Point of Reference Sensitivity in Visitors: How It Affects Your Cultural Organization And What To Do About It

Data suggest that it’s good to to be the first organization that someone visits… but what if yours is the second?

If you’re the best art museum, for instance, then a visitor to art museums should be able to tell, right? Wrong. As it turns out, it’s a bit more complicated. This week’s Know Your Own Bone – Fast Facts video is about firsts… and seconds. And what to do if your organization is second.

You probably remember your first kiss – and your first car, your first love, and a whole host of other firsts. As human beings, we tend to ascribe a premium to firsts – and visits to cultural organizations are no different. Data suggest that first-time visitors to a type of cultural organization – such as a science center – rate their visitor satisfaction higher than those who have visited any other science center before – 18.1% higher, to be exact.

That’s a huge bump! It’s great news for the first cultural organization of its kind that a visitor experiences. Woohoo! We’ll take it! While this value varies slightly based on cultural organization type (history museum vs. aquarium vs. symphony), they tend to hover around this average.

However, the sad side of this coin is that, for no fault of their own, the second (and third, forth…) like-organization that an attendee visits is likely to suffer from significantly lower satisfaction levels than the first. This is a big deal for many obvious reasons, but one of which is the fact that overall satisfaction is a major contributor to overall value perceptions of organizations. Lower satisfaction levels lead to less word of mouth and thus less support and visitation. Yikes!

First time visitors also rate their experiences 14.8% higher in terms of value for cost of admission. That’s another huge bump that’s great for organizations able to benefit from that “first time” magic. 

We call this phenomenon Point of Reference Sensitivity


We noticed this trend at IMPACTS and we gave it a name. Point of Reference Sensitivity suggests that the market’s expectations are being constantly reframed by recent experiences. Essentially, as a person gains familiarity with an experience, it becomes increasingly harder to impress them. While Point of Reference Sensitivity may make logical sense, it’s still a bit of a bummer for the second cultural organization that hosts that visitor.

What is the solution? Be more unique.

Differentiate yourself as an individual organization rather than priding yourself on being like all other such organizations. That may sound overwhelming, but the good news is that we live in a connected world where differentiation may be easier – and more expected – than ever before. It’s a call to organizations to undertake smart experiments and creative programs, and to incorporate avenues for personalization and shared experiences. It’s a call to action to know who your organization is and what it stands for as well as why it is uniquely important. Achieving that “first time” satisfaction bump with every visit means smart integration of trends and awareness of market perceptions. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it all comes back to doing well what you do well – and letting folks know about it!

Those organizations that are most susceptible to Point of Reference Sensitivity are those that believe themselves to be mostly a type of attraction rather than a unique organization. The key to overcoming Point of reference sensitivity is to be yourself. That is how the market determines which organization is “best.”


Like this post? Don’t forget to check out my Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel. 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, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution 1 Comment

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

One Response to Point of Reference Sensitivity in Visitors: How It Affects Your Cultural Organization And What To Do About It

  1. Trish

    Thank you for this! People often confuse us with other McKinley sites. However, I always mention in my introduction to visitors that we are the FIRST Presidential MUSEUM, and we are the ONLY Presidential site that does not depend on government funding (it never has done this). I think it is really important to show that we are different from the rest. And now that I think of it, I will also include this information in our promotional literature.


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