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What Arts Organizations Need to Know About Digital Advertising

How to budget, navigate the jargon, and get started in wonderful world of digital ads

Long before the pandemic caused a surge in online media consumption, digital was winning the war for people’s dollars and attention. Arts organizations were already struggling with the shift towards digital, but the wake of COVID, many of them have been left in the dust. For decades, print was the standard advertising solution for most performing arts (theaters have been putting up posters since the 17th century!). And while posters, postcards, and even ads in the local newspaper still have value, arts organizations can no longer solely rely on them to bring in crowds.

The truth is that keeping up with constantly-evolving technology is daunting, difficult, and time-consuming, and many arts orgs don’t have the staff capacity it takes to stay on top of it all. So, this blog is all about demystifying digital advertising in the arts and making a case for updating your marketing practices.

An illustration of an early 90's computer shoots a laser into the eye of a half formed face. The text reads, experience the magic of digital

Why is digital so effective?

In short, digital ads allow you to reach more of the right people for less money.

Let’s break it down:
  • Primary source: Digital media has become people’s main source for news and events. Through digital ads, you can engage them where they already are.

  • Cost effective: In general, you can reach more people for less money with digital advertising, especially when compared to most print ads.

  • Targeted: With many digital placements, (particularly social media ads) you’re able to target specific audiences based on demographics like age, location, income and interests (such as a love for arts)! This means you can show your ad to the people who are most likely to make a purchase.

  • Trackable: Unlike with radio, billboards, or print, we can actually track the performance and overall effectiveness of digital ads. Digital advertising provides a wealth of data, allowing advertisers to test different approaches, understand their audience better, and make informed decisions.

  • Actionable: Click on an ad and it takes you immediately to purchase a ticket. ‘Nuff said.

  • Interactive and expressive: If you’ve ever tried to describe a painting or a piece of music to someone and wished you could just show them, then you understand why video ads on social media can be an arts marketer’s best friend

Before we dive deeper, two quick caveats:
  1. Traditional advertising like print and broadcast still have a place in your marketing mix! When the budget allows we always recommend diversifying your spend. In fact, we almost always include posters in the mix for our Pittsburgh-based performing arts clients.

  2. Although digital ads are trackable and targeted, changes to iOS and user privacy policies have limited marketers’ access to audience data, making it more difficult to pinpoint and track your target audience (you can read all about how this has changed digital marketing here). This is a great example of how technology-based advertising is always in flux (looking at you, generative AI)—but it’s still worth investing in.

Getting Started

First, you do not have to grow your budget to add digital advertising. In fact, you probably have some less effective line items you could swap for a targeted digital approach. Every arts org is different (so this is general advice!), but the first places we look are:

  • Print ads in newspapers or magazines

  • Overspending on radio ads (relative to the rest of your marketing mix)

  • Bulk print mailings that don’t go out to a strategically-targeted audience

  • Expensive annual brochures

Ok, you’ve made room in your budget. Now what? If you take one lesson away from this blog, it should be this: it’s okay to start small.

For most arts organizations, the best use of digital ad spend is Meta ads (That’s Facebook and Instagram). These have a bit of a learning curve, so you may need to hire a contractor and/or invest in professional development for your staff. And that’s our cue to share one of our biggest pet peeves of Meta advertising: stop boosting posts!

If you don’t have the time or resources to train your staff or hire help, look at digital ad options in your local media outlets—they include sponsored posts, newsletter ads, or banner ads (more on these different ad types below). If you’re already advertising with a local outlet, switch your print ads to digital and measure the difference. With just a few small changes, you can ease your way into 21st century marketing.

Types of Digital Ads (+ handy examples!)

Below are a few of the most common types of digital featuring examples from our work with local arts nonprofit Handmade Arcade.

Display ad: This tile shows website banner ads as an example of Display Advertising. There are 3 banner ads of different sizes displayed, they are all GIFs that rotate between essential copy and catchy creative.
Social Media ad: This tile shows a Meta ad as an example of Social Media Advertising. The ad is for Handmade Arcade's Virtual Marketplace, and the creative is a video featuring products available to purchase. The caption reads "From cat underwear to handblown glass, shop for one-of-a-kind goods this holiday season from talented local makers and artists".

Native ad: This tile shows some sponsored newsletter content as an example of Native Advertising. It's a screenshot of Pittsburgh Magazine's 412 newsletter displaying two articles, and the second one is a sponsored article for Handmade Arcade's Holiday Market.
Paid ad: This tile shows a Google Search ad as an example of Paid Search Advertising. It's a screenshot of a google search result for "handmade arcade", and the first item that comes up is Handmade Arcade's sponsored link to their website.

How to Measure Ad Performance (for beginners)

Digital ad reports can be overwhelming—they’re full of jargon and can be hard to read. Don’t freeze up! We’ll walk you through the two most important metrics to know (impressions and clicks) and how to evaluate them.

A brief note for those who are just starting to measure their ads' effectiveness: standard performance metrics can vary greatly depending on timing, current industry trends, and your specific niche. Understanding those nuances is a big part of the value you get from paying a marketing expert but comparing your results with the most up to date overall industry averages is a good place to start.


Impressions are the number of times an ad has been shown. Note: this is different than Reach, which is the number of individuals humans who saw the ad. Digital ads are almost always shown to the same people more than once so your impressions will be higher than your reach.

How do you measure it?

CPM = Cost per Mille (thousand)

How much it costs to serve 1,000 ad impressions. CPM is a standard measure for buying display ads. In this metric, lower cost is better.


The number of times people clicked on the ad.

How do you measure it?

CTR = Click-through Rate

How often the ad is clicked on versus how many times it’s been shown. CTR is displayed as a percentage of total impressions, because it is calculated by dividing the number of clicks by the number of times the ad has been served. For example, if an ad received 5 clicks and was shown 1000 times, the CTR is 0.5%. For CTR, higher is better.

CPC = Cost per Click

How much an advertiser pays, on average, for each ad click. CPC is calculated by dividing the total amount spent on a campaign by the number of clicks it generates. With CPC, lower is better.

Slow and Steady

The key to getting really good at digital advertising is simple: start small. Pick a few advertising options and get to know them. Train your staff or hire an expert to get you started. Test different strategies and compare results. Through every ad you place or campaign you run, you’ll build towards a more comprehensive digital marketing strategy and leave those outdated bulk mailings in the past.


We love working with arts orgs on digital advertising, and we offer everything from hands-on coaching to full-service advertising strategy and management. Wherever you are in the process, Emily is ready to help. Get started with a free 30-minute consultation!



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