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Introducing the Fractured Atlas Book Club

I'm guessing that the majority of Fractured Atlas members don't spend a lot of time browsing the Business section of their local bookstores. Not a ton of pleasure reading to be found there. (If I were blogging for Harvard Business Review, I would operate under a different assumption.) Maybe your eyes tend to glaze over when scanning books that have words like "Accounting" or "Marketing" or "Sales" in their titles. I know mine do. In order to run a successful business, however, most artists need to expand their knowledge of areas like these, areas that are often entirely outside of the typical artist's wheelhouse. But do not despair - we've decided to start a Book Club to help guide you to titles that address the needs of arts entrepreneurs and - more importantly - will not bore you to tears.

Our first pick is Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Communications by Sarah Durham. Published in 2010, this selection has been read, passed around, and re-read by several members of the Fractured Atlas staff, which goes to show its continued relevance for an established organization like ours. I think its also extremely valuable for new or smaller arts nonprofits because Brandraising tackles a challenge with which I see many of our members struggle - taking the long view of marketing and fundraising by creating an in-depth communications strategy.

In the early days of almost every arts business, decisions around "branding" are made reactively, often spur of the moment. Artists just starting their business frequently find themselves in scenarios like these:

  • I need to raise $10,000 for my film and I need to do it in the next six weeks. Guess it's time to start reaching out to donors.

  • My play opens in a month. How are we going to fill the seats?

  • I'm sending out a press release tomorrow for my gallery opening. Let's wing it and hope for the best.

A seat-of-the-pants communications "strategy" (or lack thereof) can, and often does, work for artists who are riding high on the energy and enthusiasm of a new business venture. Also,  entrepreneurs like these are, justifiably, focused more on creating their art than on the details of how its going to be funded or marketed. But what results is often a public image of the work or organization that lacks cohesiveness, a brand that is accidental instead of the product of serious planning, and an approach to communications that is unsustainable in the long term.

This book deconstructs the idea that most of us have about what a "brand" actually is. While mission statement and logo are important aspects of an arts organization's branding, there are many more details to take into account. Businesses that consider these details and their implementation over the long haul are ones more likely to survive from start-ups to sustainable enterprises. Brandraising separates an organization's external relations strategy into three levels - Organizational, Identity, and Experiential. Author Durham breaks down each of these levels further still - see the graphic to the right. All pieces of the overall communications puzzle are given their due in this book, sometimes in an astonishing level of detail but always in terms that are easy for laypersons to understand.

A couple of downsides to this book. It's written primarily for organizations, so individual artists or one-person outfits might have difficulty translating some of the lessons that the book has to offer into action steps that they can take. That said, I think the book still does have a lot to offer to solo artists, but bear that in mind. Also, for artists who are already overwhelmed by all of the work that goes in to running a successful business, this book will probably do little to comfort you - your to-do list will get a lot longer! It is, however, helpful to "know what you don't know" and I think this book delivers on that front.

One thing that I hadn't thought about prior to Brandraising was the idea that organizations have personalities, just like humans (or cats and dogs). Most artists often just want to "let the work speak for itself." This is a cute idea, but doesn't sell tickets or get donors in the door if nobody's ever heard of your work before. When crafting a communications strategy, you should think about what your organization's personality is. To use an example from the book, the famous Mac vs. PC ad campaign that ran from 2006-2009 starring John Hodgman and Justin Long depicts the Mac personality as "casual, relaxed, hip, and functional." What adjectives do you want your customers/patrons/donors to call to mind when thinking about your organization and how can you infuse your communications with this personality?

Ultimately, building a brand is a holistic endeavor where every aspect of your company's public life comes together - and remember, the brand is meant to support your work and your organization, not the other way around. To that end, Brandraising is a great book for getting your communications strategy off of the ground. To see Sarah Durham practice what she preaches, check out her nonprofit Big Duck. They offer a series of webinars that our staff has attended and found helpful.

Stay tuned for the next Book Club pick! While we don't expect we'll have the reach of Oprah - or Stephen Colbert - we hope to link you to great resources to help you better accomplish your arts-business goals. If you've come across a book that was of great help to you, don't keep the secret to yourself! Let us know via email, Twitter or Facebook. Good reading to you all!