Six Concepts that Visitor-Serving Organizations Confuse at Their Own Risk

6 concepts that cultural organizations confuse at their own risk

For the sake of the future of cultural organizations, let’s stop mixing up these terms. 

There’s a good amount of information here on KYOB that has accumulated through the course of this lil’ corner of the Internet’s existence! I recently wrote a compilation post on some of the more important points regarding engaging millennials within cultural organizations. I also recently found myself in a meeting taking on “the usual clarifications” when it occurred to me that there’s an important opportunity to compile a few of those “usual clarifications” as well!

Here are six sets of terms that often get confused with one another within leadership conversations at museums, theaters, aquariums, zoos, symphonies, and other cultural organizations. When we confuse these terms… well, general confusion tends to ensue and desired outcomes are not as easily achieved. Regular KYOB readers will recognize some of these “usual clarifications” from fast fact videos.

Ready? Let’s dive in! How many of these terms or concepts does your organization regularly interchange or generally misunderstand?


Market research vs. audience research

Audience research is the primary type of research upon which most cultural organizations rely. Audience research is any research conducted on visitors and past visitors in order to gather information about their attitudes, knowledge, interests, preferences, or behaviors. This kind of research comes in the form of exit surveys, zip code collecting, and reaching out to members and visitors through mail or email lists or online communities, for example. Audience research is research conducted on people who are already visiting your organization. Audience research is indeed valuable, but it is often confused with market research and an overreliance on audience research may he holding back even the smartest of cultural organizations.

Market research, on the other hand, is any organized effort to gather information about target markets – including the folks who may NOT be visiting an organization. Market research includes folks who are not your audiences (yet) and it is necessary to gather this information in order to reach new audiences. For the sake of long-term solvency, cultural organizations need to become better at reaching new audiences and our overreliance on audience research when we should be using market research results in industry problems like our inability to effectively attract low-income audiences. Market research helps spot trends and helps your organization figure out what to do next – not only to survive, but to thrive.


Admission pricing vs. affordable access

Admission pricing is the cost of admission for folks who visit your organization. It is an intelligently determined price point that contemplates what high-propensity visitors (people who are interested in visiting cultural organizations) are willing to pay in order to take part in your experience. “The gate” is often an important source of revenue for cultural organizations and having a considered price point ensures that your organization is neither leaving money on the table, nor jeopardizing attendance potential from those who are interested and able to support your organization. Admission price is an economically-sound business imperative for many organizations and admission pricing is not an affordable access program if your organization relies on paid admission in some capacity.

Affordable access (that is effective) is generally rather expensive for cultural organizations and it takes real investment that is usually made at least partially possible by gate revenues. Affordability is binary. An admission price is either affordable or it’s not. When organizations lower their optimal price point in hopes of “being more affordable” or “reaching underserved audiences” they aren’t truly doing either of those things. In reality, they are purposefully missing out on the very funds needed to make effective affordable access possible at all. Successful affordable access programs are targeted so that they truly reach folks who are unable to attend – not people who would generally pay full price but are just looking for a deal. Admission pricing and affordable access are two completely different means of access that play completely different roles in the sustainability of visitor-serving organizations.


High-propensity visitors vs. historic visitors

High-propensity visitors are folks who demonstrate the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization. In other words, these are the people who actually visit cultural organizations. They are those awesome kinds of people who say, “Yeah! That sounds like fun!” of even “Yeah. I could do that!” when someone suggests a visit to a museum or performance.We love these folks. As much as we hate to admit it, not all people have this reaction. High-propensity visitors do not need to have visited a type of cultural organization in order to profile as a likely visitor and they are not necessarily past visitors. Instead, they are people with behaviors and characteristics that indicate the potential to visit. Many members of “new audiences” – including millennials and minority majorities  – profile as high-propensity visitors as well.

Historic visitors are the people with the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics that match traditional visitor profiles. Essentially, they are past visitors. Historic visitors profile as a high-propensity visitors, but not every high-propensity visitor matches the profile of a person who has more traditionally visited cultural organizations. Not everyone with interest in visiting today necessarily matches the profile of the kind of person who visited yesterday. Glibly (but it helps illustrate the difference), not everyone who is likely to visit a cultural organization is a wealthy, older, white person. In fact, it’s increasingly the opposite. We need to reach beyond traditional visitor profiles because we are experiencing a negative substitution of the historic visitor in the United States. The issue of confusing historic visitors with high-propensity visitors that we need to more effectively reach is often confounded by confusion related to audience research vs. market research.


Key performance indicators vs. diagnostic metrics

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are used to evaluate the ongoing success of an organization or a particular initiative. Success is often defined in terms of making progress toward achieving the strategic objectives that optimize the solvency of an organization. KPIs have a direct correlation to desired outputs (fundraising, visitation, etc.). For instance, for our nonprofit visitor-serving partners at IMPACTS, we measure items related to market sentiment that include metrics such as reputation (e.g. top-of-mind metrics), educational value, satisfaction, value-for-price perceptions, and other items that correlate directly to the health of an organization and its ability to achieve its bottom line objectives.  Bad metaphor: Let’s say you’re an Olympic runner. Your KPIs are your response times, race times, reflexes, muscle strength, and those things that contribute most directly to your success.

Diagnostic metrics are data points that contribute to KPI performance and aid organizations in pinpointing specific opportunities but they can be a distraction if they are given the same attention as KPIs. These metrics cannot “stand-in” for KPIs because they are a sub-measurement of assessment criteria that lead to desired behaviors. For instance, on the surface, certain social media diagnostic metrics may look positive, but if they aren’t elevating your reputation (a key driver of visitation), then…well, a “like” is just a “like.” Diagnostic metrics are also helpful for listening to audiences and informing organizations of opportunities for improvement. Bad metaphor continued: Let’s say you are an Olympic runner again. Your diagnostic metrics might be your blood pressure, levels of B12, and heart rate. Heart rate contributes to your ability to run a good race time, but focusing on heart rate on its own isn’t the metric to focus on. (It’s your race time.)  You are measuring your heart rate (diagnostic metric), in this case, so that you can increase your race speeds (your KPI). Focusing on diagnostic metrics (like Facebook “likes” and retweets) without focusing on key performance indicators (like changes in reputation attendant to those likes) is a distraction and a waste of time getting a lot of retweets doesn’t necessarily mean that you are increasing your reputation. It is important to know which kinds of metrics are which. 


Discounts vs. promotions

Discounts are when an organization offers free or reduced admission to broad, undefined audiences for no clearly identifiable reason. Discounts do a lot of pretty terrible things for visitor-serving organizations. Simply, offering discounts devalues your brand. Offering discounts – especially via public social media channels – cultivates a “market addiction” that often has long-term, negative consequences on the health of organizations. In many ways, offering discounts creates a vicious cycle whereby a visitor-serving organization realizes an ever-diminishing return on the value visitation. When an organization provides discounts, it often results in five not-so-awesome outcomes that you can read about here.

Promotions offer a targeted benefit for certain audiences for an identifiable reason. The biggest difference between promotions and discounts may be how they are perceived by the market. Promotions celebrate your community. Promotions demonstrate why an organization is offering free or reduced pricing in the communication of the promotion. That reason is usually something that celebrates an organization’s mission or an organization’s audience, and it is made clear that it is something special. While some may learn the differentiation between these two approaches and consider it to be a framing of communication, it’s actually a reflection of an organization’s culture. Whether an organization’s go-to strategy includes either promotions or discounts demonstrates a great deal about the organization and the thoughtfulness of its engagement approach, as well as the value that it places on its reputation. In the end, one approach is more about an organization’s flailing attempts to hit specific attendance numbers at the expense of its brand and mission (and long-term ability to hit those numbers), and the other is more about your organization’s relationship with target audiences and communities.


Fads vs. trends

A fad is any form of behavior that is intensely followed by a population for a short period of time. The behavior will rise relatively quickly and fall relatively quickly once the perception of novelty is gone. Fads certainly have value and they can profoundly change organizations- consider the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge! Utilizing fads in marketing and programs can increase top-of-mind awareness, demonstrate the timeliness of your organization, and serve as a gateway for new audiences. This is all great and important stuff but – remember – fads don’t stick around.

A trend, on the other hand, gets stronger over time and does stick around. Trends have identifiable and explainable rises that are driven by audience needs. They help solve a problem for people. The increasing use of social networks is a trend (that connects us to one another). So is quitting smoking (which lengthens our lives), evidence-based medicine (that removes the guesswork in medical-related situations), and the use of mobile devices (that allow us to look up information in real time). These are things that have grown – and continue to grow – in market penetration. They solve problems. They represent new ways of life. Organizations ignore trends at their own risk. Ignoring trends means that they will either be forced to adapt later and will necessarily be behind, or the organization will fade away. When organizations write off things like web-based engagement or data-informed management (for instance) as fads instead of trends, evolution stops. However, treating fads like trends can lead organizations to become overwhelmed, give up on following along, and, again, stop evolution. (Here’s a tip on how to tell if something is a fad or a trend.)


Think the distinction between these terms and concepts sound obvious? GREAT. Let’s make sure to join the conversation and help organizations keep them straight so that they can survive and thrive. Let’s all help in communicating “the usual clarifications,” because if we don’t, our organizations risk healthy evolution.


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, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a 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

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