Digital Advertising For Arts Organizations

As the President of Capacity Interactive, a digital marketing consulting firm for the cultural sector, I speak with hundreds of arts marketers every year about their digital advertising. This includes marketers from organizations of all sizes and genres, from museums to ballet companies, theaters to orchestras.  At Capacity we publish an annual benchmark study looking at the digital marketing practices of the sector and work directly with over 100 arts organizations on their digital efforts. Here is what I believe a digitally-evolved arts organization should look like when it comes to digital advertising. This is a complex topic and this post could be over 20 pages long. Hopefully this distillation will help you think about your digital efforts and provide some good tips and inspiration.

Digital Marketing For Arts Organizations

It starts with measurement

At Capacity we say, “If it’s digital, measure something.”

Measurement must be set up:

  1. to track user behavior on your website
  2. to track efforts that happen across the web since most digital activity involving your company happens variously across social media, on publisher sites, and on search engines.

Google Analytics (GA) is a free tool to track and analyze the behavior of website visitors. Google Analytics, out of the box with no configuration, tracks page views but most website behavior goes beyond simply the page view. Users watch videos, scroll through slideshows, and add and remove items to a cart. The digitally-evolved arts organization has configured these advanced tracking elements in GA so they can get a true picture of user behavior on their site. They have also configured e-commerce tracking so they can tie website behavior to purchases.  But GA measures behavior only on your website, therefore measurement can not stop here.

The digitally-evolved organization also uses conversion tracking to measure the digital campaigns that occur in places other than their website. So when a user sees any of your promoted content, be that a banner ad, a Facebook post, or a YouTube video, you can tie that view or interaction to a desired action on your website, like a purchase. The easiest way to track conversions on your site is to set up a tag management system like Google Tag Manager (GTM). This is a free product from Google that allows non-technical marketers to add and remove pixels to a website. The initial set up of GTM can be tricky so I recommend getting some help here, however, once set up is complete, most marketers can use the tool with ease.  You just get the conversion tracking code from the platforms you are using to advertise (like Facebook and Google) and configure the code to fire via GTM when users get to the “thank you” page of your site.

The best part about having this set up is now you can track both click-through and view-through conversions. Click-through conversions are when a user clicks on an ad or a post and then purchases in the future. But we know most users do not click through, thus it is important to measure view-through as well. View-through conversions occur when a user views (but does not click) an ad or post and then purchases in the future. Most activity happens via view through so it is critical to get this set up.

Your Digital Advertising

Once you have your tracking set up it’s time to start advertising. The digitally-evolved arts organization dedicates at least 25% of their budget to digital advertising, if not more. Some of our clients dedicate up to 80% to digital. Digital advertising when set up and managed correctly will help you sell more tickets and admissions to fill your theaters and exhibitions. The channels that arts organizations should focus on are:

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Google is the #1 search engine in the world, with more than 70% of searches. Lucky for the non-profit arts marketer, Google offers the Google Grant program which affords up to $40,000 per month in free keyword advertising on to 501©3 orgs. To be clear: this is limited to search results on and does not include display ads on the Google Display Network. The digitally-evolved arts organization has built out their Google Grant account for all programs and branded terms. They dedicate resources, either internal or external, to keep this account up to date and work to grow the reach of their grant account. They measure the effectiveness of their account through regular reporting.

Social Media

The digitally-evolved arts organization focuses on the social platforms that provide them the most successful business outcomes—and no additional platforms. A big mistake organizations make is being on too many platforms and doing none of them well. I often hear “we are all over social…we are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and are experimenting with Snapchat.” Big mistake. Most arts orgs are people-constrained and there is little chance that as an arts org you have the people power in your marketing department to serve all of these platforms well. You should not push out the exact same content to all channels.

In terms of priority, for most arts orgs, Facebook is #1. Facebook has more than 80% of internet users and most users check the platform multiple times a day. And the sweet spot for arts buyers (middle age, college educated, and female) index very highly for Facebook. Plus, the platform is so visual and the advertising targeting and tracking capabilities are second to none.

So arts orgs must first get Facebook right before focusing anywhere else.  Facebook advertising should be a top line item on any arts orgs marketing budget. After you have Facebook down (meaning you have a large number of Likes, significant engagement, taking time to look at the analytics and iterate, and are fully leveraging the advertising platform), only then it is time to add on.

The next tier of platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest) have around 30-40% of Internet users, i.e., half of Facebook. You should prioritize Instagram if your audience skews younger and you have great visual assets. In my opinion, use Twitter for communicating with journalists and avids for your art form. If you are maximizing Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and still have enough people power, then think about adding additional platforms.

Behavioral Display

Most arts organizations should not be purchasing contextual ads—meaning buying direct placements on websites. Instead, they should spend the money to buy behaviorally-targeted ads. This means targeting users based on their past behavior. The data is now too good to pass up. Google, for example, knows all the prospective arts buyers in your market. Buyers are putting their likes and preferences into the Google search engine every day and the receipts for what they purchase go right into Google’s Gmail. So companies like Google use that data to target ads. And through behavioral targeting you can use that data to find your audience.  With limited budgets, it makes the most sense to get frequency with your most likely buyers rather than targeting people just because they are on your local newspaper site, for example.

So negotiate down that direct digital buy with your local newspaper or radio station. You are probably wasting your money. Invest that money in behavioral display targeting.


In a study from Ibsos MediaCT commissioned by Google, 26% of people reported online video as most influential in impacting their likelihood to go to a performance. I recommend producing high-quality promotional video to support your productions and exhibits. (For inspiration, check out some of my favorite arts marketing videos from 2015). Remember that with promotional videos you have a very short window to grab your prospect’s attention. These should be short and punchy. Save the longer videos for your event detail pages. Also pay special attention to the first five seconds and the impact the video makes without sound since many will consume it this way on their newsfeeds.

To get these videos to your best prospects, I recommend using Facebook video ads and YouTube ads. On Facebook these will play in the newsfeed. On YouTube they will play before videos as pre-roll, besides videos as suggested ads, and in YouTube Search results (Did you know YouTube is the web’s #2 search engine after Google?).

Videos should also be served to prospects based on past behavior. Serve your ads to those on your retargeting list (those that have come to your site before), your CRM list (those in your email database) as well as prospects based on their interests and past web behavior. You can do this on both Facebook and YouTube. And you can tie the actions to conversions if your tracking is set up properly.

In Summary

I hope this gave you some food for thought around your digital advertising. It pays to focus on a few channels and make sure you are measuring and refining your efforts. Once you see a channel is delivering strong returns, expand your investment there and experiment with new channels. Good luck!

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Erik Gensler
Erik Gensler is the President of Capacity Interactive a digital marketing consulting firm for the arts whose clients include some of the country's leading cultural institutions including Seattle Symphony, the Kennedy Center, and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Erik founded Digital Marketing Boot Camp for the Arts, the only conference 100% focused on digital marketing for arts organizations. Erik speaks regularly about digital marketing at conferences and universities and is a top-rated speaker. He has presented at Opera America, The League of Resident Theaters, The Tessitura Conference, Dance/USA, The Arts & Business Council, National Arts Marketing Project, and New York Foundation for the Arts, among others. He has guest lectured at Yale, Columbia, and NYU, and has been featured on the Carnegie Mellon Arts & Technology podcast series and webinars. Erik began his career at Marakon Associates, an international management consulting firm. Erik holds a dual degree in Economics and Communication from Northwestern University.
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