How to Engage New and Diverse Audiences in Cultural Organizations (DATA)

How to engage new audiences in cultural institutions

Cultural organizations need to reach new audiences or they risk their long-term survival. Here’s the data-informed cheat sheet on how to do it.

I am excited to have had the opportunity to recently speak at MuseumNext at its first stateside conference. My talk was called Inclusion or Irrelevance: The Data Behind The Urgent Need to Reach New Audiences. (Here’s a link to a video of the talk.) And, indeed, that need is desperately urgent. Here’s a strategic framework for how to do it.


Why cultural organizations need to reach new audiences

At IMPACTS, I work on projects that help keep visitor-serving organizations solvent. My experience is that non-executives hate “solvency” talk. It seems almost evil and at-odds with mission to some (it’s not). It also demands accountability. However, smart executives understand its necessity – an organization cannot invest in its mission or people if it has nothing to invest.

While “inclusion” may immediately strike many as “mission work,” it’s increasingly a business requirement. Here’s why:

A) The US population is increasing, but visitation is on the decline.

Not only that: High-propensity visitors are increasing and attendance remains in decline. A high-propensity visitor is a person who demonstrates the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization.

High-propensity visitors are potential visitors that are actually likely to come to a cultural organization. As you can see, we are in an even more target-rich environment than we were 5 years ago and attendance has still declined in that same duration. It’s a big problem.

IMPACTS VSO US attendance vs HPVs

Below is the same data contemplated in another way. This is what this data looks like when we consider how these markets are performing when compared to expectation over the last 5 years. Considering the growth of high-propensity visitors, here’s how much cultural organizations are underperforming the opportunity:

IMPACTS VSO attendance performance vs expectation

B) This is in large part due to the negative substitution of the historic visitor.

First of all, a “historic visitor” is different than a high-propensity visitor. High-propensity visitors have potential to visit; historic visitors are people who actually do visit. All historic visitors are high-propensity visitors, but not all high-propensity visitors fit the profile of our average historic visitor.

Today, for every one historic visitor that leaves the market, they are being replaced with less than one visitor. Or, for every thousand people leaving the market, only 948 similar historic visitors are replacing them.

IMPACTS negative substitution

Let’s say that we keep doing exactly what most organizations are doing today (i.e. having a few one-off inclusion programs here and there and not making a more sustained investment in engaging these audiences). If we keep on our current path, an organization in the United States that has one million onsite visitors today would only stand to engage 808,000 historic visitors five years from now. In other words, negative substitution would suggest an onsite audience decline of 192,000 visitors for this hypothetical organization in the next five years.

For many organizations, this situation can all be generalized in one, honest sentence: America is producing fewer and fewer rich, educated, white people – the broad cohort that has been the historic visitor, member, and donor for many organizations.

This is the current glide path. To remedy this condition, we must change the profile of our historic visitor. We need to convert potential visitors in emerging audience groups to ACTUAL visitors. This means making them not our special visitors, but our regular, paying (if you have admission) visitors, supportive members, and donors.

This is a big deal. As far as we know, cultural organizations in America have never, ever changed the general profile of their historic visitor. Those rich white folks have largely provided the support that keeps these types of organizations going.


C) Organizations must cultivate new visitors from three emerging audience groups.

We need to pull new audiences from these three audiences in order to achieve long-term solvency:

  1. Millennials
  2. “Minority majorities” (generally, people of ethnic and racial backgrounds that differ from historic visitors)
  3.  Affordable access audiences

All three of these audiences are important. However, millennials and minority majorities represent the key demographics wherein high-propensity visitors are increasing, but these same folks aren’t converting to actual visitation in representative numbers. So the first two groups represent more immediate opportunity and payoff.

The good news is that organizations will experience positive substitution in the future as emerging audiences acculturate – so long as organizations begin engaging them today. However, the realistic news is this: Cultivating new visitors is going to take time and it needs to start now.


Taking a MAPS approach to integrating new audiences helps cultivate regular attendees and supporters 

So how do we convert emerging audiences into regular audiences? We use MAPS. MAPS is a data-informed framework for tackling the challenge of engaging emerging audiences. This framework is equally applicable to all organizations regardless of size, city, and operating budget. It focuses on four elements: Highlighting your mission, understanding access barriers and opportunities, providing personalized programs, and facilitating shared experiences.

MAPS a framework for engaging emerging audiences

1) (Underscore your) MISSION

Being good at your mission matters. Organizations that highlight their mission consistently outperform organizations that market themselves primarily as attractions. The best way to show this data is using two, composite metrics:

Revenue efficiency contemplates revenue streams (including admission, membership contributions, and program revenues) relative to operating expenses and the number of people that an organization serves.  A more “revenue efficient” organization is generally more financially stable.

Reputational equities contemplate visitor perceptions such as reputation, trust, authority, credibility, and satisfaction. Basically, it’s the market’s opinion of how well an organization delivers its mission and experiences.

In the interest of maintaining appropriate confidences, I’ve anonymized the organizations represented. You’ll still get a good sense of the trend. Each letter represents one of 13 notable US museums.

IMPACTS- Museums revenue and reputation correlation

We reliably observe that those organizations who the market perceives as most effectively delivering on their mission are the same organizations who achieve the greatest revenue efficiencies. Since commenced tracking this metric several years ago, the data continue to evidence a strong correlation between reputational equities and revenue efficiency. Though the data shown here represents museums in particular, we observe a similar relationship among nearly all types of visitor-serving organizations – including zoos and aquariumsBeing good at your mission is good business.



Identifying access opportunities means finding out why emerging audiences aren’t coming and removing those barriers. You can only figure this out by asking the people who aren’t coming why they aren’t coming.

On the whole, visitor-serving organizations pride themselves on their understanding of the need to do audience research. Indeed, many organizations have in-house capacities for audience research. Organizations need to shift their focus from audience research to market research.

Often, true barriers are completely different than what an organization believes to be its barriers to engagement. True barriers may be reputation (specifically, affinity attitudes – or audiences believing that an organization is “not for people like me”). Reputation plays a very important role in visitation. Other barriers to engagement may include the timing of programs, hours of operation, or transportation barriers.

A word to the wise: Be careful about jumping to price as a primary barrier – it usually isn’t the sole barrier. Remember, we are trying to cultivate emerging audiences as regular visitors – not affordable access visitors – so do your organizations a favor and don’t jump to this “barrier” first. This is difficult, because price is usually where lazy organizations start the conversation. In other words, many organizations believe simply that if they build something, people will come…and if people don’t come, then it must be because of the price.

Making matters worse, “expensive” is also how lazy visitors fill out survey questions. When asked why they don’t attend a new program, many folks will simply report, “It’s too expensive.” Be wary of this response. Certainly, sometimes program fees ARE too expensive, but we can find our true barriers this by figuring out the end of this sentence: “It’s too expensive for….”.

“It’s too expensive for….” what? It may be “Too expensive for doing something that I think is boring.” It may be “Too expensive for missing dinner with my family.” It may be, “Too expensive for the time that I spend stuck in traffic to get there” or “Too expensive for the distance that I need to travel.” Uncovering the end of this sentence can help organizations pinpoint primary barriers.

In sum: It’s critical to know why people ARE NOT coming to your organization before you can even try to engage emerging audiences. Without this information, other programmatic investments may be a waste of resources.



Once your organization knows its true barriers, it can create programs that help to remove them.

Increasingly, we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world. Programs to reach emerging audiences are not one-off initiatives, but should be integrated into everything that an organization does. And personalization is affecting everything.

For example, personalization trends are affecting how people measure the satisfaction of their onsite experiences. Personalization affects how different audiences prefer to experience cultural organizations. It affects expectations for communication on social media and other online platforms. It also demands that communications and content are more targeted and connective. Perhaps most importantly, the preferences of different audience members demands full integration into day-to-day operations and support structures.



Shared experiences close the circle. This means allowing for sharing both onsite and digitally. HPVs profile as being “super-connected,” or, connected to the web at home, at work, and on mobile devices. Word of mouth endorsement is absolutely critical to this audience. Digital connectivity helps organizations tap into this cycle and allows successfully engaged audiences to communicate with their friends (who may also be emerging audience members).

Perhaps most importantly, the numbers are growing in regard to shared experiences being the best part of a visit for all audiences. Who people are with is more than twice as important than what people see when they visit a cultural organization.

IMPACTS with over what

That means that being places for creating connections – not just to collections, but to other people – is incredibly important. We must understand that our organizations themselves are facilitators of shared experiences. It is one of our greatest assets. It’s where that market believes that we shine.


Take this MAPS strategic framework. Use it as a road map. Fill it up with your own data-informed inputs.

We all need to work together to change up the profile of our “historic” visitor to better engage emerging audiences as our regular attendees and supporters. Let’s be places where everyone wants to visit and where everyone feels welcome. Only then can we achieve our missions while ensuring our long-term solvency.


Like this post? Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Millennials, Sector Evolution, Trends 6 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

6 Responses to How to Engage New and Diverse Audiences in Cultural Organizations (DATA)

  1. Jeff S

    Interesting article. Overall I agree that it’s important for institutions reach out to new markets. The assertion that “rich white people” have traditionally made up the majority of patrons is problematic. First off, while RWP may make up the majority of SOME institutions, major institutions like the museums of big cities traditionally have a much broader attendance, and for pay-what-you-wish museums, the majority are typically NOT RWP. In fact, while RWP may make up the bulk of FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTORS, I doubt if even those regularly attend.

    Rather the problem is that the nature of our society is changing and becoming less educated and less aware. I doubt if any institution is going to achieve much long-term change unless they move out of the walls of their institution and get involved in outside culture and their local educational system to actively CREATE new appreciation. Many institutions are opting to dumb down or “fun up” their presentations, and while that may be a band-aid, it’s still just slowing a downward spiral.

  2. Karen

    Hi Coleen, thanks for a useful post.

    I’d be interested to hear what methods you’ve been using to track reputational equity… and how you’ve been systemizing this across a range of cultural organizations.

    Look forward to hearing from you.
    Thanks, Karen.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Hi Karen. Both the National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations and similar work that IMPACTS performs on behalf of individual organizations develop data related to reputational indicators such as reputation, trust, admiration, satisfaction, value and other measures of an organization’s relative standing in terms of audience perceptions. IMPACTS collects this data on behalf of 224 visitor-serving organizations in the US; and, thus, is able to develop comparative contexts within this large sample. Thanks for your question!

  3. Roberta

    These are all great points. I am going to share this on Pinterest.

  4. Lauren

    When you say, “Identifying access opportunities means finding out why emerging audiences aren’t coming and removing those barriers. You can only figure this out by asking the people who aren’t coming why they aren’t coming.”

    What are some ways to go about reaching those people who aren’t coming to your museum? We are currently trying to diversify our audience and understanding why people aren’t coming would help our efforts tremendously.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Great question! This speaks to the difference between audience research (i.e. concerned primarily with current constituents), and market research (i.e. concerned with the representative population – visitors and non-visitors alike). As a starting point for better understanding the total market, I’ve observed many organizations successfully deploy an Awareness, Attitudes & Usage study (AAU).


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