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

For the sake of the future of cultural organizations, let's stop mixing up these terms.  There’s a good amount of Read more

Combating Case Study Envy Within Museums And Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Bad things happen to good organizations when conference attendees leave their thinking caps at home. Industry conferences can provide Read more

Point of Reference Sensitivity in Visitors: How It Affects Your Cultural Organization And What To Do About It

Data suggest that it's good to to be the first organization that someone visits... but what if yours is Read more

Millennial Data Round Up: What Your Cultural Organization Needs To Know

This is what you need to know in one, single post. Millennials are a hot topic. While I consider "millennials" Read more

Experiencing Millennial Discussion Overload? Here Are Four Things to Remember

Cultural organizations need to reach millennials and that means talking about it – but that talk doesn’t make other Read more

Audience Access: The Reality For Cultural Organizations To Embrace for Solvency

The first step in the evolution toward more sustainable cultural organizations is embracing the reality of "access" and reviewing Read more

The Power of Social Media vs. Your Organization’s Website (DATA)

Think that your website is your organization’s most important online communications asset? Think again.

This week’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video busts a myth that seems to be slow to shake for some leaders. As it turns out, your organization’s own website is NOT your organization’s most important online communications asset.

Organizations tend to understand that websites are important – because they are. Social media, though? Many are still struggling with the role that these platforms play and how potential visitors are using them. Data suggest that social media is both a more important source of information AND a more effective landing environment than an organizations own website.

 Let’s take a look at some data, shall we?


1) Social media is the primary information source for visitors

Take a look at the following data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study of over 98,000 adults. It shows where high-propensity visitors gather information about cultural organizations. As you can see, social media is the most used source of information… by a long shot. We separated mobile web and web and those are the second and third most important sources of information for audiences. This includes not only your website, but information gathered from any online source that is not a social media channel or peer review site like Yelp or TripAdvisor. The difference between “mobile web” and “web” is simply that mobile web platforms are accessed on a mobile device. For organizations that still don’t have mobile-friendly websites, this is a bit of a wake-up call to prioritize this. For clarification, the numbers are in index value (not number of responses, as the sample size is contemplative of those who profile as high-propensity visitors among the 98,000 people in the study). In other words, “web” and “mobile web” are essentially in the same pool because they encompass “the web,” we simply cut them out to see if the medium/channel played a role. (It does – mobile web plays a bigger role in the “web” overall value.) When we combine mobile web and web, the index value is between the two values (i.e. 471-503) – not additive.

Word of mouth (recommendations on the phone or over dinner, conferences, etc.) is the fourth most used source of information, followed by peer review sites (again, that’s Yelp and TripAdvisor).

IMPACTS - sources of information for HPVs


Communication channels that talk WITH audiences significantly outperform those that talk AT audiences. With index values over 100 for all “talk WITH” channels and below 100 for all “talk AT” channels, the divide is amazingly clear. We’ll discuss this more in a KYOB post going up on August 17th, but this evolution is not worth glossing over. It is critical for organizations to understand as the new reality of the world in which we live. The fact that many seasoned leaders know more about traditional, talk AT channels does not make them effective compared to our newer and primary methods of communication. This does not mean that traditional channels are unimportant. Rather, it underscores the new realities of our connected world.

While social media is the primary source of information for the composite market, this data is specifically cut for high-propensity visitors – or, people have the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization (museum, aquarium, historic site, zoo, symphony, theater, etc.). The lean toward social media isn’t just for younger likely visitors. Data suggest that all-aged likely visitors profile as being “supper-connected” to the web.


2) Social media is the most effective online landing environment to inspire action

The chart above indicates the distribution of more than 65 million referrals from the online advertising campaigns of six cultural organizations in 2015. It is organized by the category of landing environment where folks were most likely to be engaged by the organization – or, to become a member, donor, or visitor.


IMPACTS - VSO online referrals

These landing technologies were not subjectively determined. Instead, we used algorithms to match users with the content that would best foster engagement with the organization based on their behaviors. As you can see, users were routed to an organization’s social media platforms 39% more frequently than they were routed to an organization’s own website. Nearly half of the referrals were routed through social media or peer review sites. Social media channels allow folks to see your organization in action: what it stands for, what it posts everyday, how it interacts with and values its communities.

This finding reaffirms the value of third-party endorsements: What others say about you is more important than what you say about yourself. In fact, what other’s say about you is 12.85 times more important than things that you say about yourself. In sum, data indicate that social media channels are the most effective sites to land potential visitors in order to motivate action.


Of course, organizations certainly benefit by having their own websites, but social media is our audiences’ primary source of information and key online influencer. Many organizations may be accustomed to having web designers in the decision-making room and those folks – especially when they deal with engagement strategy, which these folks today should all be doing  – are important. But many leaders still seem to be confused about the importance of social media community managers. They shouldn’t be. These folks are more than just “those people who do social media.” Data suggest that they are an organization’s most important connectors.

Social media motivates visitation, inspires donations, and secures new members. It is a channel that champions connection in our connected world. Websites are important. Social media and social media community managers are absolutely critical as well. We need them both, but most of all – we need to stop treating social media as a communication add-on. It is the most important avenue for connection.


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, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 4 Comments

Three Survival Questions That Cultural Organizations Avoid Asking (Because We Do Not Like The Answers)

Three critical questions that cultural organizations are not asking because he do not like the answers - Know Your Own Bone

Visitor-serving organizations are not asking the right questions – or perhaps we would rather ignore the answers…

I bust myths with market data and analysis from my work with IMPACTS here on Know Your Own Bone. At its core, my job is to be curious. It is to ask questions about visitation to cultural organizations and seek answers – even (if not especially) difficult answers. At our best, though, it’s the job of all people working within cultural organizations (museums, performing arts organizations, aquariums, zoos, botanic gardens, historic sites, etc.) to be curious. Our institutions are places for learning and inspiration and we are – I like to think – curious by nature. I feel this shared passion among nearly everyone that I meet who works at a cultural organization and yet I am constantly reminded of the limitations of our curiosities. It seems that we retreat when we are on the brink of an answer that challenges “the way things are done.”

We folks within cultural organizations are armed with defenses for findings that we don’t like. But I still think that, at their core, these leaders also glow with curiousity. Indeed, I believe that it is because Know Your Own Bone challenges our thought processes that this website receives nearly 90,000 visits each month. Maybe we want our outdated notions to be busted – we are just looking for some support.

Instead of sharing traditional, Frequently Asked Questions from cultural organizations received by myself and/or the IMPACTS team, I’d like to share three, macro-level Should-Be Asked Questions. It seems that we avoid the answers to these questions because they are hard – and because we don’t know everything about all of the answers yet. They represent uncharted territory in today’s connected world. But that’s why I like them and why you should, too.


ASK: What do people really value about our organization?

(NOT: What do we want people to value about our organization?)

It’s easier to consider what we want people to value about our organizations – we can make that up! We get to decide what’s important in that case! The problem is that while we can declare importance, we need our supporters (visitors, donors, members) more than they need us – and they determine the relevance of what we’ve deemed important.

This confusion is a primary indicator of a serious growing pain for cultural organizations: We are used to thinking about things from the inside out (“We are the experts and we decide what matters!”), but we are still pretty crummy at thinking about things from the outside in. This is more than considering what we think our audiences want from us – it’s about actually finding out what audiences want from us. Asking the question that we need to know – What do people really value about us? – necessitates market research and that generally freaks us out. We tend to have audience research covered and can tell you a whole lot about people who are already visiting us, but we aren’t so awesome yet about learning more about who is not coming and why.

When we change our shift from inside-out to outside-in thinking, we can focus on what our supporters truly like about us. We can focus on relevance over importance. We can learn more about the power of our mission. We can embrace that organizations that highlight those missions financially outperform those marketing primarily as attractions, and we can better understand the roles that education and entertainment play in the visitor experience and motivation process (not the roles that we want them to play). Most importantly, we can come to terms with the unassailable fact that visitor-serving organizations are – at their best – facilitators of shared experiences. When we realize that, we reap both mission-based and financial benefits. But we cannot truly embrace any of this data-informed information until we get more organizations asking the hard question (“What do people really value about us?”) instead of asking questions where we can make up answers that keep us stuck in a rut (“What do we want people to value about us?”)


ASK: Why are some people not visiting or supporting us?

(NOT: Why do we think some people are not visiting us?)

We are making things up and we seem not to know what we are talking about. We create programs, offer discounts, hand out free admission, and make excuses based upon assumptions that actually make it harder for us to be financially stable and execute our missions. Nothing changes and we just keep “programming” and “excusing” harder. Not actually uncovering why people (general audiences or subset groups) are not visiting us and making guesses instead is probably the dumbest thing that we do – and we do it so regularly that we forget to step back and look at the bigger picture.

Most of the myth busts on Know Your Own Bone are not challenging tried and true practices, but wild, stab-in-the-dark guesses that we continually perpetuate within the industry – even when they are directly at-odds with well known rules of economics or pricing psychology. Free admission is not a cure-all for engagement. In fact, it’s generally a bad idea in many ways. Discounts devalue your brand and actually keep people from coming back and blockbuster exhibits do the same thing.

Interestingly, we aren’t creating many programs that tackle what data suggest are the actual issues. We undervalue the role of reputation and the importance of social media in driving visitation and support (and we do it in many ways). Moreover, schedule is the top barrier to visitation and we don’t talk about it. We host cultural days and treat them like huge accomplishments because we misunderstand our underserved audiences and think that just because WE consider their ethnicity to be a primary identifier, they must think that is their primary identifier as well. We need to reach millennials, and instead of integrating a mindset of transparency, connectivity, and personalization – we are creating one-off evening programs with alcohol and calling it a day.

When we know our true barriers to visitation, we can crate programs that effectively overcome those barriers.


ASK: How can we shift to a more sustainable business model?

(NOT: What programs can we add to help make our current model sustainable?)

We often focus on “add on” solutions instead of asking ourselves hard questions about how we operate and stay in business. Yes – I used the word “business.” I know that we nonprofiteers dislike that word, but when we talk about being sustainable and “staying in business” it’s important to remember that if we aren’t “in business,” we cannot educate and inspire. If we cannot keep our doors open, we cannot execute our missions. “Business” has been viewed as a dirty word in the industry, but I vote that we use it more often. Being good at your mission is good for your organization’s solvency and “business.” 

We often act as though the proper model is to continue promoting ourselves as attractions to get folks in the door while treating potential donors as bottomless wells of potential cash. ….Okay, that’s over-the-top glib, but it’s not altogether untrue. In order to thrive, it’s time for us to take a hard look at our revenues and get smarter about our pricing strategies. We need to invest in affordable access programs that actually work in order to reach goals in attracting these audiences – and we need to put a wee bit more effort in actually attracting them. It’s time to consider who is actually visiting our organizations and who is not. It’s time to get smarter about our membership opportunities and the untapped opportunities for engagement. We need to realize that free days don’t work and, again, discounts and free admission may be bigger curses for long-term survival than blessings.


The world is changing and we need to change, too. We need to get smarter about everything that we are doing and I think that the best place to start is taking a look at the questions that we are asking. Certainly, there are many more questions to ask beyond these three, but I think that they highlight some of our biggest challenges, especially this one:

What the heck are we doing on many fronts? Guessing. That’s what we’re doing. The good news is that we don’t need to guess anymore. Now we CAN ask these Should-Ask questions and we can find out the real answers. Without the answers, we can only do more of the same. For the sake of the institutions that we love, let’s agree to get in this game together and be fearlessly and fiercely curious. Let’s ask hard questions – even if we don’t like the answers. It is only by doing that that we can all work together to bust myths and help make cultural organizations thrive.


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


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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

The Value of Shared Experiences Within Cultural Organizations (DATA)

The value of shared experiences at cultural organizations - KNOW YOUR OWN BONE

Exhibit and program content is important, but visitors who have the best experience aren’t the ones that come for the content.

At cultural organizations (museums, performing arts organizations, aquariums, botanic gardens, historic sites, zoos, etc.), we tend to really value our content experts – and for good reason! Without great content, what stories could we tell? How could we educate and inspire visitors? Certainly, the “what” of visiting a cultural organization is important (the program, the exhibit, the performance), but organizations often overlook the fact that who people are “with” is often more important.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the nuance of our content that we forget why people visit us and why they most value us: Cultural organizations are facilitators of shared experiences.

I have previously documented the best attributes of a visit to a cultural organization, and sharing time with family and friends massively trumps anything exhibit or content related. Here’s a look at this important data. As you can see, spending time with friends and family is more than twice as important as the content of the exhibit, program, or performance. This data comes from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study of over 98,000 US adults.

IMPACTS - The best thing about a visit to a cultural organization

WITH > WHAT – and it’s not even close. This finding is a big deal and it turns the way that internal experts think on its head. According to our visitors, the best thing that we do is connect them to one another. At cultural organizations, interacting with people matters. Take a look at “interacting with staff/volunteers/performers.” It’s (comparatively) trailing “seeing/interacting with exhibits/performance.” Connecting with people onsite is important – and deploying engaging frontline staff may be the most straightforward and reliable way to increase visitor satisfaction.

This finding brings up an interesting question: Do people feel differently about the visitor experience based upon what they believe to be the best part of the experience?  And, what – if anything – does this portend in terms of optimizing the visitor experience?

Below, we’ve organized the data based upon folks’ “best” visit attribute. For instance, all of the people who think that time with friends and family is the best part of the experience are in one column, everyone who said it was the exhibits or performance are in another, etc. Below are the findings for overall satisfaction, value for cost of admission, and intent to re-visit. For the sake of easy reading and summarization, I’ll call the folks who report “time with friends and family” and/or “interacting with staff/volunteers/performers” as WITH visitors – because to them, WITH>WHAT.  Here’s the value of shared experiences to cultural organizations. 


1) WITH visitors report the most visitor satisfaction

IMPACTS - overall satisfaction by best thing

In fact, both types of WITH visitors (“Time with family and friends” and “interacting with staff/volunteers/performers”) are most satisfied with their experiences.

As a conceptual tip (that helps for the sake of comparison): Consider “Day off work/school.” For these folks, the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization isn’t unique to a cultural organization. Rather, it’s simply that they have the day off. This group is still obviously a very important group to watch. After all, schedule is the top motivator for visitation to a cultural organization.



2) WITH visitors report the greatest bang for their buck when it comes to paying admission

IMPACTS - Value for cost by best attribute of visit

Visitors who find time with family and friends to be the best thing about a visit report the highest value for cost perceptions. This means that they think that paying admission to get in your door was most worth the money. One reason why value for cost perceptions are important because they help inform optimal admission prices.

This finding is important because it tackles a potential, negative internal reaction from some in the industry: the concern that “time with friends and family” could happen anywhere. Certainly, it could. But what this data suggests is that there may be something particularly special about sharing experiences with family and friends within visitor-serving organizations – and it makes our admission prices all the more worth it to have those experiences in these environments.


3) WITH visitors are more likely to visit again within one year

 IMPACTS - intent to revisit based on best attribute of visit

Check this out! Not only are WITH visitors most likely to re-visit within one year, but they are significantly more likely to do so!

Visitors who identified sharing time with family and friends as the best attribute of a visit to a cultural organization reported both significantly higher levels of satisfaction and value for cost perceptions than did those reporting content (e.g. exhibits, performances) as the best attribute of a visit to a cultural organization.  Moreover, persons who reported sharing time with family and friends as the best attribute of a visit also indicated a 25.5% greater likelihood of re-visiting the organization within one year when compared to persons who cited exhibits as the best attribute of their visit!

(Don’t be too discouraged about the low values of “learning something new” folks. We know that our education missions don’t play the hugest role in motivating visitation and they play only a small role in visitor satisfaction, but they play an important role in justifying visitation after the visit is over. Here’s that data.)


These data reaffirm the role of cultural organizations as facilitators of social interaction. More than connecting people to content, cultural organizations connect people to people.  Given this information, it may seem odd that so many resources are focused on the content aspect of an experience (think exhibits and galleries and theaters) and seemingly less energy on the aspects of an experience that support social interchange. (What if we valued our floor staff as much as we value our exhibits teams?!) We need our content. Our content allows us to tell the stories that make people want to come through our doors to be inspired. We know that content is important. I don’t know that all cultural organizations are aware that being facilitators of shared experiences is even more important to visitors. At cultural organizations, our content becomes the bridge that connects people to one another.

I’ve seen this news (the fact that WITH is so much more important than WHAT) create anger within cultural organizations. In the face of this information, I’ve seen leaders say that one phrase that effective, successful leaders never say: That this doesn’t apply to them and there’s nothing for them to learn from this overwhelmingly unassailable data.  This reaction is a mistake.   In our digital age, we want folks to be engaged and make real connections – to our stories and to one another! In that sense, this data is incredibly uplifting. This data does challenge our ivory towers. Indeed, we are educators and inspirers…. but we are also facilitators of connection and community – and THAT is what our audiences love about us most. 


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, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

Mission Motivated vs. Transaction Motivated Members: What Your Cultural Organization Needs To Know (DATA)

Data suggest that members to cultural organizations often fall into one of two categories – and the categories tell a lot about how to engage these members.

I originally debuted this important data during my keynote at the Pennsylvania Museums Conference this spring. Today, I’m excited to share this information in this week’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video. This data may help directly pave the way for the future of membership for cultural organizations. As usual, when I refer to cultural organizations, I am talking about museums, aquariums, botanic gardens, zoos, performing arts organizations, and other mission-driven organizations that welcome visitors.

At cultural organizations, we tend to lump members together as one audience – but data suggest that most folks are driven to become members based upon one of two very different motivating factors. Understanding these motivating factors may allow us to develop more effective membership programs. This data illustrates that what we consider “membership” may actually be two related – but different – programs.

IMPACTS surveyed members of 118 cultural organizations that charge admission. These organizations range from museums to zoos to orchestras. For the study, we collected open-ended responses regarding the primary benefit of membership. We found that people who purchase memberships to cultural organizations do so for six primary benefits: Free admission; belonging to the organization; supporting the organization; contributing to mission impact; exclusive access to events, and member discounts.

Conceptually, these six benefits fall into two groups: transaction-based members and mission-based members. Transaction-based members are those whose answers may not surprise leaders at all, because their reported primary benefits align with the benefits that most organizations market for membership. Transaction-based members value free admission, exclusive access to events, and member discounts. No surprises there for membership teams, most likely. In fact, you may even be thinking, “Thank goodness that those member discounts are being valued!” Indeed, for some folks, they are valued.

Mission-based members (as we will call them) are driven to become members for reasons more directly related to an organization’s mission. Mission-based members value belonging to the organization, supporting the organization, and contributing to mission impact. These folks value the meaning of membership more than the transaction-based benefits.

We found it interesting that the top six benefits reported by members could be divided in this way and we wanted to dig in deeper. Does a member’s primary benefit affect how they perceive and value their membership? As it turns out, it definitely does. We organized responses based upon what members identified as their primary member benefit, and we immediately spotted some noteworthy differences.


1) Mission motivated members find greater value in their memberships

People whose primary motivation was to support the organization, belong to the organization, and contribute to mission impact found their membership to be 14.5% more valuable than people who joined primarily for free admission, discounts, or event access.

Value for cost by membership benefit


2) Mission motivated members pay more for memberships

Does that mean that these folks might be more likely to buy higher-level memberships? Yes! As it turns out, mission motivated members in the survey were paying 42% more for memberships than transaction motivated members – and, as a reminder, they are still finding their membership to have 14.5% higher value for cost.

membership cost by primary benefit - IMPACTS


3) Mission motivated members are more likely to renew their memberships

Members that are primarily mission motivated are also more likely to renew their memberships. In fact, mission motivated members are 14% more likely to annually renew their membership than those whose primary benefit is free admission.

propensity to renew membership by primary benefit - IMPACTS

This data suggest that what we call “membership” to cultural organizations may actually be two, different products: membership and an annual pass benefit. It is certainly a balancing act, as mission motivated members are primarily motivated by mission-based factors, but transaction based benefits may not hurt the deal. Perhaps it is us within the industry who blur the line and discourage mission-based members from being fully cultivated.

Consider this: many cultural organizations tend to believe that free admission is the most important benefit of membership. Indeed, it is a significant motivator for many members– but it’s also the benefit that cultural organizations highlight and market the most – sometimes at the expense of mission-related benefits. When we make our memberships primarily about transactions, we neglect the motivations of our most meaningful members.  Go pull up nearly any membership page to a cultural organization right now and I’ll bet that the primary selling point that you see is free admission, and the concept of supporting mission impact is presented as a “feel good” that is secondary to “the deal.” Again, this isn’t to say that free admission isn’t important to members and an appropriate benefit for member categories, but if you were a truly mission motivated potential member looking for your ideal way to support the organization, you may find that the method of support that you want does not exist. Or rather, it may exist, but you may not feel that optimal “passion match” because your own motivations are secondary to transaction-based benefits.

Members whose primary motivation is mission-related, find greater value in their memberships, are willing to pay more for memberships, and they are most likely to renew their memberships. These are our people and prioritizing them is a smart move. Let’s use this information to create more effective membership programs that optimize support for our organizations and support long-term solvency.


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


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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 1 Comment

On Museum Layoffs: The Data-Informed Importance of Marketing and Engagement Departments

The data-informed importance of marketing and engagement staff

Need to increase support for your cultural organization during tough times? It is counterproductive to instinctively cut marketing and engagement experts.

I write about market data-informed tips for financial solvency for museums and cultural centers. That’s what I do. My job is to help keep cultural organizations alive and thriving. Considering this, it’s difficult to see some important museums buckling their belts and laying off staff members right now. It’s also a prime moment to provide an important reminder for the industry in general: Sometimes laying off staff members is an unfortunate reality, but cutting marketing and engagement professionals first is more likely to lead to suicide than it is to salvation.

When times are tight for operations budgets we often keep going back to the never-successful plan of trying to “save our way to prosperity.” This often involves cutting budgets or staff – and that can help to balance finances, provided that you have a plan to also increase revenues in the long-term. If you don’t have a plan to increase your revenues (regardless of why you are laying off staff), then your organization is sacrificing hard-working people in vain. The layoffs won’t better the organization. The layoffs are human payment for bad choices that probably weren’t made by the people who are being sacrificed. Again, though, sometimes organizations really do need to balance finances and do this – but it’s shortsighted to sacrifice jobs without also having a plan to increase revenues. And we know from research that the most effective and realistic ways to do this involve marketing and/or engagement professionals. It hinders the growth of our entire industry when we cut marketing and engagement professionals first.

When we go through rough times, it’s our AUDIENCES that are most important to our survival. After all, they pay admission, become members, spread word-of-mouth endorsements, and make donations. Thus, it can be counterproductive to immediately cut marketing (the people who hold that relationship and keep you relevant) and keep esoteric specialists who work in functions that audiences might consider irrelevant. (A museum philosopher question for the ages: If a specialized curator leads an educating and inspiring program but nobody is there to take part in it, did it educate and inspire?)

My purpose is not to point fingers at organizations that have chosen to lay off these – or any – staff members. Rather, I’m taking this timely opportunity to encourage a re-thinking of who we cut first when we make staff cuts. I talk about marketing a lot in this article because that tends to be the area where thoughtless cuts are made first, and have been made first in the past. But when I say “engagement,” I’m not only referring to marketing. It includes fundraising, floor staff, education leaders, program directors, and people who manage the connection between a cultural organization and living human beings.

While understanding that any layoffs stink and that organizations often do everything in their power to avoid them, here are four reasons why we need to think twice about cutting marketing and engagement professionals – and especially knock it off with our instinct to cut them first. These are arguably the folks who can play the biggest role in preventing further layoffs.


1) Marketing is the way to INCREASE revenues

This very obvious fact alone should make our industry kick – or simply rethink – the “cut marketing first” habit. Data suggest that over 70% of cultural organizations aren’t investing the necessary funds to optimize visitation – and this doesn’t even include salaries. Let me rephrase: Over 70% of cultural organizations are not securing as much visitation and support as data suggest that they could. Data suggest that many cultural organizations could earn more revenues, but they choose not to. (This is usually due to outdated and bad business practices that view marketing as an expense as opposed to an investment.) The investment equation for optimizing audience acquisition is shared below. It’s not guessing – it’s math.

Marketing is the only department that involves a tested, data-informed equation for actually MAKING MONEY for cultural organizations. (Though fundraising has rough best practice guidelines and obviously also helps raise funds.) Certainly, an organization can overspend on marketing, and that’s something that should rightfully be cut back if it is out of line with optimal spending. Also, it’s important to make sure that organizations are focusing on engagement strategies rather than gimmicks or carrying out social media for social media’s sake. Marketing funds need to be well spent in order to be effective… but if they aren’t spent, they cannot be effective. For cultural organizations, it costs (some) money to make (more) money. Heck, that’s generally true for all industries!

Marketing also plays an extremely important role in fundraising and building affinities for an organization that lead to memberships and donations. In a way, cutting marketing is also cutting fundraising capabilities in today’s world. And that’s a problem because for most organizations, that is the only other department that can be directly relied upon to help get them out of a financial funk.


2) Knowing your audience and community is critical for success

Marketing and engagement professionals are masters of kick-starting relationships with audiences and also –thanks to the connected world in which we now live – maintaining them! Personalization trends are affecting absolutely everything within organizations right now and marketing and engagement professionals are on the front lines. In order to create meaningful connection, today’s marketing and engagement folks need to be listeners first. They see what their online audiences are responding to and, at higher levels in the chain, they can see the entirety of the tapestry of engagement. No other department leader is positioned to do this – not even fundraising. A good marketing department considers its strategy and knows the relevance behind every ad it places or post that it promulgates. Our entire existence is dependent upon effectively connecting with people externally, but it is difficult to attract audiences to our brains (exhibits, programs, etc.) if we are missing a mouth, ears, and eyes. That’s what we do when we cut the marketing department first. I’m not saying that the brain is unimportant. It’s critical! But without professional listeners and strategic communicators, it’s difficult to get folks to CARE about what is happening in the brain. And we need to communicate to audiences on their terms, not ours.

We may be cutting marketing first because we still think of this department as a service department rather that what it is today: a strategic collaborator. Marketing is not a service department. Of the 224 cultural organizations that IMPACTS monitors, the ones that are the most financially solvent very clearly prioritize marketing and audience engagement. They include those experts in the room when initiatives are being formed rather than “tasking” them to market something once it has already been set in stone.


3) Reputation drives visitation and support

I write about this a lot because it’s a big deal: What people say about your organization is 12.85 times more important in driving your reputation than things that you pay to say about yourself. When people think of “marketing” they often only think of marketing of the past – or, advertising. Today, marketing is much more dynamic and real-time. It can be more accurately called “engagement” rather than “marketing” for many roles that are currently in that department. Today, marketing teams run not only the messages that the organization puts out, but they also manage the organization’s community. This plays a huge role in driving an organization’s reputation.

Reputation decision-making utility- IMPACTS

Reputation is a top motivator for visitation, and organizations that are cutting back budgets and laying off workers generally need more visitation and support. And, again, your reputation is made up of what people say about you and what you say about yourself – both of which are regularly managed and monitored by marketing departments. Organizations tend to underestimate the role that social media and digital engagement play in driving the gate. Again, yes, sometimes layoffs happen. But is it best to immediately cut people from a department with very direct ties to visitation?


4) Millennials are underserved and they are the most connected audiences

Of all of the points, this one may be the most important. Cultural organizations have a big millennial problem. These folks make up the majority of our visitors, but they are still our most underserved demographic. And they are underserved in a very big way. Millennials are the single most important demographic for our industry to engage in order to have a future. (I know, I know. I’m sick of talking about millennials, too, and I’m one of them! But we talk about them so much for a good, important reason. We are in a unique situation with this audience.)

Moreover, millennials are our most connected visitors. In fact, all high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations are “super-connected” with access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device. These numbers are not going down. In a world where a bunch of numbers are going down for museums (or not keeping pace with population growth), the number of people who qualify as “super-connected” is going up. When we consider this, cutting marketing teams first manages to be even more of a bad move.


Layoffs stink. There are no two-ways about it. I’m not arguing that ANY particular department should be cut in hard times. Indeed, other departments also fall under “engagement.” Fundraising helps summon support and education departments help organizations walk their talk – a thing that also pays off financially. Floor staff are particularly important for increasing visitor satisfaction.  And again, not all marketing professionals are super great by virtue of the simple fact that they work in engagement. This topic is a messy one, but my point is this: We need to stop instinctively cutting people who work in engagement (in any capacity) first. It’s a bad practice. It’s outdated. It’s holding us back and it’s making our organizations weaker.

We need more engagement with audiences when things get tight, not less.


And this indeed takes expertise. If we know that it is only our audiences that can reliably help us when we hit hard times, why do we immediately cut off our connections to them and the people who manage our precious communities? Marketing and engagement are not “extra” – they are particularly necessary for support and visitation. Let’s evolve and realize that our financial futures are dependent upon people and connections to our missions. 


Like this post? Please check out Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel for more insights. 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, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution Leave a comment

What Wealthy Donors Consider Before Making a Gift Greater Than One Million Dollars (DATA)

It isn’t necessarily your organization’s mission that matters most to ultra-wealthy donors…

Some data sets are worth going over twice and making a video about them so that they sink in. This week’s Fast Facts video is one of those data sets. After all, what organization couldn’t benefit by better understanding what factors inform and motivate a gift of more than one million dollars to a nonprofit organization?

The results of this study are worth blazing into our brains. While you may have guessed that the items topping the charts would be on the list, you may not have guessed that they would be the MOST important factors when high net worth donors considering making a gift.

SO, how can organizations engage high net worth donors? To get to the bottom of this million-dollar question, we asked these individuals themselves. The answers might not be what you think.

We define an Ultra High Net Worth Individual as someone with net assets greater than $50 million. 38,000 such individuals reside in the US, and that’s the greatest number of UHNWIs in the world. The study below collected responses from 112 ultra high net worth individualsFor the study, undertaken by IMPACTS, individuals were asked open-ended questions to identify their most important considerations with regard to making a gift greater than one million dollars to a nonprofit organization. Individuals were then asked to rank considerations from 1-10 in terms of their importance.

Here’s what we found:

UHNWI donor considerations

There’s a tie for the first place consideration. Who else has given to an organization and how much other major donors have given are the most important factors when these folks consider making a major gift. Who is on the board is the next consideration, followed by the how much those board members have contributed, round out the most important factors informing ultra high net worth individual giving.

Interestingly, it isn’t until the fifth, sixth, and seventh considerations that the impact of a major gift, mission, and the organization’s commitment to that mission make an appearance.

To whom an organization’s mission matters, matters most when it comes to making a large gift.

These findings are not altogether surprising. Successful fundraisers know that money often follows money, and that social connections play a big role in securing gifts from very large donors. But what’s interesting is that simply being good at your mission often isn’t enough. You need to have demonstrated that your mission is worthy of investment among high-impact individuals.

These data also demonstrate the importance of having a connected board that is willing to put its money where its mouth is. After all, if the folks on an organization’s board don’t care enough about an organization’s mission to support it in a meaningful way, then why should someone else?

Mission and impacts are important. After all, data suggest that the mission and purpose of the organization play important roles in securing quality board members in the first place. That said, once the board is complete and it comes time to look for high net worth donors, having wealthy evangelists (or a group of them!) advocating for your organization may be critical for success when it comes to fundraising.

This information may be seen as a call to action for board members – the data underscores why organizations need them most. And, interestingly, studies reveal that board members often misunderstand their role as financial supporters within cultural organizations. It’s time for all of us on boards to step up. Again, if we’re not giving or championing the cause of our institutions, how can we reasonably expect someone else to do so?

It’s also a wake up call for staff members. The identity of donors and board members and their giving fuel major gift decisions. Certainly, staff may play a role in facilitating and supporting connections between board members and potential donors, but what matters most to donors are the philanthropic commitments of their peers. If board members don’t step up, then it is difficult for organizations to overcome this internal giving deficiency. And that’s exactly what board members who do not give adequately create – a deficiency.

For all of us on boards, let’s rise to the occasion. We’re in the most target-rich country for ultra high net worth individuals in the world. Our development staff can do great things, but they need our support when it comes to our most potentially impactful donors.

And nonprofit organizations: When you get a big donation from a key player, milk it. Shine lights on it. Celebrate it. Leverage it. Knowing what motivates giving for ultra high net worth individuals can only help us better reach our goals.


Like this post? Please check out my YouTube channel for more video fast facts! 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, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Sector Evolution 2 Comments

Attracting Diverse Visitors: Cultural Organizations Overlook The Most Important Factor (DATA)

Attracting Diverse Visitors to Cultural Organizations- Know Your Own Bone

Organizations mistakenly identify underserved audiences based more on ethnicity and race than what these audiences consider their most distinctive attribute – age. 

Cultural organizations (i.e. museums, performing arts organizations, aquariums, historic sites, etc.) are experiencing a phenomenon known as negative substitution of their historic visitors. Simply put, more people who share qualities with historic visitors are leaving the market than are being replaced. In essence, the US market is running lower and lower on older, white people. This means that organizations need to update and broaden the profiles of our typical visitors now in order to thrive in the future.

We need to engage new audiences and make them our regular audiences. Specifically, we need to get better at reaching two broad “types” of people: millennials and “minority-majorities.” Really, though, we need to reach millennials – because the “minority-majorities” that aren’t representatively visiting cultural organizations are overwhelmingly millennials.

There has been an increasing amount of talk about so-called “minority-majority” populations in the US. In general, the phrase “minority-majority” describes a population cohort that has traditionally comprised a minority of the US population, but has recently grown to represent an emerging majority of the US population. An example on a national level are children under the age five – of whom 50.2% (i.e. the majority) represent historic ethnic and racial minorities (e.g. Hispanic, African American, Asian, etc.)

Today, four states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas) and the District of Columbia are minority-majority. Additionally, 13 of the 40 largest US metropolitan areas are minority-majority.

Even the connotation of the phrase “minority-majority” risks further confusing the matter.  In the past, minority populations were defined primarily by race. As the US grows ever more ethnically and racially diverse, emerging minority-majority populations are increasingly defined by age.  

Let’s dive into some data that can help us better reach young people, and in doing so, engage people of more diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds:


1) Minority-majority audiences are young

According to July 2014 US Census Bureau data, there were 148.6 million people in the US under the age of 35 – or, 46.6% of the total US population! If you further organize these data and exclude more elderly populations, there were 299 million persons in the US under the age of 75…and half of them were aged 34 or younger.

Millennials and minority-majorities are a huge part of the same audience. Data indicate that nearly 22% of adult millennials have visited a cultural organization in the US within the past year. However, as millennials comprise approximately 30% of the US adult population, the data suggest that millennials are representatively underserved as a cultural audience.

Millennials are clearly an emerging audience, yet, all too often, conversations concerning emerging audiences seem to focus less on age and more on race as an indicator of underserved populations. When we talk about millennials, we are also talking about the 47.35% of millennials that are NOT White non-Hispanic.

Why do organizations seem to think of white millennials as millennials, and distinguish millennials of other ethnic or racial backgrounds primarily as minority-majorities? 

Kind of weird, right?

US adult millennial population

The Hispanic population of the United States as of July 2014 totaled 55.4 million, making people of Hispanic origin the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority. In addition, Census Bureau data indicate that Hispanics, with a median age of 29 years, are younger than most other racial or ethnic groups. By comparison, the median age for non-Hispanic Whites in 43. (The median age for non-Hispanic Blacks is 34, and the median age for Asians is 36.)

Because Generation X is such a relatively small generational cohort, youth has only recently started to demographically prevail.  One could argue that young people are the emerging minority-majority population in the US.


2) Millennial audiences are generally underserved by cultural organizations regardless of race

Representative visitation is an issue for nearly all millennial audiences, not only minority-majorities. These data suggest that perhaps the notion of “underserved audiences” has less to do with historic definitions based on ethnicity and race, and much more to do with a generational disengagement.

 IMPACTS - millennial cultural attendance by ethnicity

The above chart indicates that most US adult millennials are underserved in terms of representative cultural participation…regardless of race or ethnicity.  Excepting the relatively modest number of adult millennial Pacific Islanders, Native Alaskans, and American Indians, only adult millennial Asians representatively participate in US cultural organizations.  The three largest racial cohorts (i.e. White non-Hispanic, Black or African American, and Hispanic) – comprising nearly 90% of the US adult millennial population – are all massively underserved. 

Why is this the case?  I posit that it is because organizations observe that they’re not representatively engaging these audiences and think of it as a matter of race and not a generational disconnect.  If it were solely a matter of race, then White non-Hispanics would be representatively participating…but they’re not.


3) Millennials generally do not consider race to be a primary defining attribute 

Perhaps one of the reasons that cultural organizations are not representatively engaging minority-majority audiences is because we are developing engagement strategies and programming based on assumptions concerning culture and heritage. We miss the mark when we decide that ethnicity matters most to this audience. We would be better served to understand that we need strategies based on the psychographic and behavioral attributes of a generation that does not consider ethnicity as a primary differentiator. After all, this generation is nearly 50% not “white!”

Take a look at this data from the National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study of more than 98,000 persons (including more than 24,000 millennials):

IMPACTS US adult millennial indentifiers by ethnic background

When asked to describe themselves, millennials generally did not self-describe based on ethnic or racial criteria. (The sole exception were Black or African American millennials, and even in this example, racial identity was not their most frequent self-descriptor. Black or African American millennials identify with being young more frequently than they self-describe based on race.)

To more representatively engage young Hispanics as an emerging audience, for instance, significantly more attention should be focused on the “young” part of the equation and less attention on the “Hispanic” descriptor (which doesn’t show up as a frequent self-description by Hispanic millennials). In order to better connect with emerging audiences, organizations need to see these audiences as these audiences see themselves. Otherwise, organizations risk a massive disconnect with the very audiences with whom they are trying to engage.

Interestingly, most every other word that these groups use to describe themselves could apply to other generations.  Youth is their self-described unique attribute.

Also, adult millennial audiences self-identify as “young” before they generally identify by their gender!  (Perhaps this also helps to explain the rise of the transgender rights movement at this moment in US history.  Transgender persons have always existed…why is it that now the movement finds increasing acceptance and salience?  It may be because millennials – the largest generation in US history – identify as “tolerant” and “friendly” and “kind” and “hopeful” ahead of their own gender!)

Millennial cohorts identifying themselves as “friendly” and “kind” is great for cultural organizations! It underscores much of what we know: To millennials (and, increasingly, to all audiences), your organization’s mission matters! This finding also aligns with millennial wants for membership programs.


4) There is no meaningful difference in visitor satisfaction based upon race

The data below indicate overall satisfaction for adult millennials segmented by race – and shows that there is no meaningful distinction in overall satisfaction based on race. These data, too, come from the National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study.

US millennial overall satisfaction by race

Regardless of race, millennials visiting cultural organizations are generally satisfied.  So our engagement challenge is not one of content – millennials of all races enjoy the experience once they have been engaged.  This finding suggests that the improvement opportunity lies more at the top of the engagement funnel.

In other words, having special Cinco de Mayo programming (i.e. content) may not necessarily better engage Hispanic millennial audiences.  Having programming that appeals to millennials – regardless of race – is perhaps a better means of engaging with Hispanic millennial audiences.  Basically, from an engagement perspective, the operative word in the “Hispanic Millennial” descriptor is “Millennial” and not necessarily “Hispanic.”


I have been party to many conversations with cultural leaders asking, “How do we more representatively engage the African American population of Washington DC?” and “How do we better connect with the Hispanic population in Los Angeles?”  These conversations belie the sense that many organizations believe race to be the key differentiator in terms of representative engagement.  Instead, these same leaders should be asking themselves, “How do we engage young people in Washington DC?” and “How do we engage young people in Los Angeles?”

If organizations representatively engage young people – members of the most diverse generation in US history – then organizations will also do a much better job of representatively engaging more racially diverse audiences.  Again, the median age for Hispanics in the US is 29.  The median age for non-Hispanic Whites in the US is 43.  Developing strategies to representatively engage young people is a “two birds, one stone” move: Representatively engaging young people concurrently means representatively engaging more racially diverse audiences. 

All of this is NOT to say that ethnicity and racial background are unimportant. Cultural and heritage awareness and sensitivity are important considerations for all organizations.  And, from an engagement and programming perspective, emerging personalization trends recognize the uniqueness of more diverse audiences.  However, the data does suggest that the way we think of our audiences isn’t necessarily the way that they think of themselves. The data suggest that America has never been more of a melting pot…yet too many organizations seem to silo audiences based on increasingly less relevant segmentation criteria such as ethnicity and race. Cultural organizations need to get better at attracting millennials of all races and ethnicities.

In the end, this is good news. It suggests that efforts to representatively engage millennial audiences should reach all millennial audiences. It’s another drop in the bucket for forward-facing organizations prioritizing transparency, social good, connectivity, communication, personalization, and digital engagement.

Audience diversity for cultural organizations is increasingly a function of representatively engaging young people – not necessarily trying to target specific racial or ethnic groups with one-off, race-based programming.  If organizations representatively engage young people, in turn, they will engage more racially diverse audiences.



Like this post? Please check out Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel for more insights. 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 1 Comment

Audience vs. Market Research: A Critical Distinction for Cultural Organizations

An overreliance on audience research may be the very thing holding back even the smartest of cultural organizations.

With so many cultural organizations nowadays boasting audience research capabilities, why is the industry struggling so severely in terms of engaging new and emerging audiences? We’re confusing audience research and market research – and that difference is the topic of this week’s Know Your Own Bone – Fast Facts video.

Not a video person? No problem. This information is important, so here’s a summary:


Most cultural organizations collect and focus on AUDIENCE research

Audience research is any research conducted on specific audience segments to gather information about their attitudes, knowledge, interests, preferences, or behaviors. For cultural organizations, audience research is often conducted on current visitors and past visitors. It often comes in the form of exit surveys, zip code collecting, and reaching out to members and visitors through email lists or online communities (to name a few sources of these types of data).

Audience research is the most common type of research carried out by cultural organizations by a long shot – and some organizations even have their own audience research departments! These data help us uncover information related to who is visiting, why they are visiting, and what the people who are already engaging with the organization think.


Organizations often struggle with collecting MARKET research

Market research, on the other hand, is any organized effort to gather information about target markets – including the folks who may NOT be visiting an organization.

Market research can be tricky, though, because someone who is not visiting your organization cannot fill out an exit survey. They may not be a part of your online community, and they aren’t likely on your email lists. Simply put, they aren’t a part of your audience yet. The industry’s inability to reach underserved audiences relates directly to our lack of market research and a general overreliance on audience research.


Organizations need both types of research, but our lack of MARKET research risks big sustainability issues

Audience research has tremendous value for perfecting programming, but that’s not where the industry needs the most help right now. In order to remain solvent and relevant in today’s world, cultural organizations desperately need to engage new audiences.

Unlike audience research, market research helps organizations find out who is NOT visiting and why they aren’t visiting. This is a big deal because organizations are doing a really not-awesome job reaching new and emerging audiences! Not to mention, cultural organizations (museums, performing arts organizations, aquariums, etc.) are experiencing a phenomenon called the negative substitution of the historic visitor. This means that for every one person who profiles as a historic visitor who leaves the market, they are being replaced by less than one person. Millennials are not visiting cultural organizations at representative rates, and engaging people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds – who make up more and more of the US population each year – is perhaps our greatest opportunity to secure our futures. In other words, the demographic makeup of the US is changing and we really need to get better at reaching new audiences and making them our new regular audiences.


It is impossible to fully understand market perceptions of your organization and reach new audiences if you only study the people who are already in your community.

To succeed, organizations need both types of research.


Like this post? You can check out more 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, Financial Solvency, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

Think Twice Before Saying These Three Things to the Marketing Department

Think Twice Before Saying These Three Things to the Marketing Department

These three sentences may indicate that your organization is having a hard time coming to grips with 21st century realities.

I specialize in market trends affecting the cultural, visitor-serving sector. The topics that I write about range from admission pricing to onsite experiences to fundraising. That said, I am most frequently asked about millennials (that huge generation symbolically forcing sector evolution) and marketing (the department that is seemingly most affected by this evolution). Interestingly, it often seems like the entire concept of sector evolution is inappropriately isolated as relating mostly to matters of millennials and marketing.

First, millennial changes are increasingly market changes. For instance, millennials may be the most connected of the generations, but all high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations are super-connected to the web, and all generations are increasingly social conscious consumers. I often wonder if we put “millennial talk” in a corner because it feels safer to place necessary change into a subset category than to call “millennial talk” what it actually is: Discussion about our urgent need to become more business-savvy, social-good serving, relevant, and agile right now.Millennial talk” may be our way of diminishing urgency and compartmentalizing necessary changes regarding external audiences and supporters.

Second, what we think are primarily changes in how the marketing department operates may actually be hints for changes that need to infiltrate our organizations on the whole. Similarly, “marketing talk” may be our way of diminishing urgency and compartmentalizing necessary changes regarding broader internal strategies and operations. It is astounding how much “marketing talk” these days has less to do with marketing, and more to do with shifting cultures, embracing changes, and developing a deeper need to understand and respond to our constituencies.

Here are three, common phrases that I often hear said to leaders of marketing departments by other executives that may be indicative of a misunderstanding of the changed environment in which visitor-serving organizations operate:


Here is what we need you to market

This is the biggest change and the best place to start. In today’s world, marketing is primarily a strategic department – not primarily a service department. Folks within institutions may be used to thinking of this department as the one that simply goes forth and communicates messages to the public. This is no longer true – if it ever was in the first place. The most successful organizations with whom IMPACTS works (particularly in terms of financial solvency) involve the marketing department in top-down strategic decision-making rather than the tail-end of the program or product development process.

The marketing department manages your relationship with your audiences, not the volume of your one-way communications. Because the marketing department spends a good amount of time listening to audiences, it also tends to be more attune to audience wants and needs than less outwardly engaged departments. Initiatives have a much greater chance of success if marketing is involved in their development rather than briefed after their finality. Unfortunately, many organizations are still accustomed to thinking of marketing solely as a service department…and they risk doing so at their own slow descent into lessened relevance.


You need to increase our yelp and tripadvisor ratings

Alrighty folks. Yes, peer review sites live in the online world and it makes sense that the “task” of increasing ratings on these social websites may fall to the marketing department. Indeed, your organization should sometimes respond to both negative and positive reviews on these sites! But peer review sites rate your organization’s onsite experience (and combined brand perception, mission execution, programs, initiatives, and the like) – not how well your organization “manages” TripAdvisor.

There’s no amount of typing “Thank you for your review, Jessica. We’re sorry to hear that our admission staff was rude to you…” on a computer keyboard that actually makes the onsite admission staff less rude to visitors. Peer review sites generally shine a light on OPERATIONAL issues and those run much deeper than the marketing department. The problem isn’t that you haven’t written a sufficient number of “We’re sorry to hear about your experience” comments – it’s that people may be having a less-than-awesome experience in the first place. The best way to increase ratings on peer review sites is to collectively perform better at our jobs as an entire organization. (And, even then, you are still bound to get a few strange reviews.)

Folks say things like, “Raise our TripAdvisor ratings” to marketing departments when they think that social media is about technology and web platforms, and they forget that it is actually about the experiences of living, breathing, visiting human beings. Like much online feedback in our world today, it may take place on a social media channel, but the messages are important and they are usually messages for the organization at-large and not simply the marketing department. Would feedback about programs and experiences given onsite be directed solely toward the marketing department? No. (Unless the complaint was truly a branding or marketing issue.) So why do we think that feedback that comes from social can be “fixed” solely through responses on social media?

If you want people to report that they are having better experiences, then listen to their feedback and start creating better experiences! Here’s a much better way to increase visitor satisfaction than getting frustrated with the marketing department.


Why isn't social media fixing this problem for us

We’ve all heard it, haven’t we? And yet it still happens in the most important of conversations. It might be said during a conversation with staff, executive leaders, or even among board members. An organization will finally be in the midst of having a serious, “We need to get real about fundraising and look at our strategies” talk and someone (usually someone high up on the ladder and who is generally unfamiliar with social media…which is a problem in and of itself) will totally pull this move in real life and say, “Why isn’t social media fixing this problem for us?”

This is usually code for, “I would like to blame my lack of time strategically thinking about this huge issue until this very moment on something that I totally don’t understand and yet fiercely believe should have magical powers that shall overcome my own inability to handle this topic.”

Social media is absolutely critical for organizations in terms of building an organization’s reputation – which meaningfully contributes to attendance and support. The problem here’s isn’t about using social media for fundraising purposes (or anything else – smart social media can help an organization do great things), but that social media is often used as a scapegoat for thinking critically about more integrated strategies. This sentence can be used to avoid ‘fessing up that board contributions need to increase, that staff need to take a time out and rethink their overall strategy, or that departments need to stop “not my job-ing” connective communications.

It’s like needing to build a house and saying, “Why isn’t the hammer fixing everything for us?!” Perhaps it’s because the hammer is a tool, not a strategy. You can use social media to help your organization do a whole host of things, but only if you have the blueprint for the role it should play. Also, building a house usually requires more than a hammer. You might need a wrench and a screwdriver, too. Like all other tools, social media can stand on its own for specific tasks. If you’re talking big things, though, it’s best to put on your thinking cap and create an integrated game plan and decide the size of the role that you need social media to play and what can realistically be achieved.


A lot of big changes are taking place in the world today – and, for better or worse, much of that change management is being tasked to marketing departments. Visitor-serving organizations tend to have hierarchical structures that lend themselves more easily to “tacking on” responsibilities to single departments than integrating deeper cultural changes throughout organizations. Perhaps by holding onto these old ways of doing things, we’re letting the tail wag the dog.

Sometimes, when organizations think they are talking about marketing, they are actually talking about sector evolution that needs to be fully embraced throughout the organization. This may mean that our organizational structures will need to evolve to lend themselves more easily to the real-time, dynamic world in which we now live. Our hierarchical houses are not performing very well anymore, and we don’t always get to decide how we live in this world. Our ability or inability to meet market needs will decide for us, so perhaps it’s best that we pick up our tools and get to work building structures that work better for the 21st century.


Like this post? Please check out my YouTube channel for video fast facts! Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:


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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments