Why Cultural Organizations Are Not Reaching Low-Income Visitors (DATA)

Why Programming for Low-Income Audiences are Unsuccessful

Data suggest that some types of cultural organizations are perceived as more welcoming than others. Here’s how we could do better.

With missions to educate and inspire audiences, many visitor-serving cultural organizations (e.g. museums, zoos, aquariums, theaters, symphonies, etc.) aim to serve low-income audiences in addition to their high-propensity visitors. So, just how good of a job are organizations doing when it comes to engaging lower-income audiences, and how can we make it even better?

Attitude affinities are a way of quantifying how the market perceives an organization in terms of its hospitableness and attitudes towards certain types of visitors. In summary, attitude affinities inform responses to visitor questions such as, “Is this type of organization for people like me? Do people like me ‘fit-in’ at this type of organization? Are people like me made to feel welcome and comfortable at this type of organization?” Extant data indicate a strong correlation between attitudes affinities and intentions to visit an organization. If people don’t feel welcome at an organization, then they are less likely to visit that organization.

IMPACTS quantifies attitude affinities on a 1-100 continuum, whereby the higher the value, the more welcoming (or greater affinity) a visitor perceives the organization. Data indicate that intentions to visit decline when attitude affinity-related metrics drop below 63 on this 100 point continuum. Due to this observed decline in intentions to visit, persons reporting attitude affinities ≤62 are generally not considered to be likely visitors because they do not feel welcomed by the organization.

Certain types of organizations seem to struggle more with negative attitude affinities as a barrier to onsite engagement than do others. Before we dive into the data, it is worth noting the attitude affinities have nothing to do with content – these are not measures of if people prefer animals to art. These are measures of peoples’ perceptions of feeling welcome at any organization. In other words, some organizations may defensively blame these numbers on a phenomenon innate to their content, but that’s generally not the case. After the data, I’ll discuss this a bit more. For now, let’s dive in!

 

IMPACTS - Art museum attitude affinities

As represented in the above chart, 552 of the 1,385 person sample population (39.86%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for four of 10 adults, a perception of not feeling welcome at an art museum poses a significant barrier to their onsite engagement. Remember: these metrics don’t even begin to contemplate other barriers like content interest/relevance, transportation, or schedule (a key barrier for general audiences). Out of the gate, four of 10 members of the US market don’t feel welcome in an art museum. But, hey, it’s not just art museums…

 

IMPACTS - History museum attitude affinities

510 of the 1,372 person sample population (37.17%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62. The data indicate that history museums are perceived to be slightly more welcoming to lower income audiences than are art museums.

 

IMPACTS - Science museum attitude affinities

448 of the 1,390 person sample population (32.23%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for approximately three of 10 adults, a perception of not being welcome at a science museum or science center poses a significant barrier to their onsite engagement.

We have combined science centers and science museums because the market generally does not differentiate between these two types of organizations. This lack of differentiation may sound like blasphemy for folks working in a science center or science museum, but the market doesn’t parse the nuance that may differentiate these types of organizations. (Preempting a question: No – the data is not meaningfully different when science centers and science museums are separately distinguished for this type of analysis.)

 

IMPACTS - Aquariums attitude affinities

300 of the sample size of 1,335 persons (22.47%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for approximately two of 10 adults, a perception of not being welcome at an aquarium poses a significant barrier to their onsite engagement. Comparatively, this is excellent news for aquariums “walking their talk” in terms of being seen as welcoming places! Loyal KYOB readers know that aquariums serve a bit like crystal balls for the future of cultural organizations because they tend to be both the most for-profit and nonprofit among their visitor-serving brethren. Market forces dictate that aquariums, as a simple means of business survival, often need to address changing attitudes, behaviors, and engagement strategies years before other types of organizations that may rely on large endowments and government support.

 

IMPACTS - Zoos attitude affinities

277 of the 1,512 persons sampled (18.32%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for less than two of 10 adults, a perception of not being welcome at a zoo poses a significant barrier to engagement. Good work, zoos!

 

Orchastra and symphony attitude afffinities

703 of the 1,540 persons sampled (45.65%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for nearly half of the sampled adults, a perception of not being welcome at an orchestra or symphony poses a significant barrier to their onsite engagement. Yikes!

However, for several orchestras and symphonies, this data would hardly qualify as surprising. Many orchestras and symphonies have been challenged by dwindling audiences and are experimenting with creative engagement strategies to better cultivate new constituencies. These data may suggest that overcoming the barrier to engagement may have less to do with promoting a new artist or performance, and more to do with promoting effective access programming.

 

In sum, what do these negative attitude affinities look like among the cultural organizations discussed here? At the risk of inserting one of the most glass-is-half-empty charts to ever grace KYOB (but in the spirit of “real talk”) here’s a summarized analysis: (Don’t worry! There’s a lesson here for improvement so we can move toward beating this! More after the chart…)

IMPACTS - Negative attitude affinities

Why are attitude affinities better for some organizations than for others? There’s a possible, data-informed reason. But first, I need to myth-bust the immediate go-to reason that is probably popping into many-a-reader’s head right now:

 

A) Attitude affinities do not generally correlate with admission price

It was my first thought, too. (Or I guess it would have been if I didn’t do so much data-driven work with regard to admission pricing). Data suggest no correlation between admission cost and attitude affinities. The average visitor to an aquarium reported paying approximately 52% more to visit than did a visitor to an art museum, and also reported 73% lower negative attitude affinities. In other words, persons who don’t feel welcome at an organization don’t necessarily do so because of cost-related factors.

It is important to remember that admission price is not an affordable access program. These things are different. Admission pricing enables successful affordable access programming by supplying the funding required to actually serve low-income audiences – a thing that many organizations (even free ones) aren’t doing very well.

IMPACTS - Average admission price paid

 

B) Attitude affinities DO correlate with lack of awareness of access programming

Interestingly, when it comes to tactics to mitigate cost as a factor to visitor engagement, households reporting annual incomes >$250,000 are significantly more likely to be aware of an organization’s affordable access programming than are households with annual incomes <$25,000. In other words, there are more people annually earning $250,000 receiving messaging about access programming than the people that actually need the access programming! In the case of orchestras and symphonies, high-income households are 3.35x more likely to be aware of an organization’s affordable access programming than are low-income households for which these programs are created!

IMPACTS - Access programming awareness

Low-income audiences that most need access support or assistance are comparatively unaware of access programming opportunities from these types of organizations. BUT that doesn’t mean that those organizations aren’t offering them (as evidenced by the relatively high awareness of these access programs among households with annual incomes >$250,000).

The reason why this is happening is that same reason why “free days” to cultural organizations attract people with higher average annual incomes than do non-free days: Organizations market access programs to high-propensity visitors and historic audiences because those are the folks that they know how to reach. This is happening because organizations generally neglect making meaningful, sustained investments in promoting these programs to the audiences whom they most intend to serve.

Underserved audiences are by their very definition not currently engaging with our organizations. They are not onsite to complete audience research surveys. They are not on our email lists. They are not following us on Facebook. They don’t like our Instagram posts or retweet our messages. So when we boast of our affordable access programs using these channels, we are mostly speaking with our current constituencies.

Engaging underserved audiences requires a sincere and sustained investment. We can create the greatest access programming possible, but if the people who need it aren’t made aware of it, they are unlikely to engage with our organizations.

In order to reach these audiences, we need to have a different messaging strategy than we do to reach other types of visitors. This means building relationships with leaders in lower-income communities to help spread the word, partnering with organizations that already serve these audiences (e.g. churches, schools, libraries, etc.), and actually thinking about how these hopeful audience members make decisions. It is completely different than the marketing and PR that you are already doing in order to reach non-affordable access audiences (i.e. the people that you need to engage in order to keep your lights on and make that messaging to lower-income audiences possible).

Lack of access programming awareness is not the only barrier to engagement for low-income audiences. There are a whole host of barriers to access that cultural organizations should work to overcome (including schedule, relevance, content disinterest, transportation, etc.). These data focus on attitude affinities and do not aim to resolve other barriers to engagement. That said, it stands to reason that access may be the key issue on the critical path to engagement. After all, if audiences are not aware that you offer an access program for them, then, well, they aren’t aware that you offer an access program for them. These folks may not know that you are doing anything to reach them in the first place!

On the surface, these data may look like bad news – but they’re not. This is potentially good news because we can see something that is happening and how it may be unknowingly sabotaging our access programming. More importantly, we can fix it! This information allows us to stop spinning our wheels and focus on where our access programming may be getting stuck – in our messaging.

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, 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 Why Cultural Organizations Are Not Reaching Low-Income Visitors (DATA)

  1. Cherie Cook

    As always, Colleen, you present a great deal of food for thought.

     
  2. Lydia

    The title of this article is not reflected in its content. How can you make low income families FEEL more welcomed? It has nothing to do with marketing and outreach strategies, but everything to do with the increasing levels of snobbery in these institutions. PhD this, Masters that. Forget the data – Museum employees need to get off their high horses and stop thinking that they’re above the average Joe. Just have a look at your average history blogger or historian on Twitter. The pretension is almost palpable.

     
  3. Rick Robinson

    I appreciate your data and conclusions Colleen. Plus I concur with Lydia that the disconnect of arts destinations from the average Joe is hidden in plain sight. Putting on the purple glasses, we can ask, Who wants to hang out with snobs? (although the average audience in Detroit is not as snobbish as say NYC) It’s like a game the non-snob doesn’t know how to play. So, we need “arts games” for non-snobs. I created several for my series sharing symphonic music in casual venues, and talk up info on the DSO’s accessibility programs. There are many ways to be excellent.

     
  4. Gary Steuer

    Another excellent post Colleen. I have been delivering this message for years, and your findings certainly concur with other research I have seen. I would add to the previous comments that for arts groups to respond tot this successfully it is “both/and.” They must develop authentic partnerships with organizations that are known and trusted in poor communities; they must be patient and realize this takes time and must be prioritized by the organization in terms of budget and staffing; they must ensure that the transition to a be a welcoming place for all is an entire organization effort that includes all staff involved in customer service. And as noted above, it may involve re-training our core audiences as well (for example, not to throw dagger-eyes at someone who claps at the end of a movement at a classical music concert).

     
  5. Lee Boyko

    Hum, seems to me that the it is not so much income than the fact that the institutions with the highest affinity are those that are typically family friendly or more specifically young children friendly. Kids like animals, science centres are usually aimed at kids. Family income usually peaks after kids leave home.

     
  6. Andrew Ormston

    Good piece. Yes, so many cultural organisations have a very narrow approach to who is worth having a relationship with. Also good points about understanding the function of pricing in maintaining an audience relationship. Any parent, teacher or practitioner knows how important their role is in introducing people to culture, and how prohibitively expensive some cultural experiences can be.

     

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