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

Eight Realities To Help You Become A Data-Informed Cultural Organization

Is your organization integrating market research into strategic decision-making processes yet? Here are eight important things to keep in Read more

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 Read more

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 Read more

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 Read more

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 Read more

Community Engagement

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 Leave a comment

Eight Realities To Help You Become A Data-Informed Cultural Organization

Is your organization integrating market research into strategic decision-making processes yet? Here are eight important things to keep in mind.

I just returned from a whirlwind 24 hours in St. Louis for (a portion of) the American Alliance of Museums annual conference. While I was there, I had the honor of serving on a panel to talk data with some rad folks: Rob Stein (American Alliance of Museums), Kaywin Feldman (Minneapolis Institute of Art), Seb Chan (Australian Center for the Moving Image), and Kari Allderedge (McKinsey & Company). We spoke about how data can be used to help inform strategic decisions. Prior to the conference, Rob asked each of us to send him our key takeaways regarding our portion of the discussion. If you couldn’t make it – or if you could and you simply like a good refresher – these were my six takeaways…with two additional points that I want to add on after our discussion.

Here are eight, important things to keep in mind regardless of where your organization is in the process of integrating market research into strategic decision-making processes:

 

1) The need to make different audiences into regular audiences is urgent.

Cultural organizations are experiencing a phenomenon called the negative substitution of the historic visitor. Negative substitution occurs when the number of people who profile as historic visitors exiting the market outpaces the number of people who profile as historic visitors entering the market. It’s the driving reason for the decline in attendance to museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts entities, and other visitor-serving organizations (particularly when contextualized by the rate of population growth). Negative substitution is taking place because the market is growing more diverse, while perceptions of cultural organizations as being places for a certain kind of person have remained largely static.

The negative substitution rate for museums shows that for every one historic visitor who leaves the US market (by way of death, relocation, or migration), they are being replaced by only 0.948 of a person (by way of birth, relocation, or immigration). This may not sound impressive – but this is actually a huge difference.

Think of it this way: An organization with a stable attendance of 1,000,000 visitors may keep doing everything right by their current audiences (e.g. marketing, developing exhibits, etc.), and then might reasonably expect to engage 948,000 future visitors…and then 899,000 visitors…and then progressively fewer yet visitors over time absent interdiction. And they will be doing everything right by their current audiences!

Although the negative substitution rate for aggregated cultural organizations is 0.948:1.00, rates are slightly different among visitor-serving organization types. For instance, for history museums, the number is 0.951. For art museums, it’s 0.946, and for science museums it is 0.939. For more about these rates and those for some other organization types, check out this article.

 

2) Audience research and market research are different. We need them both.

Negative substitution is an important example of a pressing reason why organizations must contemplate market research. Market research includes both visitors and non-visitors alike. It is helpful for spotting trends, informing strategic decisions, reaching new audiences, and providing clues for effective engagement. In order to know what people really think of our organization, we also need to know what the people who do not decide to pay us a visit think.

Market research is the type of research that helps inform our more global reputations and identifies primary barriers to visitation. Asking only current audiences about our reputations would be like Donald Trump solely asking the GOP what they think of him. Of course, the GOP is incredibly important to Donald Trump – they presumably comprise the core of his constituency. But, in order to get a more complete and accurate view of his reputation, he would need to include folks who may decide not to support him as well.

Market research tends to be “bigger” data, and it’s generally harder for cultural organizations to obtain. After all, without significant investment, it can be difficult to reach the folks who are not engaging with an organization. They aren’t likely following the entity on social media, they probably aren’t on the organizations’ email lists, nor are they onsite to survey. Adding these folks to the mix helps us understand the bigger picture of our organization’s effectiveness and reputation. Market research informs strategic decisions, and it helps answer the question, “What should we do?”

Audience research is also incredibly important! It Includes visitors to our institutions and participants in our programs. Once we’ve created a program, it helps us figure out how it can be improved.  It can also let us know what current audiences like and don’t like, and what they expect from our organizations in the future. Audience research can help affirm and monitor the efficacy of strategic decisions, and it helps answer the question, “Is what we are doing working for our current audiences?”

Here’s a brief overview video of the difference between audience and market research that provides more information.

 

3) Market research does not seek to affirm decisions (although it can). It informs them.

Market research functions fundamentally differently than audience research. Simply, it is not a wholly adequate tool for affirming decisions. It’s not a thing to be considered after a decision has been made, but something to consider in the development of programs and initiatives. Market data can be helpful for evolving and altering programs so that they meet market expectations, but it may be better – and much more efficient – to utilize market research to design effective programs in the first place.

Remember: Market research includes high-propensity visitors. High-propensity visitors are people who profile as likely visitors, but they may not necessarily have visited your organization (yet). They represent market potential. Market potential can be different than actual visitation. For instance, some organizations think that their low visitation numbers from adults without children indicate that adults without children do not have interest in visiting the organization. Data suggest that this may be untrue. Moreover, nearly a quarter of potential visitors to cultural organizations fall in a single, ten-year age cohort that may not necessarily match an organization’s attendance – outlining a potential opportunity.

 

4) Effective organizations prioritize the perspectives of the market.

Organizations that take an “outside-in” approach to strategic decision-making generally outperform those still taking “inside-out” approaches. In other words, it pays to pay attention to the market and listen to its expectations, perspectives, and behaviors. Traditionally, visitor-serving organizations may be more used to the opposite strategy of essentially bestowing upon themselves the responsibility of determining for their audiences what these audiences should care about.

“I think” doesn’t count from an insider professional because we are not the market. We are not our audiences, so we need to ask and observe audiences in order to have a baseline understanding of their needs, wants, and expectations. We benefit by paying attention to target audiences, and realizing that we don’t know our audiences better than they know themselves.

 

5) Confirmation biases create blind spots. Challenge what you think you know to get real answers.

Confirmation bias may be the root of our industry’s most popular misconceptions. It certainly plays a big role in why Know Your Own Bone is sometimes called “controversial” by industry insiders and generally reads more like common sense to not industry-insiders.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It’s human – and also prevalent and incredibly damaging.

Here’s just one example. We frequently observe in demographic surveys that more educated and higher income people visit cultural organizations during broadly publicized reduced admission days than during full-price admission days. (As a side, this makes perfect sense. Cultural audiences tend to be more wealthy and educated than the general public, so it’s wealthy folks who take up the deal when our initiatives aren’t specifically targeted). Confirmation bias makes us think that our organization is exempt from this happening because we saw some people who looked “low income” (whatever that means) on an affordable access day…particularly when went out of our way to look for people that we believed were low income.

Confirmation bias is often what makes cultural industry leaders utter that most damaging and defensive phrase, “That data doesn’t apply to me” when it applies exactly to them.

Again, confirmation bias is completely human. I even have coworkers that I run my ideas by for Know Your Own Bone articles or who help me edit them when I worry that my own confirmation biases may be popping up.  These folks help me remind myself to question and look into even things that our industry assumes to be unassailable. It’s by looking into them that I’ve realized just how much of our industry best practices are still housed on an unstable rubble of “I think” rather than a sturdy foundation of economics or consumer behavior.

Confirmation bias makes us all blind. If you work with data, remember that you may not be able to completely remove those blinders, but you need to acknowledge that they are there or you may not be able to move forward accurately. We benefit by testing even what we think we know, and even that which will make us most uncomfortable if we’ve been doing it “wrong.”

 

6) Sometimes data makes people angry, but hard truths can help us evolve.

Real data will be hard sometimes. It’s data. You don’t get to chose the outcomes. Inevitably, sometimes there will be bad or surprising news.

If your organization never receives hard truths from data, then one of two things may be going on: First, your organization may be a miracle of modern cultural business practices, or – more likely – you’re not asking the right questions that lead to growth and learning.

If you’re truly asking good questions and chipping away at engagement barriers, you will get hard answers sometimes. They may be different than the Board Chair’s personal preference. This will be challenging. (Remember: A sample size of one person is not a significant sample – even if that person is the Board Chair.) It downright stinks to deliver data that says that your friend Tim-in-the-Community-Engagement-Department’s pet project isn’t reaching affordable access audiences, or your lunch buddy Nancy-the-Curator’s idea for an exhibit won’t be worth the cost. Though data can be hard to swallow, it’s great to get it. If we don’t learn, we cannot grow. If data suggest that a board member’s idea isn’t the best, then the board member isn’t dumb – they are great for coming up with the idea to test. And your organization is great for testing it first.

Organizations benefit by creating a culture where leadership is comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s the side effect of being thoughtful. It’s also the side effect of creating impact in a data-informed world.

 

7) Aim to collect signals rather than noise.

Sure, there’s a lot of data that you (or a third party entity on your behalf) could collect – but collecting data for the sake of collecting data without an idea of how it will be used to help you achieve your strategic goals can be a huge waste of time (and even a liability if you’re not careful with data management practices). Data can be a tremendous asset and, indeed, it should increasingly inform strategic decisions. That said, collecting data for data’s sake seems like a vain exercise in pseudo best practices. Measure what counts.

Consider what you need to know in order to best reach your organization’s goals and then use data to uncover the answers. Do you want to know if your organization is trusted? If an expansion project is a good idea? If people believe they are getting a good value for your cost of admission? The average amount of time between visits? If your new exhibit idea will attract new audiences? Why people with reported interest aren’t coming? Start with the questions. Data is important because it helps answer the questions that informs strategic decisions.

Figure out what you want to learn about the market or your audiences and measure signals.  For instance, measure your reputation, your intent-to-revisit chronologies, trust, visitor satisfaction, value-for-cost perceptions…things that mean something. It’s easy to get distracted by noise. We get misled by noise because noise is often the easiest to get – nevermind that it doesn’t really matter and often wastes time. Noise includes vanity metrics like click-through-rates, web visits, mobile app downloads, social media followers, and other numbers that don’t usually correlate with success in motivating visitation or heightening mission execution. These things can be helpful diagnostic metrics, but they are NOT key performance indicators. They generally do not belong in board packets. They are largely noise that can make the task of truly being a data-informed organization harder in the long run.

 

8) You do not need to be a data expert to make smart strategic decisions based on data.

You are already presumably expert at the job that you have. You are probably already pretty darn stretched thin, too. You may be thinking, “We just got social media figured out…and now we need to navigate the ins and outs of data?!” Building a culture based on more data-informed decision-making may mean that it’s increasingly important for folks within an organization to know its value and possesses a baseline understanding of it. This does not mean that everyone in an organization needs to add to their job the work of becoming expert at data collection and management. In fact, that sounds like a disaster sure to result in a lot of noise and some very bad data collected by non-experts. Bad data can be worse than no data.

I work in analyzing cultural organization data every single day. I write about outcomes here every week. I keynoted about it last week in California and I am keynoting about it next week in Australia. I analyze data – but I don’t collect it. Other people in the company with significant academic and professional experiences related to data collection do that. I don’t conduct surveys or create questionnaires for market research. I help let people who are expert at creating unbiased instruments know the questions to which client organizations want answers. I don’t personally know the ins and outs of data collection and privacy laws – other people in the company with law degrees do that. (I hear that they are called lawyers!)

I like to think that I know a lot of things. I certainly don’t know everything about data collection, management, rules and restrictions, creating effective and unbiased survey instruments, the specific details of deploying those instruments, structural equation modeling, or network theory modeling (for starters)…and I am a “data person” who knows a great deal about data and uses it every day.

I believe that people who work in cultural organizations are superheroes in many, many ways. That said, if my full-time job revolves around data and I work predominately in one portion of it (analysis), then I think it may be a bit unfair for you to expect yourselves to become specialized mathematicians, behavioral economists, and lawyers in addition to your regular important work of educating and inspiring the masses.

That’s not how you become a data-informed organization. Becoming a data-informed organization means asking hard questions, challenging how you think and doing it critically, and using data to inform strategic decisions that is developed, deployed, and analyzed by experts.

 

Here are some ways that your organization can obtain data:

I’ve included a broad range of solutions and this list is nowhere near exhaustive. Organizations have different budgets, capacities, and capabilities.

  • Have a good evaluations team for audience research
  • Create a specialized data-related department with data-related experts. Some larger organizations already have these and they can be a big help!
  • Hire a firm to collect, manage, and analyze market research
  • Hire a firm to help collect, manage, and analyze audience research
  • Follow market research available on the web to stay informed of trends
  • Associations are increasingly investing in and distributing industry data. Follow them.
  • Partner with a university. Many have departments that can help!
  • Partner with a grant-making entity
  • Create a cultural consortium of organizations in the area to share research costs
  • Read Know Your Own Bone (Oh hey!)

 

I cannot possibly do this entire topic justice in one article, but boy did I just attempt a broad overview! I hope that it proved helpful and provided some food for thought. Again, there are many areas relevant to the topic of “data.” On the AAM panel, we spoke at length about data security. That is also relevant and important, and I didn’t even touch it here.

Holy moly did I meet many great Know Your Own Bone readers while I was at AAM! It served to reinforce what a great group of thinkers are perusing this site. I aim to be a data-informed resource for strategic decisions. If you’re reading Know Your Own Bone – and especially if your organization is passing it around – then you’re already creating a culture of data-informed, strategic decision-making. You’re asking hard questions and you’re likely already an “outside-in” thinker.

It’s an exciting time of change for cultural organizations that will lead to more effective operations. Data is a tool that can help organizations do what they already do best: educate and inspire their communities.

 

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 IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

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 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

Market to Adults (Not Families) to Maximize Attendance to Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Marketing to adults increases visitation even if much of your current visitation comes from people visiting with children. Here’s why.

I’ve recently written quite a bit about the barriers to visitation for likely visitors to cultural organizations such as museums, zoos, aquariums, science centers, symphonies, ballets, and other mission-driven, visitor-serving entities. Generally, data do not suggest drastic differences in identified barriers among organization types. In other words, critical barriers to visitation – such as schedule conflicts, travel challenges, etc. – tend to be rather similar, regardless of if you are looking at data cut for a history museum or a ballet. When it comes to nailing down and overcoming barriers to visitation, some emerge as more frequent barriers than others (such as preferring an alternative activity), but a barrier is a barrier. If data suggest that something is stopping people who we’d like to welcome from coming in the door to our organization, we generally want to break up that blockage.

So let’s share information today on how to knock down one of those blockages. Namely, the misconception that certain visitor-serving experiences (aside from children’s museums) are “not for adults” or ”only for kids.”

 

Being perceived as a place only for kids is barrier to visitation

One barrier to visitation that reliably emerges in the data is the perception of an organization as being “only for kids,” and, by extension, less suited for adults. While this finding is applicable to many types of visitor-serving organizations, it may prove especially relevant for aquariums, science centers and science museums, and zoos. Here’s why (for science centers and science museums, in this case):

With an index value of 163.7, being perceived as “not for adults” is nearly a 3.5x greater perceptual barrier to visitation to a science center or science museum than is cost. While “not for adults” is a perceptual barrier among many different types of cultural organizations, it’s a biggie for science centers and science museums. It’s also an important barrier for zoos and aquariums. That said, again, it’s still a barrier for many types of organizations and, thus, it’s one that many types of organizations may want to knock down regardless of reported index value.

Being perceived as “not for adults” is also a contributory reason why some organizations are experiencing negative substitution of their historic visitors. It has been well-documented that millennials are having fewer kids and having them later in life. In a nutshell, there’s a massive generation who have grown up and are no longer going to organizations perceived as “not for adults” (because they’re now adults themselves). They also aren’t (re)producing another massive generation to keep the kid-flow going strong for those organizations that are perceived as “only for kids.”

 

How to overcome perceptions of being not for adults

There is hopeful news – organizations can work to overcome this perception. Here’s the hack: Market to couples and other adults visiting without children.

“But our main audiences are families!” Yup. For some organizations, they are and that’s great. And they are going to keep coming – which is also great. IMPACTS has observed that organizations that market to couples and other adults generally manage to sustain their respective levels of family visitation. How is this so? Well, as the data attest, there exists a strong belief that many organizations are innately suitable for children. Marketing to families is a bit like proselytizing the church choir.

The risk of marketing solely or primarily to families is that these messages may serve to promulgate a perceptual barrier to engagement. And, in turn, this barrier may diminish an organization’s overall market potential. Here is the finding of note: The data suggest that appropriate adult-targeted marketing does not generally risk alienating families, but family-targeted marketing risks alienating couples and other adults.

“Prove it.”

Okay!

 

1) Adults without children favor marketing messages that target adults instead of children (but adults with children assess both concepts similarly)

These data come from concept testing that IMPACTS performed on behalf of a client organization. The organization’s advertising agency developed five similar concepts – three targeting families (i.e. adults visiting with children) and two targeting couples and other adults visiting without children. Favorability is a measure of the overall “like-ability” of a concept. If the market does not perceive the campaign concept as favorable, then it is extremely unlikely to respond to its message and call to action.

These data (like the balance of the data in this article) are indicated as index values. Index values are a means of quantifying proportionality and relativity between assessed conditions, and they are a helpful way to benchmark and measure differences. Typically, a base measure (e.g. an average) is expressed as a value of 100, and all other data points are quantified in relation to the base measure. When quantifying perceptions such as favorability and actionability, values greater than 100 are good/the aim (with higher values being proportionality more favorable or actionable).

While it’s probably not surprising that folks without kids favor messages without kids, the difference is notable. None of the three concepts targeting families had index values over 100 for adults without children in the household. However, adults with children in the household indicated remarkably similar favorability perceptions of couples-based concepts as did those adults without children in the household! These data affirm that marketing to adults does not necessarily alienate families. The market implicitly understands that many visitor-serving organizations are very effective at serving families.

 

2) Adults without children are more likely to act on marketing messages that target adults instead of families (but adults with children are equally likely to act on either)

As we’ve seen, there’s a difference in how much those with children and those without children favor messages that target families. That makes sense! But does it affect actionability? Actionability is a measure of the market’s likelihood and intention to respond to the campaign’s call to action (e.g. visit). Though the data below generally match the data shared above, favorability and actionability don’t always align. You can like a message and still report that you’re not any more likely to engage with that product, service, or experience based on the message. Think of some Super Bowl commercials! For instance, I’m one of those people who flipping loved PuppyMonkeyBaby in 2016. (I know it’s weird. I cannot explain it.) That said, I’m not any more likely to purchase Mountain Dew Kickstart. (I’m a sample size of one person, though, and that’s not a thing. However, I think this example demonstrates why actionability is an important metric to consider alongside favorability.)

Those without children in the household are simply less likely to act on messaging that targets families. Folks with kids in the household were just as likely to act in response to the concepts that primarily depicting couples as those primarily depiciting families.

 

3) Case Study A: Aquarium

So you’ve seen these data and you – hopefully – understand the value of concept testing. The next, smart question to ask is, “Does this strategy actually work?” Good question. I like the way you think.

To tackle this, I’d like to share three case studies from real life IMPACTS clients. Again, we’re looking at index values. I have expressed annual attendance numbers as index values as a means of both comparing performance and also helping to protect the identities of the organizations. In this usage, index values serve as a means of comparing relative performance across platforms (i.e. different organization types, different attendance volumes, different geographies, etc.).  In other words, it’s a means of standardizing for the sake of comparison. (Math lovers: This index value is determined by taking the average annual attendance of the contemplated years, dividing any one year’s attendance by the average, and then multiplying that value by 100.)

The first case study is from an aquarium client. In the charts, the shaded period indicates years 2006-2011 during which the focus of the organization’s marketing efforts primarily targeted families with children. As indicated, for years 2006-2016, family visitation (i.e. travel parties including children under the age of 18) has remained essentially stable during the assessed duration.

However, commencing in year 2012 when the organization updated its marketing efforts to better engage potential visitors traveling without children, annual adult visitation (i.e. adults visiting without children under the age of 18) increased by an average of 20.0%. And it didn’t negatively affect visitation from those with children in the household.

 

4) Case Study B: Science Museum

These data are from a science museum client. As in the last chart, the shaded region represents the time period during which the organization was promulgating predominately family-related messages. In 2012, this organization shifted to a campaign more contemplative of adult audiences, and attendance from adults without children in the household increased. Again, attendance from visitors with children in their respective households remained stable.

 

5) Case Study C: Zoo

We cannot forget zoos! You know the drill: The shaded region represents the time period during which this organization was primarily focused on targeting families. As you may expect by now, attendance from adults (and, thus, overall attendance) increased when the organization changed its messaging to more effectively target adults. Again, attendance from those with children in the household remained stable.

Supporting childhood education is a big part of many-an-organization’s mission, and organizations that highlight their missions outperform those marketing primarily as attractions. However, shifting demographics suggest a need for cultural organizations to rethink the means and messages that they use to engage their audiences. Being considered a place “only for kids” is completely different than being considered a place that “plays a role in supporting childhood education.” Places that are perceived as for children need not be the only types of organizations that support children. According to those who profile as likely visitors, a place that’s fun for adults may still be fun for kids. However, the reverse may not perceptually hold true.

On a personal note, this finding always reminds me of what was undoubtedly the worst job interview I’ve ever had. I was trying to line up a full-time gig after college graduation and was granted an interview to be a floor staff manager at a children’s museum. For the interview, I had to be observed interacting with children while wearing a laminated sign around my neck that read, “UNACCOMPANIED ADULT.” Though children’s museums are a different situation, I cannot say that it was a feel-good experience. It’s creepy to be that person. Loud, laminated sign or not, it’s probably not a feeling for which likely adult visitors to cultural organizations would sign up – let alone pay admission.

And, chances are, adults can and do have fun visiting your organization! This data isn’t to say that it’s necessarily a good idea to cease all messaging related to families. Simply, there’s visitation to be gained and audiences to be welcomed by taking on another approach and not only promulgating messages about and around family groups. If we want more than family groups to come through our doors, it’s time to underscore more directly that other individuals and group types are every bit as welcome.

 

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, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing 3 Comments

Data Reveals The Worst Thing About Visiting Cultural Organizations

The primary dissatisfier among visitors to both exhibit AND performance-based cultural organizations is something we can fix.

What is the worst thing about a visit to a cultural organization? That’s the topic of today’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video. The data is in and there’s a clear leader…by a long shot.

Increasing visitation to cultural organizations comes down to mastering the relationship between two things: reputation and satisfaction. While both of these feed into one another and have a somewhat dependent relationship, reputation is primarily established offsite while satisfaction is established onsite within the walls of your organization. Here’s more on the visitor engagement cycle, if you want to take a deeper dive. For cultural organizations, higher satisfaction rates result in a better reputation, more visitation, a greater intent to revisit, and an increased likelihood to support an organization. Making sure that visitors have a satisfying experience onsite is critical. We’ve quantified the weighted aspects that contribute to onsite satisfaction, but a big part of providing a satisfying experience is, well…not providing a dissatisfying experience.

So, what’s the most dissatisfying thing about a visit to a cultural organization? In order to get to the bottom of this question, we consulted the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study. I wanted to look into exhibit-based and performance-based cultural organization types separately. After all, “broken exhibits” (a category that I’ve seen show up in data before, and a thing that several individual clients have been concerned about in the past) is not likely to be a major dissatisfier for, say, an evening at the ballet. The data shown below was collected by a process called a lexical analysis. That is, we didn’t ask folks to “rank” predetermined responses. We asked them open-ended queries about the most dissatisfying aspects of a visit, and then – in a nutshell – used fancy computers to group responses together by weighted value based on frequency of mention and strength of conviction. You can read more about the NAAU study here. The bottom line: respondents populated these answers on their own. These are what they decided were the most dissatisfying aspects of a visit.

 

Let us look at exhibit-based visitor-serving organizations first.

This includes various museums, science centers, botanic gardens, zoos, aquariums, and other types of visitor-serving entities that have ongoing hours of operation and display collections. When folks reported an overall satisfaction value below 60, we asked them which factors contributed to their having a less-than-satisfactory experience. Take a look:

Customer service issues – including rude staff, volunteers, and guards – are by far the most dissatisfying things about a visit. This chart indicates rankings as index values – a way of quantifying proportionality between considerations. With an index value of a whopping 173.6, customer service issues are a huge opportunity. (In consultant speak, the word “opportunity” is a euphemism for “issue” –  if you want to try out some consultant speak at your next staff meeting.) In fact, “customer service issues” is the only response with an index value over 100 at all, indicating that this is an important opportunity to tackle. Trailing a long way behind customer service issues are cleanliness issues, inconvenient hours of operation, closed off exhibits, broken exhibits, and parking issues, to name the big ones. Rude staff (index value 173.6) is over twice as dissatisfying as having whole exhibits closed off or shut down (82.1). Yikes! Rude staff is 4.34x more dissatisfying than admission cost for exhibit-based visitor-serving organizations.

 

What about performance-based visitor-serving organizations?

This includes theaters, symphonies, orchestras, ballets, and other performance-based entities. While there are more items with index values above 100 for performance-based organizations than for exhibit-based organizations, there remains a clear leader:

Interesting, right?! Customer service issues – such as rude staff, and including volunteers and ushers – is still the top dissatisfier! Rude patrons are the runner-up for this subset of organizations. As it turns out, rude people really are the worst on all fronts. The “rude guests” finding may be frustrating for performance-based organizations, as this is a high index value for an aspect of the experience upon which the organization may generally have little control. It raises an interesting question (for which I don’t yet have a data-informed answer): If an organization prioritizes staff friendliness, might it affect the “vibe” of the experience enough to encourage patrons to be friendly and polite as well? In other words, do organization representatives exhibiting less-than-friendly behavior (a notably bigger issue) contribute to an atmosphere that excuses patrons for also being less-than-friendly?

 

Positive, face-to-face interactions between representatives and visitors are critical for cultural organization success.

While rude staff are the most dissatisfying thing about a visit to a cultural organization, positive interactions with staff have the greatest influence on increasing satisfaction. Encouraging meaningful interaction between people is one of the strongest superpowers of visitor-serving organizations. When we consider what folks report to be the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization, it’s not surprising that the worst thing might be the very opposite. When we misunderstand the important role that our staff, volunteers, and folks on the floor play in contributing to this superpower, we risk visitor satisfaction and, perhaps in turn, our long-term solvency.

The data point toward an opportunity for both appropriately training and valuing frontline staff. Guards, for instance, need not be trained to be grim folks whose job it is to reprimand, but rather to engage and aid in missions to inspire and educate audiences. Similarly, volunteers need not be considered “extras” to the visitation experience. They are our very drivers of satisfaction – and our frontline champions of shared experiences.

On that note, now is probably a good time to go hug your favorite, friendly volunteer or member of the floor staff. They deserve it.

 

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, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Trends 2 Comments

Negative Substitution: Why Cultural Organizations Must Better Engage New Audiences FAST (DATA)

Fewer and fewer people look, act, and think like “historic” attendees to visitor-serving organizations. Here’s how many fewer.

As we dive more fully into 2017, I wanted to take a moment to discuss negative substitution and take a deeper dive into how it is affecting cultural organizations. The bad news is that negative substitution of historic visitors is taking place for mission-driven, visitor-serving organizations (museums, theaters, symphonies and orchestras, science centers, botanic gardens, etc.). The good news is that the first step to evolution may be acknowledging our changing market. On that note, let’s do this…

 

Negative substitution is urgent

Negative substitution is a phenomenon occurring globally wherein the number of people who profile as historic visitors leaving the market outpaces the number of people who profile as historic visitors entering the market. It’s the driving reason for the decline in attendance to museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts entities, and other visitor-serving organizations. Negative substitution is taking place because the market is growing more diverse, while perceptions of cultural organizations as being places for a certain kind of person have remained largely static. Simply, when there are fewer people in the market who profile as historic visitors year-over-year, and also growth in the number people who profile as “nontraditional audiences” year-over-year, the market potential risks fewer-and-fewer visitors over time.

The data below is an aggregate of all museum types that we monitor at IMPACTS (224 of them) crossed with visitation information from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study of (currently) over 108,000 people. It includes museums related to art, history, and science, children’s museums, historic sites, performing art organizations, zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens. The negative substitution rate for museums shows that for every one historic visitor who leaves the US market (by way of death, relocation, or migration), they are being replaced by only 0.948 of a person (by way of birth, relocation, or immigration). This may not sound impressive – but this is actually a huge difference.

Think of it this way: An organization with a stable attendance of 1,000,000 visitors may keep doing everything right by their current audiences (e.g. marketing, developing exhibits, etc.), and then might reasonably expect to engage 948,000 future visitors…and then 899,000 visitors…and then progressively fewer yet visitors over time absent interdiction. And they will be doing everything right by their current audiences!

 

In order to overcome negative substitution, we need to do a better job at attracting two, general audiences that do not visit cultural organizations at representative rates relative to their market size: millennials and not-white people (bluntly). Keep in mind, these are not entirely different audiences as millennials are the largest generation in human history and nearly half of us are of different racial and ethnic backgrounds than traditional historic visitors. Moreover, as sick as we may be of discussing it, data suggest that organizations must do a much better job at attracting and retaining millennial audiences. Negative substitution rates for different types of visitor-serving organizations generally correlate with attitude affinities – or to what degree the public perceives that an organization is “for people like me.” Though I will be referencing them later, you can learn more about different attitude affinities for different organization types in this post.

 

Overcoming negative substitution means changing the profile of the historic visitor to cultural organizations

Or rather, we need to evolve to be perceived as more welcoming to different types of people than our “traditional” visitor. Negative substitution suggests that, if we keep on keeping on attracting people that look and behave like our current audiences, we’ll slowly decline in visitation over time. Sure, we need to evolve to meet the changing expectations of historic audiences by honoring market trends of personalization, connectivity, and transparency. More than that, we need to do a better job at attracting different types of people and making them our regular attendees. (And not simply our “super special one-off-program” attendees.) We need to change up the very profile of the type of person who wants to visit a cultural organization.

Isn’t it funny that many museums are only now realizing the importance of data-informed decision-making…all the while focusing primarily on audience research that risks yielding deleterious long-term consequences by emphasizing the very programs and budget allocations that support negative substitution in the first place? To reach new audiences, we need to get smarter about market research and attracting the people who we want to visit but don’t yet attend. The people who we need to start attracting are not yet on our email lists and, by definition, aren’t onsite to fill out surveys. (Yes, Colleen. It’s… hilarious.)

The change that we need to carry out is a big deal – and we are (however slowly) progressing on the whole! In the history of museums and cultural organizations, this kind of shift has never been so urgent. Today, with evolving demographics and imperiled government funding, engaging emerging audiences matters more to our missions and financial solvency than ever before. And, indeed, many organizations are implementing new strategies to cultivate and attract new audiences. Successful organizations are changing up how we approach change.

 

How negative substitution is affecting organization types

While the overall negative substitution rate for museums is 0.948 people entering for every one person who leaves the market, we are able to further parse the negative substitution rates of specific types of cultural organizations. Here’s a sample of them and some notes that may contribute to the negative substitution rates of each visitor-serving type. Let’s go backward from those with the lowest negative substitution rates to those with the biggest opportunity.

Zoos: Among visitor-serving organizations, zoos are suffering least from negative substitution. This is true even amidst increasing discussions about animal care and welfare. Like aquariums (discussed next), zoos may more easily deliver on the promise of awe and wonder without facing some of the perceived intellectual intimidation that may be attendant to a science or art museum visit. Moreover (and interestingly), lexical analysis of data reveals that being outside may play a role in reducing negative attitude affinities for zoos. Conceptually, it makes sense: Being outside may feel more like a park or public area than being within the walls of an institution. Also, like aquariums, having the added “so what?” of conservation and the protection of animals provides an added level of reputational equity that works in this type of organization’s favor.

Aquariums: Aquariums are also suffering notably less than the museum industry average. That said, negative substitution is never a good thing – and there’s still important work to be done. A reason for these higher (comparatively) values may be that aquariums are among the types of visitor-serving organizations that are most dependent upon the market. Relatively speaking, as a sector, aquariums generally have the lowest levels of government support, the smallest endowments, and many have also emphasized their nonprofit-y conservation mission that engenders additional support. (Generally, this helps aquariums – and any organization that particularly highlights its mission.) Aquariums also may be able to capture awe and wonder without as big a risk of the perceived intimidation factor that may burden other content types.

History museums: History museums are a wee bit above the museum negative substitution average of 0.948:1.000. History organizations tend to rely most heavily on stories (or, talking about history) than other types of organizations that are perceived to revolve around specific, individual artworks or exhibits. While visitor-serving organizations are increasingly understanding the importance of creative storytelling in an effort to create relevance and resonance with visitors, history organizations may have storytelling most definitionally embedded within their reputational DNA. Storytelling and providing relevant, personalized connections are critical today – and this is also an area where history organizations have the ability to shine.

Art museums: Art museums fall just below the industry negative substitution average. Like science museums (discussed next), art museums may have distinct, perceived reputational barriers that may contribute to negative attitude affinities – or, people thinking they simply “aren’t places for people like me.” As the stern forefathers of “don’t touch,” “stay behind the line,” and “quiet, please” cultural engagement, it’s worth noting that art museums may have been starting from a rather uninviting place. With that in mind, this number still isn’t “good,” but it does show hope and acknowledge that there has likely been meaningful progress made by art museums in responding to these new market realities.

Science museums and science centers: Science museums and science centers are put together in this data because the market largely does not distinguish between science centers and science museums. I could (and likely will) write an entire post with more data on why the science museum/center market has higher negative substitution rates than the museum average and some possible superpowers for combating it, but here’s a very brief run-down:

Interestingly, among visitor-serving organizations, science centers/museums tend to be viewed comparatively as places to visit with children. While this was probably a good thing when millennials – the largest generation in US history – were the kids, it’s not great news now that millennial women are reproducing at the slowest rate in US history. Simply put, millennials are having fewer children (or no children), and they are having their children later in their lives – when they are more advanced in their careers and leisure time is particularly precious. If you’re an organization that has the public perception of being a place primarily for children, your market size is likely shrinking.

Moreover, like art museums, “science” content may be viewed as intimidating for nontraditional visitors. There may be a perceived content “language barrier” that contributes to folks thinking that science museums/centers “aren’t for people like me.” Science is a big topic with a lot of specialties! One can see how someone who doesn’t know much about the accessibility of science centers/museums might be intimidated. (Heck, even folks who DO know about the accessibility of science centers/museums may feel this way!) Combine this with the perception that these are places where you take your kids, and potential visitors may fear a “Dad looks dumb” situation.

Orchestras: Exhibit-based cultural organizations are far from the only cultural organization type in the market or included in the mentioned overall “museum” negative substitution number. Performance-based organizations are every bit as critical for a robust and vibrant cultural community. Unfortunately, orchestras (and symphonies, which have similar negative substitution rates) may be facing particular challenges in today’s world where folks can do many things at once. In fact, data suggest that multi-tasking is how many people like to enjoy music as well. But don’t write this high negative substitution rate off immediately on content disinterest or the menace of the modern world! Some performance-based organizations simply have not yet evolved to meet the desires of millennials (a critical audience!), and have instead chosen to “age” alongside their historic visitors.

Some symphonies and orchestras are mixing things up and trying out new programs – and that may be the key to their future. Certainly, among the visitor-serving organizations shown here, orchestras have the greatest need to reach new audiences – and fast. That doesn’t mean that they (or any other organization type) can’t do it. It means that some may have a longer ways to go.

Remember: Though 0.948 is the industry average, it’s still bad news.  There are no “winners” or “losers” here – but rather a look into the reality of the mission-driven, visitor-serving sector and some of the challenges facing both individual organization types, and also our industry as a whole. To change up these perceptions, we need all hands on deck. Our long-term vitality and relevance may be on the line.

 

Negative substitution correlates with attitude affinities

Interestingly – and unsurprisingly – negative substitution rates correlate with negative attitude affinities. Attitude affinities quantify how welcome and comfortable people feel at an organization. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the “ranking” of negative attitude affinities among the organization types mentioned (shown below) is a similar “ranking” as is the severity of negative substitution – with the exception of science centers and science museums. Being perceived as places “for kids” plays a large role in driving negative substitution for science museums and science centers, but it benefits these types of organizations as being perceived as relatively welcoming. There’s simply less perceived incentive to visit a science center/science museum if you don’t have small children – and fewer people do.

The data below comes from IMPACTS and the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study – and it is a summary of this data previously discussed on Know Your Own Bone. In short, it shows what percentage of people in the U.S. market do not feel like an organization type is a place for someone “like them.” How that is interpreted is in the eyes of the respondent. While data suggest that it may correlate with educational attainment (and, relatedly, with household income), it certainly does not correlate with an organization’s admission price.

Nearly four out of 10 people don’t feel like art museums or history museums are “places for people like me.” Just over three out of 10 people feel this way about science museums and science centers. Only about two in 10 people feel that an aquarium or zoo is “not for someone like me,” and almost five out of 10 people feel this way about orchestras. Again, you can read more about this data and attitude affinities here.

 

Within our industry, some tend to think of targeting “historic” audiences as the safe bet and cultivating new audiences as a secondary goal to be pursued “when funding becomes available.” This is short-sighted step on a long, slow march into obsolescence. The market is crawling with potential visitors – and they are ripe for cultivation if and when we decide to think outside of our outdated box.

The need to cultivate new audiences as regular attendees is critical for our long-term survival. The first step to overcoming negative substitution may be acknowledging this. Let’s take this information and welcome new folks through the door – not only because our world needs it right now, but because we do, too.

 

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, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

How Imaginary Lines Drawn by Cultural Organizations Hold Them Back

We can make “rules” about what applies to our industry – but our potential visitors and supporters don’t have to follow them. And when they don’t, it’s our own loss.

What matters more: The imaginary lines that we draw from within our organizations, or public perception? Recent events got me thinking a little bit harder about some internal industry reasoning that may have made perfect sense in the past, but may not quite fit the world in which we live today.

 

1) Organizations can create a narrative, but the market decides its validity

It’s hard not to feel for the Saint Louis Art Museum right now. For those who haven’t been following along, an American painting has historically served as a backdrop during the inaugural luncheon at which members of Congress host the newly elected president. George Caleb Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People” is the chosen painting for Trump’s inauguration – and the Saint Louis Art Museum has agreed to loan out the painting. The publicity that Saint Louis Art Museum has received has – on the whole – not been particularly awesome. A Change.org petition has been put up in protest of the museum’s decision, and there’s a lot of notable media coverage on the topic.

George Caleb Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People” (1854–55).

What is interesting to me is the museum’s (in my opinion, completely rational) statement on the situation, and the questions that it raises about museums today. The Washington Post describes museum director Brent R. Benjamin’s response as follows:

“’When the U.S. Senate asks the St. Louis Art Museum to be part of the inauguration, we consider that an honor,’ said Benjamin. The decision, he says, wasn’t controversial; the museum was simply honoring its pre-election commitment to a bipartisan congressional committee. ‘We take no position either on candidates for public office or individuals who hold public office,’ he says. The museum will incur no costs for shipping and securing the painting during its Washington sojourn, though critics of the museum point out that the painting is particularly popular with local audiences, and rarely travels, so its absence isn’t without local impact.”

The decision may bear public perception or reputational impacts for the museum – ones that could easily swing from the positive to the negative depending on one’s own point of view. This has me thinking: Can an organization in today’s world (a world that increasingly values transparency, connectivity, and blurs traditional personal/professional lines) claim to not be held accountable for taking a position, while taking an action that supports a position? I believe that this may have been possible in the past (“This is a professional honor!”) Today, though? I’m not so sure…

It strikes me that the museum has taken a very rational intellectual position on a matter that risks irrational perceptions because it is an actual happening. How and to what extent this will affect the museum’s reputational equities will only be seen over a period of time. Maybe it won’t be negative – perhaps status quo is the worst possibility: the museum may risk being seen as an organization denying the emerging role of museums as places for discussion and conversation in a changing world. Though it may make good, intellectual sense that the museum has made such a nonpartisan statement, the statement on the action may matter less to the public than the action itself.

This recent happening got me thinking about the many other ways that some cultural organizations cross their fingers and hope with all their intellectual might that the same lines they say and think exist actually exist in real life for their constituents.

In what other ways is the world changing and we are “making rules” that our potential visitors and supporters simply don’t acknowledge? Where do we create “intellectual lines” that may actually be hurting us? Here are a few others that come to mind…

 

2) Industry definitions and classifications do not necessarily matter to the market

Within the cultural industry, we do a lot of intellectual line-drawing. My first full-time job out of college was working with a totally bomb science center in Seattle and I thank my lucky stars every day for that work-horse, passion-driven, bottom-of-the-totem-pole, deeply nerdy, frustrating, frantic, wonderful job. (I even got to voice a television commercial and felt like a star!) If there’s one thing that was reinforced to me seemingly every day it was that “We are not a museum. We are a SCIENCE CENTER.” (This is not unique to the science center where I worked. Science centers and science museums often attend or prioritize entirely different association conferences!) Imagine my surprise when I got to IMPACTS and came across data that instead suggested: The market does not reliably distinguish between science centers and science museums.

Uh oh.

It’s true. While some folks may be able to distinguish the nuance that differentiates these respective experiences, the data indicate that the overwhelming majority of visitors simply don’t sit around contemplating organization type classifications. We found that when members of the public were asked to identify their favorite science center, many would reference a science museum. Similarly, when we asked the public to name the science museum that they’d most recently attended, many would identify a science center. Though they are based on intellectual distinctions, some lines that we draw are often imaginary to the public – which raises the question: Do these lines even matter? Or worse, do they hold us back?

Moreover, how the industry classifies its own organizations – and how much case studies, data, models and examples apply (or don’t apply) to the groups – can be similarly imaginary. What do data indicate is the most top-of-mind science museum or science center in the US? The National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

“WHAT?! That’s a history museum!” Nope. Not according to the market.

Here’s why this is important: When cultural executives “that doesn’t apply to me” industry trends, it’s usually because they’ve drawn imaginary, defensive lines to protect themselves from facing uncomfortable realities. It doesn’t matter how much a science center, for instance, hopes that The National Air and Space Museum isn’t in its competitive set. According to the market, it is… and the market matters for our survival. (This is but one example of an imaginary line that we draw –it also happens between orchestras vs. symphonies, encyclopedic vs. contemporary art museums, and so many other types of organizations.)

 

3) The hybridization of experiences affects all organizations

The phenomenon of point of reference sensitivity elevates the call to action for organizations to communicate their singular experiences and missions. Some organizations are doing an excellent job, and they come to be known as a kind of “gold standard” for their type of cultural organization. However, organizations shifting their content offerings and being “more than a museum” (for example) are having an affect on the market. The experiences historically attendant to visitor-serving organizations are evolving to include non-traditional content. This happening blurs historic perceptions of what comprises a particular “type” of visitor-serving organization.

For example, some aquariums feature rain forests – once the historical province of conservatories and botanical gardens. Some children’s museums have civil rights exhibits – once the province of history museums and historic sites. Some science museums feature aquatic life – once the province of aquariums. Some orchestras have vocalists – once the province of theaters or operas. These hybridizations, consolidations, and integrations of experiences were initially theorized to broaden appeal and expand the market. Indeed, it certainly helps to increase elements of surprise and perceptions of providing a unique experience when these elements fit cohesively into an organization’s mission.

Increasingly, hybridization is the norm – not the exception. This compounds previously discussed challenges regarding the historic perceptions of what defines and/or distinguishes any specific type of enterprise (e.g. science center v. science museum). More importantly, if the distinction matters less to the public, perhaps it ought not matter so much to us.

 

4) It is not that nothing applies to us, but that most everything does

When we draw imaginary lines within our industry or organizations – from our classifications to our insistence that potentially polarizing actions “don’t count” – perhaps we are purposefully making a choice to be blind to the new world in which we live. Today, it’s the market that is the ultimate arbiter of our successes.

Question: Who wins in the lexicon game of “Museum vs. Center vs. Academy vs. Discovery Hub vs. Other Magic Words That We Think Make Us Special?”

Answer: Whoever provides the most unique, satisfying, connective and meaningful experience.

Don’t get me wrong – the words that we use certainly matter to the market… but our actions matter more. When we focus on imaginary lines and forget that we can determine importance but the market determines relevance, we risk allowing parsed, internal definitions to overrule prevailing public sentiments. We risk creating “exemptions” based on an internal distinction that the market does not recognize.

Today’s truth may be that it’s not that “that doesn’t apply to me” – it’s that everything does. Market trends play an important role in how organizations need to operate in order to achieve success. The key is to ask hard questions and consider that Babe Ruth was onto something when he said that, “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.”

We are playing a new game – but we don’t make the rules.

We offer expert-informed suggestions. The market decides if we’re playing ball.

 

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, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 1 Comment

Distraction: Blaming Admission Cost for Cultural Center Attendance (DATA)

Yes, it’s nice to get things for free – but it’s not why people aren’t visiting cultural organizations.

This week’s KYOB Fast Facts video is a bit of an experiment for the Fast Facts series. It’s a kind of IMPACTS “data attack” regarding cost as the primary barrier to visitation for cultural organizations. I’ve left out some of the more well-known economics that indicate that admission is not a primary barrier to visitation, and kept this to IMPACTS data.

This post does not say that cost is never a primary barrier, but rather that the true behaviors of the market indicate that our treating cost as the “go to” barrier may be serving as a self-sacrificing distraction. This post also does not suggest that access programs for low-income audiences are not important, but rather that they are a totally different thing than admission price. (Got it? Good.)

Simply put, stable cultural organizations have three, general means of access: 1) A data-based admission price based on what the market can and will pay to visit them; 2) Targeted (key word) access programs to allow for visitation of specific audiences without means to pay admission; and 3) Affinity-based programs (i.e. membership or donor societies) to engage and cultivate key supporters.

Access programs that reach low-income audiences are often central to an organization’s mission (or grant funding opportunities), and they are important. However, admission price is not an affordable access program. 

When cultural organizations convince themselves that cost is the primary barrier to visitation for likely visitors, we miss out on opportunities to remove the actual barriers to visitation that are keeping people from coming through our doors. Barriers to visitation that are generally more significant than cost include items such as schedule, negative attitude affinities (“Not for someone like me”), reputation misses, and simply lack of content interest/preferring another activity (as we’ll discuss below). This data is important for those organizations that avoid tackling true barriers by making sacrificial assumptions that “if we build it (or create this program) and make it free, they will come.”

Can admission price be too high? You bet. But it’s just not the primary barrier to entry that we keep on defensively thinking that it is within the industry. While it’s often easier to blame pricing than to examine more deeply-rooted issues for lack of sky-high engagement, it’s often a shortcut to even less earned revenue and a devalued brand.  I’ve written about this data and more in this post (Admission Price is Not a Primary Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation) and in this post (How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance). There’s enough information on this topic to fill a dozen videos, but let’s power through some basics:

 

1) Time is more valuable than money

First, both high-propensity visitors and the composite market report that their time is more valuable than their money. A bigger barrier to visitation, then, is being considered worthy of someone’s time. If cost were the biggest barrier, these bars might be reversed. This finding is not surprising at all, as cost generally pales in comparison to schedule and reputation when it comes to factors influencing discretionary leisure activities.

When we blame admission price first, we are building this assumption on a simple fallacy: that one’s money is the most valuable thing that cultural organizations are asking for. Cultural organizations are asking for visitors’ time – and that’s often a more important thing to them than money.

 

2) Free admission does not significantly affect intent to visit

(And to the extent that it does, it’s the opposite of the “free is best” assumption.) If free admission were a cure-all for engagement, then folks would have higher intent to visit those organizations. Those would be the organizations that they want to and plan to visit! This is not the case. In fact, in most instances, audiences indicate greater intentions to visit organizations that charge more than $20 rather than those that are free.

I’m certainly not suggesting a specific admission price, but this data does fly in the face of arguments suggesting that people might not want to visit an organization that charges admission simply because it charges admission. It’s often the opposite. The popular tenant of pricing psychology is true: people value what they pay for. Organizations that offer free admission often unwittingly devalue their brands, and without a best-in-class reputation to afford wiggle room, their public perceptions often take a a bit of a pricing psychology hit.

 

 

3) Cultural organizations are generally perceived as worthy of their admission price

Organizations charging admission have similar value for cost perceptions as other activities. This data – like most data that I make accessible here on KYOB – is from IMPACTS and the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. Sometimes it seems that professionals within cultural organizations have an inferiority complex when it comes to comparing their experiences to others. (Although, yes, there are plenty of museum professionals on the other side of the spectrum and that’s a problem, too.) But the idea that cultural organizations might be less worthy of having an admission basis than other activities is make believe. In fact, in many cases, cultural organizations are considered even more worthy of their admission price – when they have one- than a baseball game, football game, basketball game, or a rock concert. We really do, generally, give visitors bang for their buck.

 

4) People value what they pay for

This chart shows the overall satisfaction levels of visitors to paid vs. free admission organizations. It includes classical concerts, live theater, history museums, art museums, zoos, aquariums, and science museums. Notice anything? It’s true. People value what they pay for.

 

5) Admission pricing is not the primary barrier to visitation for those with interest

Finally, for folks interested in visiting cultural organizations but who haven’t in the last two years, cost is the 14th ranked reason why they haven’t visited. The top reasons are preferring another kind of activity, it being hard to travel to the organization, feeling that there’s nothing new to do or see at the organization, a conflict with holiday, work, or school schedules, and parking challenges. When we focus on admission cost as a primary barrier – especially for these audiences who have already reported interest in visiting – we deliver a hit to our own financial solvency. To reach these audiences, there is often a different barrier to be removed.

When it comes to targeting low-income audiences, access programs are often a necessity. That said, low-income audiences are not generally the audience segments that we rely upon to keep our doors open and our “mission execution” game strong. To support access programs for low-income audiences, it’s necessary for many organizations to have an optimal admission price for the people who can and will attend the organization. For those people – the people who keep us alive if we aren’t a government funded entity –  pricing is not the primary barrier to visitation.

On the whole, the kind of people who want to go to cultural organizations are willing to pay to visit them. The argument for free admission is often an emotional one.  It may feel warm a fuzzy to offer free admission, but for many organizations, it comes with financial and perceptual consequences – and much of the science just doesn’t support it. It’s often better to charge your optimal admission price, and then create effective, targeted affordable access programs for specific audiences. When we focus on admission cost as the primary barrier to engagement, we miss out on the opportunity to remove true barriers.

 

Like this post? Don’t forget to check out my Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel. Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on Distraction: Blaming Admission Cost for Cultural Center Attendance (DATA)