Selling Out With Thomas Cott
You may not be familiar with Thomas Cott’s face, but his emails might greet you just about every morning in your inbox: You’ve Cott Mail. Since 1998, as a side activity, Cott has been curating the free arts industry news service, for which he was named to the 2012, 2013 and 2014 editions of a peer-nominated list of “The 50 Most Powerful and Influential People in the Nonprofit Arts in the U.S.”
Over the past 30 years, Cott has held producing and administrative roles in dance, theater, opera, video and the humanities on Broadway, at the NY Public Library, at Lincoln Center and currently with Alvin Ailey. Here, he shares the biggest marketing trends of this year, the live entertainment industry’s biggest challenges and a list of what he wishes every arts marketer out there knew right now.
Selling Out: You’ve been sending out You’ve Cott Mail since the late ’90s. What inspires you to keep spreading the word?
Thomas Cott: These days, I’m largely fueled by the people who subscribe to You’ve Cott Mail. After curating YCM for 16 years, I can get tired of waking up early to put together a new edition, and I do wonder sometimes how much longer I should keep doing YCM. However, I am energized by all of the feedback I get from YCM’s audience (15,000+ people and growing). I’m glad that readers find it useful to their own work, and I enjoy being a part of the larger conversation that’s happening in the field. So for now at least, as long as people still enjoy receiving YCM, and as long as I can continue to find interesting stories and commentaries to share with YCM’s readership, I’ll keep doing it.
SO: In reading thousands of arts news and opinion pieces, what are the biggest marketing trends you’ve seen this year? And what topics do you wish were written about more?
TC: I’d say the three biggest marketing trends I’ve noticed this year are about how arts marketers are — or should be — using data about their live and online audiences, how they are optimizing their emails, websites and other content for mobile technology, and how they are rethinking their ticketing and pricing strategies.
As for topics I wish were written about more, here are just a few:
• How an arts marketer with a small budget and little or no staff can make the most of social media and digital marketing tools
• How arts marketers should address changing demographics: e.g., the impact of the racial/ethnic shift in the U.S.
• How to reconcile baby boomers’ and millennials’ wildly different expectations for the live entertainment experience
SO: How important do you think it is for people in the live entertainment industry to pay attention to what’s happening in adjacent industries (for example, for theater people to pay attention to music and sports and vice versa)?
TC: It’s definitely important. I think arts marketers can learn from lots of different industries, though, not just the “adjacent” ones. I’m surprised how many people in this industry rarely look beyond their particular discipline, never mind the world beyond the arts. That’s why I regularly include stories/commentary with the angle of “What The Arts Can Learn From [fill-in-the-blank industry]” in You’ve Cott Mail. That said, I think it’s important to add that other industries can learn from the arts sector, too. We’ve got some amazing minds at work in the arts, and information-sharing should be a two-way street.
SO: You’ve got a day job at Alvin Ailey – how has YCM influenced your approach to marketing at work?
TC: I’ve always tried to incorporate things I’ve learned doing YCM in my work. When I arrived at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2008, it was already a forward-thinking organization, and so this ethos has made it easier for me to integrate new tools and ideas that I’ve covered in YCM. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have buy-in from our board and top leaders, and it’s great to work with colleagues who are open to testing new approaches. While we haven’t been able to incorporate all, or even most, of the ideas I’ve featured on YCM — that would be impossibly overambitious — the things we have done have definitely helped us, not just in the area of marketing, but with our general operations and long-range planning.
SO: What do you see as the live entertainment industry’s biggest challenges?
TC: There are any number of challenges I could cite, but here are three big ones which I view as interrelated: (1) the marginalization of the arts, despite great public interest; (2) the conundrum of how to present performances on a set schedule in an “on-demand” world; and (3) the generally slow speed of change in the way the live entertainment industry works.
SO: What do you wish every arts marketer out there knew right now?
TC: 10 wishes, in no particular order:
• How to break down silos between marketing and all the other departments at your company
• How to do digital marketing well
• How to do social media well
• How to make data-driven decisions
• How to stay “human” in an increasingly data-driven world
• How to find the best possible audience for each new production you do, not just put butts in seats
• How to think more about your audience’s needs/desires and less about your institutional goals
• How to communicate a greater sense of value — remember: price is only an issue when value is a mystery
• How to send the right message to the right people at the right time
• How to stop doing things simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”
And a bonus wish: How to find the answers to questions you may have about any of the above. Of course, I hope YCM can play at least a small role in this.
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