Free Admission Days Do Not Actually Attract Underserved Visitors to Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Free Days Do Not Reach Underserved Audiences

In reality, free days often do the very opposite of mission work. Here’s the data.

This post is going to make people angry. And that’s a good thing. Get angry. Being challenged helps us think critically and evolve our strategies to more effectively serve our missions and audiences.

I made some folks angry when I shared data and pointed out the compelling economic research behind why free admission is not a cure-all for getting folks to visit cultural organizations. How much does free admission really affect attendance? Turns out, not all that much. I’ve also pointed out that admission pricing is a science (not an art), and how admission pricing is such an emotional topic for cultural organizations is because we confuse admission with affordable access programming. As a sector, we cultural organizations often really mess that up.

Today I’d like to share another data-based finding that should turn our traditional business strategies upside down: Free admission days do not usually engage affordable access audiences. In fact, data suggest that free days often accomplish the very opposite of their intended purpose for many cultural organizations.

Here are four, data-informed realities regarding free days for cultural organizations. (This includes museums, aquariums, zoos, theaters, symphonies, historic sites, etc.) It’s time to face some realities and put on our collective thinking caps…


1) Admission price is not usually the primary barrier to visitation

When contemplating a free program or event, many organizations mistakenly believe that, “If we build it, they will come.” It is a line from a great movie, but it’s an ineffective business practice. Admission price usually isn’t the primary barrier to engagement for non-visiting audiences. It just happens to be our most convenient excuse.

True primary barriers for non-visiting audiences usually revolve around other factors than simply cost. These often include things like reputation (i.e. they just aren’t interested in the content and programs), transportation and parking (“How are we going to get everyone together and get there?”), or schedule (“That’s awesome that you have a free day on Tuesday. I have to work on Tuesday.”) When the primary barrier to visitation is anything other than admission price, then having a free day becomes relatively irrelevant. An admission fee is straightforward, but for many potential visitors, other barriers are the most challenging part of the visitation equation.

When we think that making something free means that everyone will come, then we are assuming that visiting us is the most important thing in every potential visitor’s life after cost savings. We all know that’s not true… and, somehow, we still resist thinking critically about primary barriers to entry. We aren’t taking the time to do the necessary market research that enables us to be more responsive to audience needs. Sometimes admission really is a big barrier to entry. Yes – money is precious. Many organizations seem to know this. But time is precious, too. Too many organizations seem to forget this.


2) Free days attract higher earning and higher educated audiences than paid attendance days

This is a hard pill to swallow: For most organizations, data suggest that people who visit on free days actually have higher household incomes and educational attainment than people who visit on non-free days. For many organizations, free days are reaching a relatively small number of true affordable access audiences – and a whole heck of a lot of people who could pay to support your organization through regular admission or membership instead.

Check out this data from IMPACTS that is collected from 48 cultural organizations that offer regular, scheduled free days in an effort to reach affordable access audiences. The sample represents museums, performing arts organizations, and other visitor-serving organizations.

Annual household income on free days- IMPACTS

Educational attainment on free days- IMPACTS

The common, defensive response to this data is to make an excuse and say that this data does not apply to your organization’s free days! Know this: Free days engaging higher earning households instead of affordable access audiences is the rule – not the exception. At IMPACTS, we are asked to supply this kind of information to many grant-making entities. So please, instead of making excuses, do your organization a favor and actually look into this situation. Increasingly, smart grant-making entities are catching onto these things and are aching to see programs that actually engage the targeted audience segments.


3) Free days engender less trial from new audiences than paid admission days

Why do folks visiting on free days have higher household income levels? One of the reasons is because data suggest that the folks actually attending free days are more likely to be repeat visitors than on paid attendance days- and repeat visitors often profile as higher-income high propensity visitors. The people who attend free days for cultural organizations have usually visited the organization before, and the free day is simply accelerating their pace of re-visitation.

Repeat visitors on free days- IMPACTS

“Great!” you may say. “We are getting folks to come back!” But now think about this: These people are coming back for free and they are higher earners who could have been converted into members. “Free” actually provides an incentive for your most likely and loyal audiences to visit you again. These are the very same people who – with proper cultivation – likely profile as potential members. Free days directly cannibalize membership opportunities and do not engender increased trial from underserved audiences. 

You may notice a few audience members that you believe to represent your organization’s underserved audiences roaming your halls on a free day. But keep in mind, you’re likely looking for these types of people on these days. (There likely are some affordable access audience members- just fewer than there are on paid admission days.) Instead of offering proof of the efficacy of your initiative, these sightings are more likely a classic case of confirmation bias (i.e. the tendency to search for data that confirms one’s hopes or preconceptions). When considered in the relative context of total attendance, many free days don’t engage a higher percentage of first-time visitors than do non-free days.


4) Cultural organizations do not generally target affordable access audiences for free days

This fact is basic, overlooked, and often a driving reason for the last two conditions: A majority of organizations don’t even reach out to affordable access audiences regarding their free days. Instead, we tend to target high-propensity visitors- the people we know how to target.

Underserved audiences are not in your database. These audience members are not likely on your email list (they are underserved!), in direct mailings (you don’t know their names!), or following you on social media (they don’t visit you!). Many of them also may not be subscribers to the local newspaper (depending on the demographic subscribed to that newspaper). When we use our traditional communication channels to spread messages about free days, we are often primarily connecting with high-propensity visitors instead of underserved audiences.

But we don’t make affordable access promotions available primarily to upper middle-class, educated people because we’re stupid. We often use these channels because we don’t want to lose even more money. Reaching real affordable access audiences is a true investment. It often involves buying advertising that specifically targets those audiences who do not generally engage with your earned and social media programming. It occasionally requires creating programs that do not interest traditional audiences. It means spending money so that audiences who are not likely to provide any significant financial support can engage with your organization and not contribute admission revenue on top of it.

Many organizations may be relatively comfortable with the notion of needing to spend money to make money. But affordable access programs often require spending money to better achieve our missions… and lots more money than a loss of a day of revenue.


In a way, many organizations unknowingly do free days to feel better about themselves and their missions – not because they work.

This doesn’t mean that free days are always a bad idea. Sometimes the situation is complicated and that’s when having a free day could logically be on the table as a smart move. For instance, a government entity may request access for locals in order to provide significant support.

We will only create effective programs that reach underserved audiences when we realize that many past practices have been largely inadequate at achieving the very outcomes that they are created to achieve. The fact that underserved audiences exist at all means that, well, we haven’t been effectively engaging all of our potential audiences – even when we’re free.


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, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 21 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

21 Responses to Free Admission Days Do Not Actually Attract Underserved Visitors to Cultural Organizations (DATA)

  1. Elizabeth

    What do the numbers look like as far as institutions with admission versus institutions with free daily admission? Do the audiences differ any, or are we pretty much serving the same people and just not making any admission money? Our institution has resisted charging admission for years because of access concerns, but I have the feeling that research would not support our argument.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      This is great question – and the fact is that varies greatly based on the specific organization, market, and precedent pricing policies. The data is unable to ascertain the pricing potential of organizations that offer complimentary admission on a daily basis (as opposed to comparing paid and free days). We have observed a number of organizations with shifting policies: For example, the Indianapolis Museum of Art had a paid admission basis, then went to a free policy, and then recently re-established a paid policy. My best guess supports your intuition that organizations perhaps overestimate the role of price as a barrier to engagement for historically underserved audiences. Here’s a post that I’ve written on the topic that may also be interesting.

      • Ray Smith

        My reaction was related to this, that you are conflating free days with free admission. Preliminary data from places like Hammer Museum and the Dallas Museum of Art indicate that museum attendance has increased and it is changing their audience (cited in the same Fortune article you linked to in the other post, if you read beyond the headline). Of course there are other factors to consider such as some museums may be unable to offer free admission and that if you are trying to attract a specific audience but not programming or exhibiting anything in their interest, they won’t come regardless. I’m especially concerned that big museums that are able to attract large donations to subsidize free admission is burdensome on small museums which have to charge something to show less.

        The research you cite about admission as a secondary barrier is also almost 10 years old and from Germany. I have doubts about generalizability. Though I do agree with your thesis, cultural institutions should undertake more research about audience engagement if they want to attract a different audience.

      • Colleen Dilenschneider

        Thanks for your comment. No doubt that there are a multiplicity of factors that influence and inform free admission policies…and that these policies are often unique to individual organizations and their respective markets. I don’t think that the analysis conflates free days and free admission policies; indeed, it endeavors to distinguish between permanent policies and discrete duration access initiatives. The data presented within the analysis concerning HHI, educational attainment, and repeat visitation is less than three months old. The balance of the research that I cite derives from many sources, and includes EU member organizations, UK organizations, and US organizations. What I find most compelling is the repeatability of these findings since the original dates of publication. The questionable efficacy of free days as a panacea for affordable access has been a challenge many decades in the making.

  2. Gary Dauphin

    Amazingly well researched and written, ma’am! You have my highest regard.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Thanks, Gary!

  3. Julieta

    At least for Museum Campus, the main obstacle is parking. It is quite surprising that it is not even mentioned here. Parking does not belong to the museums but to Standard Parking. Any free days at the museums are profit for Standard Parking.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Thanks, Julieta. Yes, parking is certainly another possible primary barrier for other institutions. There are many others in addition to those I’ve mentioned in this article such as density of surrounding experiences, traffic, travel distance, content disinterest and many others. Simply, pricing is not the primary barrier as often as organizations may imagine. Primary barriers may be other things.

  4. Alli

    In my experience, transportation and location (i.e. being located in a neighborhood certain audiences don’t visit) are the primary barriers to visitation.

    Can anyone share successful ways museums have mitigated these barriers?

  5. Steve Sullivan

    Huh. Well this throws conventional wisdom on its head. Or does it? Worth a read for any organization that takes access seriously. Then again, it seems it’s often more important to be doing something than doing something effective.

  6. Johnny Disco

    The Indianapolis Museum of Art is an interesting case. before they reinstated the admission they tried charging for convenient parking, but there was still a free lot a little further out. Now parking is free, and they participate in a program that would reduce their admission to $1 for families that qualify, which is totally worth it for the institution. If I remember correctly at the time they reinstated the admission fee it was because there membership was low, so they needed revenue to keep things going, and from initial reports attendance wasn’t hurt too much if at all(it has been years since I read about this so my recollection is a little hazy).

    From my experience reaching out directly to underserved families is the most effective way to better serve them. At the McLean County Arts Center, we reached out to families through schools to promote free events and classes that had need based scholarships. I had the luxury of working in a smaller community, but we also had a tighter budget to accomplish this.

    All that said this is interesting research, but I would ask what is the reason for the free days? Are they truly reaching out to underserved communities or simply offering it as a community service, and possible way to recruit members? Also as mentioned before steep parking fees can be a huge barrier to attendance to underserved and even many middle income families.

  7. Amanda Stringer

    For anyone in a similar position to us at the Tallahassee Symphony, I would like to comment that we offer a free open rehearsal for each of our concerts that usually attracts between 400-700 attendees. Some are our regular subscribers, but we have seen homeless people (our board members have served them at the homeless kitchen and recognized them), and, more regularly, parents with young children who can’t though a whole concert (future attendees) and elderly who can’t drive at night (but donate to us). Important to note that we usually sell out concerts, or are close to sold out, even with the open rehearsal. So this isn’t necessarily an across-the-board assessment of how to best conduct business.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Hi Amanda, Thank you for sharing this example! Indeed, free, targeted programs can be very successful and a different beast entirely. This post consolidates information regarding the average income levels and educational attainment for attendees to free admission days- or, days in which all audiences are able to visit an organization for free but would otherwise pay admission to attend. Glad to hear that you are having success with your open rehearsal program!

  8. Marley Steele-Inama

    Thanks for getting us thinking, Colleen. I’m curious about how inclusive your research’s sampling method was – meaning, did the researchers target all guests equally? We’ve typically not sampled leaders of organized groups for various senstivity reasons – including leaders of adult special needs groups, in which we anecdotally observe an increase on our free days. Additionally, in how many languages was the survey offered? And, in how many languages was recruitment available? We know we are not capturing data from recent immigrants and foreign guests who do not read/write/speak English or Spanish. Therefore, we aren’t able to compare paid and non-paid for these groups, which is unfortunate, because we are missing guest data when we can only include English and Spanish language guests. Finally, how were declines tracked? Was there any correlation of declines based on observable demographics? Thank you!

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Great questions, Marley. The National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage study (NAAU) provides the bulk of the data cited in the post. It is an ongoing tracking study that currently contemplates more than 98,000 visitors to US visitor-serving organizations. The study’s sponsors believe it to be the largest, most inclusive study of its kind. The study is a multi-language deployment, including Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Korean. While we do work with community and cultural ambassadors to gain access to various underserved and undocumented populations, the study does not generally contemplate groups (e.g. adult special needs) as these tend to be less self-selected discretionary leisure behaviors. In terms of tracking, while data is collected throughout the year, an update is published annually. The data doesn’t necessarily indicate declining engagement; indeed, since tracking commenced in year 2011, the audience profiles concerning household income, educational attainment, and repeat visitation have remained fairly consistent. This suggests to me that the efficacy of free days as a panacea for engagement is not a new problem. Instead, it is a long-standing issue. I hope that this information helps – and thanks for reading!

  9. S D

    The Philadelphia Museum of Art has free days for half a day on Sundays, the one day when it is most difficult to get there, and when many people go to church. To base any assumptions on attendance then is ludicrous. Did you take such things into account anywhere else?

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Obviously, every unique organization has its own programs intended to best serve their respective audiences. I have a slightly different perspective on the program that you reference at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: In fact, the first Sunday of every month is currently “Pay-What-You-Wish” (including paying nothing at all) for all visitors to the Museum. For many museums, Sunday is among the most popular days in terms of attendance. In addition, for persons with weekend or professional commitments, I also understand that the Museum offers a similar program to the public on Wednesdays after 5p. The point of the post – supported by abundant data – is that merely being “free” is not a panacea to engage underserved audiences. Price is part of a potential barrier to entry – but not necessarily the primary barrier. My view is that the Philadelphia Museum of Art has largely removed price as a barrier for audiences interested in visiting, although other barriers (such as transportation and schedule conflicts) may remain.

      To directly answer your query: Yes, the data contemplates the totality of access and engagement programs as perceived by the public. In terms of usage, some programs are more effective than others – but, again, as the post indicates, price is rarely the sole barrier to entry for many audiences.

  10. Brenda Leadlay

    In the data I have been collecting from 3 international theatre/festival organizations who recently changed from a paid model to a performance by donation model, the results have been extremely positive. I think your study is pretty much limited to large organizations like museums and galleries who offer free admission one day a week.

    • Colleen Dilenschneider

      Hi Brenda, I agree that voluntary admission basis (i.e. the “donation model” or “pay what you wish”) is a very interesting concept and has been deployed by many organizations as a means of affordable access and engagement. The study and attendant analysis contemplates 48 organizations in the US – of all sizes and types (i.e. not only “large organizations”). In addition, there is a very robust amount of extant data available that further attests to these findings – I’ve summarized much of it in this post: How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance. I also think that it is important to differentiate the respective admission policies and access programs of organizations that are open daily as contrasted to festivals and other events of a discrete duration. The optimal price strategies for each tend to be very different. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  11. Valerie Warner

    Hi Colleen: How do you feel about the ‘library book’ style of free admission? Where the cultural organization has a number of ‘passes’ available at the local library in a ‘staycation’ type bundle. Library patrons can check out a pass that allows for 2 adults and up to 4 children for free admission, and free parking at the cultural organization, and hold this pass for a week, at which time it is returned. Free access is limited, therefore, to the number of passes available in the community, and rotated on a weekly basis. The pass is not collected, simply scanned, the same way membership cards are, and the pass is returned to the library by the cardholder. Think of the library pass as a family membership that is available to be shared by a number of families in the community.

    I saw this in Arizona, and we are considering a trial with this in Barrie, ON. Love to get your perspective.

    (PS – for families with more than 4 children, the library can note this on the library profile, and allow them to take out two copies, where normally each family is only permitted one at a time).

  12. Daniel P Quinn

    One of the reasons why I have always loved DC is that the Smithsonian Museum’s are always free. Whenever I am in DC I include a visit to a museum there. I can’t ever remember when NYC museum’s are free so I haven’t been to one in years. But i am a lifelong member of the now free Newark Museum for City residents that started this year.


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