Marketing for Arts Organizations: 4 Steps for Getting Started

During my graduate study, I was fortunate enough to work with the National Veterans Art Museum, first at their South Loop location and then supporting their move to Chicago’s northwest side. I initially had a hard time finding my toehold with the understaffed, volunteer-driven organization. I dropped off a resume after finishing my masters degree at Loyola, and returned several times for interviews without ever receiving a definitive “yes, you can help and here’s how.”

When the organization hired an executive director, however, I got a call asking me to join the non-profit by applying my writing skills as their grant writer and communications director. I demurred at first, reminding him that I was only looking for very part-time volunteer opportunities, but I ultimately joined the small team as their Grants and Communications Coordinator.

During those first few years at the museum’s original location, we opened several large-scale shows curated by some of the best up-and-coming and established artists with a military background: Intrusive Thoughts, Radical Vulnerability, Overlooked/Looked Over, and several more. We also worked to significantly increase our student outreach, bringing in school groups regularly for tours, arts-based workshops, and conversations with veterans.

But getting attention to the museum—especially since its original home was far enough from Chicago’s museum campus that we did not enjoy too much wandering foot traffic and we did not have a parking lot—remained a challenge.

A variety of resources were available to us, including conferences, workshops, grant opportunities, volunteers, and websites devoted to helping small not-for-profit organizations reach more people and motivate them to visit and support their mission. However, it was hard to know where to begin and we often felt flooded by the possibilities.

Eventually, through lots of discussions with lots of motivated artists, veterans, volunteers, and consultants, we pared down our focus to the four most important elements of marketing for arts organizations that applied to us, which I’m happy to share with you too.

1. Get to really know your audience

One of the most surprising findings came partway through our social media marketing campaign, when we discovered that our actual audience—the people who visited our Facebook page, for example—was very different than the audience we had been targeting. A few easy, low- or no-cost ways to identify your target audience include:

  • Get out of your office. Change your location to sit and work at the front desk, and track the demographics of your visitors as they walk through the door.
  • Send out a survey. Whether on paper or using free online tools like SurveyMonkey, you can ask your visitors how they found you and to self-disclose demographic characteristics.
  • Let the data speak. If your organization already has active social media channels, you can use the features of these platforms to identify your most active users. Similarly, you can use ticket sales to identify activities or offerings of greatest interest.

Once you know who your fan base really is, you can make better decisions to motivate them to attend more events, visit more shows, and make more or more frequent donations to support you. You can also use this information to grow your audience in new directions by catering content to this audience—and beyond.

2. Go where the people are—and where you can shine

It can feel overwhelming when you consider where to put your marketing efforts. Is it better to do a little bit of everything? Conduct Public Relations (with a capital P and capital R) to include press releases and calls to journalists? Social media campaigns on every platform, new and old? Brochures and flyers and postcards? Videos and advertisements? SEO and PPC or other online marketing efforts? To top it all off, you likely have a limited budget and limited human resources to carry out these campaigns.

When deciding how to focus your marketing efforts, the “if you build it they will come” mantra might be one to set aside, at least for now. Instead, once you know where your target audience is—your true supporters, the one who believe in your mission, come to your events, and support you financially—then start where they are.

  • Lots of people visiting the website only to end up calling you when there’s not enough information readily available? Start there: update your homepage and a few key services (or landing) pages with answers to the most frequently asked questions.
  • Tons of followers on Facebook with no activity? Begin by giving them something to talk about and share.

Another way of thinking about where to put your marketing efforts is about where not to put your marketing efforts.

  • YouTube is a fantastic place for giving potential patrons a behind-the-scenes look into your operations or upcoming events. But if you don’t have a talented videographer on-hand, then skip it for now. Better to do no job than videos that get downvoted.
  • Similarly, Twitter is the place for conversations, not automatic reshares of your blog posts. If you can’t dedicate the resources to engaging followers in conversations with meaningful posts, then lock up the handle (you don’t want anyone else taking your desired username), and set it aside for now.

Whatever you do, provide unique, curated content appropriate for each forum and avoid the trap of automatically posting content from one platform to another. It’s OK to share your great Instagram image on Facebook, and it’s even better to use a scheduling service to time your post, but don’t do it automatically. It’s easy, which makes you look lazy, which makes your user of another platform feel like you’re not speaking to them. Which is true.

3. Answer What’s in it for me? by being yourself

Anyone who’s taken a communications course knows the acronym WIIFM (what’s in it for me), but it’s true in marketing too. For arts organizations, one of the hardest balances to strike is being yourself—creatively, enthusiastically, sincerely—while allowing your visitors to see value for themselves in your efforts. But don’t let that potential challenge get you down. In reality, the need to help supporters to see your value in their lives is your greatest opportunity.

A clear mission statement known to every member of the organization is a crucial place to begin. When your mission statement guides every organizational decision, your marketing nearly writes itself. With a clear purpose, as a marketer you can then frame your efforts and the organization’s activities in light of its larger purpose.

Before launching a marketing campaign, revisit the mission statement and identify the value your organization provides to your patrons. As in all communications, we respond positively to sincerity, authenticity, and honesty, so be yourself. So that’s all well and good on the strategic level, but here are some tactical approaches to take:

  • Speak directly to the audience. Whenever appropriate, try using the second person address (“you”) rather than writing generically to the universe. We all like to feel seen.
  • Make the connection. If you’re using a platform that allows comments, respond where possible (keeping your communications positive and professional). Take their feedback seriously and let them know by acknowledging changes the organization is making in response to patron feedback (offering additional shows, targeting a different artist demographic, or changing opening hours, for example).

4. Get help: Don’t forget the call to action

This is perhaps the most important piece of the marketing puzzle. By this time, you know your audience, you’re speaking to them on platforms where they want to be, and you’re reminding them of how your arts organization benefits them. Now, you need to ask for help.

The kind of action you ask for should be tightly curated and appropriate to the forum. Don’t end every email or social media post with a request for donations, but do make it clear what kind of action would be most beneficial to your organization and easiest for the audience.

  • Got a great Facebook post that you want others to see? Invite engagements in the form of a question.
  • Need to get the word out about an upcoming event? Ask for shares.
  • Looking to grow your email audience? Provide valuable content and ask for readers to send on to others who may be interested.
  • Created a valuable video? Ask for viewers to subscribe to your YouTube channel to be alerted to your next video.

The best marketing is when you feel like you’re being engaged, not sold to. Give your fans clear opportunities to help themselves by helping you, and you’ll go a long way to growing your base of supporters, fans, and patrons.

If I had it to do over again, I would have started smaller, paid more attention to my audience, and treated my arts marketing less like making a sale and more like growing a team of supporters.

In the end, we successfully relocated the museum based on the support of incredible volunteers, local and national granting agencies, area politicians, and a small but growing cohort of patrons. And perhaps our greatest strength and selling point was our dedication to our mission of inspiring greater understanding of the real impact of war through the collection, preservation and exhibition of art inspired by art and created by veterans of all U.S. Military conflicts.