Need to increase support for your cultural organization during tough times? It is counterproductive to instinctively cut marketing and engagement experts.
I write about market data-informed tips for financial solvency for museums and cultural centers. That’s what I do. My job is to help keep cultural organizations alive and thriving. Considering this, it’s difficult to see some important museums buckling their belts and laying off staff members right now. It’s also a prime moment to provide an important reminder for the industry in general: Sometimes laying off staff members is an unfortunate reality, but cutting marketing and engagement professionals first is more likely to lead to suicide than it is to salvation.
When times are tight for operations budgets we often keep going back to the never-successful plan of trying to “save our way to prosperity.” This often involves cutting budgets or staff – and that can help to balance finances, provided that you have a plan to also increase revenues in the long-term. If you don’t have a plan to increase your revenues (regardless of why you are laying off staff), then your organization is sacrificing hard-working people in vain. The layoffs won’t better the organization. The layoffs are human payment for bad choices that probably weren’t made by the people who are being sacrificed. Again, though, sometimes organizations really do need to balance finances and do this – but it’s shortsighted to sacrifice jobs without also having a plan to increase revenues. And we know from research that the most effective and realistic ways to do this involve marketing and/or engagement professionals. It hinders the growth of our entire industry when we cut marketing and engagement professionals first.
When we go through rough times, it’s our AUDIENCES that are most important to our survival. After all, they pay admission, become members, spread word-of-mouth endorsements, and make donations. Thus, it can be counterproductive to immediately cut marketing (the people who hold that relationship and keep you relevant) and keep esoteric specialists who work in functions that audiences might consider irrelevant. (A museum philosopher question for the ages: If a specialized curator leads an educating and inspiring program but nobody is there to take part in it, did it educate and inspire?)
My purpose is not to point fingers at organizations that have chosen to lay off these – or any – staff members. Rather, I’m taking this timely opportunity to encourage a re-thinking of who we cut first when we make staff cuts. I talk about marketing a lot in this article because that tends to be the area where thoughtless cuts are made first, and have been made first in the past. But when I say “engagement,” I’m not only referring to marketing. It includes fundraising, floor staff, education leaders, program directors, and people who manage the connection between a cultural organization and living human beings.
While understanding that any layoffs stink and that organizations often do everything in their power to avoid them, here are four reasons why we need to think twice about cutting marketing and engagement professionals – and especially knock it off with our instinct to cut them first. These are arguably the folks who can play the biggest role in preventing further layoffs.
1) Marketing is the way to INCREASE revenues
This very obvious fact alone should make our industry kick – or simply rethink – the “cut marketing first” habit. Data suggest that over 70% of cultural organizations aren’t investing the necessary funds to optimize visitation – and this doesn’t even include salaries. Let me rephrase: Over 70% of cultural organizations are not securing as much visitation and support as data suggest that they could. Data suggest that many cultural organizations could earn more revenues, but they choose not to. (This is usually due to outdated and bad business practices that view marketing as an expense as opposed to an investment.) The investment equation for optimizing audience acquisition is shared below. It’s not guessing – it’s math.
Marketing is the only department that involves a tested, data-informed equation for actually MAKING MONEY for cultural organizations. (Though fundraising has rough best practice guidelines and obviously also helps raise funds.) Certainly, an organization can overspend on marketing, and that’s something that should rightfully be cut back if it is out of line with optimal spending. Also, it’s important to make sure that organizations are focusing on engagement strategies rather than gimmicks or carrying out social media for social media’s sake. Marketing funds need to be well spent in order to be effective… but if they aren’t spent, they cannot be effective. For cultural organizations, it costs (some) money to make (more) money. Heck, that’s generally true for all industries!
Marketing also plays an extremely important role in fundraising and building affinities for an organization that lead to memberships and donations. In a way, cutting marketing is also cutting fundraising capabilities in today’s world. And that’s a problem because for most organizations, that is the only other department that can be directly relied upon to help get them out of a financial funk.
2) Knowing your audience and community is critical for success
Marketing and engagement professionals are masters of kick-starting relationships with audiences and also –thanks to the connected world in which we now live – maintaining them! Personalization trends are affecting absolutely everything within organizations right now and marketing and engagement professionals are on the front lines. In order to create meaningful connection, today’s marketing and engagement folks need to be listeners first. They see what their online audiences are responding to and, at higher levels in the chain, they can see the entirety of the tapestry of engagement. No other department leader is positioned to do this – not even fundraising. A good marketing department considers its strategy and knows the relevance behind every ad it places or post that it promulgates. Our entire existence is dependent upon effectively connecting with people externally, but it is difficult to attract audiences to our brains (exhibits, programs, etc.) if we are missing a mouth, ears, and eyes. That’s what we do when we cut the marketing department first. I’m not saying that the brain is unimportant. It’s critical! But without professional listeners and strategic communicators, it’s difficult to get folks to CARE about what is happening in the brain. And we need to communicate to audiences on their terms, not ours.
We may be cutting marketing first because we still think of this department as a service department rather that what it is today: a strategic collaborator. Marketing is not a service department. Of the 224 cultural organizations that IMPACTS monitors, the ones that are the most financially solvent very clearly prioritize marketing and audience engagement. They include those experts in the room when initiatives are being formed rather than “tasking” them to market something once it has already been set in stone.
3) Reputation drives visitation and support
I write about this a lot because it’s a big deal: What people say about your organization is 12.85 times more important in driving your reputation than things that you pay to say about yourself. When people think of “marketing” they often only think of marketing of the past – or, advertising. Today, marketing is much more dynamic and real-time. It can be more accurately called “engagement” rather than “marketing” for many roles that are currently in that department. Today, marketing teams run not only the messages that the organization puts out, but they also manage the organization’s community. This plays a huge role in driving an organization’s reputation.
Reputation is a top motivator for visitation, and organizations that are cutting back budgets and laying off workers generally need more visitation and support. And, again, your reputation is made up of what people say about you and what you say about yourself – both of which are regularly managed and monitored by marketing departments. Organizations tend to underestimate the role that social media and digital engagement play in driving the gate. Again, yes, sometimes layoffs happen. But is it best to immediately cut people from a department with very direct ties to visitation?
4) Millennials are underserved and they are the most connected audiences
Of all of the points, this one may be the most important. Cultural organizations have a big millennial problem. These folks make up the majority of our visitors, but they are still our most underserved demographic. And they are underserved in a very big way. Millennials are the single most important demographic for our industry to engage in order to have a future. (I know, I know. I’m sick of talking about millennials, too, and I’m one of them! But we talk about them so much for a good, important reason. We are in a unique situation with this audience.)
Moreover, millennials are our most connected visitors. In fact, all high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations are “super-connected” with access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device. These numbers are not going down. In a world where a bunch of numbers are going down for museums (or not keeping pace with population growth), the number of people who qualify as “super-connected” is going up. When we consider this, cutting marketing teams first manages to be even more of a bad move.
Layoffs stink. There are no two-ways about it. I’m not arguing that ANY particular department should be cut in hard times. Indeed, other departments also fall under “engagement.” Fundraising helps summon support and education departments help organizations walk their talk – a thing that also pays off financially. Floor staff are particularly important for increasing visitor satisfaction. And again, not all marketing professionals are super great by virtue of the simple fact that they work in engagement. This topic is a messy one, but my point is this: We need to stop instinctively cutting people who work in engagement (in any capacity) first. It’s a bad practice. It’s outdated. It’s holding us back and it’s making our organizations weaker.
We need more engagement with audiences when things get tight, not less.
And this indeed takes expertise. If we know that it is only our audiences that can reliably help us when we hit hard times, why do we immediately cut off our connections to them and the people who manage our precious communities? Marketing and engagement are not “extra” – they are particularly necessary for support and visitation. Let’s evolve and realize that our financial futures are dependent upon people and connections to our missions.