Entertainment vs Education: How Your Audience Really Rates The Museum Experience (DATA)

museum experience flickr

When considering the overall satisfaction of visitor-serving organization (VSO) attendees, data indicate that not all aspects of the experience are created equally. In fact, the individual components that collectively comprise a visitor’s onsite experience may run counter to many VSO’s differentiation and engagement strategies. In terms of maximizing visitor satisfaction, VSOs may not truly understand “where their bread is buttered,” and this misunderstanding may result in serious financial repercussions.

IMPACTS gathers data to inform the development of key performance indicators concerning 224 visitor-serving organizations (zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, symphonies, etc.). One of the key performance indicators that we regularly quantify for specific organizations is “overall satisfaction.”  Overall satisfaction is a composite metric (i.e. a metric informed by a multiplicity of data inputs yielding a single output) that contemplates 10 source evaluation criteria (e.g. employee courtesy, admission value, retail, etc.)

In developing the overall satisfaction metric, IMPACTS doesn’t weight each evaluation criteria equally because the market isn’t influenced by each criterion equally. As indicated in the table below, the market determines the “weight” of individual criteria based on each criterion’s relative contribution to the visitor’s perception of overall satisfaction.  (The formula to calculate the respective weight of any individual criteria contemplates such factors as frequency of mention and strength of conviction.  The overall satisfaction metric updates in “near real-time” based on the most contemporarily available data so as to accurately reflect seasonal influences on the visitor experience.)  Perhaps most interestingly, in my observation, the weight of any single evaluation criteria tends to vary very little between organizations.  In other words, please don’t make the mistake of assuming that your organization is somehow indemnified from the implications of this data because you’re a symphony…or an aquarium…or a museum.  The data simply doesn’t support any notion of “exemptions” for certain types of VSOs.

IMPACTS Overall satisfaction by weighted criteria

These weighted values may be used to inform resource allocations to maximize overall satisfaction (which data indicate are critical for securing positive word of mouth, repeat visitation, etc.). The values may also inform marketing strategies for museums so that they may best communicate the educational experiences that they…oh, wait…

Well, this is awkward.


1. Museums may overvalue educational assets as a differentiating factor positively contributing to visitor experience.

Unfortunately for many museums’ social missions, visitors indicate that the quality of an organization’s “educational experience” matters relatively little to overall satisfaction. Many of you may have – at some point or another – heard of/been involved with a museum leadership team that is convinced that it cannot fail because of the number of academic minds at the helm that are working to further the museum’s superstar educational opportunities. Regardless of the organization, I’ll bet that they are either strapped for cash and/or rely disproportionately on public funding or grant and contributed income – which means that in the world of “Museum Darwinism” (or heck, according to the plain old rules of economics), these museums may be at financial risk.

Data suggest that museums may not be looking in the mirror clearly when it comes to understanding the value of their educational assets. Will you be a successful organization (in terms of market relevance and long-term solvency) if your greatest experiential asset is your mastery of first-rate, dissertation-worthy, you-get-a-master’s-degree-equivalent-in-a-visit content? Sadly, no. The market is the ultimate arbiter of your organization’s success, and the data suggest that even the most educational VSO risks relevance if the experience isn’t entertaining…

Oy. I said the other “E”-word…


2. Deny being an entertaining entity at your own risk.

As nonprofit organizations with valuable social missions, we can get rather feisty when someone compares our entity to Disneyland…and museums aren’t Disneyland for all of the important reasons that drawing that comparison probably makes nonprofit stakeholders squirm. That said, the market attributes a higher value to “entertainment experience” than any other criteria – even the overall satisfaction summary (“sum of its parts”) metric!

Organizations that try too hard to promote education at the expense of providing an entertaining experience are truly missing the mark. Remember: your organization only has the opportunity to communicate what is important after the market dubs you relevant. If nobody wants to visit, then nobody is going to participate in the educational experience that you are trying so hard to perfect.


3. Education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Aim to be BOTH but understand how each aspect individually contributes to your reputational and experiential equities and strategize accordingly.

Knowledge is power, right? If you didn’t know it (or at least suspect it) already, you do now: the market at-large cares comparatively little about the super-specialness that is your educational experience. And that’s sad for museum leaders…but the weighted value of “entertainment experience” isn’t necessarily bad for museum leaders. The knowledge of this data may make VSOs more prepared to serve both functions effectively or, better yet, make educational experiences more entertaining.

The trick may be to understand the role that each of these aspects plays within the market – and what that means for your organization. On one hand, many VSOs are nonprofit organizations with a mission to educate and some research has shown that seeking an educational experience may justify a visit for some. However, the market considers “educational experience” a relatively small piece of the overall satisfaction puzzle when visitors actually have their onsite experience.

Considered collectively, I think that it may prove worthy to further parse the differences between motivation and justification.  I observe a compelling abundance of data that suggest that entertainment is the primary motivation for a visitor experience, whereas education is often cited post-visit as a justification for having visited.  In other words, all being equal, the public will often choose an experience with an educational component over “pure entertainment” – provided, of course, that all is actually equal!  Education will not compensate for a deficiency of entertainment.

Henry David Thoreau (a personal favorite who receives a hat tip for my blog title, Know Your Own Bone) advised, “When a dog runs at you, whistle for him.” The power of this data comes in embracing the findings rather than trying harder to deny them.  Let’s strive to be the most entertaining educational entities possible.

After all, who decided that “entertainment” was the enemy of “education” anyway?


*Photo (and cute kid) credit belongs to Flickr user Jon van Allen

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution 11 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

11 Responses to Entertainment vs Education: How Your Audience Really Rates The Museum Experience (DATA)

  1. Jennifer Van Haaften

    Colleen, this was super timely for us. We are in the midst of a secret shopper evaluation and some of our measures include educational value and entertainment value. Working with our front line staff to get them to understand that telling people about history is not going to get them feeling like they had an entertaining experience has been like pulling teeth. Your article will help us tell them what our guests are looking for. And my take away of your last part of your article is “if we are AS entertaining as Six Flags, our guests will choose us over Six Flags.”

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for the feedback, Jennifer! I hope that this post may be helpful when considering your organization’s evaluations.

      My interpretation of the data is exactly as you posit: If the experience is equally entertaining than X, then the visitor is likely to choose us over X.” I think that the challenge in interpreting this sort of finding stems from the nonprofit sector’s occasional want to mitigate the definition of “equally.” We seem to be expert at finding ways to “offset” our lack of entertainment quotient under the mistaken notion that the market will value our offerings as anything other than lesser trade-offs. Internally, we may value our expert research and in-depth interpretation…but these attributes may not overcome a fundamental lack of “fun” for our audiences. If I infer correctly from your comment, we’re in complete agreement that “education” isn’t a substitute (or even a competitor) for “entertainment” – instead, they are complements. And, as you suggest, if we can be (truly) equally entertaining, then the education/interpretation becomes a remarkable value-add for our visitors.

  2. John

    Brilliant post, Colleen! You know where I stand on this… And that photo says it all!

  3. Rafie

    Hi Colleen, this is a very good article.

    There is no doubt that all this years, we are assuming that entertainment is the enemy of education. And the real challenges are:

    1. Making entertainment educating.
    2. Making education entertaining.

    I know it is easier said than done, but with these in the equation, we are moving in the right direction.

  4. Marissa Kurtzhals


    I will admit…It was stressful to read this at first. I thought I had been leading my audiences down the completely wrong path until I read:” I observe a compelling abundance of data that suggest that entertainment is the primary motivation for a visitor experience, whereas education is often cited post-visit as a justification for having visited. In other words, all being equal, the public will often choose an experience with an educational component over “pure entertainment” – provided, of course, that all is actually equal!” Does this mean I should flip my marketing around? Should I tell my audiences how entertaining their experience will be, and then remind them of all of the things they learned afterwards as opposed to educating them about the presented issues pre-show and then reminding them about what a great time they had?

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for the comment, Marissa. Indeed, we find that while on-site, entertainment is the single largest driver of overall satisfaction and this can affect word of mouth, peer reviews, etc. and thus, future visitation and membership. Similarly, we indeed observe that education value is a justification factor after a visit. In terms of motivating a visit, the key may be marketing both aspects (education AND entertainment) for the very reasons that you quote: “…the public will often choose an experience with an educational component over “pure entertainment” – provided, of course, that all is actually equal!” To drive this visit (especially when competing with a purely “entertaining” entity), the organization must already be perceived as similarly entertaining. In a nutshell, it IS important to sell how entertaining your museum is – but that, of course, doesn’t mean clowns, jumping gyms, etc. For many visitors, what they find entertaining may be based more on their affinity for the collections and how the museum makes them accessible through unique, creative experiences.

      To use your vernacular, I might “tell my audiences how entertaining their experience will be”, while demonstrating through content that it is also educational. In short, it may generally be a good idea to tell them “It’s entertaining (and educational)” to get them to come and “That was entertaining and educational” after they come. 🙂

  5. Jennifer Van Haaften

    Colleen, have you seen the articles by Judith Dobrzynski? http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/opinion/sunday/high-culture-goes-hands-on.html?_r=0

    She is not so happy about having so much experience art in museums and is afraid that it will take over the contemplative.

    Her other article: http://www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts/2013/08/experience-museums.html?utm_content=buffer42cd1&utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Buffer

    Sounds like she was going to talk about participating in art, but she didn’t. So in light of your post, these were an interesting counter-point to wanting to create experiences.

    • colleendilen

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for the comment and thought-fuel! Judith Dobrzynski’s most recent article certainly seemed to cause a stir! A perspective that I’d like to offer is that museums must change with the times (like every other entity – business or otherwise- in human existence) or they may become irrelevant – and if this happens, museums simply could not keep their doors open because nobody would come visit (especially in the volumes needed to overcome the negative substitution of high propensity visitors (http://colleendilen.com/2013/02/27/urgent-evolution-marketing-your-nonprofit-to-the-audience-of-tomorrow/)). Though the author may not personally agree with the way the world is turning, data regarding the general market and high propensity visitors clearly indicate that there’s an expectation that museums will evolve to become more “social” (which increasingly means “participatory” and has evolved past “talking in the museum” – the point that Dobrzynski summons to seemingly imply that museums are already social enough).

      From the article: “This is all in the name of participation and experience — also called visitor engagement — but it changes the very nature of museums, and the expectations of visitors. It changes who will go to museums and for what.” In a big way, that is just the point. Museums are losing money, past stakeholders and growing old… and we risk losing relevance if we cannot keep up with market expectations. And in many cases, the very thing holding these great institutions back are old, “tried-and-true” practices gone irrelevant.

      In short (and with some sassiness!), unless Dobrzynski intends to become a major donor to every museum in the United States and beyond (and provide a never-ending endowment for every museum) to provide museums with the opportunity to ignore the market and throw away cares about cultivating visitors of the future, then perhaps her one-woman-opinion article is a sturdy platform for museum executives to stand. Until then, it’s simply food for thought that risks slowing down – or speeding up for those who disagree with her!- necessary evolution.

      But all that is just my two cents! 🙂 Thanks again for adding that link here. Indeed, it brings up an interesting point to consider.

  6. Holly Csiga


    Michael passed this on, and it is such a timely article for me. This is something I ask our institution to walk the line on- and this articulates and quantifies the importance in a refreshingly straightforward manner. Entertainment is an ally of inspiration. Hope all is well. -Holly Csiga


  7. Bob Breck

    This is spot-on. I think that the underlying issue is the assumption by many museums and other organizations that entertainment and education are mutually exclusive, or at least two separate outcomes of a visit.

    The best experiences, I think, acknowledge the needs of audiences to have a valuable time that includes both. Museums need to be educational as a mission and as a point of difference from other entertainment options, but can’t assume superiority on the basis of that value alone. If it’s not fun, it’s always going to be hard to compete against options that are seen as less challenging.

    The upside: much of the evaluation I’ve seen (for science museums, at least) indicates that the intent of a visit–fun or learning–maters very little towards the ultimate educational value of the experience; those who came because it looked like a cool way to spend a rainy weekend afternoon learn as much as those who intended to learn about physics. The “vs.” in the post title is a conflict that we create.

  8. Judith Koke

    your point that entertainment and education are not opposite ends of the same spectrum is important. Research in science museums demonstrates that visitors learn key messages most effectively when they rate the experience as BOTH highly entertaining and educational. We need to shed the misconception that learning is serious and ponderous work. Look at child’s play- very important learning.


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