Some Reasons Acquiring New Customers Can Be Expensive

As so often is the case, Seth Godin recently made a post many elements of which are often cited as mistakes arts organizations make.

It should be noted that the things Godin lists are not meant to apply specifically to arts organizations. As often as we talk about how it is not appropriate for non-profits to be run like businesses, it is important to remember that since we are both trying to appeal to human beings to use a product or service, there are still a whole lot of problems we have in common.  The over arching philosophy and motivation which guide the responses to these challenges is what often differentiates non-profits from for-profit entities.

The fact the post is titled, When your project isn’t making money,” doesn’t mean it is aligned to businesses with a profit motive. Non-profits need to make money to pay their expenses, after all.

Of the 16 or so issues he identifies under the “It might be that your costs of acquiring a new customer are more than that customer is worth” subheading, only about 4-5 aren’t directly applicable to non-profit operations, and it only takes the slightest bit of imagination to see parallels.

Here are some of the more significant issues he lists. You have probably seen many of them mentioned before.

Because there’s a mismatch between your story and the worldview of those you seek to serve.

Because the people you seek to serve don’t think they need you.

Because it costs too much to tell these people you exist.

Because the people you seek to serve don’t trust you.


Because you’re focusing on the wrong channels to tell your story.
(just because social media is fun to talk about doesn’t mean it works)


Because the people you seek to serve don’t talk about you, thus, you’re not remarkable.

Or the people you seek to serve don’t like to talk about anyone, and your efforts to be remarkable are wasted.

Because your product doesn’t earn traction with your customers, they wouldn’t miss you if you were gone–the substitutes are easy.

Because even though you’re trying hard, you’re being selfish, focusing on your needs instead of having empathy for those you seek to serve.

Issues of lack of awareness, lack of trust, selfishness, competing substitutes are all topics of discussion in the non-profit arts community.

In fact, you may not associate some of Godin’s points with for-profit businesses. Do you immediately associate empathy with those whom you seek to serve as a characteristic of a for-profit business?

If you think about it, when call a customer or tech support number with a sense of dread and get your problems solved within five minutes, you may have been dealing with a company employing empathy for those they seek to serve. (Or at least one making an effort to retain your loyalty)

Do They Know They Are Hard To Reach?

On the Arts Professional UK website, Imrana Mahmood, discusses her experiences becoming a creative producer in a manner that reminded me of two other speakers/authors I often cite. Mahmood’s experience seemed to be at the crossroads of Jamie Bennett’s TEDx Talk about people not recognizing their capacity to be creative even though they already engage in creative activity and Ronia Holmes’ piece on how disinvested communities aren’t bereft of creative and artistic practice.

Mahmood’s article immediately recalled Holmes to me thanks to the title, “A Seat at The Table.” Holmes had talked about how people in disinvested communities are often offered a small seat at the big table by other organizations  when they actually own the entire table in their own communities. Mahmood’s article starts along much the same lines (my emphasis):

As a British Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage, I grew up with an intrinsic love of the arts, including qawwali, henna, calligraphy and poetry. It was therefore a surprise to be labelled as being part of a hard-to-reach community with low arts engagement, as I struggled to reconcile the reality of my lived experience with an inaccurate perception of my identity.

She was encouraged to apply for funding as an “emerging creative producer,” but says she was initially reluctant “to view myself as an arts professional.” I attribute this to her mention earlier in the piece that

“…a career in arts was not considered to be a proper job. This was despite spending much of my spare time running community arts projects as well as having a keen interest in visual arts and live performance.”

Throughout the rest of the article she mentions experiences which involved perceived tokenism and gatekeeping as well as instances when she felt she and others had license to express themselves on their own terms.   If you take one thing away from this article, it should be her call for organizations to reflect on their own inaccessibility.

Paying lip service to diversity and only conversing with creatives of colour as though we exist as a monolith is hugely problematic. It is time that organisations committed to engaging hard-to-reach communities reflect on the reality of their own inaccessibility.

Along those lines, I have some reluctance in citing Ronia Holmes’ original piece as if it were a monolithic representation of the needs and sentiments of all communities, but I often return to it because it for its perception of all the dynamics motivating arts and cultural organizations.

Take It From The Folks Who Have Done It 7000 Times –Short And To The Point

A piece from Artsy regarding what they had learned writing 7000 bios for visual artists came across my radar a few weeks ago and I quickly tagged it as something I to which wanted to circle back. Now that I have done so, I realize it was written about 3 years ago.

The basic observations they make about artists’ bios are worth the attention of anyone in any arts discipline to when it comes to writing promotional copy for websites, brochures, etc.

They found that the sweet spot is between 80 and 140 words with the ideal being 120.  Any more than 150 and people’s attention starts to waver. While they have observed this in relation to gallery labels, it is probably all the more true for websites. They go further to say that a tightly written 80 word bio is better than a 120 word one with repetitive or filler content.

Some of the points to consider when writing an artist’s bio are specific to visual arts but are relatively simple to transfer to any arts discipline. As I mentioned earlier, these rules are just as applicable to describing a performance involving 40 people as it is for one person.

As with most things, the most important element is a strong opening:

The bio should open with a first line that encapsulates, as far as possible, what is most significant about the artist and his or her work, rather than opening with biographical tidbits, such as where the artist went to school, grew up, etc. For example: John Chamberlain is best known for his twisting sculptures made from scrap metal and banged up, discarded automobile parts and other industrial detritus.

Though in the case of promoting a performance or other event, I would start with a sense of why people will enjoy themselves rather than any sort of biographical information. Even if they know the show, no one is going to get excited about seeing Phantom of the Opera if it opens with “Written by the man who revolutionized the musical theatre form with shows like Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita, Starlight Express….”

Among the mistakes they say are the biggest people make when writing bios are some familiar faces: hyperbole, laundry list of accomplishments and “artspeak”:

It can be tempting to sing your artists’ praises. We’ve noticed, however, that readers do not respond positively to unsubstantiated claims about an artist’s import (e.g. “Artist X is considered one of the most important artists of the post-war period,” or, “Artist Y is widely regarded for her beautiful work”). Most readers will see right through trumped-up language …The best way to maximize the power of a good bio is to try to educate, not “hard-sell,” your reader. Numerous studies have shown that the hard sell doesn’t work, especially for younger audiences (read: tech-savvy collectors), who respond most positively to simple and authentic messages.


Impressive as these may be, these laundry lists are tedious to read in prose format. They also take up precious real estate, which you could otherwise devote to a real discussion of your artist’s practice.

There are certainly instances where it makes sense to include one particularly outstanding prize or exhibition, for example, an artist’s inclusion in the Venice Biennale. In this case, try to find a way to naturally include mention of the distinction in the normal flow of the text.


Instead of trying to impress other curators, academics, and galleries, focus on your audience of new collectors who may be completely unfamiliar with your artists. Readers want to glean information from your writing, and the best way to do that is to use simple language. A good rule of thumb is to impart one idea per sentence.

Obviously that last point should be applied to new attendees rather than new collectors. I would doubly apply the caution about artspeak to the injunction about laundry lists. As insiders, there are a lot of prizes, associations, and accomplishments we might deem particularly outstanding that means nothing to a newer attendee.

Trevor O’Donnell often invokes the “person in Starbucks test” where you recite your promotional copy conversationally to someone in a Starbucks. (or any other random casual encounter.) If they look back at your uncomfortably, he says your text needs a rewrite. Before you even get to that point, you might want to ask a person in Starbucks if a particular accolade means anything to them and leave it out of the description if they look at you cross-eyed or clearly as pretending it sounds familiar.

That Story Was Old When Gilgamesh’s Grandpa Told It

One arts marketing phrase I have always hated, and thankfully I seldom see it these days, is “…illustrates what it means to be human..” I often dislike the rationale that something tells a universal story as a justification for programming the classic works.   The themes may be the same, but the context in which they are presented determines how easily people can relate to and receive the material.  Sometimes new stories have to be told in order to remain relevant.

There is a pretty fascinating essay in Harpers about storytelling which illustrates how core stories get reframed to suit the needs of different times and cultures. People have been researching the linguistic DNA of stories like Red Riding Hood and have discovered some of them are incredibly old. Variations on a theme split and converge across geography. Other times, the same story persists relatively intact for a very, very long time.  While the context of the stories differs in order to emphasis different cultural values and mores, there is an argument to be made for the commonality among humankind. (my emphasis)

The results provided a new resolution to decades of debate regarding the origins of “Little Red Riding Hood.” An ancient story preserved in oral traditions in rural France, Austria, and northern Italy was the archetype for the classic folktale familiar to most Westerners. On a separate limb of the tree, the story of the goats descended from an Aesopian tale dated to 400 ad. Those two narrative threads merged in Asia, along with other local tales, sometime in the seventeenth century to form “Tiger Grandmother.


Tehrani and Silva discovered that some had existed for far longer than previously known. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin,” for example, were not just a few hundred years old, as some scholars had proposed—they were more than 2,500 years old.

Another folktale, known as “The Smith and the Devil,” was astonishingly ancient. Multiple iterations—which vary greatly but typically involve a blacksmith outwitting a demon—have appeared throughout history across Europe and Asia, from India to Scandinavia, and occasionally in Africa and North America as well. “The Smith and the Devil” became part of Appalachian folklore, and it’s a likely forerunner of the legend of Faust. Tehrani and Silva’s research suggests that not only are these geographically disparate stories directly related—as opposed to evolving independently—­­but their common ancestor emerged around five thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age.

Anthropologist Jamie Tehrani says that when he is reading bedtime stories to his children, it occurs to him that the stories are older than the language he is using to relate them.

For those in the arts and cultural sector that don’t necessarily feel that the work they do is particularly valued in society, there is some anecdotal evidence that points to storytelling being something of core value in society. In 2014 anthropologists working with the nomadic hunter-gatherer Agta of the Philippines conducted a survey.

To their surprise, storytelling topped the list—it was even more prized than hunting skills and medicinal knowledge. When they asked nearly three hundred Agta which of their peers they would most like to live with, skilled storytellers were two times more likely to be selected than those without such talents, regardless of age, sex, and prior friendship. And when they asked the Agta to play resource allocation games, in which they could keep bags of rice or donate them to others, people from camps with talented storytellers were more generous, giving away more rice, and esteemed storytellers were themselves more likely to receive gifts. Most profoundly, Agta with a reputation as good storytellers were more reproductively successful: they had 0.5 more children, on average, than their peers.

“There is an adaptive advantage to storytelling,” says Migliano. “I think this work confirms that storytelling is important to communicate social norms and what is essential for hunter-gatherer survival.”

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