6 Anti-Marketing Lessons

“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.” — Catherine Aird

This was going to be a post about a legendary musician appearing at a stellar museum. I was planning on writing about how the museum was leveraging the appearance to generate positive publicity and to bring in a new audience.

Rock Legend Max Weinberg

I’m a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. So, when I found out that Max Weinberg, the band’s longtime drummer and former music director of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, would be speaking at the National Museum of American Jewish History, my wife and I jumped at the opportunity and bought tickets.

Unfortunately, the experience itself took me in a different direction as I observed several anti-marketing lessons. The benefit for you is that you can learn from the mistakes of another nonprofit organization without having to make the same mistakes for yourself. So, in that spirit, let me share my experience.

No Problem Solving. When my wife called the museum’s reservation number to purchase our tickets, she was asked if she was a member. My wife then told the agent the reason why we’re not members. Before the new museum building recently opened, we bought a membership at another nonprofit’s fundraising auction. When she contacted the museum, she was told that the museum was closed pending the transition to the new building. Since there was nothing to really “join,” she was told that she could wait to activate our membership until the new building opened. However, when she re-contacted the museum to activate the membership as instructed, she was told that the membership was for the old building and, therefore, they would not activate the membership we had purchased! When my wife related this tale to the reservation agent, the person could not have cared less.

Instead of ignoring the problem, the reservation agent could have taken some initiative. For example, at a minimum, she could have expressed regret for our difficulty. Or, she could have gone a step further by offering to pass the information along to the membership office.

By its actions, or in-action, the museum clearly sent the message that it does not care about us. So, why should we care about the museum? If you want to read about the importance of caring, check-out my post: “The Most Important Part of Any Grateful Whatever Campaign is….”

Do Not Take Names. The telephone ticket agent at the museum was not interested in our name or contact information. The agent only wanted our credit card number. She then assigned us a check-in number. In other words, the museum was going to host hundreds of people, many first-time visitors to museum, and had no plans to capture the contact information for this new audience. As a result, we knew there would be no follow-up communication to see if we enjoyed the program, nor would there be any follow-up to invite us to future events or to purchase a membership.

Clearly, the museum should have captured our mailing address, email address, and phone number. In addition, at the event itself, staff could have even asked audience members to “refer” a friend who might be interested in learning about future events. Audience members who referred someone could then have been entered into a drawing for tickets to another event, free membership, or coupon for the gift shop. This is something that performing arts groups have been doing for years to successfully build their marketing lists.

No Add-on Promotion. When we checked-in, we were not asked if we were museum members. We should have been. If we were members, we should have received a heart-felt word of appreciation. If we were not, we should have been handed a membership brochure for our consideration as well as a list of upcoming events. Now, there might have been membership brochures at the counter, but I didn’t notice. And, I should not have had to notice. The staff should have seized the opportunity to be proactive as a service to those attending.

When you have a distribution channel, you have an opportunity to “sell” more services and/or products. The museum had over 300 people coming through its doors that evening. By further marketing to that large group, the museum might have sold some memberships or tickets to future events. By being, at best, passive, they forfeited that opportunity.

By contrast, I once visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to see a special exhibit. It’s one of the world’s truly great museums. The line for speical exhibit tickets was long, and we were unlikely to get in that day. However, a membership staff person came along the line to quietly offer to sell folks a museum membership. By joining, we’d be guaranteed of getting to see the exhibit that day which was great since we were leaving the UK the next. And, we wouldn’t have to wait in line! My wife and I were very happy to join. When you have folks coming through your doors, look for other opportunities for engagement.

No Synergistic Engagement. With 300 or more people coming through the doors for this one after-hours event, there was an opportunity to promote membership and future events. And, there was an opportunity to promote the museum itself. Unfortunately, while the museum gift shop and one exhibit remained open (a point not well publicized) leading up to the 7:30 PM lecture, the museum itself had closed at 5:00 PM. In other words, you couldn’t go through the entire museum and then go right into the lecture. This was a lost opportunity to introduce people to the museum.

As an alternative to remaining open, the museum could have provided attendees a small discount coupon to return to the museum at another time. This would have encouraged further engagement while thanking visitors for coming to and paying for the evening event.

Organizations should look for ways to engage people on their terms. When they show up, make sure they have a complete experience if they want one. And, give people a reason to re-engage with your organization. I explore these issues further in my posts: “Stop Following the Golden Rule!” and “What Can Fundraisers Learn from L.L. Bean?” 

No Warmth. When we checked-in, the relationship with the ticket agent was purely transactional. My wife, who is fighting ovarian cancer, remarked to the agent that she liked the agent’s pixie haircut. She mentioned that when she had her remaining hair removed as she was undergoing chemotherapy, she experimented with a similar style to see what she’d look like with short hair. The agent simply thanked my wife for the compliment. She did not say anything remotely like, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear what you’re going through. Good luck with it.” The ticket agent said absolutely nothing to indicate that she heard what my wife had said about her condition. She showed no warmth or empathy. She conveyed no sense of caring.

It is essential that everyone in your organization convey a sense of caring and make a personal connection to everyone they encounter. I wrote about this in my post about Lankenau Medical Center, which does a fantastic job in this regard; the post was: “The Most Important Part of Any Grateful Whatever Campaign is….”

We’re in a relationship business. Everyone in an organization needs to know how to do the minimum to establish and develop positive relationships. It’s the nice thing to do. And, it will definitely benefit the organization in a variety of ways while also benefiting the public.

I once implemented a membership telemarketing program for another museum, The Academy of Natural Sciences. We contacted an elderly, house-bound woman who decided to buy a membership to show her support even though she wasn’t likely to actually use it. She reasoned that at least she’d be able to read the museum magazine. A few days later, she called the Vice President of the museum to thank her for the lovely call she had received from the caring telemarketer who took a lot of time to talk with her. After learning about the woman’s situation, the Vice President offered to pick-up the woman to drive her to the museum. The woman was grateful for the offer, but said that the encounters with the staff was inspiring her to leave her house on her own. And, she did. Under her own power, she got herself to the museum, toured it, and visited with the Vice President. Not only did this woman join the museum because of the kindness of those she encountered, she was actually energized and inspired by the contacts.

We can make a difference in people’s lives but, first, we have to show we truly care about them.

No Press Kit. When checking-in, I asked the ticket agent if she had a media kit or if there was a media table. She said she didn’t have anything but directed me to a staffed table that might. The folks at the table had nothing but saw the museum’s Public Relations Associate walking by and summoned her over. (I’m being chartiable by withholding her name.) I explained what I wanted, and she asked who I was with. The question might have been intended to learn who was covering the event, or she might have simply been trying to find out if I was worth her time or not, which is the way it really appeared. I explained that while I was not with The New York Times, my blog does have a strong following in the nonprofit world. The Public Relations Associate said she didn’t have any press kits. I asked if there was anything about the event for the media online, and she said there was not. She said there was a press release about the event that she could email to me. So, I gave her my card and thanked her. Unfortunately, it turns out my expression of appreciation was premature; she never emailed me the press release!

Bruce Springsteen and Max Weinberg in concert.

While the museum committed a number of marketing sins, they clearly did some things correctly. We were able to purchase tickets at the last minute. The event was a near sell-out with over 300 people attending. Max Weinberg was a huge hit. A VIP event attached to the lecture raised additional dollars and provided a cultivation opportunity. And, the museum did have promotional leaflets and newsletters lying about. However, with just a bit more effort, the museum could have accomplished so much more.

Whether you work for a museum or some other nonprofit organization, I encourage you to seize every opportunity to engage people and to encourage future re-engagement. You’ll have greater success and enjoyment if you:

  • Establish personal contact.
  • Show you care.
  • Are a problem solver and empower your staff to be problem solvers.
  • Build relationships.
  • Engage people on their terms.
  • Encourage further engagement.
  • Keep your promises.

Yes, it all seems like common sense. But, as I’ve just illustrated, it’s not always common practice. To make sure your organization is doing the right things, have a couple of friends or family members or colleagues:

  • visit your organization’s website;
  • call your organization’s main number with an inquiry;
  • donate to your organization;
  • attend one of your organization’s events.

Then, have them report back to you about their experiences. You’ll learn a great deal about what your organization is doing well and where it has opportunities to improve.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

11 Responses to “6 Anti-Marketing Lessons”

  1. Michael, it appears that the museum should have read your earlier post about customer service. This truly was a case of doing everything they could do to not succeed. Not only was there a lack of marketing the museum at the event, but the lack of customer service was astounding,

    • Richard, thank you for being the first to comment. You’re right, it really was astounding. Unfortunately, a great many organizations stumble just as badly. The resulting good news is that, with fairly little effort, other nonprofits can stand-out from the crowd in a very positive way.

  2. Michael, I couldn’t stop laughing. This is awful!! You should make sure the Director of Development or President see this post.

    • Lorri, thanks for commenting. I’m glad you were able to get a chuckle out of the post. It’s one of those too-strange-to-be-fiction stories, isn’t it? I have alerted the museum to the post via Twitter. Interestingly, when I included something about Au Bon Pain in a previous post, the company contacted me before I could alert them because they monitor the Internet for mentions, and they respond when appropriate. Because I have no confidence that the museum does the same, I’ll also send them an email.

    • Kevin, thanks for the video clip. So, what’s your point? You’re in favor of bad marketing? If we can’t learn from our mistakes, we’re doomed to repeat them. If we can learn from the mistakes of others, we get the benefit without the pain. That’s a good thing.

  3. Thanks Michael. Great read and what a lost opportunity to not only get members but also potential legacy/major donors!

    • Juan, thank you for your comment. You’re right. Events can be a great way to introduce folks to an organizaton. And, some of those people will eventually support in a variety of ways including as legacy/major donors. However, the organization needs to make the most of the opportunity. Interestingly, I received a very kind and generous follow-up response from Au Bon Pain as a result of a previous blog post; however, I have not heard anything from the National Museum of American Jewish History. Of course, the former is a for-profit company while the latter is a nonprofit.

  4. Michael, Great piece! Should be required reading for all students taking marketing courses. You hit the nail on the head but will others learn from your words or just continue with their own misguided ideas of marketing. So Michael just maybe you found a new client?
    I last saw Max when Conan was filming at the Chicago Theater several years ago.
    Keep up the great writing and hopefully one day we will meet in person
    Jerry R. Mitchell

    • Jerry, thank you for your kind message. Your comment reminded me of a seminar I taught a few years back. After the session, one of the attendees approached me and said, “I guess everything you said was just pretty much common sense, right?” I thought a moment and replied, “Yes, I guess that’s right. And, when it becomes common practice, I’ll stop talking about it.” There seem to be three types of organizations: 1) those that market well; 2) those that market poorly, but know better; and 3) those that market poorly, but don’t know any better.

      I, too, look forward to meeting you one day in the 3-D world. Until then, keep in touch.


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