Why Big Data Isn’t Enough:
The Influence of Emotion and Neuroscience Over Marketing in the Arts

Today’s guest blog post is written by Kathryn Schmitt, Data Migration Specialist, Patron Technology. 

We already know that data plays a key role in marketing for your organization. It provides you with a keener understanding of your patrons: knowing their buying or donating patterns and preferences makes for more targeted and thereby more successful marketing strategies, which in turn produces more sales and revenue. Seems obvious, right?

We hear a lot about “big data” lately — for an arts administrator, big data enables you to apply your patron data into a broader pool of consumer data and extract patterns that tell you very specifically who is most likely to respond to a campaign. Big data is a science, it is cold hard facts married with mathematical logic; and taking the guesswork out of targeted marketing can certainly be useful.

But when it comes to arts organizations, is focusing on the quantitative and extracting all creativity and emotionality from your marketing plans the best course? Are you trying to forge meaningful human relationships with your consumers, or have you fallen into the habit of treating them more like data clusters than individuals?

Psychology is a huge component in effective marketing. Humans are governed by emotions, including what we share and what we buy. The science of emotions, therefore, becomes a crucial consideration for your organization. IPA Databank analyzed 1400 successful advertising campaigns and found that 16% of those using strictly rational-based strategy reported major profit gains; while 31% of those using purely emotion-based strategy reported the same results. As artists, catering to lovers of the arts, doesn’t emotional marketing make a lot of sense?

Scientists know that the brain feels first and thinks second: the emotional brain processes sensory information five times as fast as the cognitive brain. Emotions are what ultimately drive human beings, including our customers. Studies show that humans are capable of feeling four basic emotions: happy, sad, fear/surprised, and angry/disgusted. Each can motivate your patrons to act.


Emotions related to happiness are proven to be the main drivers of social media sharing and are the feelings that drive most viral content. If we see an image that makes us feel good, we find ourselves wanting to share it with others to impart some of that same positive energy. In turn, when we like or comment on shared media, we are reaffirming the sender’s actions and engaging in a shared experience and a mutual exchange of positive energy. We are neurochemically hardwired to spread joy in order to amplify our own, which means that happy-centered marketing campaigns can have a wide reach.

Are you using humor enough in your campaigns? Do you have photos or videos of other patrons enjoying themselves at your organization? Are people seeing images of plays and events they love, and things that make them happy? Instead of only focusing on a patron’s history, think about what would make them happy enough to buy a ticket.


Of course, you don’t want your patrons to be angry at YOU… but research proves that anger is a high-energy emotion that motivates people to act, and (along with happiness) is also among the top drivers of viral content. For example, blog posts featuring controversial topics receive more engagement than their more neutral counterparts. Polarizing topics make people passionate, and showing someone a viewpoint that opposes their own incites anger that causes them to dig into their own stance more deeply.  

Given the current climate, now might be a great time to bring attention to the vulnerability of arts programming and funding. Instead of boasting the positivity and cultural importance of your organization to encourage donations, consider focusing on the ugly truth in order to incite a bit of passionate rage in your arts-loving patron. Research shows that this type of anger is more likely to elicit a donation to a cause. However, be sure to proceed with caution when designing an anger-based marketing strategy; depending on your audience and the surrounding circumstances, you may want to avoid potentially alienating a large group of customers.


Remember how the Mars company famously rejected an offer for M&Ms to be featured as a product placement in Spielberg’s E.T., and then second-choice Hershey saw nearly a 300% increase in Reese’s Pieces sales? Recent research says that type of successful marketing may be the result of an interesting relationship between fear and brand attachment. People generally cope with fear by bonding with other people. If two people watch a scary movie together, they share in the experience by voicing common reactions and therefore deepening their connection with one another. However, if a person watches a scary movie alone, studies show that the consumer will create a heightened emotional attachment with the brand that happens to be nearby.  

Figure out how to make your organization something for consumers to cling to when fear is activated. Maybe you change how you advertise for a film screening or play with scary elements by focusing on the fear factor rather than shying away from it. Perhaps you market yourselves as a viable escape from the scary goings-on in the world around us. Fear makes people buy, especially if you are a source of comfort from it.


Sadness produces several neurochemicals, two in particular: cortisol, which is the stress hormone, and oxytocin, which is associated with compassion, connection, and empathy. When empathy is activated, people become more generous and trusting. Neuroscientist Paul Zak found that people who watched an advertisement that evoked oxytocin were more likely to donate money to charities and/or people they hadn’t met. Advertisers often use images of puppies and babies in commercials, because the images release oxytocin in the brain and cause a viewer to gain trust in the brand. Zak also researched the power of storytelling as elicitors of empathy and oxytocin, which again leads a patron to purchase or donate to a cause. His participants were shown a sad personal story, and were then motivated to give money; much more so than those who were shown a story that did not trigger empathy and sadness.

If you’re a working theatre company, take advantage of the power of storytelling by using advertisements featuring your show’s characters and plot lines to draw in your audiences. If you are soliciting donors, consider a video campaign showing staff or patrons sharing what your organization means to them. If you are desperate for funding, be honest and give your patrons emotions rather than facts and figures. The empathy you evoke will increase their giving.

As an arts organization, you cater to people who probably love stories and tend to be moved by them. With such a “feeling” type of clientele, it’s only logical to have your marketing strategies be influenced by the science of emotion. What can you do to make your advertising more human and impactful? You’ll be influencing both business and neuroscience at once! One piece of advice: when applying emotionality to marketing campaigns, always be authentic. People only connect with and respond to emotions that are genuine and sincere, so save the crocodile tears for the stage!

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