Five lessons arts marketers can learn from Google

When I started writing this, I discovered Google’s Ten Things. You’ll see some of it in the following post.


Google’s business is data. Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But Google doesn’t do that to be nice. It makes them money. Tons of money.

John Battelle, author of The Search, calls search a “Database of Intentions,” which he defines as the “total of all queries that pour into search engines daily.” Through these queries, Google knows what’s on people’s mind; they know what people want, and that’s powerful stuff. By knowing what people want, Google can connect those people to companies that offer what they want. And that’s what paid search is.

Even the smallest of arts organizations surveys its audience. Surveys are framed by the arts organizations and use the organization’s language. But the data Google has is different. The data Google has is in the user’s language. That data demonstrates the user’s intentions. Look at your own Web site. What do your patrons search on your Web site? How do they click through your Web site? Where did they come from?

But data can come from many sources, not just your Web analytics. Surveys (even if they’re framed in the organization’s language), ticket sales, focus groups and so on. Collect all your data and create your very own ‘Database of Intentions.”


“The perfect search engine,” says Google co-founder Larry Page, “would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.”

That will most likely never happen. Interpreting human intentions is difficult for machines. But Google is getting closer and closer. Google’s success comes from being relevant. They value relevance higher than money, exactly because relevance makes them money.

For example, in AdWords, Google places more emphasis on relevance than a higher bid. Sure, companies might be willing to pay more for specific search terms, but if their ads are not relevant to the audience, nobody will click through and Google doesn’t make any money.

Other companies too, have banked on relevance. Amazon with its suggestions and “other people who bought also bought…” And Netflix recently awarded a million dollars to a team that could make its recommendation system more accurate.

This concept naturally translates to the arts and arts marketing. We all know you wouldn’t place an ad for a performance of Tosca in Parenting Magazine. But how many arts organizations blindly blast an e-mail campaign for a concert to its entire list? How many public relations practitioners blindly send out a news release to its entire press list?

If your patrons keep receiving non-relevant information from you, they are growing less and less inclined to open your brochure or e-mail, or even keep their name on the list. This is where your data collection is important. If you know your patrons’ intentions, you can be much more relevant.

Innovate from your strength

Google does one thing really well: search. And it applies that strength to all other products it rolls out. You might ask yourself, what does Android (Google’s mobile phone operating system) or YouTube have to do with search?

You’d be surprised to learn that YouTube is one of the largest search engines on the Internet. But what about Android? People are increasingly mobile and they need information wherever they are. Google is making sure it has a stake in this new area of search. It all goes back to data, the collection of data and the opportunity to sell more advertising (because it needs to be profitable!) by being more relevant. Search and data. Google not only innovates within search, it innovates around it.

As an arts organization, the one thing you do really well is, of course, art. How can you innovate, in the broadest sense, surrounding your art? That’s the question you should ask yourself. Think about things like the Met’s HD broadcasts, Berlin’s Rhythm is it! education outreach. Art is central in those initiatives. Creativity is your business, I’m sure you can think of even better things.

Great isn’t good enough

Why did Google displace AltaVista? Because Google did a better job. Why hasn’t Google been displaced yet? Because they believe great isn’t good enough. The engineers at Google keep tweaking and improving the crawling methods, the search algorithm, the database and any aspect affecting Google’s performance.

How can arts marketers apply this mantra? A concert is sold out? Think about how you can sell it out quicker and more efficiently the next time by tweaking your media buys or your promotional offers. A survey shows a 90% satisfaction rate? Think about how you can get it up to 92% the next year. Don’t rest on your laurels.


Google has countless of failed projects. Take Google Shared Stuff for example. It never had the success of social bookmarking sites like Delicious, so Google closed it down. But not before they learned some valuable lessons. Failing is fine, as long as it is a good failure with lessons to be learned. Google never puts all its eggs in one basket with a project like Shared Stuff. And later, Google incorporated lessons learned from Shared Stuff in its successful Google Reader service.

And we’ve all heard about the 20-percent decree for Google Engineers. One day per week, they can spend time on projects they’re passionate about.

The latter will be difficult in nonprofit arts organizations that are understaffed and underfunded. But it goes to the point that innovation is more likely to happen when the organizational culture stimulates experimentation.

Arts organizations have very little cushion to risk a project failing (let this be a call to funders to stimulate risk!). But seeing that current situation, why not start small? Think about the “great isn’t good enough” mantra and start experimenting in tweaking aspects of your marketing efforts. Experiment with your Facebook and Twitter updates to see what results in better conversion rates; experiment with your refund/exchange policy to see how it impacts satisfaction rating and returning customers. Just as long as you keep in mind that the goal is to learn from your experiments.

Can you think of any other lessons? Share them in a comment!