Jigsaw pieces

On marketing concerts: a consistent authentic approach can build communities not alienate

Richard Bratby’s Gramophone opinion piece responding to the recent discussion online about orchestral marketing departments not doing enough to ‘sell’ new composers is a thought-provoking thing. Read it first before continuing (that will save me explaining in detail).

In it he identifies the need for us to remember that human beings populate marketing departments, and that if as a classical music fan you find yourself irritated by a piece of marketing content, the chances are it’s not intended for you.

Sound advice. So too the overriding message which will no doubt dominate this year online and hopefully beyond: be kind.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I find I have a view in response. One that differs from Richard’s (and that’s OK too), one that I’ve always held but have been reluctant to articulate because I didn’t think it was valid.

Where my view on content comes from

Things have changed a bit since I’ve gone self-employed. Understanding my own brand a bit better in terms of the aspirations I have for it, the impact investing just a dribble of paid advertising has on your own thinking, and stepping into multiple environments (government, commercial, arts and education) has seen me consistently draw on my most valuable learning experience: six years spent in an external comms and PR department working with one of the best there is.

Content is the product; different specialisms feed into content

Those who know me from the BBC will know who she is. Those who don’t, don’t need to. What I learned from her is what is important: marketing and communications aren’t an adjunct to the product, they are part of the product. That meant that conversations about what the product was going to be (long before work started on it) necessarily demanded her input. Comms had a seat at the production table. That wasn’t necessarily to steer what the product was, rather ensuring that the way in which that end product was communicated to the wider world was congruent with the organisation’s values.

And that learning has stuck with me as I’ve worked with different organisations. But it’s only been when I’ve interacted with them I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which that drives my work. I owe that individual a lot.

Think of content in its widest sense as the complete product

This is what that learning experience has led me to believe about how content is ‘the complete product’, and what steps need to be taken to create that content:

identify exactly who you are, what you do and most importantly, why;
market yourself with integrity;
articulate the brand in everything you say.

My guiding principle is this: content spans multiple disciplines and the message (implicit of explicit) has to be consistent across all of them.

Tell an authentic, sincere, and distinctive story

Take the difference between paid content (essentially marketing outputs) and owned (non-paid) or ‘organic’ content.

My career has always favoured the ‘owned content’ path. That’s largely because of my lack of formal training, my early adoption of self-publishing in the digital space, and some experience in journalism. I’m a digital storyteller and a self-publisher. My own creative endeavours have always stemmed from creating content that satisfies me first, not seeking to satisfy a target audience.

What that’s taught me over time is that if your story (whether that be a brands or your own) is told authentically, sincerely and distinctively, that this will play a valuable role in capitalising on any paid content opportunities.

Be consistent

But alignment between the two – paid and owned content – is critical.

If the pizza restaurant experience bears little relation to that promised on the flyer shoved through your letterbox, that mismatch of perception isn’t going to help spread the word.

The content experience from poster, to digital post, to TV or radio advert, to programme note, to presenter on stage surely then needs to have a level of consistency.

Content production no longer exists in separate disciplines: content production is a discipline in itself driven by a strategy than acts on a number of different organisational needs. Those needs in turn drive actions that seek to deliver ticket sales, increase listeners, meet the expectations of partners or sponsors. Depending on where the impetus for the content comes from denotes the emphasis given to the style of that content.

How content strategy ensures consistency

This is where an overarching content strategy comes in – a document detailing aims, outputs, resources, and most pertinent for what I’m writing about here: tone of voice. How the subject or brand or event is talked about across multiple disciplines (marketing, comms, pr and native content channels) is key to ensuring that a consistent feel is ensured for all audiences – familiar and unfamiliar; newcomers and existing subscribers or concert goers. By ensuring consistency across multiple disciplines and outputs, a content strategy won’t risk alienating an existing audience whilst pursuing a new one.

That perspective comes I think from experience – not only in terms of years, but also familiarity of a particular sector. There is a need to recognise the value of securing ones existing audience to help endorse the product for a wider less familiar audience. That existing audience (those already ‘bought in’) may not seem of value, but they a network of passionate advocates who, of if they’re on your side, will do a lot of the heavy-lifting.

Don’t alienate advocates by employing disruptive or destructive techniques

A deliberately disruptive approach will seek to ignore that group of advocates, making the same assumptions about its membership that the initiated make about the product marketers are trying to raise awareness about in the first place.

But here again is where an overarching content strategy articulated with authenticity and consistency can help mesh networks together, increasing the likelihood of multi-experience communities coalescing around the very thing we’re all trying to introduce others too.

Build a larger community, not lots of distinctive ones

I know of artistic endeavours whose programmes are built around audience surveys about what potential audience might consider paying money to experience. This seems like a perfectly reasonable pragmatic strategy. How the storytelling for these endeavours is articulated across all of its supporting content is what a content strategy should drive: not to redefine an audience demographic, but to build a community around a brand, genre or activity, thereby creating a larger community.

And that kind of thinking comes with experience. So whilst I recognise the need to be kind, I always want to make a bid for the value of experience, and of community building, and of acknowledging that seemingly small or unimportant things like knowledge or language can have a significant impact on the robustness of those communities. Strategic thinking helps ensure content builds communities rather than alienating them.

How it relates to orchestras, artists, and performers in the classical music world

It seems a little odd to conclude this post with a caveat. But I think that’s important. This is my perception of how a content strategy can work well. The post is an articulation of how I’d like to see the genre love being talked about more. I think I see some brands doing it well (though i don’t actually have the core evidence to prove they’re following the same thinking!).

Some of those classical music brands include the likes of Southbank Sinfonia, the OAE, Philharmonia, Manchester Collective, the LSO, and the Bournemouth Symphony. I perceive these as solid brands because they present themselves as authentic, sincere, self-assured, but most importantly of all, real. They are brands which by and large few criticise too. They rarely come under the spotlight (unless they’re being celebrated), and to the best of my knowledge haven’t been the victims of digital pile-ons. I think that’s partly to do with the vision those involved in content production for those brands have.

And if my hunch is correct, that’s really why I think criticising (and then defending) a pure marketing discipline as having failed to sell the product in a way that supports a new composer, or pays due deference to a particular composer is slightly missing the point. What’s important is looking as content as a whole product and making sure that every articulation is closely aligned to the values of the brand that content represents. And that’s everyone’s responsibility.

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