Audience Insights: Organizations Overlook the Most Important Clues

Clues for increased satisfaction and visitation are often right under the noses of cultural organizations. I frequently hear executive leaders Read more

Do Expansions Increase Long-Term Attendance? (DATA)

Sometimes it feels like nearly every cultural organization is taking on a major expansion project. But do these projects Read more

Over 60% of Recent Visitors Attended Cultural Organizations As Children (DATA)

You may have guessed it was true – but here’s why this statistic matters. The idea that those who visit Read more

Cultural Organizations: It Is Time To Get Real About Failures

Hey cultural organizations! Do you know what we don’t do often enough? Talk about our failures. It’s a huge, Read more

How Annual Timeframes Hurt Cultural Organizations

Some cultural executives still aim for short-term attendance spikes at the expense of long-term financial solvency – and they Read more

Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA)

Special exhibits don’t do what many cultural organizations think that they do. If fact, they often do the opposite. Read more

Community Engagement

Audience Insights: Organizations Overlook the Most Important Clues

Clues for increased satisfaction and visitation are often right under the noses of cultural organizations.

I frequently hear executive leaders lament the difficulty of knowing what is going on with their audiences absent ready access to robust market data. And perhaps they aren’t too far off in their concerns – market research is an incredible asset for identifying trends and informing operations.

Market data can also provide indicators into an audience’s perceptions and behaviors. However, it’s not necessarily the most economically efficient way to start the process. Whether your organization knows it or not, some of the most important audience insights are already sitting under the noses of cultural leaders. It may simply be that we’re not noticing them or assigning them their appropriate power.

Social media listening and customer service feedback are among an organization’s most valuable clues for elevating operations.

Let’s talk about being super sleuths within cultural organizations and key sources of critical clues for an organization’s long-term success.

 

Why cultural organizations need audience insight

 

1) People do not always know what they want – so organizations need to look for clues that may indicate belief and actual behavior.

“People do not know what they want” sounds like some glib, overarching statement, but it’s actually an important tenant of behavioral economics. Behavioral economics is a method of economic analysis that applies psychological insights into human behavior to explain economic decision-making. We humans have a lot going on in our brains, we are profoundly influenced by context, and we are often only aware of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what motivates us and drives our decisions. In short, we’re not so great at judging what we are likely to do in certain situations. (This is a big reason why it’s important not to ask folks what they will do, but rather what they did do.) Emotions influence our real-time decisions in ways that we don’t anticipate when we aren’t in the context of making that decision.

I’m not going to go too far into behavioral economics as I risk leading you to the brink of “TL;DR” and closing your browser. But here’s why I bring it up:

In order to get to the bottom of visitor and supporter motivations, we need to ask audiences what they do, think, and believe – but we also need to understand the reality that sometimes they do not always know. As cultural organization super sleuths trying to get to the bottom of motivating visitation, it’s our jobs to be the scientists. It’s our job to find the holes, whether we want to be in the hole-finding business or not.

Simply, it comes with the “long-term solvency” territory.

 

2) Beneficial insight has little to do with scale

It seems that organizations sometimes write off feedback that comes from customer service issues or peer review sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor because, “It was only one person” or “It was only a few people.” However, when it comes to insight, the best clues can come from looking for things that are interesting, and not limited solely to things that are said frequently.

We know a whole bunch about what visitors report make up a positive experience. We know much less about the things that they are less aware of themselves that influence their decisions. It’s insight that matters in informing organizations where the holes may be, not the number of people who are aware of the hole.

When you identify an area of insight, it provides an opportunity for testing to better understand scale. Tallying TripAdvisor complaints about something is not collecting data on the influence of its effects on the overall visitor experience. It is an indicator that that thing is a problem that may be contributing to a negative experience!

Without even one interesting insight, an organization risks perpetuating ineffective best practices and stalling growth. You don’t need frequent repetition of the same insight to merit its investigation – you just need a moment to consider the power that the insight may have. Without an interesting insight, there’s nothing new to learn or test.

In order to collect helpful data, you need to know what you’re organization is seeking to understand.  If you don’t have your eyes peeled for things that you don’t understand (or, worse, if you are relying on data or audience feedback solely to affirm past decisions), then you may be collecting data for data’s sake. What’s the point of that?

Our world gives us clues. It’s our job to look into those clues if cultural organizations aim to be data-informed entities.

 

3) Audience insight provides clues about what to test using audience and market research.

In order to uncover data to include on this website and share with clients, I need to put in data queries with IMPACTS. In other words, I need to let our data people know what I want to know – and then see what the data says. Sometimes the data outcomes are somewhat surprising and they bust popular myths – like last week’s article on how long the attendance bump lasts after a building expansion opens. Other times, the data is not surprising at all, but the analysis afforded by the data lends important insight – such as my recent article about why it is important that over 60% of people who visit cultural organizations visited as children. Sometimes, I put in data queries and neither the data nor the analyses are all that interesting. This can be a bummer. It’s also an important part of the process of working with data and partnering with an evolving sector adjusting to a changing world.

In order to know what is going on inside of cultural organizations, you – as I do – need to know what to query. You need to know what to look for that can make your organization more efficient and effective. You need to say, “That’s interesting. Could something be there that we don’t yet know about?!”

Once you find something interesting, then you can test it for it at an appropriate scale to see how relevant and prominent the sentiment or behavior may be. This is how one of our client organizations uncovered that millennials want different things from membership than the generations that came before them – and then we found that the trend extended far beyond that client organization! It started with an idea: “We think millennials want something different than what we are offering in our membership program. What do they want from a membership to our organization?” They had a tip off that millennials were interested in something else – and they asked us to help them look into it. They picked up on audience insight and asked us to dig into data that ultimately also helped other organizations stop guessing.

Paying attention to audience insights helps you determine what to test. What if you’re deciding what to test based on insider expert assumptions? Well, you’re not likely to uncover much that is new because insider experts aren’t great at thinking like visitors. (I’m in this boat with you, cultural professional. I can speak confidently about data-informed visitor behaviors and perceptions, but I am not able to think purely like a visitor.)

Should you test the resonance of every tidbit of audience feedback that your organization receives? Of course not. Test those that you think may be impactful. Think critically. Often times, organizations jump into learning more or solving problems based upon our own, insider assumptions. We’re forgetting the first step: paying attention to audience insight. We don’t have to make assumptions. If fact, we may be better served to do this less. Let’s test the things that come from visitors and may impact operations to help us better achieve our goals.

 

Organizations already have valuable audience insight

The clues to intelligent evolution are right under our noses. We just call them “social media comments” and “customer service feedback.” The insight can easily get lost in the shuffle and the day-to-day business of running a cultural organization. It doesn’t help that “social media comments” and “customer service feedback” sound like particularly undesirable reading.

“Social media comments? Some of those come from crazy people!” I’m not going to argue with you.

“You’re saying that TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews are basically the seedlings of organization-changing insight?! Did you see that some loon gave the Grand Canyon a one-star review and called it a really big hole in the ground?!”  Yes, I saw that. Indeed, it was loony.

I have heard stories from clients that onsite feedback can be every bit as maddening. But some lunacy may be a small price to pay for the valuable insight that can come from listening to audiences and pausing for a moment to think critically about comments that catch your attention. This can also go too far in the other direction: sometimes organizations take one person’s feedback a bit too seriously. After all, a sample size of one person is not a significant sample. The aim here is to put on your own thinking cap and ask, “Should I learn more about this?”

 

Better understanding to better leverage insights

One reason why it is hard to spot these insights and move them up to strategic leadership is that identifying insights requires some assessment. Assessment takes time to pause and think critically – and this type of feedback is too often delivered to an already-overloaded staff member with several important and time-sensitive things to do. Examples include customer service representatives and social media managers.

Here are some items to keep in mind to encourage the identification of audience insights:

 

1) Social media is not about technology. It is about the engagement of real and potential supporters.

One of the main reasons why feedback that comes in over the web gets overlooked may be based on a misunderstanding that social media and digital engagement are more about technology than people. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Social media plays a critical role in driving visitation because there are real-life human beings behind the other end of the computer screens (most of the time).

This misunderstanding permeates many departments – and is unfortunate because most departments are touched by digital engagement. For instance, the crazy idea that donations made over the web are somehow less worthy of personal thanks than donations received via a mail solicitation is an important reason why donors stop giving to cultural organizations. Social media and digital engagement are tools for reaching and interacting with people. And cultural organizations are about engaging people.

This misunderstanding may be especially prevalent in those organizations that look to the marketing department when they get a negative review on TripAdvisor. “Increase our Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews,” may be one of the silliest things that someone can say to the marketing department because peer review sites highlight experience issues. They cannot largely be fixed with polite replies from marketing staff. And it’s because peer review sites highlight opportunities relating to the visitor experience that they can be a goldmine for valuable audience insight.

Peer review site ratings and social media comments: Like broccoli florets, it’s not always pleasant to take them in, but they sure can help you grow in the long term.

 

2) Customer service gripes are not only about operations. They are about experiences.

Similarly, customer service feedback can shine a light on weak spots. This is obvious, probably, but that doesn’t mean that developing a culture that takes the time to assess and discuss feedback is easy to cultivate. Far from it! Like social media managers, customer service representatives are often stretched thin and are too busy putting out fires to notice a particularly unique or interesting fuel source.

 

3) Assigning appropriate value to noting insights is a decision. But it is not necessarily a time consuming one.

It could be as simple as leaders asking to hear the three comments or reviews that a social media manger or customer service representative found interesting each week. It could mean empowering thoughtful employees to say, “Hey. This happened today. Could there be something here to explore?”

Generally, it means placing trust and value in the thoughtfulness of frontline staff and community managers – those people who make engagement work within cultural organizations. It means making sure that executive leadership remains connected to the things happening “on the floor” that may provide clues as to how to improve an organization’s public perceptions and visitor experience.

 

Early glimpses of audience insight are important because they are the basis of any next-level pursuit of insight or analysis. In order to collect market data, an organization benefits by understanding what it is trying to uncover with that data. An organization also benefits by understanding that the most effective surveys and data collection tools are not based primarily upon insider or organization assumptions.

Game-changing audience insight can come by way of the feedback that many cultural organizations have right under their noses. Frankly, that’s pretty darn cool. It means that cultural organizations can be audience insight detectives in our super-connected, data-driven world – and it’s easier than they might think.

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution Leave a comment

Do Expansions Increase Long-Term Attendance? (DATA)

Sometimes it feels like nearly every cultural organization is taking on a major expansion project. But do these projects truly sustain long-term increases in attendance? That’s the topic of this week’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts Video.

If you feel like there have been a whole heck of a lot of major expansion projects taking place within the United States and beyond, then you’re not imagining things. A recent study by the Art Newspaper revealed that US museums, in particular, spent over 5 billion dollars on expansion projects between 2007-2014…during some of the worst years of financial strife since The Great Depression. That spending amount is more than the total spending of all 37 other countries in the survey combined. A quick Google search on expansions and various cultural organization types seems to suggest that perhaps things aren’t slowing down much. Heck, here are the reported most important museum expansions of 2017.

Given the great deal of spending on increasing the physical footprint of cultural organizations in the US, one may think that we must have compelling reasons for it! Or at least, have a good grip on how an expansion will “pay itself off” – especially since expansions often come with greater operating budgets. While acknowledging that museum expansions are not necessarily all about measuring success by the numbers of visitors they bring in, an investment that secures greater long-term revenues is often the goal that many board members and donors aim for when they support an expansion project.

 

It’s worth noting the appeal that expansion projects may have for major donors. Indeed, cultural organizations need to evolve in several ways to welcome and meet the expectations of a more diverse and connected audience. Meanwhile, it’s generally easier to secure large donations for sexy-sounding new projects than to fundraise for necessary renovations or secure additional investment for ongoing administration needs. There is an issue/opportunity here: Awareness of a need to create and/or maintain a visitor experience that is relevant and engaging in today’s digital world, and a potential to engage big donors in exciting, press-securing, name-dropping, fancy projects. Expansions might make sense if you stop there!

But what if we think about the glory, glamour, and outcomes related to expansions a little bit harder? What can we learn about why they do or do not increase long-term visitation?

IMPACTS tracked attendance to 11 visitor-serving organizations that completed significant expansion projects between years 2003-2011. Each of the assessed organizations had been in business for at least ten years before opening their new expansion. The average project cost was $43.6 million. Here’s what we found:

Ten years preceding expansion (baseline): The first column in the above chart shows average, aggregated annual attendance to these eleven cultural organizations expressed as an index value with the 10-year period preceding the opening of the new expansion quantified as 100.0. This number is our baseline. This way we can compare and consider the impacts for the organizations evenly, even though they each have different respective attendance levels.

Five years preceding expansion: Before we jump to post-expansion visitation, notice that in the five-year duration preceding the opening of the expansions, annual attendance declined on average by 5.2%.

When they undergo an expansion project, organizations tend to forget that visitation often drops during this time for two, important reasons. First, construction tends to lower visitor satisfaction and thus decreases the volume of glowing endorsements that an organization receives. Second, during this period, potential attendees are more likely to defer their visits until after the expansion opens. Why visit now when they can come back later and see the new, cool expansion?

When some organizations consider the “cost” of an expansion project, they overlook some of the opportunity cost. Losing word of mouth endorsements and realizing the related negative visitation impacts isn’t unique to construction – it’s also a major reason why organizations underestimate attendance loss resulting from unforeseen closures due to weather, facility rentals, or civil unrest.

First full year of operations after expansion: Now, the expansion opens! During the first, full year of operation, organizations saw an average increase in visitation of 19.6% compared to the average of the 10 years prior. That’s huge! But how long does it last?

Second full year after expansion: At the end of the second full year of operation, attendance decreased from the first post-expansion year, but it was still up 8.5% over baseline. These are still very big numbers, but even considering that a “glory year” during the opening may be expected, the rapid decline may be a bit alarming.

Third full year after expansion: In the third year, visitation was up 5.5% over the average of the 10 years prior to the expansion.

Fourth full year after expansion: By the fourth year, attendance was only up 3.1%. Oof.

Fifth full year after the expansion: At five years out, the organizations’ attendance had only increased 1.4% – essentially returning to the pre-opening condition.

 

But it’s even worse than it looks. Not only did these expansions cost millions of dollars, decrease visitation in the years leading up to the opening, and result in near-baseline visitation only five years out, but the US population increased by 11.7% during the assessed duration. According to the US census, the US population increased from 290 million in year 2003 to 324 million in year 2016. Adjusting for population growth, attendance being up 1.4% from baseline is a dramatic underperformance of the opportunity.

In sum, while annual attendance generally did increase in the immediate near-term following the expansion project’s opening, this increase was not sustained.

 

Why expansions alone may not increase long-term visitation

What the heck?! How could this be?! The answer may be quite simple: The true barriers to visitation may not be addressed by an expansion.

Some examples of data-informed, actual barriers include lack of establishing content relevance, being open during hours that don’t work for visitors, and travel issues. If cultural organizations aim to increase attendance, then they may be best served by considering the data-informed reasons why people don’t visit in the first place. If cultural organizations are increasingly competing with the couch and a remote control for free time (and they are), then it may be helpful to make sure that they’re doing more than building out new space and creating cool marketing messages about it. Having a “So what?” beyond “something new and expensive” may be a good idea. Knowing how the project will realistically help your organization reach its goals and having a realistic handle on desired outcomes probably couldn’t hurt, either.

Consider this: These 11 organizations are not dummies – and represented in this data are some rather notable examples from well-regarded organizations! Their leaders likely did not simply say, “Let’s build an expansion for the sake of building an expansion! Wouldn’t that be a hoot of a good time?” These expansions are not generally big, empty rooms. They presumably had goals related to engagement! Many have been celebrated! And, yet, they did not generally sustain significant long-term visitation increases. An expansion, in and of itself, may only be a solution if an organization’s problem was fitting everyone in the door.

I fear that the industry’s constant celebration of fancy expansions and then going silent on their long-term impact on visitation may be another example of our industry covering up our most valuable lessons.

A reasonable question for organizations considering expansions may be, “Why are we doing this?” (Note: re-doing, revamping, or renovating is different than expanding and increasing physical footprint). Expansions may aid organizations in other areas, but they generally are not the magic bullet that some organizations hope that they will be in regard to increasing visitation. (This obviously includes increasing reputation enough to sustain longer-term visitation increases, as the numbers wouldn’t drop off if an increase in repuational equities were paying off.) And maybe that’s okay? But then, of course, the question is: What does this expansion increase beyond an organization’s physical footprint?

Indeed, keeping visitor-serving organizations current, connective, and experiential is critical! Big and small upgrades may be a key to industry evolution! But why pursue an expansion instead of a thoughtful revamp or repurposing? If the purpose of an expansion is added space for engagement because an organization does not have adequate space for engagement, then an expansion may make sense. However, if the goal is to add a new kind of engagement based on the assumption (or finding) that an organization is not engaging visitors effectively, then perhaps consideration of the use of current space may be more helpful… and cost effective.

 

In order to yield payoff, it may be beneficial to consider how a project or initiative removes barriers to engagement – and that means knowing enough about your audience to understand why they may not visit in the first place.

Helpful hint: In the midst of an expansion project? Data suggest that facilitating personal interactions with staff is one of the most reliable ways to increase visitor satisfaction for cultural organizations on the whole. Do your big, expansion thing, you rockstar cultural organization, you! But don’t forget that sometimes those straightforward, “smaller” things matter and often make a more reliable difference in driving visitation.

Do expansions stimulate attendance growth in the short term? You bet. But an expansion may only be worth it if it directly solves the most pressing problems facing an organization – and many don’t.

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 2 Comments

Over 60% of Recent Visitors Attended Cultural Organizations As Children (DATA)

You may have guessed it was true – but here’s why this statistic matters.

The idea that those who visit cultural organizations as children are more likely to come back as adults may be a “statistic” that cultural executives loosely reference as fact without supporting evidence. After all, it seems to make sense – especially for those of us toiling in the cultural realm who were sparked into history, science, or the arts as children at these very types of organizations.

*Raising my hand enthusiastically*

But is it really true that those who visit as children are more likely to be visitors to cultural organizations as adults? And how much more likely are they to return as adults to similar organizations? It’s worth looking into – especially because there are some baseline cultural best practices that don’t quite align with behavioral economics or how people make visitation decisions.

Fact or fiction:

Adults who visit cultural organizations are more likely to have visited similar organizations as children.

Let’s take a look at the data to get to the answer.

The data is from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study and shows data organized and segmented by two queries: (1) Did the adult respondent visit the respective type of organization within the past two years; and (2) Had the same adult respondent previously visited the same type of organization as a child under the age of thirteen? These data contemplate six different cultural organization types – aquariums, zoos, history museums, art museums, orchestras/symphonies, and theatrical performances.

It’s a fact.

On average, those who visited a cultural organization as a child are 1.73x more likely to have also visited a similar organization type within the last two years than someone who did not or doesn’t recall visiting as a child.  Moreover, over 60% of recent visitors to cultural organizations attended these organizations as children. Turns out, visiting as a child may be a strong indicator of future visitation!

To write these data off by saying, “Well, I already knew that (in my gut). Time to move on,” is a lost opportunity to harness what this good news data means and leverage it to empower both opportunities for mission execution and financial solvency. Market research seeks to inform strategic decisions rather than affirm them, but this data – I believe in my own gut – is likely affirmative for cultural executives. It’s great news! While this data is likely affirmative, it is informative as well.

Here are three, critical points to keep in mind about why this information is important and worth much more thought than a passing “TL;DR” or “Well, DUH.”

 

1) Engaging children now is important for future visitation

This is the most obvious place to start. The data strongly suggest the importance of engaging children under the age of 13. Many organizations have programs for children codified within their engagement strategies for mission-related reasons. Simply, engaging children and providing informal learning experiences onsite and more formal learning experiences in classrooms is a part of what some organizations do. Consider field trips as well. Programs for children already exist for many organizations with reasoning that often seems to be more mission-related than solvency-related.

These data suggest a solvency-related opportunity to engage children under the age of thirteen – that’s a big reason why these data matter. Data suggest that these youngsters may help carry our organizations into the future by maturing into regular visitors, members, and donors. We knew that engaging kiddos with meaningful experiences was important, didn’t we? It may be even more important to both mission execution and long-term solvency than some anticipated.

 

2) Engaging children is not a magic bullet for visitation

Yes! These data are good news! However, it’s important not to “hear” that children are the most important audience to engage for organizations. That’s not what these data say. (It also doesn’t say that they aren’t the most important audiences – simply that childhood engagement seems to play a role in adult visitation.) Being perceived as a place primarily for children is a big barrier to adult engagement. There’s no point in cultivating future adult visitors if you’re not perceived as an entity that adults want to visit.

In other words, please don’t “OR” this data and blindly prioritize children over all other audiences (unless perhaps you are a children’s museum). This is “AND” information – “AND it is important to engage children.” Consider your organization type and mission, and allow that to determine just how important these data are for your organization.

Other age-related audiences are equally critical for long-term solvency. For instance, data suggest that marketing to adults rather than families can increase adult visitation – without jeopardizing family visitation! Moreover, nearly 25% of potential visitors to cultural organizations are millennials between the ages of 25-34. (We millennials reward evolution, and there are just so dang many of us that we tip the scales.)

From a not-age-related perspective, cultural organizations also need to get better at attracting people of more diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds than the historic visitor to a cultural organization. We need to become (and be perceived as) more welcoming in order to thrive long-term as a sector. Working to engage children of more inclusive backgrounds is important work, but if they grow up and don’t think/maintain that cultural organizations are welcoming, then they aren’t likely to attend.

 

3) This information may be more important for the future of cultural organizations than ever before

Whoa. Bold statement, right? I’ll explain: Cultural organizations are experiencing a phenomenon called negative substitution of the historic visitor. Essentially, people who profile as historic visitors are leaving the US market faster than they are being replaced. The US is growing more and more diverse with people who don’t necessarily feel welcome at cultural organizations.

These data may shine a light on a gateway to changing public perceptions of cultural organizations for the future: engage the children. Welcome them. Embrace them. Perhaps a key is to create a welcoming environment and working hard to solidify the notion amongst youngsters that organizations are welcoming of all people.

A challenge, again, may be that these kiddos have a positive, welcoming experience onsite, but age into the public opinion that cultural organizations are “not for people like me.” It’s an important time to engage children, but especially to engage children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as regular, welcome attendees to cultural institutions. To do this, I suspect that it’s not only critical to understand the important role that childhood visitation may play, but also to simultaneously welcome the parents, family members, and communities of people who are of different backgrounds than our historic visitors.

We must do a better job of engaging new audiences. Period.

 

4) This is not about childhood visitation. It is about creating memories that begin in childhood.

It’s that time in a Know Your Own Bone article to bring up the important “R” word. Rainbows? Rollercoasters? Red wine? All excellent things, but no. I’m talking about relevance.

Though it may be a small portion of visitors, notice that there’s an entire column of folks who don’t know or don’t recall if they visited organizations as children. They don’t remember. Maybe they don’t remember if they visited at all, and maybe they don’t remember if they were under thirteen years old if/when they did. Either way, those folks are about as likely to have visited an organization as those who report that they did not visit that type of organization.

In order to know if you’ve visited an organization type, you have to remember visiting that organization type. It’s not simply welcoming youngsters in the door that matters – but actively engaging them and creating a memorable experience. I am using the word relevant as meaningful and connective rather than simply current.

Remember: creating relevance isn’t all about content interest. At our best, cultural organizations are facilitators of shared experiences. We connect people to other people and to the world around them. We make things make sense – or we surprise someone with something that doesn’t immediately make sense. We educate and we inspire.

In order to gain the benefit of adult visitation stemming from childhood engagement, children need to be…well, engaged. It may not be beneficial to welcome children in the door and say, “DONE!” It may be more beneficial to consider how we are engaging children and creating meaningful, relevant experiences for them once they are inside those doors.

 

Folks who visited cultural organizations as children are more likely to return as adults. But you knew that already, didn’t you? It feels great to share “good news data” that I believe will be reaffirming of the efforts of many cultural organizations. More importantly, perhaps, it feels great to share the specific numbers and hopefully encourage some thinking about what they mean and how organizations may best use them to keep on doing their important work.

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Sector Evolution 4 Comments

How Annual Timeframes Hurt Cultural Organizations

Some cultural executives still aim for short-term attendance spikes at the expense of long-term financial solvency – and they may not even know it.

Annualized calendars reward short-term attendance “quick hits,” and risk making us blind to opportunities for long-term sustainability. It’s a big problem – and it’s one that may keep plaguing us until we get it right…or at least start emphasizing appropriate timeframes that better enable visitor-serving organizations to best achieve financial goals.

It’s an issue of short-term, low stakes vs. long-term payoff for cultural organizations. Annualized timeframes make it very difficult to achieve long-term success because the timeframe is too short to understand market behaviors for most organizations. They may help visitor-serving organizations measure short-term successes insofar as they relate to seasonal attendance, but they aren’t generally aligned with market behaviors beyond seasonality. In short, they are driven by calendars rather than by people and behavior.

Annualized timeframes are calendar-driven timeframes rather than behavior-based timeframes. In order to identify true business successes, we need to understand the most appropriate timeframes within which to measure them. Although annual attendance imperatives may not be going away anytime soon (another “It’s how we’ve always done it!”), it’s critical that visitor-serving organizations contemplate the damage caused by evaluating goals, successes, missteps, and business practices based entirely – or even predominately – on a simple calendar year.

Here are three, critical ways in which prioritizing annual timeframes may be making visitor-serving organizations blind to market behaviors, outcomes related to their own business practices, and opportunities for securing support:

 

1) Annualized timeframes do not reflect market behaviors

Let’s start here. Due to annualized budgets, organizations consider a visit in November or December in one year as distinct from a visit in January or February of the following year. From the market’s perspective, there is no functional difference. However, organizations regularly pat themselves on the back for “closing strong” at the end of one year, and then reliably panic when 1Q attendance is down the following year. From a visitor’s perspective, we don’t often consider that there may not be a major difference between visiting on December 19 or January 19.

Contemplating market potential and performance in a 12-month cycle doesn’t remotely conform to actual visitation patterns for visitor-serving organizations such as museums, zoos, aquariums, symphonies, theaters, and the like. The average re-visitation cycle for US visitor-serving organizations approximates 21 months. In other words, 21 months – closer to two years than one – is the average duration between visits to US visitor-serving organizations for non-members. (Keep in mind that this is the average amongst visitor-serving organizations. The visitation cycle for your own organization may be more or less than this timeframe.) Here’s the kicker: Many organizations still don’t even know the duration of their own re-visitation cycle.

Just think about that for a moment. Many organizations are still so inside-perspective driven that they don’t even know enough about their visitors to consider how often they are coming back. This is extremely baseline information for spotting visitation trends and measuring the effectiveness of various audience engagement strategies. We almost exclusively abide by annual timeframes because “that’s how we’ve always done it” (when we didn’t know better). But we should know better by now – the market is the arbiter of our success.

Certainly, seasonal visitation during peak attendance periods provides some year-over-year insight into overall attendance performance – which makes sense given how important schedule is to the visitation decision-making process. However, this doesn’t simply mean that success can be measured entirely by comparing this year’s spring break attendance to last year’s spring break attendance. Year-over-year comparisons provide insights – they’re not necessarily overall performance indicators. In order to accurately assess performance, visitor-serving budget and planning processes should reconcile with the market’s behaviors. Similarly, our key performance indicators should more completely contemplate the market. Year-over-year performance is important – to be sure – but it may be less relevant than considering performance in 21-month intervals (or, your organization’s own visitation cycle).

 

2) Annualized timeframes hide damaging practices

When we measure success annually, we tend to prioritize attendance-increasing “quick hit” practices that may risk detrimental long-term consequences. For instance, when we look only at annual attendance, we’re looking at too short of a period of time to see the long-term risks associated with getting caught up in a cycle of hosting blockbuster exhibits, or even realistically considering the possible consequence of cycling special exhibits on the whole. We may see attendance temporarily spike that year, but this short-term, isolated view neglects to reveal the ways that a blockbuster exhibit strategy may negatively impact visitation cycles the following years. Annual timeframes also mask the damage of discounting admission pricing – a cycle that, once deployed, can take years to correct for organizations.

(Remember: Discounting is a different practice than targeted promotions, and has nothing to do with affordable access programming. Affordable access programming is completely different than discounting.)

Annualized calendars risk hiding bad business practices that would be easily spotted were we to consider their impacts in a more appropriate timeframe (i.e. one aligned to actual visitation cycles). Worse yet, being beholden to a calendar year invites boards and leaders to favor the short-term payoff at the expense of potentially more sustainable, long-term strategies.

 

3) Annualized timeframes may hinder major donor cultivation

This negative impact may be the most obvious: Chasing short-term development goals – such as year-end annual fund contributions – may come at the potential expense of cultivating major gifts. When development staff are incentivized to meet annual fund goals, they may be encouraged to repeatedly “go to the well” with mid/major donors instead of cultivating them for even more meaningful (and more impactful) major gifts.

Certainly, cultivating donations year-over-year can serve as a beneficial build-up that may help keep some donors engaged over time, but a lot has changed with regard to fundraising in the connected world in which we live. It may be time to be as donor-driven in our philanthropic goals as we need to be market-driven in our visitation goals. “Going to the well” may work for select donors with certain giving capacities, but it may be time to realize that this approach might not work for everyone – and it may be a false measure of end-all-be-all success for development staff.

The United States has more Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals (net assets greater than US$50 million) than any other country. These folks are motivated to give based upon who else is giving and how much they are giving. Here’s the data. Bigger gifts are more dependent upon board cultivation by peers than phone calls from relentless development staff (which, by the way, don’t work for these donors unless you are aiming for much smaller gifts). Building donor relationships can take time. Those relationships that link up potential donors with board members who can impact giving may especially take time – and we tend to give board members the time needed to successfully cultivate these relationships. Why don’t we also allow development staff suitable timeframes that reward them not only for securing year-over-year donations, but also for taking the time and energy to appropriately build more significant donor relationships?

I’m not saying that annual goals are necessarily a bad idea for securing donations. I’m saying that some organizations may be sacrificing more substantial gifts in the long-run by emphasizing rewards for smaller, year-over-year gifts. Again, it’s an inside-out practice that may need to evolve. Relationships with organizations matter to potential donors – and even to potential members. The “going to the well” strategy is self-oriented and may be less thoughtful and ultimately less beneficial than also realizing that our annualized donor cultivation timeframes may cheat us out of the very thing we’re after: Meaningful relationships with key supporters.

 

We aren’t likely to suddenly scrap annual goals – and perhaps we shouldn’t. Certainly, year-over-year performance offers some diagnostic insight into the health and effectiveness of our organizations. But using the calendar year as a lazy excuse not to align our organizational measures of success with a more appropriate chronology is a bad business practice. Annual timeframes are still most important to our internal budget and planning processes – but they don’t necessarily conform to the external, market-driven realities that make or break our organizations.

Prioritizing annual timeframes may be making us blind to some of our industry’s most beneficial and detrimental business practices alike. Ultimately, a reliance on the calendar year panders to inside-out thinking and disproportionately emphasizes measurements that tell but one aspect of a bigger story of institutional vitality. Successful organizations consider their businesses from the outside-in and, thus, plan their behaviors in like chronology with the behaviors of the market.

A 365 day calendar is a terrific way to quantify the Earth’s orbit around the sun. It may be less suited as a measure of an organization’s performance.

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on How Annual Timeframes Hurt Cultural Organizations

Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA)

Special exhibits don’t do what many cultural organizations think that they do. If fact, they often do the opposite.

The prospect of hosting special exhibits – and blockbuster exhibits, in particular – often makes exhibit-based cultural organizations excited. They sound cool! They spice things up! They are temporary so it makes visitation urgent! It’s new content upon which to underscore expertise! What’s not to like?

A whole bunch, actually.

Hosting special exhibit after special exhibit – and, especially, so-called blockbuster exhibits – often results in more long-term damage than dinero for cultural organizations. I’ve previously shared information about the phenomenon of “Death by Curation” (also known as “Blockbuster Suicide”). Essentially, data suggest that blockbuster exhibits often create a negative cycle that challenges the solvency of the visitor-serving organizations that come to rely upon them as a primary audience engagement strategy.

This flawed, unsustainable strategy finds organizations over-reliant on visitation from special exhibits – rather than their permanent collections – in order to (hopefully) achieve their attendance and financial goals. It’s no secret that a true blockbuster exhibit can boost a museum’s attendance to record levels. However, a “blockbuster” is rare, and the fact that these blockbusters spike attendance so dramatically is an important finding: Blockbusters are anomalies – not the basis of a sustainable plan. It’s another example of our getting so excited about short-term visitation spikes that we forget to zoom out longer than our annual timelines in order to see what is really going on.

Death by Curation happens a lot, but we don’t often talk about it within the exhibit-based cultural industry. I’m not in the business of calling out individual organizations, but if you think of organizations that have fallen on hard financial times, you may note the frequency with which Death By Curation plays a role in their respective struggles. Death by Curation is the business of staking your reputation and attendance goals on a stimulus that will by definition soon leave your organization. It’s the business of making arguably your organization’s best reputational equities ephemeral. It’s pouring sacred budgeting resources into building affinity for a special exhibit rather than a meaningful destination – your organization.

Essentially, Death by Curation happens because organizations focus on special exhibits at the expense of their permanent collections. We put a lot of endorsement energy and marketing expenditures around special exhibits and that makes sense. Special exhibits often cost quite a bit to actualize, and there is an understandable want to aggressively promote them in the hopes of recouping our investments. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Data suggest that an organization’s permanent collections – perhaps more so than special exhibits – matter in terms of overall organizational wellness and sustainability.

The data below contemplate the perceptions of visitors to six visitor-serving organizations that recently (since January 2014) featured a separately ticketed special exhibit in addition to their regular, permanent collections.

Some important numbers before we dive in: The data indicate that 31.7% of visitors only visited the special exhibits – regardless of if their special exhibit admission included access to the permanent collection. This means that though they may have had access to the permanent collection, they report simply visiting the special exhibit and then leaving. Additionally, 34.9% of folks reported visiting both the special exhibit and permanent collection, and 33.4% of visitors reported visiting only the permanent collection.

The special exhibits are different and the organizations are not all of the same “type” (i.e. all history museums). However, they are all exhibit-based. (Performance-based cultural organizations can eat popcorn on the sidelines here. A form of Death By Curation may reasonably apply to performance-based organizations as well, but I do not have apples-to-apples data to make a comparison.) I also want to mention that these six organizations did not take on the same exhibit so as to preemptively address a possible defense against critical thinking: “There’s no way this applies to my organization!”

Let’s take a look at visitor perceptions concerning (a) value for cost; (b) overall satisfaction; and (c) intent to re-visit within one year. Let’s look at value for cost measures first, because this outcome may be the least surprising and it serves a bit like required reading prior to digging into our next two charts.

The value for cost metric measures, essentially, how much bang a person believes that they got for their buck. You will note that value for cost perceptions are reliably lower for those who purchased the separately ticketed special exhibit – and this, too, makes sense: The special exhibit costs more!  However, this metric is not a measure of cost but rather of perceived value – so the goal is for visitors to perceive high value for cost regardless of the expense. In other words, this metric allows that a visitor may perceive a premium experience with a premium cost more favorably than a lower cost, lesser experience. What organizations often forget when they charge an extra fee is that it increases the expectation of an experience worthy of that additional expense.

Another item of note is the generally minor change in value for cost between those who only saw the permanent collection and those who saw both the permanent collection and the special exhibit. This may be surprising, as organizations might guess that someone who saw both permanent and special exhibits might have much higher value for cost perceptions than those who only saw the permanent collection. Depending on the visitor’s perception of the special exhibit, the exhibit risks disproportionately influencing their perceptions and kicking down the value for cost perceptions of those who saw both the special exhibit as well as the permanent collection.

You will note that overall satisfaction is essentially similar among people solely visiting either the special exhibit or permanent collection. Overall satisfaction is 1.18% higher among those who only visited the permanent collection. As previously noted, this is likely due to the role that value for cost plays in the market’s contemplation of overall satisfaction (i.e. lower value for cost perceptions tend to demean overall satisfaction).  In no case are either the value for cost or overall satisfaction metrics less among those who visited the permanent collections when compared to those who only visited the special exhibit.

These data should perhaps give you pause and encourage some consideration. Intent to re-visit for those who only visited the special exhibit are dramatically less than indicated for those who visited the permanent collection.  Again, this may make sense: Those motivated to visit primarily by a special exhibit may naturally be more inclined to wait until the next special exhibit before re-visiting…and the next special exhibit may not open within the next year. This is one of the negative side effects of special exhibits (all the more magnified when we pour a lot of marketing resources into them): We tie intent to re-visit to temporary experiences and thus encourage potential visitors to wait until we have another one to come back. We invest significant resources in underscoring that our special exhibit is indeed the most “special” experience we offer, and then we are surprised when the market believes us and behaves accordingly.

Death By Curation – and an over-reliance on “bigger and better” special exhibits in general – takes its toll on exhibit-based cultural organizations on the whole. It’s the prevalence of the practice of Death By Curation that “nothing new to do or see” is a top reason why people who have reported specific interest in visiting cultural organization’s don’t make it through the door! It is so common that it is a popular reason for not attending cultural organizations. In many ways, we’ve trained the public to believe that our special exhibits are more special than our organizations on the whole – possibly even more important than our missions and the reasons why we exist. We may be sabotaging one of our biggest reputational advantages: That cultural organizations are more than attractions, and that they can and do change communities and the world.

Special exhibits can do good things, of course, when they are carefully considered beyond the quick hit of a temporary attendance spike that comes at the expense of long-term visitation. And perhaps “It’s time to think about our next special exhibit” shouldn’t be a second-nature thought for cultural executives. Perhaps it’s better to think, “What’s the best thing that we can do to walk our talk in terms of who we are and what we stand for?” Sometimes the answer is a special exhibit. However, I’d like to propose that perhaps it’s not the only answer…or, even, a frequently appropriate response.

Chasing audiences with special exhibits – and especially blockbuster/blockbuster-wannabe exhibits – isn’t generally sustainable in the long-term. It also calls to question the total costs of developing and actualizing these exhibits as a means of engaging visitors – including the costs to promote them – when compared to potential alternative uses of the same funds. There are many other proven ways to increase visitation that may be more sustainable than tying visitation to special exhibits.

Consider this: Perhaps what is special is what lives inside of your organization. Building affinity for specific items in a permanent collection may be an underrated move. Items in your permanent collection stand for who you are, and not simply what might be hot right now.

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

A Quarter of Likely Visitors to Cultural Organizations Are In One Age Bracket (DATA)

Nearly 25% of potential attendees to visitor-serving organizations fall into one, ten-year age bracket.

Which generation has the greatest percentage of folks who profile as likely visitors to cultural organizations? That’s the focus of this week’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video. The answer might surprise you.

…Or, maybe the answer WON’T surprise you, given all the recent talk about the importance of engaging millennials for visitor-serving organizations such as museums, zoos, aquariums, science centers, performing arts entities, and even national and state parks. Certainly, a subset of millennials cannot possibly take the cake as having the most people who are likely visitors! Au contraire. As it turns out, we millennials really do our best to be ever worthy of attention.

A high-propensity visitor is a person who has the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood to visit a cultural organization. In other words, these are the people who are most likely to actually walk through our doors. It’s may be challenging for some of us to believe, but not everybody who hears the word “history museum” or “ballet” thinks, “Yes! Let’s go!” (or even a less enthusiastic variation of this statement). However, there are folks who are more likely to think this way, and these people are our high-propensity visitors. They are the people who are most likely to visit cultural organizations.

Remember: High-propensity visitors are not the same as historic visitors. People who profile as historic visitors are those with the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that match those who traditionally visit cultural organizations. Simply, all historic visitors (traditional, actual visitors) are generally included in the high-propensity visitor group (potential visitors), but not all high-propensity visitors profile as historic visitors. To be overly glib, not all likely visitors to cultural organizations are wealthy and white. (Again, that’s an extreme over-simplification, but my hope is that it gives you a sense of the distinction.) In fact, it’s quite the opposite…

Historic visitors – people who look and act like the people that cultural organizations have had success engaging in the past – are exiting the market (e.g. due death, relocation, etc.) at a faster rate than they are being replaced (e.g. via birth, immigration, etc). This phenomenon is called negative substitution. If organizations do not do a better job of engaging emerging audiences with an interest in visiting, it will continue to be a challenge for visitation to keep pace with population growth. We need to get better at engaging new audiences.

In the chart below, the red bar on the left shows the percentage of the US adult market by age cohort as per the US Census Bureau. The blue bar on the right indicates the percentage of adult high-propensity visitors to visitor-serving organizations (VSOs) as informed by the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study.

This chart is segmented by age rather than by more broad generational cohorts, and that allows us to dig deeper and better understand the particular dynamics of each age group.

Almost a quarter (24.3%) of adult high-propensity visitors in the US were millennials between the ages of 25-34 in year 2016. That is so much millennial potential! And it’s not surprising, really, as I’ve written a great deal about the cultural industry’s millennial engagement opportunity before.

The fact that the greatest percentage of potential visitors falls into a millennial age cohort is a big deal because cultural organizations are not adequately securing millennial visitation. In fact, it’s a bit more of a unique and attention-worthy situation than that…

Simply put, data suggest that millennials are both the most frequent visitors to cultural organizations and also comprise their greatest percentage of overall attendance potential. At the same time, millennials are also the most under-represented generational cohort in terms of visitation. There are simply so many of us that we’re both the cultural industry’s most frequent current visitors that need to be kept happy – and ALSO the generation that organizations must do a better job of attracting. Here’s the data on millennial visitation and the extent to which millennials make up our greatest volume of visitation and yet still are not visiting at representative rates.

Moreover, data suggest that there are other “millennial characteristics” that make this age group a critical target audience for cultural organizations.

Before opening this article, you may have already been thinking something like, “Jeez! It feels like we are slaves to the millennial generation!”  I think that sentiment makes sense. We talk about millennials a lot. (Even I get a bit tired of talking about us and I’m a millennial!) Here are some important things to remember if you’re getting fed up with millennial talk. Most importantly, “millennial talk” is code for “everybody talk.” Perhaps as a result of living in our super-connected world, other age groups increasingly share “millennial characteristics.” Think about it: Millennials are far from the only generation that utilizes the web and values brand transparency and personalization.

Adding all of these factors up might make a non-millennial groan, but it doesn’t make them less important: (1) Millennials are already the most frequent attendees to cultural organizations; (2) They are our most under-served age cohort (as they are not visiting at representative population rates); (3) They are sort of a canary in the coalmine for engagement of all audiences today; and (4) Millennials comprise the highest percentage of high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations.

Yikes! How’s that for being deserving of special treatment?

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, Millennials 1 Comment

People Trust Museums More Than Newspapers. Here Is Why That Matters Right Now (DATA)

Actually, it always matters. But data lend particular insight into an important role that audiences want museums to play right now.

“Are museums perceived as experts – and are they trusted? To what extent?” These are the questions that I hoped to shine a light upon when I requested a topic-specific data cut on cultural organizations from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. The NAAU is an ongoing study regarding market perceptions of visitor-serving organizations and it currently quantifies feedback from over 108,000 respondents. The resulting data reveal important takeaways for museums today – and specifically underscore an important role that the market expects museums to play. As a heads-up, the data below is cut for the United States market and not only high-propensity visitors. In other words, this isn’t simply “what people who believe in climate change” think about museums.

The data and analysis in this article contribute to several debates taking place in the visitor-serving industry right now from crowd-curated exhibits and the “education vs. entertainment” debate, to implications regarding participation in last week’s March for Science. Knowing how much people trust museums is important information for developing relevant and sustainable organizations. But data reveal that being trusted comes with the responsibility to communicate action and recommend mission-driven behaviors.

Hey museums, you have the superpower of public trust. Like your superpower of being facilitators of shared experiences, you may not even realize the importance of this superpower. Remember: Your organization may declare importance, but the market determines relevance. Here’s what the market thinks about cultural organizations when it comes to credibility, trust, and their duty to the communities they serve.

 

Museums are highly credible sources of information

Aquariums, art museums, history museums, science centers/museums, natural history museums, and zoos are highly credible sources of information. And, as the data indicate, these values aren’t merely “good,” they’re rather fantastic! With values in the upper-seventies, there is a strong level of agreement with the statement “[Entity type] is a highly credible source of information.”

While the strength of the sentiment may or may not surprise you, what is notable are the perceptions of museums as credible sources when compared to NGOs, federal agencies, and even the daily newspaper. Yes, folks, museums are trusted more than the daily newspaper.

The NGO category includes non-governmental organizations that are not museums. The mean values at 64.2 for NGOs and 61.3 for state agencies indicate a relative level of credibility – with perceptions largely influenced by the degree to which the respective NGO or agency conforms to the respondent’s worldview.  For example, no matter what the integrity of the information published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an avowed climate change denier is unlikely to find the NRDC unassailably credible. Federal agencies (with a mean value of 51.4), represent an even more bifurcated public view – which makes sense in our current partisan condition.

These data tie into the never-ending “education vs. entertainment” priority debate within visitor-serving organizations. It’s a never-ending debate because there isn’t a clear winner. Data suggest that cultural organizations need to be both entertaining and educational in order to succeed, though they play different roles in the visitor experience. It’s also a never-ending debate because – although the two may be unstoppable when they team up – the topic has become stupidly polarizing among some industry professionals. It’s divided within some organizations (e.g. education vs. marketing departments) and outside of them (e.g. topic-experts vs. museum consultants). Again, they play different roles, but we really should write a ‘thank you’ note to whomever invented that silly/awesome word “edu-tainment.” (Anybody know his or her address?)

Entertainment value is critical for an organization’s solvency and success, but organizations that veer too far on the “entertainment” side of things risk losing the reputational equity of credibility. And it’s an area in which museums shine.

 

Museums are trusted

Not only are museums viewed as highly credible sources of information, they are also trusted entities overall. This type of trust is not to be taken lightly, and it’s a testament to organizations that stand by their missions to educate and inspire audiences.

This is important information for all museums contemplated in these data, and it is especially worthy of an extra look for zoos and aquariums. Zoos and aquariums are trusted by the market at-large…and rather significantly so. I point this out because it lends context to some of the debates taking place in the zoo and aquarium world regarding captive animals. Certainly, IMPACTS data reveal stark trend lines regarding perceptions of exhibits such as dolphin shows, but the market at large still largely trusts zoos and aquariums to evolve and make value-based decisions driven by their missions. This is not an excuse for zoos and aquariums not to listen up and evolve alongside market perceptions of “right” and “wrong” (to the extent that they may/may not be evolving). It’s the opposite. It’s a reminder not to let people down.

It may be argued that museums are trusted because they employ and/or consult topic experts and thus provide expert content. That might be it, friends! Regardless: Trusted, they are.

These data also provide aid for thinking about crowd-curated exhibits. The market views museums as expert sources of information. While crowd-curated exhibits certainly can be an effective way to engage the public depending on how they are administrated and actualized, they also risk perceptually undermining a museum’s own hard-earned trust and credibility. Engagement is super great! Engagement that results in a greater loss of equity than the payoff (especially when there are other avenues for engagement) is not super great.

 

Museums are not seen as having political agendas

Here’s how these data fit in with the rest: They underscore that museums are seen as factual and impartial – more so than government agencies and the daily newspaper.

Are museums trusted because they are not seen as having political agendas? Maybe, but you can only stick the landing there if you jump to some conclusions. While I am sharing this alongside trust and credibility metrics, I’m not yet certain of the exact nature of the relationship between being political and being trustworthy as it relates to visitor-serving organizations – and neither are you. (If you don’t have data, then you have an opinion. That’s cool, but it doesn’t count here. Mine doesn’t, either.) There’s more to these values – and they are interesting and worth putting on our thinking caps to explore.

“Political” may understandably correlate with having connection to or trying to influence policy. This may be the reason why aquariums and zoos indicate a higher level of agreement with the statement, despite having lower levels of government funding and more earned revenue imperative than other visitor-serving entities. Some zoos and aquariums encourage audiences to vote in a certain direction (e.g. in favor of plastic bag bans). It makes sense that NGOs may have the strongest perception of having a political agenda – they openly do things like encourage people to fight global warming and feed the homeless. Federal and state agencies being perceived as having a political agenda seems to make good sense, too, from where I stand.

Confidence in cultural organizations took a plunge after the presidential election, and it remains low. The New York Times reports that we are divided in terms of consumer optimism: Some of us have great confidence in the economy, and some of us don’t. Unfortunately, those who profile as high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations largely fall in the “don’t” category. The reason for this dip seems to be concern that organizations are not standing by their missions (e.g. science museums remaining oddly quiet when confronted with “alternative facts” concerning climate change, or concern about board members that don’t support an organization’s mission running the show). In sum, this may not be a matter of “being political,” but rather one of integrity.

Indeed, taking a political stand for the sake of taking a political stand seems like it may be mission drift for most organizations. However, recent happenings suggest that when your mission is pinned against a “politicized” topic, standing up for your mission wins. This is illustrated by the data-informed success seen at MoMA when they highlighted artwork by artists from countries impacted by the original Muslim-majority nation travel ban.

Museums are viewed as impartial entities, and this may be because they are trusted to present the facts with expertise. Where things get messy is when an organization’s very mission becomes politicized. Or perhaps more simply: when facts become politicized.

 

People believe that museums should recommend action

This data set is probably the most important. People believe that museums should suggest or recommend certain behaviors or ways for the general public to support their causes and missions. Got that? People think that it’s the job of museums to recommend behaviors. That’s huge, and it’s likely tied to the combined force of the high levels of trust and credibility that these organizations possess.

Consider that recommending action is not the same as “being political.” Recommending things like cutting down on single use plastics (as a zoo or aquarium may advise) or contributing funding for art programs that an organization carries out (as an art museum may recommend), may not be seen as necessarily “political” to the market, but rather seen as an organization walking its talk in terms of supporting its mission. The data doesn’t specifically support museums recommending protesting (for instance). The data support organizations leveraging the trust that the market has in them to suggest behaviors that underscore their missions – which the market perceives not to be innately political.

Museums are becoming forums for community engagement on important issues related to their missions, and that may be a terrific thing. Museums are heroes for their missions, and there’s incredible potential to lead the charge in helping to actualize these missions. That’s an important superpower – and it’s an enormously humbling responsibility.

Museums, zoos, and aquariums are highly trusted to produce and output content and information. They are viewed as expert, factual, and impartial – more so than government agencies and even daily newspapers. The market – which generally doesn’t like to be told what to do in today’s connected world – is even willing to accept prescriptive recommendations from museums.

Museums are experts. Museums can make expert recommendations, and people believe that they should do just that. To shirk this market-determined capability for influence may be the greatest blow to an organization’s mission of all. Data suggest that museums may play a role in leading us all toward a more educated, connected, and inspired world…if they are willing to take up the calling.

 

(Credit: The header photo on this article comes from the Field Museum’s totally watch-worthy #DayOfFacts video.)

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 7 Comments

The Top Seven Macro Trends Impacting Cultural Organizations

These seven macro trends are driving the market for visitor-serving organizations.

Big data helps spot market trends. The data that we collect at IMPACTS is no different. (After all, it is big data!) There are certain trends that come up again and again, and they provide clues as to how cultural organizations may best evolve to remain relevant.

Unsurprisingly, visitor-serving organizations are not immune to the forces affecting the rest of the world. In other words, it’s rather common to see market trends that affect for-profit and government entities affect visitor-serving organizations as well. Makes sense, right? As much as we may sometimes wish we lived in an alternate reality with regard to things like adequate marketing investments, we, too, are members of this Planet Earth in all it’s economically-driven glory.

But that’s not all bad news. Just because “but we’re a nonprofit” increasingly isn’t a thing, that doesn’t mean that the reality is all that sobering. Some of the key trends affecting the market at large right now are areas wherein nonprofits traditionally shine! These seven macro trends manifest themselves in not only IMPACTS data tracing public perceptions and expectations of cultural organizations, but in much of the data that you’ll find coming from any reliable source right now for nearly any economically-concerned entity. Yes, cultural organizations are economically concerned entities. That may sound gross to my friends on the mission-execution end, but it’s important for cultural organizations to stay afloat so that they can…well, execute missions.

These macro trends are largely informed by the realities of our living in a more connected world than ever before – but they seem to affect nearly everything that organizations do onsite and offsite. They seem to affect the way that the market views the world right now, and its expectations for brands and experiences. These are the seven words and concepts that my clients and coworkers are probably the most sick of hearing every time we review a new set of data. (A possible exception may be the term “symbolic capital,” because I personally love it and thus I try to sneak it into most conversations – and not always seamlessly.)

Because these trends are apparent in much of the market data, there are lots of links to Know Your Own Bone in this article –so feel free to dig in and deep dive a bit!

 

Personalization

Just as the world that we live risks increased noisiness with all of the information that we have at our fingertips, it’s similarly becoming increasingly personalized. Ads, status updates, and online experiences are increasingly targeted and personalized for us. As such, personalization is becoming the expectation for folks. Obviously, this has implications for cultural organizations in the online realm. There’s an expectation that organizations will respond to people on social media on a personal level, that ads and posts will be relevant to them (this is why smarter targeting is important), and that we’ll interact with our most important supporters equally well offsite as we do onsite.

Positive, personalized interactions between staff members and visitors is the single most reliable way to increase visitor satisfaction onsite. Simply put, personalized experiences – be they online or onsite – have a greater likelihood of being relevant.  Personalization can be a smart relevance hack.

Similarly, alongside personalization is the decreased interest in standardized experiences. This can be seen in the decrease in interest in group sales and the growing popularity of personalized tours and experiences (à la Museum Hack). Disney World has added a feature to its famous Haunted Mansion ride wherein the hitchhiking ghosts hold up a sign that mentions your home city as your doombuggy ride draws to an end. In It’s a Small World, the riders’ names appear on those multi-lingual goodbye flowers. The Disney experience is increasingly self-curated and can be personalized. Immersion and interaction are driving concepts behind the new Star Wars Land set to open in 2019. While the high-propensity visitor profile is not the same to Disney World as it is to cultural organizations (e.g. they don’t necessarily have the same demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate likely visitation), I mention Disney World because it’s an entity with significant visitation that is capitalizing on the personalization trend.

 

Social connectivity

Connectivity is king – and, like the other macro-trends on this list – this is true both onsite and offsite. Offsite may seem rather obvious: Social media plays an important role in driving visitation to cultural organizations, and it’s a critical element of the visitor engagement cycle. High-propensity visitors to cultural organizations qualify as being “super-connected” to the web in that they have access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device. This is true of the folks who are most likely to visit cultural organizations regardless of age. (So, nope, not just millennials).

Onsite, social connectivity makes perhaps its biggest splash: Data suggest that who people are with is often more important than what they see when they visit a cultural organization. Not only that, folks who value “with > what” also have the most satisfying experiences and a greater intent to revisit. Social connectivity is another reason why personalized interactions between staff members and visitors matter. While interactions with staff can lead to the greatest increases in visitor satisfaction, rude staff are the single biggest onsite dissatisfier for cultural organizations by a large measure. For performance-based organizations (e.g. ballets, theaters, symphonies) rude guests is the second biggest dissatisfier. Interactions with humans matter big time, folks.

Sure, we’re mighty connected online in today’s world – but being connected to humans onsite is just as critical as ever before. In fact, onsite digital connectivity does not increase visitor satisfaction as much as good ol’ face-to-face communication. (But onsite digital does increase visitor satisfaction so I propose that you aim to rock both.)

 

Social mission

Corporate social responsibility has been called mandatory for for-profit companies today. Simply put, it’s increasingly an expectation that organizations will give something back. That’s part of the reason why the market is increasingly sector agnostic – it doesn’t matter much if your organization is nonprofit or for-profit. What matters is that you do the social good that you say that you do. Organizations that highlight their missions outperform those marketing primarily as attractions. It’s cool to be kind. While social missions may sound like a unique differentiator for nonprofits, they’re not. For-profit companies increasingly have well publicized “so whats?” too.

Not only that, members that like your organization for its mission generally invest more by purchasing more expensive memberships and find greater satisfaction in their memberships than transaction-based members who primarily seek event access and discounts. Here’s the data. Simply, what folks want from memberships is changing. With all the talk about armchair activism, we find that people really do want to actively take part in and contribute to something meaningful.

 

Entertainment vs. education

Boy-oh-boy is this a big topic right now in the cultural sector. IMPACTS has tons of data about the importance of being educational vs. being entertaining, and the results are both obvious and frustrating: We need to be both – but not necessarily equally or in the same way. We need to understand the collaborating role that these two visitor experience aspects play in driving behaviors and, specifically, getting folks to act in our organizations’ interest by paying us a visit, becoming a member, or making a donation.

This is a bigger discussion than I intend to tackle in this article, but here’s a very basic overview of how they work together. Simply, entertainment value drives visitor satisfaction and visitor satisfaction is critical for attendance and solvency. Period. Entertainment value is fiercely important. When we act like “entertainment” is an enemy to “education” instead of its often times greatest partner, we do our organizations a grave disservice. That said, education value serves as an important, unique differentiator that may play a role in the decision to visit a cultural organization instead of taking part in a different leisure activity. (“Interest in an alternative activity” is the biggest reason why folks with reported interest don’t make it through the door.)

Why is this on a list of market trends? Because though the words may be different, this issue isn’t unique to cultural organizations.  Folks want to have a pleasurable experience and having a “so what?” or “it’s good for me/my loved ones” can serve as a competitive advantage when compared to other services/experiences when perceived entertainment value is relatively equal to the alternative. It’s the root of much corporate social responsibility and it requires a tough conversation about reputational equities.

 

Real-time and authentic

This trend is roped to personalization and social connectivity. Social media and digital engagement are real-time, and audiences expect responses in real-time. The real-time trend mirrors the rise of certain social media channels and features, including Snapchat (now, Snap), Instagram and Facebook stories – not to mention live video. These platforms allow for limited professional editing by brands and organizations, forcing – in a way – a kind of authenticity that heretofore organizations could more carefully manage. These trends force behind-the-scenes culture to the front lines. Is your organization really doing interesting things? Show it.

Trends toward real-time and more (seemingly) authentic engagement underscore the need for organizations to walk their talk. It’s time to show and not simply tell. We “show” by what we post online each day and through onsite experiences. Because of the increased want for self-curation and consumer power (discussed next), these trends affect visitation and also philanthropic giving.

 

Consumer control

Everyone is a curator today, but this trend isn’t about literally allowing audiences to curate collections in cultural organizations. It’s about consumer power and control borne of folks having a whole heck of a lot of information at their fingertips nowadays. People want to decide things for themselves because they can. It’s why walking our talk matters. It’s why social media increasingly empowers giving decisions. All this being said, the market views cultural organizations as expert and trustworthy, and that’s a valuable reputational equity that we possess.  (I have the data on this ready to go up  next week, so stay tuned.) We need to walk a fine line to be successful…an “open and yet expert” line.

On social media, we’re seeing this trend take place a bit in SMS messaging, Snap, and Instagram. We can post publically to our “friends,” and we can send private messages to our maybe-more-real friends. We have more and more power to decide who sees our posts.

This trend plays nicely with personalization. As mentioned above, we increasingly expect personalized experiences and interactions, but once the personalized message hits us, folks want to decide on their own if visiting an organization is worth the time and energy investment. This is the reason why more visitation decisions are informed by an organization’s social media channels than an organization’s website.

 

Integrity

This one is big right now, and it’s showing up rather dramatically in market data. We have fake news on the mind! Like trends toward authenticity, desired integrity necessitates that an organization walk its talk.

Not only is the US divided politically, we are divided in terms of how people view the economy as well. Unfortunately for cultural organizations, high-propensity visitors aren’t super happy with things right now. (High-propensity visitors are people with the demographic, psychographic and behavioral attributes that indicate likely attendance to nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations.) Visitor confidence in cultural organizations remains at a dramatic low because, simply, it’s difficult to tell what we stand for during this highly politicized time. Organizations that have stood behind their social missions during this time have reaped important reputational rewards. Why? Integrity, folks. It’s a big deal right now for the people who actually go to museums, aquariums, gardens, and performing arts organizations.

But this trend isn’t necessarily a “political” one. It’s infiltrated operations. A demonstrated lack of integrity is the biggest dissatisfier for high-level members to cultural organizations. We know their names and cell phone numbers perhaps too well when carrying out solicitations, but we suddenly forget who they are when they’re onsite. That’s a disconnect. Some organizations even have (sometimes completely ridiculous, over-the-top) member-ID-checking-police guarding their entrances as if they were border checkpoints. Unsurprisingly, questioning the integrity of our own members is also high on their list of membership dissatisfiers.

 

These seven macro-trends are strongly connected to one another. The organizations that will succeed in reaching new audiences (which data suggests needs to be a primary goal for cultural organizations)  and cultivating engagement are those that don’t simply aim to “one-off program” their way to success. Organizations may be best served to integrate these trends into the new reality of how they operate and do business.

Do these trends sound familiar? Do they ring a bell? Excellent! We can declare importance, but the market determines our relevance. These trends provide a peek into how audiences are doing that. Let’s keep these macro-trends in mind and keep moving forward.

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on The Top Seven Macro Trends Impacting Cultural Organizations

The Three Most Overlooked Marketing Realities For Cultural Organizations

These three marketing realities for cultural organizations may be the most urgent – and also the most overlooked.

This one’s got a Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video, folks! If you’d like to share this message with a team (or you would rather watch a little video than dive into written content), check out the video below or head over to my YouTube channel and dive in.

These are three urgent marketing realities for cultural organizations that, while they aren’t actually new at all, seem to surprise executives when we at IMPACTS underscore them as contributors to diminishing audiences. All three of these realities may be whack-you-in-the-face obvious when you stop to think about them, but many organization leaders seem…not to think about them. And it makes sense. Organizations may turn a blind eye to these three realities because they are inconvenient. They’re real – and they are kind of annoying. That is, they involve evolving the way that leaders and executives think about marketing and communications. Perhaps that is a reason why – however obvious these realities may be – I find myself repeating them many times over. HERE’S THE VIDEO:

There is another reason why they may be repeatedly overlooked: Mastering these realities requires skillsets that heretofore haven’t been prioritized by many organizations. We’re used to traditional communication channels and how to think about communications – and the leaders of cultural institutions have been “doing communications” for years! The thing is, this digital engagement thing keeps us on our toes. It’s why today’s cultural executives need to be more like conductors, and less like the first chairs of instruments. There’s a lot going on! Personalization, transparency, social connectivity, real-time communications, and brand integrity matter more in our digital world then they ever have before, and, thus, we need to change up our more traditional ways of thinking.

Connectivity is king and, within the more financially successful organizations with which IMPACTS works, communications departments function more like strategic partners than bottom-of-the-chain service departments. Misunderstanding the evolving role that marketing and communications play in driving visitation and engagement in our connected world is the reason why some people still say these three stupid things to the marketing department.

I could write a hefty, data-based essay explaining why every person who works for a cultural organization should be showering friendly frontline staff and thoughtful social media community managers with flowers, cupcakes, and (consent OK-ed) big hugs. Data reveal time and time again that staff who engage directly with constituents are our champions of shared experiences. They make-or-break both our offsite reputation and our onsite satisfaction. Marketing and communications are increasingly important in our connected world. And, as Uncle Ben from Spiderman has taught us all, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

While these items may “live in” the marketing or communications departments, the culture required to adapt to these changes may require a culture shift within some entities. It’s the responsibility of the entire organization to create a culture that more than acknowledges these three realities. We’ve got to keep up. We’ve got this! Let’s dive in…

 

1) Meet audiences where they are

Data suggest that communication channels that talk WITH audiences (such social media and the web) are considered more go-to sources of information than channels that talk AT audiences (such television, radio, or direct mail). If we want to engage folks, we need to be masters at reaching them where they are now…not where they were last year. We don’t get to decide where to speak with audiences to be most effective – they do. If we ignore their preference, we won’t be heard.

This is obvious. But even though it’s obvious, old habits die hard. For decades, things that weren’t digital were what worked…because “digital” simply didn’t exist in the way that it does now. And it’s not likely to exist in the next decade in the way it exists today. Things are fast-moving. It’s important to keep tabs on not only where audiences are spending their time, but also what they expect and want to receive in terms of messaging for each communication channel – digital or otherwise. Here’s some data on the power of specific social media channels right now.

One of the reasons why digital engagement (and social media, in particular) is so important for cultural organizations is because these channels facilitate word of mouth endorsement. What other people say about you and the sharing of their own experiences is 12.85 times more important in driving your reputation than things that you pay to say about yourself.

 

2) Target the people and not the place

It’s time to pause and consider that we can identify and target individuals now more intelligently, efficiently, and cost-effectively than ever before. As such, we similarly need to evolve how we think about “targeting.”

Think about it: The ads and endorsements that we see every time we turn on our phones or computers are tailored for us based on various technologies’ algorithmic secret sauces. We live in a world that is increasingly personalized, and personalization is fast becoming the expectation of our audiences. As such, it’s generally a better idea to leverage technologies that serve your content to targeted individuals with specific indicators of interest in your organizations, then it is to advertise more broadly on a “place” such as a single website. The name of the game nowadays is to target digital audiences across the entirety of the Web – not engaging only those who happen to visit the one website where you purchased advertising.

Putting a banner ad on a local newspaper’s website may have been considered “targeting” in the past, but it isn’t anymore. The world has gotten smarter about targeting and personalizing messages to effectively reach audiences. It’s time for cultural organizations to make sure that they are smart about it, too.

 

3) Adequate marketing investments matter

“But we got a great deal on the banner ad on the local newspaper’s website!” Awesome. Getting a “deal” on a possible misuse of funds is strangely a thing that too many nonprofit organizations brag about regularly. A “deal” simply isn’t a sufficient motivator for a suboptimal ad spend – or any marketing effort – that isn’t strategically determined to be the best for the organization. The problem here is the chronic nonprofit misunderstanding that an organization can “save its way to prosperity.” That’s not a thing. It costs money to make money.

Instead of following market realities, some organizations still invest “last year’s budget plus five percent.” Some simply reinvest last year’s budget. Unfortunately, that’s not how audience acquisition investments work. Budgets need to be contemplative of the true costs of new technologies and evolving marketing best practices.

Not sure how much to invest or which channels to invest in? IMPACTS uncovered a data-informed equation for determining optimal audience acquisition investments. Remember that it’s not only about spending the proper amount and budget allocation to each channel – it’s also about spending those funds thoughtfully and strategically. Knowing appropriate spending lets you know the size of the frame. To be successful, your organization still needs to paint the picture.

 

Do these three marketing realities sound obvious to you? Excellent! It’s probably because these “new” realities are simply 2.0 versions of tried-and-true ways to think about marketing: Target the right people, in the right place, with the right amount of investment. It’s not rocket science. But we do need to remember that these things change. It’s not a fancy-sounding, simplified, marketing best-practice that you can frame and put on your wall and always understand exactly what it means. We need to be constantly asking ourselves:

 

Are we doing the best thing to target the right people?”

“Are we targeting people where they actually are and not simply where would be most convenient for us?”

“Are we investing the amount that we need in order to succeed in today’s environment?

 

Sometimes, it’s a matter of asking the right questions and not just the questions that are convenient. And yeah – that can be annoying – because folks working within cultural organizations are already working hard with limited budgets to educate and inspire people. It’s a labor of love that you are doing out there, reader! But I’m going to bring this one back to Spiderman again because, indeed, we have a great responsibility.

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

Are Mobile Apps Worth It For Cultural Organizations? (DATA)

The short answer: No.

Mobile applications have been a hot topic for a long while within the visitor-serving industry. There are mobile applications for all kinds of museums, zoos, aquariums, historic sites, and performing arts entities. But are people using them? And do they increase meaningful performance metrics like visitor satisfaction?

A (rad) museum professional recently tagged me in a Facebook conversation, asking if I had data that I could share regarding cultural audiences and mobile applications. Why didn’t I think about that before? At first I was a bit flummoxed about how to approach this, as IMPACTS has done work with individual client organizations to dig into the real benefits (or lack thereof) deriving from investments in developing mobile applications, but that data is proprietary. Translation: Not for publishing on Know Your Own Bone.

Fear not, friends! The trusty National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study (NAAU) includes information related to mobile applications – and it’s shareable and reveals compelling and important information for visitor-serving entities. As a reminder, the NAAU is an ongoing study of over 108,000 individuals and counting (“and counting” because IMPACTS is constantly in-market collecting data). This study is also the source of much of the data that I share on my website.

The spoiler (consistent with most individual client experiences as well) is simply that a mobile application is an answer to a visitor engagement question that very few people seem to be asking. What many cultural professionals likely know from their own experience (and that the data reaffirm) is this: Not many visitors use mobile applications either prior to their visits or while onsite, and the ones who do use an organization’s app do not experience a significant increase in visitor satisfaction.

This makes mobile applications sound like a potential waste of resources, but it’s worse than that. Other information channels are used more frequently before and during a visit, and they actually do result in higher visitor satisfaction. In addition to being a potential waste of funds, mobile applications may be an expensive distraction from areas wherein modest investments actually do improve reputation and satisfaction.

The chart above shows the percentage of respondents who had used each information source prior to a visit, with the sample taken from folks who had visited a cultural organization in the last year. We are talking about mobile applications here, and that number (5.5% usage) is not abysmal! But when we look at other avenues of engagement that likely already exist for an organization such as web, mobile web, and social media…that 5.5% looks awfully low in comparison. (Quick note: “Peer review web” refers to sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor, and “WOM” stands for “word of mouth.”)

I know the argument: “Not every organization has a mobile app, so of course people aren’t using them if they don’t exist!”  True.  People can’t use something that doesn’t exist.  Along these same lines, not every organization prints brochures, or has a mobile optimized web experience, or publishes information in newspapers or magazines.  That’s not the point.  The point is that a number of information sources broadly exist (including mobile apps), and these data indicate the market’s relative usage of broadly available resources.  Does every organization have a mobile app? No.  But do enough organizations have a mobile app to make them a broadly available information source?  Yes.  Moreover, mobile apps are sufficiently relevant in our overall culture to suggest their broad viability as an information source.  People absolutely use mobile apps in many aspects of  their life – they simply don’t seem to generally apply this usage to planning or visiting a cultural organization.

Take a look at the chart and consider: Mobile applications require an investment of funds to create – and that amount can be significant!

Also consider that information regarding the existence of an organization’s mobile application is likely to come from another source that is already more successful in providing pre-visit information. It is fair to consider that those 5.5% of folks may have already received information from another channel, and that’s how they knew to look for the application in the first place. The point is that even for the 5.5% who consulted a mobile application prior to their visit, they may not be consulting the mobile application alone.

But, then again, not all applications aim to be used pre-visit! Many aim to be used onsite in order to, theoretically, better engage and provide information for visitors! On that note, let’s look at the channels that folks reported having used onsite while attending a visitor-serving organization (museum, zoo, aquarium, theater, symphony, etc.)

There are a lot of interesting and surprising things to note here. The first of which is this: A smaller percentage of people use mobile applications during their visit (4.1%) than they do prior to their visit (5.5%) – and many applications are designed to be used onsite! In order to use a mobile application onsite, folks need to have already been willing to download it, or to take time out of their visit to get WiFi (depending on the size of the application) and download it on the spot. No joke: There are organizations that have invested in mobile applications but don’t have WiFi easily available to download it onsite in the first place. It’s a thing, folks! (As a note: “Web” is folks who bring laptops and use the web. Tablet web use is included in the “mobile web” category.)

Here’s another important finding: More than half of visitors use social media onsite. That finding alone is worth calling out. Social media is extremely important for cultural organizations for many reasons and plays an important role in increasing visitation.

With 31.5% of folks using mobile web onsite (looking up something on the web while on a mobile device or tablet that is not social media or a peer review site), it’s clear that there’s more of an inclination to use the web rather than a mobile application to gather information or engage onsite. This may underscore the opportunity to invest in website experiences that are mobile optimized instead of investing in a mobile application.

This chart is the arguably the most telling and important. Here’s how to read it: The red bar shows the overall visitor satisfaction level of people who report using a particular information source onsite (e.g. a mobile app). The blue bar shows the overall visitor satisfaction level of people who report not using that same information source (e.g. people who did not use a mobile app during their visit.)

As a reminder: Having high onsite satisfaction levels is critical for the solvency of visitor-serving organizations. Higher overall satisfaction correlates with greater reputation, more financial support, and increased likelihood for positive endorsements. In sum, high satisfaction is a major goal.

People who use mobile applications onsite do not report significantly higher satisfaction rates than those who do not. So, what was the point of that mobile application again? If it was to better engage audiences, the data is in and mobile applications – on the whole – don’t do that in meaningful manner. That finding in itself is significant.

Look at this: People who use social media or mobile web while they visit a cultural organization have a more satisfying overall experience than people who don’t use social media or mobile web during their visit. How interesting is that?! If your organization scoffs at folks on their mobile devices and considers them to be distracted or disengaged, stop it. Social media and mobile web make visitor experiences better (by good measure), not worse.

Regular Know Your Own Bone readers won’t be surprised by the onsite communication source that increases visitor satisfaction most: Talking to other humans. The overlooked superpower of visitor-serving organizations is that we are hubs of human connection. Reliably, interacting with other people is more important than the content that folks visit an organization to see – and interacting with frontline staff can make or break a visitor experience.

“But our mobile application is unique! It can be used to do X and Y and Z!” That’s great! The thing is: The market isn’t generally using mobile applications onsite and when they do, apps aren’t contributing to a significantly more satisfying experience…so your organization is singlehandedly attempting to “re-train” the market. Mobile applications have been used by cultural organizations for years now, and your organization may be looking to try and convert somebody who used one for another organization in the past (or your own first version) and felt it was “eh.” That’s a different starting point than where most organizations believe that they are: Developing a cool, new thing that tons of people will want to use out of the gate! Turns out, that’s not reality. Developing a mobile app comes with some embedded perceptual challenges.

More often than not, organizations that develop mobile applications are carrying out “technology for technology’s sake” when they haven’t tested its viability with the market, evaluated the related investment compared to alternative tools, or considered their goals or expectations. Simply, cultural organizations do it because they think they should or it makes them sound cool – nevermind if nobody uses it or it only makes the organization seem cool to staff or others in the industry. (Note: Others in the industry are not our important audiences).

With mobile applications dramatically underperforming the opportunity compared to other sources of information or avenues of engagement, a responsible organization should ask itself: Is investment in a mobile application the best possible use of funds? If there’s money in the budget, perhaps it ought to go to areas that audiences actually use and that make their experiences better. This includes investments in social media and also in frontline staff. (In fact, modest investments in frontline staff have yielded higher satisfaction rates for some client organizations than new exhibits and building expansions!)

This isn’t to say that no mobile application can be successful. No doubt, a select few gain notable usage – but these are exceptions, not expectations. If your organization is considering an investment in a mobile application because “I think we need one,” then you should probably consider the opportunity from the market’s perspective. Of course, organizations with good ideas should pursue them! Market test new concepts! Thinking caps are the best kind of caps, if you ask me. “Perhaps the kind of mobile app that we need to engage audiences hasn’t made it big or doesn’t largely exist yet!” Maybe you’re right.

It’s important to go into any initiative with an awareness of what visitors to cultural organizations are actually doing in the market and how mobile applications currently affect the visitor experience. (In general, they don’t.) Only then can an organization make an informed decision. That decision probably isn’t “to create a mobile application because everyone has one,” as many organizations may think.  Instead, the decision may be “to fight the existing market perceptions of mobile applications by doing something new.”

Are mobile applications working to best serve our audiences? Do organizations need them? Do data suggest that mobile applications are generally an effective use of funds? The data-informed answer – to all of these questions – is no.

 

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:

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 4 Comments
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