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

The Surprising Reason Why Organizations Underestimate Attendance Loss During Closures (DATA)

Know Your Own Bone - Underestimate Attendance During Closures for Cultural Organizations

When cultural organizations experience unforeseen facility closures, they lose more visitors than simply those who were planning to visit that day. Here’s why.

While the following data may be particularly timely after Winter Storm Jonas, cultural organizations (museums, zoos, historic sites, performing arts organizations, etc.) are consistently way off when adjusting annual attendance projections due to closures. This includes closures due to weather, irregular operations, storm damage, fire, utility failure, criminal activity, or anything else.

No matter the reason for the closure, we dramatically underestimate the overall impact on annual attendance. It’s generally a huge bummer when we have to close for unforeseen circumstances and take the attendance (and, for many organizations, revenue) hit. But knowing why we are so frequently wrong in quantifying the total impact of these closures may help us better understand visitors and develop more realistic contingency plans for lost revenue and attendance.

We are often wrong about the impacts of an unforeseen closure for two, big reasons that are important to understand beyond the framework of attendance and revenue projections. When an organization is closed at a time that it might otherwise be open, visitation generally is NOT displaced to other times of the year. And, to top it off, we lose more people than simply those who had planned to attend the organization that day. The reasons for this happening are important for organizations to understand.

Take a look at the math and see just how much we underestimate the lost annual attendance due to unplanned, short-term facility closings. This chart illustrates data from 13 organizations over a three-year analysis and includes a range of cultural, visitor-serving organizations – each represented by letter.

IMPACTS- Immitative value applied analysis

The “Expected Decline” value indicates the number of visitors as a percentage of annual market potential that were expected to be lost by an unforeseen facility closure. If an organization’s market potential analysis suggested attendance of 1,000 visitors on a given Tuesday, and the organization was instead closed that day, then the expected decline in annual market potential would be 1,000. Pretty logical, right?

The “Actual Decline” value indicates the actual, observed percentage decline relative to an organization’s annual market potential.

Every organization quantified in the study indicated an actual decline greater than the expected decline. There are two, important reasons why expected and actual decline do not align in commensurate measure.

 

1) Lost attendance is not usually displaced to another date

“They’ll come back later,” some staff say. Well, most likely they won’t. Not this year, at least. Data suggests that it is incorrect to assume that lost attendance due to an unforeseen closure is somehow magically reallocated to other periods during the calendar year.

IMPACTS- Discretionary decision making utility model

Extant data indicates that schedule has the single greatest influence on a would-be visitor’s decision-making process. This analysis reaffirms that if a scheduled visit is interrupted by an unforeseen closure, then these affected visitors are unlikely to visit the organization in a proximate chronology. In other words, if a snowstorm in February forces a closure that results in a loss of attendance, then these would-be February visitors are unlikely to visit come April or July.

It is a miscalculation for an organization to simply distribute attendance lost due to a closure to the remainder of the year. Those 4,000 visitors who stayed home these past few days while the snowflakes fell during Winter Storm Jonas? They’re likely gone…and annual budgets should be adjusted accordingly.

That’s a bummer, but it makes sense. It accounts for lost annual attendance that at least matches the expected decline. But why do organizations lose more visitors than those who were planning to visit on the date of the closure during the remaining course of the year? It’s a good question with a very important answer.

 

2) Recommendations and social sharing from those who would have visited are lost (and that is a much bigger deal than we realize)

This lost visitation has a sort of “double-whammy” effect for many cultural organizations as they are reliant on word of mouth and other testimonial factors to help engage audience and motivate attendance. (This is particularly true for organizations in those regions where visiting friends and family is a primary driver of tourism and travel. If your plan was to take a visiting friend or family member to a local museum, but a water main break forced the cancellation of that visit, well, that museum lost out on both the organizing party’s visit and also the guest.) When we close for any reason, we don’t just lose the people who were going to visit. We lose the recommendations, social media posts, and shared stories of all of the people who were going to visit that day.

And many organizations do not factor this into their adjustments. Fortunately, thanks to data, today we can. For every one visit lost due to an unplanned closure, the net annual impact on market potential averages a decline of 1.25 visitors. Thus, if a sustained interruption to your operation results in 20,000 fewer visits, then the annual impact of this business disruption is likely to be lost attendance of 25,000 when compared to your organization’s market potential.

Wait! We lose real people because of lost word of mouth endorsement? Yes. It’s not just hot air: Word of mouth endorsements are a BIG factor driving the attendance numbers for cultural organizations – and every year, the attendance to cultural organizations with unforeseen closures prove it. Consider the analysis: Of the 13 organizations quantified in the study, the average attendance decline due to unplanned closures was -4.45% compared to market potential. However, the actual decline in annual market potential was observed to be -5.56%. Again, due to word of mouth and other “imitative behaviors,” the loss of every one visitor equates to a total annual decline of 1.25 visitors. 

It’s important to remember that recommendations and social media posts that would have resulted had the organization not closed that day are no more impactful than recommendations based on experiences that take place on any other day. Word of mouth recommendations and social sharing are always playing a role in a cultural organization’s actual, onsite visitation numbers. This fact right here, folks, is a dang good reason to go hug your social media community manager who facilitates the sharing of experiences and word of mouth endorsements. This is also a good time to remember that millennials – who are most likely to recommend a visit to friends – are largely underserved by cultural organizations.

 

Unforseen closures stink. We’re never excited to learn that our organizations have lost the financial support that would have been gained from onsite visitation. We rely on that support to carry out our missions. And, considered in that light, this data really kicks us when we’re down. (It stinks when data does that.) But this information stands to make us much smarter. Embracing these realities allows us to more properly adjust attendance and revenue numbers so we aren’t down in the dumps later due to unrealistic expectations.

Perhaps most importantly, these findings underscore the importance – and the numbers of real, flesh-and-blood visitors – affected by the important role that word of mouth endorsements and shared stories have in helping us to share our experiences with more people. And in the end, that’s kind of cool, right?

When we educate and inspire people, it really does bring in more people to educate and inspire.

 

Like this post? 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 3 Comments

Real Talk: Why Cultural Organizations Must Better Engage Millennials (DATA)

Why Cultural Organizations Must Better Engage Millennials (Know Your Own Bone)

Millennials are cultural organizations’ most frequent and loyal visitors…but this audience remains underserved.  Here’s why that’s a big problem for the future well-being of the industry.

“We need to be better at engaging millennials!” You’ve heard this before. Likely, you’ve heard it more times than you can count. Even if you are a millennial working within a cultural institution, you’re still probably sick of the sentiment. You’re probably sick of it even if you know that data suggest that millennial audiences are cultural centers’ best audiences.

The need for cultural organizations (e.g. museums, zoos, aquariums, symphonies, theaters, botanic gardens, orchestras, etc.) to reach millennial audiences is deeper and more complicated than we may realize.

I’d like to ask you a favor.

Indeed, I’m going to land here at the end of this post: “We need to be better at engaging millennials.” Instead of closing this tab before you dig in and saying, “yeah, yeah, yeah…” I hope that you’ll stop and consider why we need to reach millennial audiences…why it’s a big deal, what it means for our solvency, and why its so hard for some of our executive leaders to do.

Here are four things that all cultural organizations should know about millennial visitors and our efforts to engage them:

 

1) Millennials are the most frequent attendees to cultural organizations

 

Bet some of you didn’t see that coming! Check out this data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study that represents a sample population of more than 98,000 respondents. These particular data compare millennial and Baby Boomer visitors in terms of the composition of attendance to the 224 visitor-serving cultural organizations contemplated in the study during the past five years

IMPACTS- Millennial vs Boomer visitation 

Millennials make up the largest share of visitors to cultural organizations and the observed trend indicates growing percentages year over year. Millennials aren’t coming. Millennials are here and they are already the largest realized audience visiting cultural organizations. This means that the “We need to cultivate millennials while satisfying our current, baby boomer audience” sentence is baseless. And you want it to be baseless. If baby boomers still actually make up the majority of your visitors, then you’re behind. 

This means that programs and initiatives that engage millennials should be in full force right now and integrated into operations. Programs that engage millennials should be recognized as your new way of life. And, please, don’t worry too much about engaging, interactive, authentic, trustworthy, dynamic, participatory, expert, real-time programs alienating members of Generation X and some Baby Boomers. The market at large increasingly has these things ingrained into how they evaluate brands and organizations as well.

Don’t forget that the “white space” here isn’t simply Generation X. It also includes Traditionalists (the generation before the Baby Boomers) and Generation Z (the generation after Generation X). And thank goodness that millennials are the most frequent visitors to cultural organizations! Millennials represent the largest generation in human history, so if they weren’t attending organizations more than their other, large-generation (Baby Boomer) buddies, it would be a huge problem. Cultural organizations as a whole engaging anything smaller than the data-informed expectation for audience engagement relative to their cohort size is very bad news…

 

2) But millennials remain underserved as organizations underperform the business opportunity 

 

…See, but that’s the problem: Millennials ARE NOT attending at the minimum expected levels. To evaluate this, we need to step back and look at visitation to our organizations in the context of the US population. In 2015, there were 322 million people in the United States. Adult baby boomers made up 23.6% of the U.S. population and adult millennials made up 27.1% of the U.S. population.

IMPACTS- Millennials are underserved

According to the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, only 21.9% of adult millennials visited a cultural organization in 2015. To be merely representative, 27.1% of visitation should be adult millennials. The simple fact of the matter is that cultural organizations are underserving millennials when compared to the U.S. population. (“Underserved” means that participation – be it attendance, enrollment, etc. is less than the representative population.) In other words, cultural organizations are underserving millennial audiences by a factor of nearly 24%.

To those of you thinking, “Yeah! But at least we’re getting them!” …I like you, because you are a glass-is-half-full person…but maybe it’s time to strap on your thinking cap a little tighter. Serving representative audiences is one of the top grantmaking considerations for many audience engagement initiatives that are seeking support. Not only that, underperforming the opportunity by 24% with this particular audience puts us in a doubly bad place because of this generation’s attributes and its word-of-mouth-informed visitation cycles.

 

3) Millennials are the most loyal audiences with the highest lifetime value

 

According to the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, 23.8% of boomers said they visited a cultural organization (any cultural organization) in 2015. But Boomers only comprise 22.5% of cultural attendance. Meanwhile, only 21.9% of adult millennials visited a cultural organization, but they comprise 30.9% of total US cultural visitation. What does this mean? Millenials are far more likely to revisit within the year than other generations. They are the most loyal. It proves that millennial “intent to visit” is manifesting itself as actual visits.

IMPACTS- Millennial visitation loyalty

Combine this good news data with the bad news data on how much we are underserving millennial audiences, though, and the picture isn’t a pretty one: For every one millennial that we fail to engage as a sector, we miss out on 1.411 visits to cultural organizations.

If 30% of cultural visitors are millennials, are 30% of organizations’ resources allocated to engaging them? Probably not. We should be representatively engaging this audience because, well, that makes cut-and-dry business sense. Our missions may depend on it.

This is a big deal! Any organization that continues to underserve its best, most frequent, and most loyal customers – that also make up the majority of the country’s population – in the way that cultural organizations are doing risks going out of business. 

 

4) Why this change may be understandably hard for Baby Boomers in cultural organizations

 

Boomers know better than anyone that not all audiences are created equal. They know that because they’ve been by far the most valuable audience for a very long time.

Why is it so hard for Baby Boomers to grasp the necessity of engaging millennials and do more than talk about this audience in conference rooms? Why do they say, “We need to engage millennials,” only to move forward with frozen mindsets?

I’m no psychologist here and I may be going out on a limb, but I work predominantly with Baby Boomers that I have the honor of seeing in action every day, so I’ll give this an outsider shot: Baby Boomers may still think of themselves as primary target audiences (despite data indicating otherwise) because they were trained to think of themselves that way. They’ve have been the apple of every marketer’s eye for decades. For at least 25 years, the Baby Boomers that succeeded most were the ones who were best at marketing and creating programs for themselves. They were trained to successfully engage themselves and they were rewarded for successfully engaging themselves. Most boomers were appropriately predisposed and actively incentivized to reaffirm their generation’s own importance. Thus, it would make sense that there would be a want for boomers to keep doing what they do best: creating programs for themselves. That’s where they’re expert- and being expert at targeting Baby Boomers is why they are successful.

Basically, this same issue is likely to arise with us millennials if a large generation steps up to the plate in our own future. (And when it does, will one of you kindly forward this post to me from your 4D interactive teleportation wrist watch thingy to remind me that I knew it would be equally difficult for us to pass the baton?)

And things get even more difficult yet for Boomers. They may have imagined that they’d pass the baton in more conventional, chronologically successive terms to Generation X. Instead, they need to make a symbolically bigger leap and pass it (largely) to Millennials. It’s got to be hard to (kind of) skip a generation. Certainly, there’d be a conceptual belief that Traditionalists might pass an equal amount of influence to Boomers, who might pass an equal amount of influence to Generation X, who might pass an equal amount of influence to Generation Y…but data doesn’t demonstrate that that’s a smart move.

(Generation X, the always-impossibly-cool-in-my-mind, autonomous, and unlucky generation sandwiched between large and needy millennials and baby boomers, is roughly half the size of Generation Y. So if Generation X and Generation Y combined to form Generation XY, millennials would compose nearly 2/3 of that generation. This is also makes Generation X an often untapped resource to help bridge the generation gap because they seem to see all the crazy that’s above them and that’s below them with clarity in some cases. But I digress…)

 

 

All organizations have finite resources. In today’s world of hyper-targeting, every dollar we spend chasing one demographic is a dollar that we cannot spend chasing another demographic. The data is clear that cultural organizations are underserving millennial audiences. On top of that, millennials are our audiences with the greatest likelihood of re-visitation. Now, I don’t know if we’re the best audiences for post-it notes or patio furniture or tea pots – but millennials (which obviously include the 44.2% of us that are from “minority race” backgrounds) are definitely the most critical audience for cultural organizations to engage right now.

This does NOT mean that Baby Boomers and Generation X are not important targets. But it does mean that the percentage of energy, effort, and investment should be allocated representatively to the percentage of each age cohort’s market potential. Three factors should influence how your organization prioritizes its investments and dedicates its energy: 1) the size of the cohort; 2) the buying power of cohort; and 3) the cohort’s propensities to participate. Millennials represent the largest opportunity on all three fronts and, thus, create a compelling case for where to allocate representatively significant investments of resources.

I’ll end where I promised, but I hope that the sentence carries more meaning and understanding than it did at your last staff meeting: We need to get better at engaging millennials.

 

Like this post? 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, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

How Much Money Should Your Cultural Nonprofit Invest in Getting People in The Door? (DATA)

Here’s how much money museums and cultural organizations should be spending to get people in the door – according to data.  

My post on optimal audience acquisition costs made its way onto the list of the top-ten most popular Know Your Own Bone posts of 2015. And I’m glad it did. It’s an important one. So to really hit it home, I’ve summarized the findings in a KYOB Fast Facts video here.

Let’s revisit the data in order to share some additional information on this audience acquisition equation:

Marketing budgets seem to be an unnecessarily emotional topic for many nonprofit organizations. Optimizing marketing investments – like determining admission price– is increasingly a product of math and science (read: decidedly not “intuition” or “trial and error”). They need not be based on fuzzy-feelings and inappropriate loyalties to failing business models that ignore the realities of the outside world.

We live in a pay-to-play world where organizations have to spend money to make money. When it comes to budgeting for audience acquisition costs, many organizations seem to have fallen into that familiar trap of “last year plus 5%” that lazily assumes the continued efficacy of the same old platforms and strategies. Of course, such a strategy completely ignores shifting advertising cost factors, evolving platforms and channels, and technological innovation. Say it aloud: Nonprofits do not operate in a vacuum and cannot afford to ignore the changed economies and technologies of the world around them.

Several organizations that have made this realization have asked IMPACTS if there is an equation to inform their audience acquisition costs so as to maximize their opportunities for financial success. And, the findings of a three-year study suggest: Yes, there most certainly is!

 

Determining audience acquisition investment

Let’s first establish a few definitions and “same page” this conversation:

Audience acquisition costs are the investments that an organization makes in advertising, public relations, social media, community relations…basically, anything and everything intended to engage your audiences. (It does not include staff costs unless an organization has internalized the media planning and PR functions that would ordinarily be accounted for within the agency fees line item.)

Market potential is a data-based, modeled outcome that indicates an organization’s potential engagement with its audiences. For most organizations, “market potential” primarily concerns onsite visitation. In other words, it answers the question, “If everything goes well, how many people can we reasonably expect to visit us this year? (NOTE: Market potential may not match an organization’s historic attendance – organizations underperform their market potential all the time…for reasons that we’ll soon explore.)

Earned revenues are the product of admissions, memberships, merchandising, food and beverage, facility rentals…basically, all revenues attendant to the onsite experience that are supported by audience acquisition investments. These revenues exclude annual fund, grants, endowment distributions and other sorts of philanthropy.

Here’s the equation to maximize your market potential as suggested by the recently completed three-year study:

IMPACTS audience acquisition equation

Expressed another way: Optimal Audience Acquisition Costs = 12.5% of Earned Revenues. For example, if your organization generates annual earned revenues of $20 million, then this would suggest an annual audience acquisition investment of $2.5 million.

Further, additional analysis would suggest that 75% of the audience acquisition costs should be earmarked to support paid media (i.e. advertising). So, of the $2.5 million suggested above for audience acquisition, nearly $1.9 million should support paid media.  The remaining 25% (or, in this example, approximately $600,000) would support agency fees, public relations expenses, social media, community engagement – all of the programs and initiatives that round out an integrated marketing strategy. Forget to invest that 25% at your own peril. Earned media is critical for success and many social media channels are also becoming pay-to-play.

Why such a large percentage allocated to paid media? Again, ours is an increasingly pay-to-play world. Rising above the noise to engage our audiences frequently means investing to identify and target audience members with the propensity to act in our interest (e.g. visit our organizations, become members, etc.). There is tremendous competition for these same audience members  from the nonprofit and for-profit communities alike.  Think of the most admired and successful campaigns in the world – do Nike and Apple rely on 3am cable TV “bonus” spots that they get for a reduced rate and that don’t hit target audiences? Nope. While earned media plays a major role in driving reputation, paid media plays an important role in a cohesive strategy – and doing it right costs money.

This equation determines how much your marketing budget should be and how to allocate that optimal budget. If you have a marketing budget that is arbitrarily determined or based on “how we’ve always done it,” then you may be working with a budget that doesn’t allow you to maximize any investment.

 

The equation in action

How does the study suggest this equation? Check out the chart below. It indicates the relationship between performance relative to market potential (i.e. how well the organization actually performed when compared to its market potential) and the audience acquisition investments made by 42 visitor-serving organizations (including aquariums, museums, performing arts organizations, and zoos) over a three-year period:

IMPACTS - Audience Acquisition

The data strongly suggests that there is a correlation between an optimized audience acquisition investment and achieving market potential. It also indicates the perils of “underspending the opportunity” – a modest investment intended to achieve cost-savings may forfend exponential revenues. (Though the data never has – and likely never will – support it, many organizations seem to foolishly hold dear to the notion that they might somehow “save their way to prosperity.”)

Additional analysis indicates that the studied organizations invested an average of 7.9% of earned revenues toward audience acquisition…but only achieved 76.0% of their market potential. However, the organizations achieving ≥95.0% of their respective market potentials invested an average of 12.7% of their earned revenues toward audience acquisition.

In no instance did an organization investing less than 5.0% of earned revenues on audience acquisition achieve greater than 60.0% of its market potential.

Overall, the data suggests that the “sweet spot” for audience acquisition investment is in the 10.0-15.0% of earned revenue range. Splitting the difference (and further supported by the findings of organizations achieving ≥95.0% of their market potential in the study) gives us our 12.5%.

NOTE: Before we start parsing the nuances of media planning and creative approaches to advertising, let’s baseline the conversation by acknowledging that each of the studied organizations were led by competent persons operating with the best of intentions. Yes – “great creative” matters – but it doesn’t offset an inadequate marketing investment. Sure, a viral social campaign helps…but it doesn’t negate the importance of other media channels. In other words, there aren’t exemptions from the need to invest in audience acquisition for visitor-serving organizations that rely on earned revenues.

 

If your organization is struggling to meet its market potential, it may have less to do with all of the usual suspects such as parking, staff courtesy, special exhibits, pricing, etc. and more to do with an antiquated view of the necessity of meaningful marketing investments. Can your organization overspend? You bet. However, that doesn’t seem to be the problem confronting most visitor-serving nonprofit organizations. If your organization is struggling to meet its market potential, then it may be that in today’s pay-to-play world, you simply aren’t paying enough to play in the first place.

 

If you have questions, please check out the original posting of this information. Several folks have weighed in with great questions and I have provided answers there. Don’t see what you’re looking for? Please comment below or on the original post!

 

Like this video? You can check out more 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, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing 1 Comment

Most Popular Posts of 2015 For Cultural Organizations

Most Popular Posts of 2015 for Cultural Organizations

From data on free admission to donor desires – here are the top ten most popular posts on Know Your Own Bone in 2015.

Happy New Year! I hope that 2015 was a great year for you and your organizations! 2015 brought many new adventures on this front: speaking engagements, lectures, remarkable projects, travel and conversation with amazing clients across the globe, and the launch of Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts videos and my presence on YouTube.

I am grateful for all of the wonderful attention, link-love, thought-fuel, and shop-talking that Know Your Own Bone readers have provided and continue to provide. I write Know Your Own Bone because I (with the support of IMPACTS (the company that patiently puts up with my asking, “Is this information proprietary?!” during every interaction)) believe that information that can be used to help move cultural organizations forward should be shared so that it can best do its duty. I hope that this little corner of the Internet has been helpful to you and your organizations- and I look forward to connecting with even more of my incredible readers and their mission-driven organizations in 2016. There are a lot of great projects in the works for this upcoming year thanks to all of the attention that Know Your Own Bone is receiving and I cannot wait to share them with all of you!

My favorite thing that I’ve noticed about KYOB readers is that they are curious leaders who aren’t afraid to ask hard questions within their organizations.  I love that.

In keeping with my annual new year tradition of posting the year’s most popular posts, here are the (all data-based) articles on Know Your Own Bone that received the most attention in 2015:

 

How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t much. And misunderstanding this may jeopardize industry solvency. Free admission is far from the engagement cure-all that some of its supporters believe it to be. Here’s the data.

.

What Ultra Wealthy Donors Consider Before Supporting a Nonprofit

How can nonprofit organizations engage high net worth board members and donors? To get to the bottom of this million-dollar question, we asked these individuals themselves.

 

Three New Pricing Realities For Visitor-Serving Nonprofits in the Twenty-First Century

It’s hard for cultural organizations to exist (let alone thrive) in the long-term without a sustainable revenue strategy that optimizes pricing. Want to keep moving your mission moving forward and your doors open? It’s time to end the debate on these pricing-related topics.

 

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

In reality, free days often do the very opposite of mission work.  It’s true: Free admission days do not usually engage affordable access audiences. Here’s data that should make organizations think twice about their free days and underserved audience engagement strategies.

 

The Game Has Changed: Nonprofits Now Compete With For-Profits

An organization’s nonprofit status may carry neither the perceptual weight nor the relevance that many leadership teams imagine…and nonprofits may be sabotaging their own opportunities for support because of it.

 

Audience Acquisition: The Cost of Doing Business for Visitor-Serving Organizations

Optimizing marketing investments are increasingly a product of math and science (decidedly not “intuition” or “trial and error”). So here it is: the data-informed equation for how much money organizations should be spending in order to maximize opportunities for financial success.  (Heads up: I’ve got a fast facts video of this information coming to you all during the first week of 2016. Get pumped!)

 

Death By Curation: The Exhibit Strategy That Threatens Visitation and Cultural Center Survival

Blockbuster exhibits sound nice, but they often create a negative cycle that threatens the solvency of the visitor-serving organizations that deploy them. The “bigger, better, more expensive” business model is financially unsustainable and it alienates audiences.  Check out the data.

 

Why Millennials May Be The Most Valuable Generation for Cultural Nonprofits

The sheer size of the millennial generation makes them a critical target audience, but data suggest that millennial visitors may actually be the best visitors. Here’s why.

 

Influencing Leadership: Three Findings to Effectively Communicate with Cultural Executives

Potentially innovative, groundbreaking ideas risk dying on the vine if they aren’t understood and supported by an organization’s – and an industry’s – leadership.  Before you can change the world, you likely need to change some minds. Here’s data that will help.

 

Visitation to Increase If Organizations Evolve Engagement Models

Attendance to cultural centers is on the decline, but data suggest that forward-facing organizations may see improvements by 2020 if they move forward intelligently. Here’s what organizations need to know.

 

Thanks again to each and every one of you for following along with KYOB! Here’s to a great 2016 for all!

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly cultural center/nonprofit geekery on your social media channels? Like my Facebook page,  follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to my YouTube channel. 

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on Most Popular Posts of 2015 For Cultural Organizations

The Membership Benefits That Millennials Want From Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Don’t have many millennial members? Maybe you aren’t offering a membership program that millennials actually want.

If millennials (folks born between 1980 and 2000) are the largest generation in human history, why don’t they make up a vast majority of members for cultural organizations? Today’s Know Your Own Bone – Fast Facts video dives into research about the kinds of membership benefits that this generation actually wants.

If you think that millennials just don’t want to be members to cultural organizations, then think again. IMPACTS data reveal that millennials report more interest in joining many cultural organizations as members than do their Generation X and Baby Boomer predecessors. Here’s the data (regarding zoos, aquariums, and museums in this case) courtesy of the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study:

IMPACTS data- Membership interest by age cohort 2015

 

And it’s not just a “this year” thing. Interest in membership among millennials is actually on the rise. Notably, interest in memberships among Baby Boomers is on the decline.

 

IMPACTS generational membership interest multi-year

 

In terms of potentially engaging millennials as members, this is great news! But the findings would be even more promising if more organizations knew what it is that millennials want from a membership to a cultural organization. We looked into this question on behalf of a large (annual visitation >1million people) aquarium client with a conservation mission. We found that what millennials want from a membership is a tad different than what older generations want. Take a look:

 

IMPACTS data- Primary benefits of membership

Notice that, with the exception of free admission, the primary benefits of membership according to millennials are less transaction-based than are the responses from their preceding generations. Millennials care about “belonging,” “supporting,” and “impact.”

This information should inform how cultural organizations go about creating and marketing membership programs to these audience members. If we keep focusing on the benefits that millennials don’t actually value – and miss opportunities to highlight our mission impact – then it may be difficult to create long-term relationships with these young supporters. These responses from millennials may not come as a surprise. After all, in today’s world, your mission matters – and carrying out that mission is critical for an organization’s solvency. 

Want to attract millennial members? Make sure that you have the types of memberships that millennials value.

 

Like this video? You can check out more on my YouTube channel. Here are a few Fast Fact post that you might also enjoy:

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, IMPACTS Data, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on The Membership Benefits That Millennials Want From Cultural Organizations (DATA)

What Ultra Wealthy Donors Consider Before Supporting a Nonprofit (DATA)

Know Your Own Bone- What the Wealthiest Potential Donors Consider Before Supporting a Nonprofit (DATA)

How can nonprofit organizations engage high net worth board members and donors? To get to the bottom of this million-dollar question, we asked these individuals themselves.

There’s a good amount of talk out there about how to attract wealthy donors and board members in the philanthropy world – and much of the prevailing wisdom focuses on staff cultivating relationships with these individuals and then making an “ask.” But what are high net worth individuals, in particular,  really evaluating when they consider joining a board or making large donation?

IMPACTS, in partnership with a prominent, national nonprofit organization, recently conducted a study to learn more about the considerations that drive the philanthropic decisions of high net worth individuals.

 

The Study

The intent of the study was to better understand the considerations and motivations of Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs) in the United States as they relate to joining a nonprofit board or making a major gift (i.e. greater than US$1 million) to a nonprofit organization.

The study defined an UHNWI as a person with net assets greater than US$50 million.  38,000 such UHMWIs reside in the United States – the greatest number of UHNWI residents in the world.  The study includes responses from 112 UHNWIs.

For the study, UHNWIs were asked open-ended questions to identify their most important considerations when contemplating if they should accept an invitation to join a nonprofit board or make a gift to a nonprofit organization.  A lexical analysis process organized these responses by general consideration, and these same considerations were presented to the studied UHNWIs who were then asked to rank from 1-10 the considerations in terms of relative importance to their decision-making process.  The Mean Value is the average ranking that the UHNWI respondents assigned to each consideration.

Take a look at the findings.

 

IMPACTS UHNWI Board Considerations

IMPACTS UHNWI Donor Considerations

 

Key Findings

A few, critical thoughts and observations arise from this data that are worth pointing out:

 

1) WHO gives (and who does not give) matters most.

In a way, this is another take on the “with>what” concept. Look at several of the most important considerations: Who’s on the board?  Who has given?  The company that one keeps matters to this audience. Success begets success. Money follows money.  An organization hoping to land an UHNWI as a board member or donor would be well advised to have secured the participation of other similarly statured individuals. And it is increasingly important to leverage the advocacy and support of those valuable few individuals who have already made commitments to an organization.

 

2) The financial commitment of the existing board tells a story.

UHNWI who are potential donors may consider the financial commitments of current board members to be an indicator of the credibility of the organization and its fundraising objectives. Note that that these potential donors rank the relative investment of the board of directors ahead of both the impact of their gift and the mission of the organization. A less committed and under-invested board is essentially a non-starter for a potential large-scale donor. …And that makes sense.  If the people who presumably know the organization best – not to mention who are charged with ensuring the organization’s future success – choose not to prioritize investments in the organization, then why should anyone else?  Board members, take note: The days of spending “other people’s money” to fund your aspirations are over (if they ever existed in the first place).

 

3) Peer actions are more important than staff member actions.

This may be a tough pill to swallow for CEOs and development professionals, but understanding and embracing this aspect of donor cultivation seems to be critical. Securing these types of donors is a peer-to-peer opportunity. Staff are relatively unimportant to donors – donors give money to peers. (It is important that they trust the staff to manage and actualize their investments, but they don’t consider staff as critical in their donor decision-making processes.)  Consider that the “Quality of Executive Leadership” is the fifth most important factor when considering joining a board, but doesn’t show up at all when considering making a major gift. This information may significantly aid some organizations in understanding how to effectively engage these donors.

 

4) Mission impact matters.

It’s a good thing this one made it so high on the list for potential board member considerations (although it comes in behind peer giving considerations for potential donors). Mission matters…and so does demonstrating a history of success at delivering your mission.  Wealthy folks seem to see through hot air.  Remember: These same people are likely pitched daily by money managers, start-ups, entrepreneurs, and others with grand plans for their capital. They have a lot of experience separating grandiose visions from realistic opportunities. Having a hopeful story to tell is great.  Having a “proof of concept” is better.

 

5) Time is more important than money.

Particularly when it comes to serving on a board. Please adjust engagement tactics, requests, and operations accordingly.

 

6) Impact on their own legacy matters less to these donors.

I was surprised by this finding and think there may be something interesting here. For UHNWIs, the mission of the organization exceeds even impacts on their own legacies as a factor when deciding to join a board or make a major gift.  Perhaps this is because they feel that they’ve already secured their legacies in other ways or with previous gifts.  It could be interesting to contrast this relative consideration to the motivation of less wealthy board members – how many of them join a board to leverage some degree of prestige in the hopes that the reputational equities of the organization will inure to their personal benefit? It is interesting to note that naming benefits and other legacy-related considerations may generally matter less to this group than board composition, board giving, mission, and impact. I wonder if UHNWIs may have a little more (to paraphrase JFK) “Ask not what the organization can do for you, ask what you can do for the organization” in them than do other board members who might prioritize legacy and reputational benefits.

 

The first step in engaging these wealthy philanthropists is to identify their biggest considerations and find out what matters most to them. While some of these findings may not surprise CEOs and development professionals, seeing these findings aggregated and prioritized may prove helpful when crafting effective engagement strategies for potential supporters.

The greatest opportunity uncovered by this data may be the imperative of prioritizing conversations with current board members about the importance of their own investments. Another opportunity may include considering the composition of your organization’s existing board, and working with the nominating committee to underscore the need to create the hardest-hitting group of supporters possible.

Let’s update our strategies so that 2016 may be the most impactful and social-good inspiring year of giving to date.

 

Like this post? Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Sector Evolution Comments Off on What Ultra Wealthy Donors Consider Before Supporting a Nonprofit (DATA)

Cultural Organizations Highlighting Mission Outperform Those Marketing as Attractions (Video)

Being good at your mission matters – both to your community and to your organization’s financial health. Check out today’s “Fast Facts” video to learn more about how organizations that highlight their mission consistently outperform organizations that market themselves primarily as attractions.

This data supports several critical trends regarding cultural organizations right now including our increasing focus on being social spaces and our abilities to reach new and diverse audiences.

IMPACTS has been tracking the relationship between perceptions of mission execution and financial performance for several years, and the findings have remained consistent. We’ve found that the best way to show the data is using two, composite metrics:

Revenue efficiency contemplates revenue streams (including admission, membership contributions, and program revenues) relative to operating expenses and the number of people that an organization serves.  A more “revenue efficient” organization is generally more financially stable.

Reputational equities contemplate visitor perceptions such as reputation, trust, authority, credibility, and satisfaction. Basically, it’s the market’s opinion of how well an organization delivers its mission and experiences.

IMPACTS- Museums revenue and reputation correlation

 

We reliably observe that those organizations that the market perceives as most effectively delivering on their mission are the same organizations who achieve the greatest revenue efficiencies. Since IMPACTS commenced tracking this metric several years ago, the data continue to evidence a strong correlation between reputational equities and revenue efficiency. Though the data shown here represents museums, we observe a similar relationship among nearly all types of visitor-serving organizations – including zoos, aquariums, and performing arts centers.

In the interest of maintaining appropriate confidences, you can see that I’ve anonymized the organizations represented in this chart. Each letter represents one of 13 notable US cultural organizations – the types of organizations that most any observer would recognize. In other words, this data isn’t a “stacked deck” – it’s representative of an overall trend. In fact, of the 48 visitor-serving organizations in the US for which IMPACTS tracks these metrics, 47 of the organizations (98%) indicate this compelling correlation. We have found from our tracking of this metric over time that reputational equities tend to reliably predict revenue efficiency.

Tell everyone that the data is clear: Being good at your mission is good business.

 

Like this video? You can check out more on my YouTube channel. Here are a few Fast Fact post that you might also enjoy:

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on Cultural Organizations Highlighting Mission Outperform Those Marketing as Attractions (Video)

Hubs for Human Connection: The Social Role of Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Hubs for Human Connection: The Social Role of Cultural Organizations

Heartbreaking tragedy has dominated the recent news. Monuments around the world shine brightly with the colors of the French flag, and conversations about the roles of cultural organizations to create common ground in diverse societies are in full swing.

Sometimes several data sets come together to highlight an overwhelming trend – like how personalization is affecting everything about the market’s experiences with cultural organizations. Another data-supported reality that resonates as all the more profound in light of the recent tragedy is this one: Successful cultural organizations today are actually all about connections to and between people.

Data suggest that at our best, cultural organizations are social and facilitate human connection. 

I’m not (only) talking about social media, or re-considering reverential silence policies in galleries or at concerts. I’m also talking about what people consider to be the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization (i.e. who they are with), and the most effective way to increase visitor satisfaction (i.e. more human connection).

Our collections, programs, and performances are important, but they are only important insofar as they inspire, educate and connect people. Here are five, data-informed reasons for cultural organizations (museums, aquariums, performing arts organizations, historic sites, botanic gardens, etc.) to take going social seriously and consider integrating it into everything that they do.

Side: I love it when data reveals positive things about human beings and human nature, so I share these types of data a lot. For those of you who are regular KYOB readers, you might consider this post a sort of “KYOB’s Greatest Hits.”

 

Human connectivity, folks…

 

1) It is the best thing about visiting a cultural organization

Data suggest that who visitors are with is often more important than what people see when they visit a cultural organization. Check out my Fast Facts video from last week for the quick run-down.

When it comes to visiting a cultural organization, with > what.

What is so compelling isn’t so much that visitors believe that spending time with friends and family is the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization. Indeed, what is so striking is the fact that who people are with is more than twice as important as what people see. That’s a whole heck of a difference. This data underscores the role of cultural organizations as facilitators of shared experience – a role that many organizations may overlook in favor of more object-centric programming that overvalue the isolated experience of a visitor. (You can read more about this data here).

IMPACTS- With over what data

 

2) It is how we want to experience cultural programming

I was with the IMPACTS team in a meeting with Stanford University discussing the engagement of students and community members alike in classical music. The group began discussing opportunities around “shaking up” the way that audiences experience classical music, and the merits of making the concert-going experience more “social.” One of the University’s leaders suddenly exclaimed, “It’s getting back to performing Handel in the same, social way that the music was experienced in Handel’s time!”

We all stopped in our tracks. We thought being social in this environment was more of a new idea. Lifting the demand for silence at certain programs? Serving food (chewing while listening)? World-class musicians performing important, inspiring, and moving pieces while mingling with listeners? Many might consider that sacrilegious! One can well imagine avowed classicists muttering under their breaths, “These uncultured young people are destroying classical music!”

In reality, the concept of orchestrating isolated cultural experiences in shared spaces is the relatively new idea. In Handel’s time, music was enjoyed socially – audiences ate, drank, and generally partook in all sorts of merriment while musicians filled the concert hall with beautiful melodies. Why is being social in shared spaces considered “new” when it is the very way that many types of art were intended to be enjoyed, discussed, and explored?

Perhaps it’s a classic case of “the more things change, the more that they stay the same.” Why would the idea of going social (at least in some contexts) be perceived as an attack on the arts?

After all (and for example), dedicated listening to classical music only accounts for 20.9% of all classical music listening activity – and the behavior doesn’t vary as dramatically between students (i.e. “young people”) and non-students as some might suspect. Some organizations may choose to focus their programmatic offerings to try to fit into that 20.9% of their audiences’ dedicated listening time…but why not create programs to include the other 79.1%?

The data below represents the classical music listening behaviors of 915 undergraduate students, and 2,115 non-student adults living in the San Francisco Designated Market Area. The commonality of behavior is particularly interesting as students and non-students spend 79.1% and 82.8% of their time (respectively) listening to classical music while also doing something else.

IMPACTS- classical music listening behaviors

These data are particularly interesting because they indicate self-selected cultural behaviors – classical music listeners (arguably among the most “traditional” of contemporary cultural participants) report that only about 1/3 of their time spent engaging with content is experienced in a state of solitude (e.g. dedicated listening or while reading). The balance of their engagement invites connection and a public context – while traveling, while dining, while cooking, while exercising. For the vast majority of time for its listeners, classical music accompanies another activity or supports a social context…it is not a dedicated activity.

Yet, too many organizations that present classical music create environments focused solely on dedicated listening, and, indeed, actively dissuade a social context. And these organizations are not alone – there seems to exist a false dogma in some organizations that dedicated, solitary experiences are the preferred way to engage with a cultural experience. The data suggest otherwise. Perhaps the audiences of Handel’s time had it right – culture may be a component of a greater, social experience.

 

3) It is the most effective way to increase satisfaction

This data is a KYOB classic and I have made a Fast Facts video on the related findings that you may find of interest. Don’t have two minutes and thirty-five seconds? Here’s a brief summary:

Supporting interactions between a staff and a visitors significantly increases visitor satisfaction. These interactions (we call them personal facilitated experiences (PFEs)) also increase perceived admission value, employee courtesy, entertainment value, and education value.

A PFE is a one-to-one or one-to-few experience and a prime example of personalization. It is a staff member or volunteer essentially saying, “I see you. I would like to share my knowledge and passion with you.”

PFEs are so successful at increasing visitor satisfaction because they involve humans connecting with other humans. Check out the first chart in this article about the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization. Interacting with staff is just behind seeing/interacting with exhibits or performances. This further underscores the incredible importance of with>what.

Personal facilitated experiences are so effective at increasing visitor satisfaction that they can be used to increase visitor satisfaction by daypart. (Again, for more on this data, click here.) Human connection is where it’s at, folks.

PFE satisfaction by daypart

 

4) It is how we determine reputation and make visitation decisions

This is probably the tidbit of information that I go through or reference most in my work at IMPACTS. I find myself referring to it several times a week in meetings and it’s the driving reason behind the need for many organizations to evolve. See my Fast Facts video – How Social Media Drives Reputation – for more information.

Reputation is absolutely critical for driving visitation. Reputation is the second most important decision making utility when it comes to driving high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations. In today’s world, reputation creation and management (and sometimes demise) is overwhelmingly a social function.

What people say to one another about your organization is 12.85 times more important in driving your organization’s reputation than things that your organization says about itself. In our connected world, reputations are determined by what you put out and what folks say about you on social media, earned media, peer review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and what people say to their friends and family.

“Social” (and not just social media) represents how we make visitation decisions.

Diffusion of messaging- IMPACTS

 

5) Is a reliable indicator of successful organizations

Here’s another set of data that I’ve presented and written about recently – and that IMPACTS continues to monitor over time. (Stay tuned! I have a video summary of this data hitting my YouTube channel next week.)

Being good at your social mission is good business. Organizations that highlight their mission consistently outperform organizations that market themselves primarily as attractions. The best way to show this data is using two, composite metrics:

Revenue efficiency contemplates revenue streams (including admission, membership contributions, and program revenues) relative to operating expenses and the number of people that an organization serves.  A more “revenue efficient” organization is generally more financially stable.

Reputational equities contemplate visitor perceptions such as reputation, trust, authority, credibility, and satisfaction. Basically, it is the market’s opinion of how well an organization delivers its mission and experiences. In the interest of maintaining appropriate confidences, I’ve anonymized the organizations represented. You’ll still get a good sense of the trend. Each letter represents one of 13 notable US museums.

We reliably observe that those organizations that the market perceives as most effectively delivering on their mission are the same organizations that achieve the greatest revenue efficiencies. Since IMPACTS commenced tracking this metric several years ago, the data continue to evidence a strong correlation between reputational equities and revenue efficiency.

IMPACTS- Museums revenue and reputation correlation

 

“Going social” isn’t new. It’s one of the oldest natural behaviors that we know as human beings. Especially during this difficult time, let’s be places where people can come to connect to one another – and to the past and the future.

Yes, it’s a smart business move. I have put all of these “greatest hits” together so that folks interested in putting social connectivity at the heart of their organizations have the data that they need to support the important conversations taking place right now. The math is there. Let’s get our hearts on board.

We are connected. We long to be connected. And we reward places that connect us.

 

Like this post? 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 1 Comment

Data Reveals the Best Thing About Visiting a Cultural Organization (Fast Fact Video)


Hint: It’s not seeing exhibits or performances. (That is a distant second.)

In our attempt to provide educational and inspiring programs, organizations may be overlooking their role as facilitators of shared experiences. Check out this “Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts” video for the run-down.

As it turns out, with > what.

This doesn’t mean that our exhibits, programs, and performances are unimportant! But it does mean that organizations may be better able to engage audiences by realizing that who people are with is often more important that what they see when they visit a cultural organization such as a museum, performing arts organization, science center, historic site, aquarium, zoo, etc.

Check out this data from IMPACTS. This information comes form the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study, which is an ongoing data set with 98,000 responses and counting.

IMPACTS- With over what data

You’ll notice that “time with friends and family” is more than twice as valued as the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization than is “seeing/interacting with exhibits/programs.” In the data world, that is a huge difference. Heck, in any comparative world, that is a huge difference! And, in fact, “interacting with staff/volunteers/performers” is just behind seeing exhibits and performances…further underscoring the importance of interaction and connection with people.

In today’s world, cultural organizations are especially valuable hubs for connection and interaction – not only with onsite content – but with one another.

Our “stuff” is important. Knowing that we are places of connection may be just as – if not more – important. When armed with this information, cultural organizations may be better able to create programs that harness the power of with > what.

Isn’t it interesting that in our age of glowing screens and new technologies, it is the areas of the visitation experience that underscore “real life connection” that are increasingly the most important?

 

Like this video? You can check out more on my YouTube channel. Here are a few Fast Fact post 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 updates and information, follow me on Twitter

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 4 Comments

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

Free Days Do Not Reach Underserved Audiences

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Annual household income on free days- IMPACTS

Educational attainment on free days- IMPACTS

The common, defensive response to this data is to make an excuse and say that this data does not apply to your organization’s free days. After all, you may have attended your organization’s free day and you saw a lot of folks who seemed like they might be affordable access audiences. Indeed, you probably did – but you probably didn’t truly see as many affordable access audience members as you would see on a paid admission day when you weren’t looking for affordable access audiences. This topic may be our industry’s best example of confirmation bias.  Free days engaging higher earning households instead of affordable access audiences is the rule – not the exception. At IMPACTS, we are asked to supply this kind of information to many grant-making entities. So please, instead of making excuses, do your organization a favor and actually look into this situation. Increasingly, smart grant-making entities are catching onto these things and are aching to see programs that actually engage the targeted audience segments.

 

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

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

Repeat visitors on free days- IMPACTS

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

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

 

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

This fact is basic, overlooked, and often a driving reason for the last two conditions: A majority of organizations don’t even reach out to affordable access audiences regarding their free days. Instead, we tend to target high-propensity visitors- the people we know how to target. Here’s an entire article on the data behind why cultural organizations have such a hard time attracting low-income visitors on free and reduced admission days. 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Like this post? Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 21 Comments