marketplace brought on by these lowered barriers creates unprecedented competition for consumer attention and dollars.

We are transitioning into an era when the most valuable scarce resources for marketers are no longer best real estate and time slots (i.e., for advertising), but rather passion and time. To compete, say, in an online contest like Pepsi Refresh does not require much in the way of capital investment – but you are not going to get anywhere without a whole lot of staff capacity (whether paid or not) to tend to the campaign, and a deep base of “true fans” who are willing to go to bat for your cause again and again and bring others on board. The Holy Grail for marketers these days, of course, is when fans become so invested in the artist or institution that they derive intrinsic pleasure and fulfillment from working to support it – and from connecting with and broadening the circle of people who feel the same way. In theory, it creates a virtuous, self-sustaining cycle that just leads to greater and greater opportunity as long as that relationship with the fans can be maintained.

What this rosy picture doesn’t take into account, though, is that if everybody is after the same goal of deep and broad engagement with lots of people, the collective rush to reach audiences may well be unsustainable. Much like the cow herders in the old story of the tragedy of the commons, it is in the rational economic interest of individual artists and institutions to develop and exploit the resources available to the greatest extent possible, even though it may be in the long-term interests of the community as a whole to scale back a bit. As a result, we are at risk of overtaxing and draining the very fans who are so important to the arts’ success. We’ve seen this kind of fatigue already with the aforementioned online contests; arts patrons participating in Chase Community Giving found themselves overwhelmed with requests to vote for this organization or that, and the meaningfulness of any one action or request suffers as a result. But such contests are only the latest nexus for what is becoming an increasingly fraught problem for consumers and marketers alike. Quick poll: how many email newsletters are you subscribed to, and how many of you have filters or other procedures set up to ensure that you essentially never have to read them?

As it happens, I am currently reading through a study that examined (among other things) competitive interactions between performing arts organizations – in this case, between symphony orchestras and opera companies in the same city. The study found that fundraising expenditures by one organization was statistically correlated with lower contributed income for the other organization the following year, holding other factors constant. Perhaps more troubling, the study also found that fundraising expenditures at larger symphonies did not pay for themselves.

The problem becomes yet more acute when one remembers that arts organizations are not the only ones – and certainly not the ones with the most resources – who face it. We are competing not just with each other, but with mass media, sports, restaurants, manufacturers of consumer packaged goods, auto insurers, etc. – all trying desperately now to create the same kind of time-intensive, passion-dependent audience engagement with the same people we’re trying to reach. It’s one thing to be a mere consumer of many different kinds of products. But can one be a “true fan” for Old Spice Guy, the Geico Caveman, Mad Men, Kings of Leon, the Social Network, and the theater company down the street all at the same time–all, perhaps, while trying to get attention for one’s own creations?

As we come together for a convention to celebrate the efforts we make to reach audiences and share tips on how to do it, it’s worth remembering that the people who are on the other end of our communications are ultimately the ones who decide whether we succeed or fail. Our job is to make people aware of the product and encourage them to give it a chance. At that point, however, it’s up to the art itself to work its magic. Because if it doesn’t, they won’t lack for other ways in which they could spend their time instead.

  • In my experience, the organizations that are able to create and keep that passion and connection in their audience are the ones that focus on creating quality content. Start with producing great work, then share that process in a way that is authentic to your organization. Substance will cut through the noise and invite engagement in a far more lasting way.

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  • Ian,

    I think your argument is something that many of us in the arts are experiencing, but are too busy trying to find the cure-all rather than actually looking at the ‘sickness’ or problem itself. In my opinion, the problem is linked to the “here today, gone in 10 seconds” technology, as we use facebook and other web-based tools to blast our events and rally the forces. We see ten “causes” or 5 event tweets at a time, and as soon as our computer page reloads, that message fades fast into the history of ‘older posts’.

    Its a double edged sword really; do you send ‘snail mail’ ? (no longer cost effective, and fast becoming extinct as a method of communication), can you call ?(who gives out their number anymore? Who is ever at their desk?) Or do you prescribe to the highly saturated social media sites, where it often feels as if you are standing in a room full of singers auditioning for an opera? As for me, its becoming too cacophonous to stay…

    Thank you again for speaking at the ELN panel and it was great to meet you.

  • Really interesting article. I think people are increasingly expecting something for free. To create the kind of loyalty that makes for genuine ‘fans’ it seems more and more necessary to offer something for nothing – often information, knowledge etc. This is especially true for internet marketing. It’s no longer possible to just promote a brand or for an individual to connect with people through a personal blog; there has to be something of value to potential customers on offer.