Why bigger isn’t always better

If you are an arts organization that has a budget of less than $500,000 (or even less than $1 million) and you need marketing help don’t immediately think that you need to hire a big marketing firm or ad agency to get your marketing off on the right foot.

Here are a few tips and things to consider for small or emerging arts organizations looking to hire outside marketing help to revamp or set up their marketing:

1.  Be Prepared

No matter what stage of the game your organization is in, whether it is a new organization or an existing one, identify the key goals you would like to accomplish.  This doesn’t just mean “We want to sell more tickets and get more donations.”  Those are goals that every arts organization on the planet has.  Think a bit more specifically on how you want to get to those broad, overarching goals.

A great place to start is to identify the things that aren’t working.  Perhaps you have a website that you can’t update easily or it is outdated, you want to start selling tickets online, you need a fresh look for your logo or collateral materials, or maybe you are a new organization and need to get a solid foundation built in the right way.

Having some specific things in mind will help any potential firm or consultant zero in on exactly what you need and determine whether or not they can help you achieve those goals.

2. Search Wisely

Marketing for an arts nonprofit is very different from marketing a for-profit company and even a non-arts nonprofit.  Just because a consultant has done marketing for nonprofits before doesn’t always mean that they are adept at navigating the idiosyncrasies of an arts organization.  The same goes for a consultant who has never done marketing for nonprofits at all.  That does not mean that there are not marketers out there who can adapt very easily from one sector to the other but it is always a good idea to start with people who have experience in arts marketing before.

Also, when meeting with prospective consultants or firms, be very forthcoming about your budget.  If you can only spend $5,000 for marketing for your entire season, they will need to know that right off the bat.  There are some firms that only deal with accounts of over a certain dollar amount and there is no use getting further into talks with someone that fundamentally won’t work out.

If the consultant or firm says that they will work with small budgets, be sure to ask them what other clients they currently have or have had in the past with similar budgetary restrictions.  What types of grass-roots marketing have they done in the past?  How were they able to achieve maximum results for minimum dollars?

One last note:  Be very wary of large firms that offer to work with you free of charge.  This is very suspicious and I’ve never seen it end well.

3.  Sometimes you get what you pay for

And sometimes you don’t.  Us nonprofit-minded folks like to try and think creatively to see what we can get for free.  Free can be very good but it can also be very bad.  If you know you desperately need to re-vamp your website, 9 times out of 10 hiring your Co-Founder/Artistic Director’s 16-year-old nephew (or your 2nd violinist’s wife or your board president’s neighbor) to do it pro bono is not the right choice.  I can tell you this with almost 100% certainty:  you will not get a sleek, professional looking website that can sell tickets and process online donations built in a timely fashion that you can easily update yourself without any knowledge of HTML.  (And just for the record: Yes, every size organization can have and should have a website that is all of those things and you don’t have to spend even $1,000 to get it.)

That said, there are some things that you can certainly get for free that can be very beneficial to your organization.  You can have friends, family, and other interested parties help with supplementing your social media or serve as brand ambassadors for your organization to spread the word.  (Notice I used the word “supplement.”  This is very important.  Your marketing professional be the #1 person in charge of your social media plan and strategy as well as overseeing all those who tweet and post on behalf of the organization.) If you know of someone who likes to blog, get them on board as a guest blogger on your site to keep the content fresh.  If you sell your own program ads, send supporters out there to help you make contacts in the community with potential advertisers.

All of the things that go into marketing an arts organization (whether they cost a pretty penny or won’t cost you a dime) have to be orchestrated by someone, though. This is where your consultant or firm comes in.  Things tend to work out much better when you have a qualified person managing all of this who knows what they are doing. 🙂


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