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

Being good at your mission matters – both to your community and to your organization’s financial health. Check out Read more

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

Heartbreaking tragedy has dominated the recent news. Monuments around the world shine brightly with the colors of the French Read more

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

Hint: It’s not seeing exhibits or performances. (That is a distant second.) In our attempt to provide educational and inspiring Read more

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

In reality, free days often do the very opposite of mission work. Here's the data. This post is going to Read more

How To Build Brand Credibility for Cultural Organizations (Fast Fact Video)

When it comes to building credibility, here are four things for every leader to always have on their radar. I Read more

Devastating Defenses: Five Common Excuses Sabotaging Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Cultural organizations use these defenses almost daily - and they are having a devastating effect on our institutions. We live Read more

Community Engagement

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

Free Days Do Not Reach Underserved Audiences

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Annual household income on free days- IMPACTS

Educational attainment on free days- IMPACTS

The common, defensive response to this data is to make an excuse and say that this data does not apply to your organization’s free days! Know this: Free days engaging higher earning households instead of affordable access audiences is the rule – not the exception. At IMPACTS, we are asked to supply this kind of information to many grant-making entities. So please, instead of making excuses, do your organization a favor and actually look into this situation. Increasingly, smart grant-making entities are catching onto these things and are aching to see programs that actually engage the targeted audience segments.


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

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

Repeat visitors on free days- IMPACTS

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

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


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

This fact is basic, overlooked, and often a driving reason for the last two conditions: A majority of organizations don’t even reach out to affordable access audiences regarding their free days. Instead, we tend to target high-propensity visitors- the people we know how to target.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 17 Comments

How To Build Brand Credibility for Cultural Organizations (Fast Fact Video)

When it comes to building credibility, here are four things for every leader to always have on their radar.

I am often asked, “What makes us [our institution] seen as a credible actor by the market?” Check out this week’s fast fact video for the low down. 

It’s an excellent question – and information from several KYOB posts came flooding to me all at once. Fortunately, there’s sufficient analysis about what informs positive brand perceptions and relationships to pull out four, key factors that contribute to sustained, meaningful engagement in the digital age. Combine these factors with the more tactical four Ts of digital engagement, and you’ve got a good basis for a successful organization’s public-perception strategy.

Considering how your organization approaches its audiences within these four realms is likely critical for the successful achievement of your mission and financial goals alike:


1) Relevance

Being relevant isn’t just about being active on Facebook and (although that can help). Being relevant means connecting with audiences though mission-based content. In today’s world, content is no longer king. Connectivity is king. Connectivity happens when an organization presents a passion or platform that resonates with a potential constituent. Therefore, connectivity is about your organization and its relationship with other people, while content is only about your organization. Connectivity is necessarily relevant, while content risks operating in isolation if it fails to engage its hopeful audiences. Connectivity – or sharing an implicitly understood “So what?” with a potential supporter – is prerequisite to action. Simply put: Without connectivity, nobody cares about your organization. Don’t just aim to be “important,” aim to be relevant.

Ask: Are we connecting with audiences in a meaningful way?


2) Resonance

Resonance occurs when an organization “walks its talk” and actually shows the values that it tells. Resonance is about creating meaningful impact – and successfully communicating that impact – so that the shared passion that makes an organization relevant (see #1) can be justified and solidified by supporters. We live in a world in which the market – and especially potential donors and supporters – make decisions based on their own perceptions of how an organization achieves its mission. Studies reveal that demonstrating impact is a key driver of giving decisions. Right now, it’s cool to be kind and many organizations are sinking or swimming based on their perceived abilities to actually carry out their missions. Visitor-serving organizations that highlight their mission outperform organizations marketing themselves primarily as attractions for a reason: They do what they say they are going to do and people can see it, thus, reaffirming their decisions to support the organization. It all boils down to this: An organization must be continually delivering on its promise of relevance in order to resonate with supporters. As mission-driven organizations, this is our sweet spot. Nonprofits are increasingly competing with for-profits and we may risk irrelevance as an entire industry if we fail to deliver on resonance.

Ask: Is this organization walking its talk?


3) Reputation

Certainly, all of these points may play a role in providing the foundation for an organization’s overall reputation. However, reputation – or, what other people say about you (in marketing parlance think, “third-party endorsements”) – plays a particularly important role in driving success. In fact, data suggest that an organization’s “reputation” is a primary motivator for engaging high-propensity visitors (i.e. those who demonstrate the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics that indicate a heightened likelihood to visit a museum, symphony, historic site, or other visitor-serving organization).

So, what comprises an organization’s reputation? Good question. Regular KYOB readers know that I talk about this…a lot. The answer is a little bit of paid media (e.g. promotions and advertising) and a lot bit of reviews from trusted sources (particularly word of mouth and earned media – both of which are often facilitated by social media). In fact, reviews from trusted resources are 12.85 times more influential in terms of your organization’s reputation than is the advertising and promotions that likely make up the lion’s share of your media budget. If you’re really good, other people will talk about you…and the things that other people say about you (i.e. reviews from trusted sources) play a bigger role in enhancing reputation than does anything that an organization pays to say about itself. In order to achieve favorable reviews, an organization will benefit by first aiming to be relevant and resonate with audiences.

Ask: How is my department contributing to the organizational goal of building a positive reputation?


4) Responsiveness

“Social care” is a term for carrying out relationship building and customer service practices on communication platforms (digital and otherwise). Social care is expected by audiences in today’s world. Social media isn’t a one-way communication channel like a television ad or print ad or direct mail brochure – which data suggest are decreasing in overall marketing value when compared to the web and social media. In order to successfully execute engagement strategies, organizations must be “real-time” responsive to their online audiences. While social care and nurturing audience relationships composes one of the three key elements of social media success, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Responsiveness means being active listener and displaying transparency in order to elevate levels of trust in the organization. Being responsive demonstrates that the organization cares about its community of fans and supporters. Most importantly, it demonstrates trust in audiences – and that trust has the potential to be returned to the organization.

Responsiveness also moves beyond social care and indicates an organization’s ability to be agile and responsive to opportunities in today’s fast-paced world.  Things are rapidly changing from a business perspective and things that were set in stone five years ago are increasingly becoming useless. Today, leaders need to be able to evolve tactics as needed while sticking to their organization’s goals, values, and mission.

Ask: Are we showing our audiences the value that they lend to our community and responding to feedback? Also, are we evolving our tactics over time to be sure that we are executing the best possible strategies?


How an organization is perceived in this digital world of heightened noise – wherein every type of organization seems to have a social mission – is neither the cause of success nor the outcome of an organization’s success. It’s both.

The four “R”s of brand credibility move in a cycle. It’s important that organizations realize that they play an important role in making their own cycle ascend upward instead of spiraling downward. It’s time to step in and maximize our opportunity for success – and that means understanding the important role that we all play in driving it.


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


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

Devastating Defenses: Five Common Excuses Sabotaging Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Devastating Defenses: Five Common Excuses Sabotaging Cultural Organizations

Cultural organizations use these defenses almost daily – and they are having a devastating effect on our institutions.

We live in a connected and constantly evolving world. Keeping up can be tough – and being cutting edge in developing new business strategies that actually aid in mission execution and long-term solvency sometimes feels overwhelming for cultural organizations such as museums, theaters, aquariums, symphonies, zoos, botanic gardens and historic sites. Our common industry response often seems to be to create more technology for technology’s sake – a distraction that allows us to show fancy things to board members that don’t necessarily help us achieve our goals…but they touch on something “digital” so they seem to scratch the superficial “we need to evolve” itch.

It leaves me frequently wondering: Why don’t we do much to really change our business strategies? Why don’t we talk more about changing membership structures and the informed economics of special exhibits instead of window dressing like mobile applications?

Here are the five most common defenses that I observe as excuses for failing to innovate and evolve. Let’s stop talking about how the dog ate our homework and get busy educating and inspiring audiences. It’s going to mean eliminating these five phrases from our daily dialogue.


1) “That does not apply to me!”

My colleagues and I frequently encounter this pervasive and poisonous “defense” when exploring data and attendant implications with various visitor-serving organizations that are having a difficult time adapting to change. Instead of thinking critically about findings, folks often say, “I’m not a museum, I’m a theater…so this could not possibly apply to me!” Even worse is something like this, “I’m not a children’s museum, I’m an art museum!” or “We’re not a symphony, we play jazz!” or “We aren’t a science museum, we’re a science center!” or “That science museum is in San Francisco and we’re in Texas. It’s completely different!”

This doesn’t just happen with visitor-serving industry data (which is drawn from organizations that generally have the same bottom lines of mission execution and financial solvency based largely on onsite engagement) – organizations seem to do this for every kind of data, including market data. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we make excuses for why we shouldn’t think critically about the applicability of data from every industry…especially data from our own industry.

Here’s what many cultural organizations have in common that fundamentally ties them together: Cultural, visitor-serving organizations are entities whose solvency relies upon attracting attendees and garnering financial support from advocates interested in the organization’s cause. At IMPACTS, we keep looking for big differences between visitation to various cultural organizations, and we find that the differentiation is often simply the content provided by each organization. Best practices remain fairly similar. Are all VSOs the same? Of course not – but these entities rely upon providing physical, social, and emotional experiences, and data suggest that makes these organizations unique as a group. Please don’t short sell your organization by dismissing data that is inconvenient. The world is full of emerging ideas and trends. Our industry needs more market data on the whole. Knowing what is going on in the world is part of our job as professionals.

Here’s my challenge to you: If you catch yourself ever saying, “Well, there’s no way that’s true for my organization for XYZ reason,” then pause and regroup. You may be right, but then ask yourself, “Wait. Am I sure of that?”


2) “But we are a nonprofit!”

When visitor-serving organizations don’t like nonprofit data, they sometimes say, “But we operate more like a for-profit!”…and when for-profit best practices surface, the inevitable rebuttal is, “But we are a nonprofit!” It’s a vicious habit wherein cultural enterprise put themselves in a never-ending position to “deny” themselves out of the realities of change and the need to keep up with the rest of the world.

Today, nonprofit organizations compete directly with private companies and audiences are largely sector agnostic. We don’t “own” social good, and data suggest that a majority of your visitors likely have no idea that your organization is nonprofit in the first place. Here’s a reminder of that data.

IMPACTS perception of VSOs as nonprofit


3) “Most industry changes have to do with marketing or technology or added tasks for lower-level staff. That is not my role!”

This is probably the mother of all uninformed, defensive excuses and arguably is the one most threatening to cultural organizations. Industry evolution is particularly critical for the leaders of visitor-serving organizations in all departments. Because the Web informs much of the world that we live in today, some leaders ignorantly shrug off these conversations, mistakenly thinking, “This isn’t my job.” The information age that we live in affects everything – and, increasingly, treating conversations with the word “digital” as someone else’s responsibility is doing nothing but making those professionals less qualified for their own jobs. In fact, the way that our industry approaches “digital” within higher level leadership may be the very thing keeping “digital from being effective.

So please, as you peruse the Web and go about your day, resist any potential desire to skip important articles, thinking, “This relates only to marketing” or, “I’ll just pass this along to a Coordinator.” It doesn’t and please don’t (without considering it first for yourself). Even the role of marketing has changed in today’s world. Hint: It is no longer a service department.

This excuse is likely why industry leaders are not often at conferences aiming to discuss industry evolution. Many leaders believe that “industry evolution” means “creating more mobile apps” – which, of course, is a huge miss.

Speaking of conferences…


4) “Let us share that failed project at [industry conference] and frame it as huge success!”

Of course, people don’t say that directly (that I know of…). But when you dig into 990s and look at them alongside presentations at conferences, it becomes clear that many institutions are actually sharing their current failures as models of success. It certainly isn’t true for all organizations and presentations – but we often note at IMPACTS that if an initiative creates mission drift or costs a very large sum of money and has no demonstrative payoff, then it’s going to be shared as a success at a conference.

Sadly, this response makes complete and total sense: There’s too much at stake to share our failures as actual failures. There are board member reputations, a CEO’s symbolic capital, and even funder satisfaction at risk when we admit to failure. If we admit it’s a failure, then we have to say to board members, “Hey, this big project that you supported and might have even been your idea didn’t work.” And we really don’t want to say that. So, instead, we say, “It didn’t increase visitation or notably impact our brand equities in a positive manner, but it helps position us as ‘experts’ in our industry! To prove it, we’ll share it at [insert industry conference].”

I’m not saying it’s not messed up, but I am saying that the fear of calling a dog a dog may be understandable in this context that disproportionately punishes risk. What’s more is that executive leaders seem to know that many of the case studies presented at conferences are actually failures. It’s a reason for the inverse correlation between trust and influence and information being shared at a conference. Yes. Executive leaders find information shared at conferences to be less trustworthy because it is shared at a conference.

Here’s how much executive leaders trust various information channels. An index value less than 100 indicates lessened trust in the information based on its source. (Here’s the link to the original post with the data and more information on it.)

KYOB IMPACTS - Trust of sources for cultural leaders

Think that’s bad? The data on the influence of information is much more alarming.

KYOB IMPACTS - influence of sources for cultural leaders

This is not to say that all presentations at industry conferences are useless – far from it. Conferences are a wonderful opportunity to connect and share experiences and, indeed, we need them. But they cannot help us unless we change how we approach them and stop making “finding the things that actually work” harder than spotting a sundress at Nordstrom Rack in the wintertime. It might be there – but you’ll have to search long and hard for it.

While excuses are prevalent in the industry, there are many excellent examples of organizations doing forward-facing things. It’s a shame that those examples are scarce and diluted by so many glorious funeral ceremonies for failures disguised as successes at conferences.


5) “Let us be leaders! But first find me a similar institution in our area who has already done it.”

This one may be a matter of courage and, again, a matter of pleasing key stakeholders. To be a leader, somebody needs to step forward and lead. Leading involves investment and risk. If you have a great idea for a program and you have market data to indicate that it may be effective in helping to reach your organizational goals, make like Nike and just do it.

I’ve worked with organizations that have devised entire strategies and then sat on them because they wanted another organization to do it first. It’s okay (and actually important) to do things that the Monterey Bay Aquarium, San Diego Zoo, LA Philharmonic, Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Smithsonian Institution aren’t doing yet. These organizations can be amazing examples of institutions doing incredible things, but they – like any organization- can be terrible models.

Perhaps all of these excuses and defenses are failures of courage. Times are hard for cultural organizations and maybe we just need a little bit more love. Running a cultural organization today is hard. Very hard. And perhaps we don’t always give credit where it’s due.

It’s time that we acknowledge the hard work of inspiring engagement within cultural organizations and own up to our shortcomings. Let’s knock it off with these five excuses. They deny our organizations the benefit of our critical thinking and leadership.


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


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Photo credit goes to TravelPod member Eundel

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 6 Comments

Why Discounting Hurts Your Cultural Organization And What To Do Instead (Fast Fact Video)

Discounts don’t do what organizations think that they do…

Check out this week’s KYOB Fast Facts video to get the two-minute low-down on discounts verse promotions (Hint: promotions are a much better idea – and, yes, they are extremely different). 

Discounting Is Bad Business For Cultural Organizations

It’s true: “Getting discounts” is often cited as the top reason why many people engage with an organization’s social media channels. So it seems logical that if you want to bump your number of fans and followers, offering discounts is a surefire way to go. And it works – if your sole measure of success is chasing these types of meaningless metrics. But, before you go crazy with discount offers on social networks just to get your “likes” up, here’s another thing that’s true: Offering discounts – especially via public social media channels – cultivates a “market addiction” that often has long-term, negative consequences on the health of your organization. In many ways, offering discounts creates a vicious cycle whereby a visitor-serving organization realizes and ever-diminishing return on the value visitation.

A discount is when an organization offers free or reduced admission to broad, undefined audiences for no clearly identifiable reason. Offering discounts devalues your brand and often makes it look like your organization’s admission isn’t priced correctly in the first place. This is generally true for discounts delivered via all channels, but discounts breed a special type of pervasive problem when they are offered on the digital platforms. When an organization provides discounts, it often results in five not-so-awesome outcomes:


1) You verify that your communication channels are sources for discounts and, thus, encourage your community to expect these discounts

Posting a discount to attract more followers on a social media channel (or to get people to engage with a social media competition, etc.) will very likely result in a bump in likes and engagement. But know that in doing this, you are verifying that your social media channel is a source for discounts.

Discounting attracts low-level engagers who are more likely to be following your channels for a discount than they are for any reason related to your mission. It is far better for your brand and bottom line to have 100 fans who share and interact with your content to create meaningful relationships than it is to have 1,000 fans who simply like you for a discount.

I can hear the rumbling now: Some of you are thinking, “But we’ve used discounts to attract more likes and it worked” (i.e. it generated more likes on social media). That’s not surprising at all. Over time, however, these low-level engagers may stop following you or simply disengage if you do not continue to offer discounts. That is, after all, the reason why they followed you in the first place…and you have shown them that, yes, indeed, you will post discounts on social media.

Generally, these people are not actual evangelists – and cultivating real evangelists to build a strong online community is the whole point of social media. You want folks who actually care about what you’re doing.


2) Your community will wait for discounts before deciding to visit, thereby altering visitation cycles

Data indicate that offering coupons on social media channels – even once – causes people to postpone their visits or wait until you offer another discount before visiting you again. Worse yet, the new discount generally needs to be perceived as a “better” offer (i.e. an even greater discount) to motivate a new visit. This observation is consistent with many aspects of discount pricing psychology, whereby a stable discount is perceptually worth “less” over time. In other words, the same 20% discount that motivated your market to visit last month will likely have a diminishing impact when re-deployed. Next time, to achieve the same outcome, your organization may have to offer a 35% discount…and then a 50% discount, etc. You see where I’m going with this…


3) You are not necessarily capturing new visitation with discounts

In fact, data from IMPACTS suggests that many of the folks using your discount were likely to visit anyway…and pay full price! This is a classic example of an ill-advised discounting strategy “leaving money on the table.”

“But visitation increased when we offered a discount!” you say. But did it really? The average person in the United States visits a cultural center once every 19 months. When an organization offers a discount, it is rarely actually attracting larger volume of visitation to the organization. Instead, the organization is often simply accelerating its audience’s re-visitation cycle on a one-time basis. This sounds great…until the organization realizes the significant downside to this happening: Your audience just visited your organization without paying the full price that they were actually willing to pay and  likely won’t visit your organization again for (on average) another 19 months. 

Think of it this way: A visitor coming to your organization in May may be (on average) likely visit to again the following December (i.e. in 19 months). Let’s say that you offer them a discount that motivates them to visit in October instead of December. Now, you’ve linked their intentions to visit to a discount offer and decoupled it from what should be their primary motivation – your content and mission! And, by doing so, you’ve created an environment where content as a motivator has become secondary to “the deal.” In other words, you will have moved your market from their regular visitation cycle to a visitation cycle dependent on an ever-increasing discount. Can your organization afford to keep motivating visitation in this way?

A note: Different organizations generally have different visitation cycles. 19 months is a US average. Regardless of how many months make up your organization’s visitation cycle, discounting disrupts that cycle and partners it with a perceived “deal.”


4) Discounts actually decrease the likelihood of re-vistation

What of the idea that discounts get people to try your organization and become regular attendees? It’s largely a myth. In fact, the steeper discount, the less likely folks are to re-visit within one year. This is classic pricing psychology at play: People value what they pay for. If your organization’s admission price is set at an optimal point, then your organization has largely removed price as a barrier to engagement, and discounting actually does the exact opposite of what many organizations think that it’s doing. That “discounted trial” that some organizations believe that they are offering falls flat because the folks who profile as being likely attendees are able and willing to pay the full price. Your organization is demonstrating that it devalues its brand and, in turn, audiences devalue your brand.

Hey. You started it.

IMPACTS-Revisitation and discounts


5) Your organization becomes addicted to discounting

Organizations sometimes confuse the response (i.e. a visit) to the stimuli (i.e. a discount) with efficacy. Once a discount has been offered to motivate a visit, we regularly witness the market “holding out” for another discount before visiting again. And what are organizations doing while the market waits for this new discount? Often times the answer is that they are panicking.

If you run an organization that offers discounts, you’ve probably spent some time in this uncomfortable space – we observe the market’s behavior (or, in this case, their lack of behavior), and begin to get anxious because attendance numbers are down. What’s a quick fix to ease the pain of low visitation? Another discount! So we offer this discount…and, in the process, reward the market for holding out for the discount to begin with. That is the insidious thing about many discounting strategies: They actually train your audience to withhold their regular engagement, and then reward them for their constraint. We feed their addiction and, in turn, we become addicted ourselves to the short-term remedy that is “an offer they can’t refuse.”

Like most addictive – but ultimately deleterious – activities, there is no denying that discounts “work” – provided that your sole measure of the effectiveness of a discount is its ability to generate a short-term spike in visitation or increase low-level social media “likes.” But, once the intoxicating high of a crowded gallery or filled theater has passed, very often all that we’re left with is a nasty hangover.


Promotions are a better strategy

“But aren’t promotions pretty much the same thing as discounts?” No. They aren’t. Many organizations fail to stop and consider the differences between discounts and promotions and, specifically, the different effects that each has on the perceptions of the cultural organization offering the opportunity. If your organization confuses the two, then you’ll likely end up paying the price. Literally.

Promotions offer a targeted benefit for certain audiences for an identifiable reason. The biggest difference between promotions and discounts may be how they are each perceived. As previously mentioned, discounts offer free or reduced admission to a broad, undefined audience for no apparent reason. Promotions celebrate your community. Examples of promotions may include reduced admission for mothers on Mother’s Day, a pricing special to celebrate a new program, or a reduced admission day for local audiences. Promotions demonstrate why an organization is offering free or reduced pricing in the communication of the promotion. That reason is usually something that celebrates an organization’s mission or an organization’s audience, and it is made clear that it is something special.

While some may learn the differentiation between these two approaches and consider it to be a framing of communication, it’s actually a reflection of an organization’s culture. Whether an organization’s go-to strategy includes either promotions or discounts demonstrates a great deal about the organization and the thoughtfulness of its engagement approach, as well as the value that it places on its reputation. In the end, one approach is more about your organization’s flailing attempts to hit specific attendance numbers at the expense of its brand and mission, and the other is more about your organization’s relationship with target audiences and communities.

Promotions make people say, “Wow, I feel valued by this organization!” Discounts make people say, “Hey, I got in cheap.” The approach that respects both the organization and its community beats out the short-sighted discount strategy when it comes to increasing long-term visitation.


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing Leave a comment

The Most Reliable Way To Increase Visitor Satisfaction To Cultural Organizations (Fast Fact Video)

It’s probably not what you think.

It isn’t a brand new wing or fancy new exhibit. Today’s KYOB Fast Facts video explains why providing a certain kind of interaction with frontline staff may well be a visitor-serving organization’s most impactful and reliable investment.


Words to know to be in-the-know:


Personal facilitated experience (PFE):

A one-to-one or one-to few-interaction between a staff member and visitors. This may include wayfinding aid, a cart experience, or any kind of personal attention paid to an individual, couple, or small family onsite. This does not include shows or group tours. Instead, PFEs are more personalized experiences. The thing that sets PFEs apart from other interactions between visitors and frontline staff (shows, tours, etc.) is that personal facilitated experiences provide personalization by way of personal attention. 


A look at the data

Here’s a closer look at the data from the video. Though this particular data is from one IMPACTS client that serves as an example, we are finding these types of interactions to be successful in increasing admission value, entertainment value, education value, and employee courtesy perceptions across the board.

IMPACTS- PFE admission value

IMPACTS- PFE entertainment experience

PFE educational experience

IMPACTS- PFE employee courtesy

In fact, PFEs are so successful in increasing visitor satisfaction that they can be used to elevate satisfaction perceptions by daypart. This may be particularly helpful if your organization is undergoing construction, setting up an event before closing, has an exhibit or program down, or has something else taking place that may otherwise negatively impact visitor perceptions.

PFE satisfaction by daypart

No matter how you cut it, deploying engaging frontline staff is a smart investment for increasing satisfaction and other visitor perception metrics. Let’s start the conversation here before we talk about blockbuster exhibits, expensive programs/exhibits, and draw out a plan for a new wing of the building.


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 Please subscribe over on the right hand column to get KYOB posts delivered right into your email inbox. Interested in getting 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, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 1 Comment

How Social Media Drives Visitation to Cultural Organizations (FAST FACT VIDEO)

Today marks the publication of the third-ever Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video. You can check out the first two videos here

How does social media play an important role in driving visitation to cultural organizations? It’s rather straightforward. The answer is in how these social platforms influence an organizations’ reputation. Take a closer look at the data introduced in today’s video below.

Here is how social media drives visitation in a big way:


1) Reputation plays a major role in motivating visitation.

This is especially true regarding high-propensity visitors.

What influences the visitation decision-making process- IMPACTS


2) Social media plays a major role in driving reputation.

What others say about an organization is more important in influencing an organization’s reputation than what the organization says about itself -12.85 TIMES more important! Makes sense if you think about it, right? Well, there’s actually math around it.

The value is an outcome of a diffusion model developed by IMPACTS to quantify the relative influence of imitation when compared to innovation on the adoption or trial of a product. Frank Bass pioneered this work in 1969 with the publication of his paper “A New Product Growth for Model Consumer Durables” and many persons and organizations – IMPACTS included – have iterated and expanded on this original work for various applications. Reliably, the average value of “q” has approximated 13x that of the average value “p.” The IMPACTS application of this method averages a “q” value that is 12.85x that of “p,” and, thus, I reference this specific value in instances informed by IMPACTS data.

Diffusion of messaging- IMPACTS

3) Thus, social media plays an important role in driving visitation.

There’s no functional amount of paid media that can overcome negative reviews – or a lack of reviews from trusted sources, for that matter. Effective social media strategy is critical for organizations aiming to maximize engagement.

It’s not an anecdote or a wish upon a star…it’s math.


Words to know to be in-the-know:


High-propensity visitors:

These are the folks who demonstrate the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood to visit a cultural organization. These are the people who actually go to museums, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, performing arts events, etc. In short, they are the market segment keeping your organization’s doors open.

Coefficient of innovation:

The “P” value in the diffusion model. The coefficient of innovation includes messages that your organization pays to say about itself. Examples include radio spots, television, and nearly all forms of traditional advertising.

Coefficient of imitation:

The “Q” value in the diffusion model. The coefficient of imitation includes reviews from trusted resources. Examples include earned media, peer-review sites (think Yelp and TripAdvisor), word of mouth and, of course, social media. Reputation is a driver of visitation,


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Fast Facts Video, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

Why Millennials May Be The Most Valuable Generation for Cultural Nonprofits (DATA)

Data Show That Millennial Visitors May be Most Valuable Visitors for Cultural Organizations (DATA) {Know Your Own Bone}

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

Millennials are the largest generation in human history. We know that they are a critical audience to engage now in order for cultural organizations to exist later. And, quite frankly, you’re probably tired of hearing about this public-service motivated, connected, social, educated, super-duper-special, hierarchy-hating, everyone-is-an-MVP bunch. (Heck, I’m a true-blue millennial and I’m right there with you!) However, all this talk about the need to engage millennials seems to still be met with an eye-roll and a “Here are even more things that we need to do for them” attitude from too many executive leaders. It seems that the size of this generation is the primary reason driving the need to engage millennials for many…and that’s an important reason. But it’s even close to the whole story.

Let’s change this attitude. Let’s do it with data.

Data suggest that millennial visitors are an organization’s most loyal – and they do much more loyalty-driving work for organizations than older audiences. When it comes to engaging millennials, a little is a lot more likely to go a long way. (But…that doesn’t justify organizations doing a little.) This generation is most likely to work for you. Overall, millennials are arguably a cultural organization’s most valuable visitors.

High-propensity visitors (HPVs, in my world (hold judgement on the acronym)) are people who possess the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood to visit cultural organizations such as museums, aquariums, gardens, performing arts organizations, historic sites, science centers, zoos, etc. These are the people who actually go to cultural organizations and data can bring to light what these folks have in common. Interesting findings arise when we take a look at millennial high-propensity visitors compared to non-millennial high-propensity visitors. Here are three, data-informed millennial visitor qualities that work to an organization’s terrific advantage compared to more traditional audiences:

High-propensity visitor indicators by age

(A quick note on the data: It comes from IMPACTS and the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations, first published in 2011 and updated annually thereafter. Since its initial publication, the study has tracked the opinions, perceptions, and behaviors of a sample population totaling 98,000 US adults, and is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind.)

1) Millennial visitors are most likely to come back sooner.

Millennial high-propensity visitors have a shorter re-visitation cycle than even other generations of high-propensity visitors. In fact, millennial high-propensity visitors are 30.9% more likely to revisit an organization within one year than high-propensity visitors aged 55 or older. That’s a big difference. Moreover – and to the possible surprise of many – millennial HPVs are 20.5% more likely to join as a member than HPVs aged 55 and older. (Though those age 35-54 still take the cake when it comes to likelihood to become a members.) Millennials are an organization’s most loyal high-propensity visitors when it comes to driving repeat visitation. Capture us, and the data suggest we are most likely to come back – and relatively quickly!


2) Millennial visitors are more likely to spread positive word of mouth about cultural organizations to drive visitation.

As a reminder (that I provide on KYOB constantly): Data suggest that reputation is a key driver of visitation, and what other people say about your organization is 12.85x more important in driving your reputation than advertising. So what people say about your organization to one another is really important in getting people in the door. We millennial HPVs shine here compared to other HPV generations, and are 18.1% more likely to recommend experiences to a friend than those aged 35-54 and 20.5% more likely than HPVs aged 55 and older. Show us an organization that we like, and we are significantly more likely than older generations to endorse that organization to other people. Millennial high-propensity visitors are more likely than any other generational cohort to provide your organization with what data indicate is the single most valuable form of marketing.


3) Millennial visitors reach more people.

Why does being most likely to recommend a cultural experience to a friend particularly matter? Because millennial high-propensity visitors are crazy “super-connected.” This means that we are empowered to recommend experiences with a collective reach that’s like “traditional media” on steroids. “Super-connected” means that these folks are most likely to have access to – and be engaged with – the web at home, at work, and/or on mobiles devices. Admittedly, this can be an incredible asset or detriment to organizations based upon whether or not an individual had a positive or negative experience, but, provided that your organization is doing it’s best on the “satisfying experience” front, positive experiences can go a very long way.

We’re also much more likely than other HPV generations to make purchases online, further underscoring that if your audiences aren’t buying tickets online, it may have to do with your own organization’s online ticket buying strategy. As the world becomes more digital, more folks are making purchases online. Millennials are more than twice as likely to have made a large purchase online within the last year than folks aged 55 or older.


4) Millennials likely have the highest lifetime value.

This generation’s size and lifetime customer value suggest that organizations that successfully engage millennials stand to reap a big reward. Millennials are the youngest of the three generations (i.e. Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers) currently visiting cultural organizations – meaning that millennials have the longest expected lifetimes to contribute value as customers. In addition, the large size of this demographic (nearly twice that of Generation X) compounds the composite lifetime value of engaging this audience.

Note that high-propensity millennial visitors are more educated than their generational predecessors. This is important to understand, because often when organizations say, “Let’s target millennials!” they mean ALL millennials. That’s not always a bad move. But, the reality is that millennials who currently profile as being likely to visit cultural organizations are a subset of the population just as high-propensity visitors from other generations are a subset of the population. Not everyone on the planet thinks, “Hey, I’ll do that!” when someone suggests visiting a cultural organization. For various reasons (e.g. free time, access to transportation, cultural background, income, etc.), that’s just not the case with some people. A goal of efficiently engaging millennial audiences is to tap into high-propensity visitors – those persons most inclined to visit in the first place (i.e. “the path of least resistance”).

Heads-up: We also aren’t watching a lot of live TV. Those aged 55 and older are nearly 60% more likely to be watching more than 10 hours of weekly live TV than we millennials. So if you’re appearing on a morning news show, we’re less likely to be tuning in. It may be beneficial to record that segment and put it somewhere where we can see it later if millennial viewership is a particular goal


Compared to other generations, millennial high-propensity visitors are more likely to visit more often. They are also super-connected and more likely to spread an organization’s message, providing incredibly valuable word of mouth endorsement. All things being equal, millennial audiences may well be a cultural organization’s most valuable visitors.

Let’s stop rolling our eyes and get psyched about engaging these cheerleaders! (Too much enthusiasm? I’ll it step back.) Here: Let’s change how we frame the conversation. Instead of groaning about the “otherness” of millennials, let’s embrace this opportunity to engage a new cohort of folks who will visit us again and again, tell their friends, and – if we do our jobs right – will be around loving us for a long time.


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


Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ). 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 1 Comment

The Myth of Saving Your Way to Prosperity: Three Financial Realities for Nonprofit Executives

The Myth of Saving Your Way to Prosperity: Four Financial Realities for Nonprofit Executives

An organization attempting to “save its way to prosperity” actually paves its way to financial demise. Here’s why.

It seems that many nonprofit marketing and communication departments are constantly being tasked by their executive leadership to “do more with less.” While cost-efficiencies are desirable in all types of businesses, nonprofit organizations seem to be especially prone to overlooking the cost of doing business.

My work with nonprofit clients at IMPACTS reveals that, more often than not, marketing leaders react to the “do more with less” mandate by desperately trying to “save their way to prosperity.” That is, they attempt to achieve goals not by optimizing spending to maximize the ROI (i.e. increasing their investments if the ROI warrants additional investment), but by saving as much as possible within their already woefully underfunded marketing and communication budgets.

Attempting to save your way to prosperity comes with a hefty price tag for organizations. Let’s hit this difficult topic head-on. It’s time to uncross our fingers and quit pretending that the prevailing forces of the economy don’t apply to nonprofit organizations. Here are three financial realities for executive leaders to consider:


1) Marketing is an investment, not a cost

Okay. It’s technically a cost – but when organizations think about it primarily as a cost rather than an investment, they do their organizations’ internal culture a grave disservice. Indeed, it costs money to “market” and communicate…but such is the basic cost of doing business. You need to spend money in order to get people in the door. There is a data-driven optimal investment of revenues required to optimize audience acquisition. If you don’t invest to connect with your audiences, then don’t be surprised when very few audience members choose to invest in your organization and programming. Sure, you’ll save money by not telling folks to come, but you also… won’t have anyone coming.

Compounding matters is the fact that some organizations still think social is “free” or low-cost, but social media networks are increasingly pay-to-play. Moreover, data suggest that things people say about your organization are 12.85 times more important in driving your organization’s reputation than your advertising. That fact may ostensibly sound like a great resource-hoarding angle to a CMO with a “save your way to prosperity” mindset but, instead, it should be acknowledged as a terrific investment priority to maximize support and achieve long-term financial solvency. In other words, social investment isn’t necessarily a replacement for traditional paid media – it is a cost-efficient opportunity for additional investment with additional benefits. If you don’t make the investment, then you cannot realize the return.


2. Costs to reacquire audiences are MUCH higher than costs to maintain and retain them.

Let’s say the “save your way to prosperity” angle is your thing, and you choose to save some resources from your already cash-strapped marketing department. You’re probably quite proud of yourself. And the CEO might be as well. At this time, you haven’t completed the engagement cycle (or, if you’re a cultural center, the visitation cycle) to see the impacts of your lack of investment yet. You’re looking and feeling like a penny-pinching rockstar.

Unfortunately for penny-pinching CMOs, it costs significantly more to re-acquire audience members than it does to maintain and retain them – as much as 7x more! Take a look at this often referenced analysis from Bain & Company that quantifies the value of investing in your current audiences:

Bain Retention Analysis

Also consider that the price of advertising is increasing. The “last year +5%” budgeting rule is out of play, making it more important than ever for nonprofit executives (CMOs and CEOs alike) to make wise investments. If you make a bad investment – or no investment at all – the bill will come due. You’ll lose your hard-earned audiences and need to spend more to get them back.


3) Deferred bills always come due.

Speaking of bills coming due, “deferred” doesn’t mean “dismissed” – and it especially doesn’t mean “resolved.” Inaction can be extremely expensive. Tiny deferred cost savings add up to very large bills.

While it can be tempting to put off inevitable expenses – particularly during times of financial stress – ultimately, this proves to be a shortsighted approach for an organization. Juggling expenses between operating quarters doesn’t actually change your organization’s performance during that same duration. Saving money by not fixing the roof doesn’t mean that you don’t need a new roof. Again, deferred bills always come due. These budget shell games are often designed to forfend scrutiny – but this is a short-term magical accounting game. We live in a spend a little now or a lot later world. And, failing to spend appropriately risks greater peril than merely mounting deferred expenses – your organization may be perceived as irrelevant.

You can’t save your way to prosperity. The best you can do with this mindset is spend less, lose loyal attendees and not acquire new ones, and “defer” costs that may risk lowering your organization’s reputation. That’s not “savings” and that’s certainly not “prosperity.” That’s actually spending your way to demise, or, the very thing your CEO is trying to avoid in the first place.

Don’t save your way to prosperity. Instead have a deep understanding of how your industry works and maximize your investments. If you’re a visitor-serving organization, here’s some help: 1) Understand the cost of advertising, 2) Know how to budget to maximize audience acquisition, and 3) Understand the need to invest and strategize to adapt to reach emerging audiences. Saving your way to prosperity is, at best, a short-term faux-solution. At worst, it’s a long-term recipe for disaster.

Know the cost of doing business. Learn what things actually cost. Get smart about your investments because to remain relevant, you’ll have to make them. Make sure you make the best ones possible.


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


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

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

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

Death by curation- a lesson from Jurassic World

Indominus Rex would not have sparked a long-term increase in Jurassic World visitation anyway. Here’s a real-world, data-informed reminder of the dangers of “Death by Curation” for cultural organizations.

Considering my obvious museum nerdiness, you can bet that I was one of the folks contributing to Jurassic World’s $511.8 million opening weekend (in 3D glasses and parked eagerly in front of an IMAX screen on opening day, no less). I was giddy about the dinos, of course, but, throughout the film, I couldn’t help but focus on the data-denying stupidity of the Jurassic World business model (Of all things…). While watching, I mentally revisited data from a popular Know Your Own Bone post titled “Death By Curation”. In consideration of Jurassic World – and in the spirit of sequels – data about the realities of “death by curation” (or, “blockbuster suicide”) are worth a revisit for visitor-serving organizations. Let’s re-bust the myth of the blockbuster exhibit strategy. 

Also, in honor of Jurassic World, let’s do it dramatically (…but with real data).

Blockbuster exhibits sound nice, but they often create a negative cycle that threatens the solvency of the visitor-serving organizations that deploy them. Within this cycle, organizations (museums, zoos, aquariums, science centers, etc.) rely heavily on visitation from special exhibits – rather than their permanent collections – in order to achieve their attendance and financial goals. This is a case of “death by curation” – bringing in progressively bigger and bigger exhibits in order to sustain and grow revenues. 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.

Though Jurassic World is just a(n awesome) movie, “Death by Curation” is an actual, data-informed problem jeopardizing the long-term existence of many entities. Thankfully, when cultural organizations commit “Death by Curation” in the real-world, the result is typically… well, much less literal than it was in Jurassic World.


1) Misunderstanding

We know the story well: a museum decides that the best way to increase long-term visitation and attract new audiences is to create or host a special exhibit. They hear of attendance spikes from other, similar institutions that host or create blockbuster exhibits, and they see the newspaper articles boasting increased attendance during the exhibit. This is an innocent enough start. Not all special exhibits are blockbuster exhibits. But the want for a “blockbuster” increases among executives who are unaware of the long-term consequences of this kind of special exhibit. So the organization hosts one.

The organization sees a spike in attendance, which dips when the exhibit closes. The museum wants to hit these high numbers again so it hosts a “bigger” exhibit and hopes for the same visitation spike. This is the beginning of a costly, ineffective cycle.


2) Dependence

If the exhibition is successful, then the sequel must be grander – and usually more expensive. The organization comes to believe that it cannot motivate visitation without rotating, creating, or (in the case of Indominus Rex) genetically modifying increasingly “blockbuster”/ “bigger and better” exhibits. And, by doing this, museums train their audiences only to visit when there is a new exhibit. Thus, they risk curating themselves into unsustainable business practices.

Organizations train audiences to respond primarily to blockbuster exhibits. I like to think of this as a sort of “Pavlov for the museum world” – except instead of inspiring behavior with a bell, we’ve decided to provide Monet, Mondrian and Picasso as stimuli. This is all perhaps well and good…but it isn’t sustainable.

Consider the 20-year attendance history of a museum client of IMPACTS (the company for which I work). Take a look at the “blockbuster” years.

Death by Curation special exhibit attendance KYOB

Still drunk with success from their blockbuster exhibit in year 2004, this museum went to the “tried” (but, not necessarily, “true”) blockbuster formula in year 2009. As you can see, in terms of visitation, history decidedly did NOT repeat itself. In this example (which I selected because it is representative of the experience of many museums), the “blockbuster” exhibit of year 2004 resulted in a 47.6% spike in visitation. What is perhaps most telling is how quickly – post-blockbuster – the client’s annual visitation returned to its average level. Does this suggest that the client shouldn’t pursue another blockbuster? Well, they did. But not with the expected results.

Let’s consider the same chart again – this time with the special exhibits costs by year also indicated:

Death by Curation cost verses attendance

This where it becomes additionally important to acknowledge that “expensive does not a best-ever exhibit make” (although sometimes it can help when the investment is intelligent). If the museum begins to believe that they are being successful with this strategy of rotating and/or releasing blockbuster exhibits, then the exhibits grow grander and the attendant costs often grow at unsustainable rates…but become conceptually necessary for the museum to keep their lights on. Organizations often need to pay more money in order to hit that same, first-time blockbuster exhibition spike.

Also, I’m just going to leave this little chart right here…

Death by curation sequels KYOB

Another fun fact that will surprise absolutely no one in the museum world – audiences are fickle! Their preferences shift quickly and they become increasingly hard to please. In fact, first-time-ever museum visitors rate their overall satisfaction 18.1% higher than persons who have previously visited any other museum. We call this “point of reference sensitivity”– the market’s expectations, perceptions and tolerances are constantly shifting and being re-framed by its experiences.


3) Alienation

What of the hopeful thought that visitors to blockbuster exhibits will become regular museum-goers? It is largely a myth. An IMPACTS study of five art museums – each hosting a “blockbuster” exhibit between years 2007-2010, found that only 21.8% of visitors to the exhibit saw the “majority or entirety” of the museum experience. And, of those persons visiting the sampled art museums during the same time period, 50.5% indicated experiencing “only” the special exhibition. This data indicates that these special exhibit visitors are not seeing your permanent collections and, thus, are missing an opportunity to connect with your museum and become true evangelists.

The museums in this cycle train audiences to respond to blockbusters, not to develop relationships with permanent collections and that hurts their bottom lines. More often than not, organizations that are caught in the “Death by Curation” cycle actually cultivate visitation that is generally unsustainable. Or, at least less sustainable than many executives believe when having conversations about hosting or developing blockbuster exhibits. If you’re a visitor-serving organization always focused on releasing something bigger, better, and newer, you must be cautious not to devalue your permanent collections, and continually reinvent them as well.


4) Deprivation

Here’s where things get really ugly. Not only are organizations engaging in “Death by Curation” (a.k.a. “Blockbuster Suicide”) training regular audiences to respond primarily to special exhibits, failing to inspire connections with permanent collections, AND getting caught in an increasingly-expensive and unsustainable exhibit cycle…they are also creating and cultivating less loyal members.

Even members, whom museums often assume are more connected to their permanent collections than the general public, have been trained to respond almost exclusively to “blockbuster” stimuli by those organizations that consistently highlight these “bigger and better” exhibits year over year. To wit: The National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study recently updated in March 2015 indicates that of lapsed museum members with an intent to renew their memberships, 87.5% state that they will renew their memberships “when they next visit.” Of these same lapsed members, 60.8% indicate that they will defer their next visit “until there is a new exhibit.” In other words, museums have trained even their closest constituents to wait for these expensive exhibits in order to justify their return visit. It’s an unhealthy cycle. When hosting a series of blockbuster exhibits, an organization may get “high” on an attendance spike…but a crash is right around the corner.

After the “depravation” phase, many organizations cycle right back to “misunderstanding” and continue to spiral. Think of nearly any major museum that had made news with layoffs. Chances are that organization created a form of blockbuster suicide.


An alternative to blockbuster suicide

Here’s the good news: this cycle can be broken – or avoided entirely.

Museums and other cultural organizations often fail to recognize that the best part of the museum experience, according to visitors and substantial data, is who folks visit and interact with instead of what they see. Understanding that a museum visit is more about people than it is about exhibits can help organizations keep the relative success of blockbuster exhibits into perspective.

Instead of relying on the rotation (or new, ongoing addition) of increasingly expensive exhibits, many successful organizations instead invest in their frontline people and provide them with the tools to facilitate interactions that dramatically improve the visitor experience. Improving the visitor experience increases positive word of mouth that, in turn, brings more people through the door. Importantly, reviews from trusted resources (e.g. word of mouth, social media, and peer review sites) tend to not only inspire visitation, they also have the positive benefit of decreasing the amount of time between visits. People who have a better experience – which has a clear association with interactions with staff members – are more likely to come back again sooner (Okay, this is obvious…but when you bust outdated cultural business strategy myths for a living, it’s important to reexamine things that seem obvious, too).

KYOB intent to revisit based on satisfaction

The power of “with” over “what” has other positive financial implications for museums. If the institution focuses on increasing the overall experience (which, again, is a motivator in and of itself – as opposed to the “one-off effect” of gaining a single visit with a new exhibit), then the museum’s value-for-cost perception increases. In other words, it allows the organization to charge more money for admission without alienating audiences because these audiences are willing to pay a premium for a positive experience. (For you mission-driven folks shaking your head about how this potentially excludes underserved audiences, this is where your accessibility programs will shine. Admission revenues enable effective affordable access and increase their perceptual value as well.)

The “bigger, better, more expensive” business model is financially unsustainable and it alienates audiences. A better solution? Actually be good at fulfilling your mission/purpose and highlight considered experiences that support it.  

This isn’t to say that new content and engaging exhibits are not often critical to a museum’s success. Updating overall collections, keeping museums up-to-date, and developing timely, relevant programs is increasingly no longer optional for cultural center survival. It is to say, though, that times are changing. To sustain both in terms of economics and relevance, museums must evolve from organizations that are mostly about “us” (what we have is special and you’re lucky to see it), to organizations that are primarily concerned about “them” – the visitors.

Like it or not, the market is the ultimate arbiter of a museum’s success. Those of us with academic pedigree, years of experience, and technical expertise may well be in a position to declare “importance,” but it is the market that reserves the absolute right to determine relevance. In other words, while curators still largely design the ballots, it is the general public who cast the votes. In the race to sustain a relationship with the museum-going public, the returns are in and the special exhibit isn’t so special anymore.


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


Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) 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 6 Comments

Six Ways Personalization Trends Are Affecting Museums and Cultural Centers (DATA)

Personalization trend in cultural organizations

The personalization trend is here. And it’s affecting nearly everything visitor-serving organizations do.


Once in a while – usually when considering topics for a trend meeting with clients – I look over collections of recent IMPACTS data and glaring patterns emerge. Sometimes these trends are obvious – like myth-busting traditional ways of thinking that data suggest are now largely irrelevant. Sometimes they come together to tell a story about sector evolution and solvency. And other times – like today- they represent a connection so glaringly apparent (because it is already in the broader business media spotlight) that I’ve mentioned it only in passing.

Personalization has been an increasing and unrelenting theme in much of the data collected regarding visitor-serving organizations – and it is begging for more attention in the world of cultural centers. Typically, conversations about personalization within these institutions are interpreted as a need for crowd-sourced exhibits/programs or more creative, online initiatives. And those can be excellent ways to actively incorporate personalization into an engagement strategy! What’s decidedly NOT excellent is assuming that personalization doesn’t affect nearly everything in regard to operations and engagement these days. This goes way beyond new exhibit development and social media stunts. 

Personalization is one of the most important trends for brand evolution today and is predicted to continue to emerge as a hard-hitting trend. And, if you haven’t heard, 2015 is the year of personalization. Personalization has been sited – alongside transparency – as an increasingly required brand attribute and a prime example of how the Internet has changed the world in which we live.

From the Share a Coke initiative to the secret sauce of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Spotify, and Pandora, personalization initiatives are everywhere. Most of all, personalization serves as a helpful lens through which to consider initiatives and the evolution of engagement practices.

Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all communications online and offline. Personalization is actually playing a role in nearly all aspects of visitor-serving organizations – beyond the creative development of new exhibits and programs. Personalization has lead to the emergence of the following trends:


1) An increased need for onsite personalization to increase satisfaction levels

Data suggest that personal interactions between staff and visitors significantly increase overall satisfaction, improve value perceptions, and contribute to a more meaningful overall experience. IMPACTS data has uncovered that a single personal facilitated experience (PFE) during a visit can have a major impact on satisfaction levels. A PFE is a one-to-one or one-to few interaction that occurs between an onsite representative of the organization and a visitor.  And not only do PFEs increase satisfaction levels, but they also increase perceived value for admission, education value, staff courtesy, and entertainment value. See the data here.

IMPACTS satisfaction by daypart PFE

Organizations may even deploy PFEs as a mitigation strategy to minimize the impact of crowding perceptions on overall satisfaction! The chart above shows data points from a representative organization with whom IMPACTS works. Keep in mind: The experiences represented by PFE and non-PFE visitors are largely the same (same facility, same content, same basic experience) – except for the opportunity to have a personalized experience with a staff member.


2) A growing disinterest in group tours and standardized experiences

Your organization isn’t imagining things: It’s harder to attract leisure tour groups today than in the past. This mass, standardized experience business has been in decline – and the data suggests that it’s not because the salespeople suddenly got bad at their jobs.  It’s because people do not want to go on the same old, standardized group tours.  This makes sense: During a time in which audiences are leaning toward more personlized experiences, many group tours are currently the precise opposite – every experience is commonized.

IMPACTS group tours are fun way to visit museums

The Y-axis in the chart above indicates the mean scalar variable response so as to indicate the level of agreement with the statement on a 1-100 scale.  Anything much below 60 tends to indicate a level of disagreement (i.e. “not fun”).

Perception of the enjoyment of museum visits through group tours not only started out at less-than-impressive levels when IMPACTS began tracking the metric in 2008, perception has since been in steady decline. This is also the case in regard to group tours to zoos and even cities, suggesting that it isn’t the museum group tour that’s “broken” – it’s the group tour concept itself. Similar data exists for sporting events, aquariums, theme parks…you name it. Again, the personalization trend is at odds with the standardized experience of group tours – regardless of the venue. More on this here.


3) The expectation of social care on digital platforms

When organizations consider social media and personalization, they often think about creative initiatives. However, this may be missing the boat. There’s an ongoing expectation for personalization that may be more critical to your organization than more creative, additive endeavors.

The buzz term for personal, customer service-like community management issocial care” and it is hugely important for all organizations. Why? Online audiences expect engagement from organizations.

Consider this data by Lithium Technologies: 70% of Twitter users expect a response from brands they reach out to on Twitter, and, of those users53% want that response in less than one hour. The percentage of people who expect a response within the hour increases to 72% when they’re issuing a complaint. And there’s more: 60% of respondents cited negative consequences to the brand if they didn’t receive timely Twitter responses. That said, it isn’t only negative comments for which audiences seek interaction…

Lithium expect response within hour of tweet

This may all sound doom and gloom, but according to the same survey by Lithium Technologies, there’s a benefit to interacting with folks on social media sites:

Lithium positive response data


4) Promulgating connective content with personal meaning

By now, organizations likely understand that an organization’s number of followers on social media doesn’t matter. The quality of followers is more important than having thousands who do not promulgate your messages and are disinterested in acting in your organization’s interest.

Content is no longer king. Connectivity is king. Content can operate in isolation, but connectivity requires a kind of “passion match” between the organization and the potential supporter or advocate. This “passion match” is personal, and – while indeed many exhibits or specific programs are being developed for more unique audiences – the understanding that personal connection is the goal is driving the content strategies of intelligent organizations to post not what the most people on social media will like, but what actual, potential supporters will find most meaningful.


5) The availability of more diverse membership structures

The concept of personalization may begin with allowing for alternate gateways to engagement and understanding that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to membership simply isn’t optimal anymore. One data-based example of this can be seen in IMPACTS work with a large (over one million visitors per year) visitor-serving organization with a mission related to conservation. More on this finding here.

IMPACTS- Benefits of membership

Adults under thirty-five provide a sneak-peak into the need for organizations to create alternate programs to cultivate new and emerging audiences. Extant data indicate that members of Generation Y are public service motivated and appreciate a feeling of belonging and connectedness with one another and with a cause. This is consistent with the responses gathered from millennials in the data above. Instead of being interested in the more “transactional perks” of membership, this generation desires a feeling of connectedness with a broader social good. Creating a range of membership programs that engage different audiences allows for more personalization in approach. Is the primary “passion match” between members and your organization actually transactional? For some it may be. But what about the increasing majority that care about impact and connectivity?


6) The evolution of digital platforms and technology usage

Thanks to the personalization trend, the role of email has changed. It is no longer effective for “spamming” groups of people, but rather for cultivating individual audience members based on their “passion matches.” Personalized emails deliver six times higher transaction rates, but seventy-percent of brands fail to use them.

Moreover, data suggests that static websites and homepages are no longer the digital platform motivating visitation decisions.  Increasingly, social media plays an important role in this process thanks to the personalization and perceived transparency that it provides. Simply put, folks can log onto social media sites and see how well an organization actually “walks the talk” of its mission by way of the content that it posts – and make decisions about the organization on their own.

There is buzz about the importance of utilizing mobile devises to hone in on personalization opportunities. This is a particularly good idea right now because Google has announced that there are now officially more searches taking place on mobile devices and tablets than laptops and desktops. Let the personalization trend continue!


Ours is an era of personalization – every experience is increasingly tailored. And data suggest that more standardized experiences suffer in comparison. It’s time that cultural centers ingrain this brand attribute into overall organizational strategy in order to future-proof their experiences and offerings, and better attract and retain donors and supporters.


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


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Millennials, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 5 Comments
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