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

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

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

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

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

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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

Admission Pricing is Not An Affordable Access Program (Fast Fact Video)

Admission pricing and affordable access are two completely different things that are frequently – and inappropriately – conflated in many conversations. Let’s untangle them and move forward.

Check out today’s new video on the true relationship between admission pricing and affordable access programming.

I’ve recently written about the data-informed evidence that free admission is not a cure-all for engagement. What matters when it comes to engaging audiences are the programs and experiences that an organization offers – not free admission. “Free” does not necessarily mean “worthy of one’s time.”

One of the biggest reasons why the topic of free admission is so sensitive is due to a deeply-rooted (and unhealthy) confusion: The idea that admission pricing and affordable access programs are even close to the same thing. The only thing that admission prices and affordable access programs have in common is that they determine how (and how much) someone “pays” to attend an organization. When organizations jumble up admission and affordable access, they commit one of today’s biggest engagement blunders: They “welcome all” instead of “welcoming each.” Our world, our audiences, and our economics are simply too advanced for this old, “welcome all” approach.

A deeper look at the data:

In reality, optimal admission pricing enables affordable access programming. Within the realm of “affordability,” things can be relatively affordable – that is to say, less expensive is naturally more affordable.  However, once prices cross a certain threshold, being “unaffordable” is binary: A price is either affordable, or it isn’t. Effective affordable access programs that actually reach underserved audiences cost money and require investment. If an organization charges less than its data-informed, optimal admission price, then it may not generate sufficient revenues to support effective affordable access programming.

IMPACTS has consolidated data from different types of cultural organizations and there’s an important lesson here: When organizations deny their optimal, data-driven price point and instead charge “a little bit less,” their admission prices still aren’t affordable for underserved audiences. Moreover, they are too low for a vast majority of the people who actually attend these organizations.

IMPACTS Affordability is binary

As you can see in the consolidated data, a $15 ticket is no more practically affordable for a household earning less than $35,000 per year than is a $20 ticket, so when an organization decides not to charge its optimal price point, the organization both leaves money on the table AND is still unable to reach underserved audiences.

Keep in mind: These prices are compilations from several types of visitor-serving organizations and they illustrate that there’s a certain point in which affordability is binary. So please don’t go rushing off and charging $9…that has absolutely nothing to do with what your high-propensity visitors (the people who actually visit and like going to cultural organizations) are willing to pay. A better way to use this data is to note the difference between what folks earning less than $35,000 per year consider affordable and what the balance of your audiences are willing to pay.

Different household incomes have different capabilities when it comes to paying admission. Here’s another look at the composite data that underscores the point. Trying to find a “middle ground” admission price-point both leaves money on the table from audiences able to pay the optimal rate and also still excludes affordable access audiences.

IMPACTS- General admission pricing analysis

Again, this is consolidated data among different types of cultural centers and nonprofit visitor-serving organizations. It demonstrates why and how affordable access and admission pricing are two, separate strategies and are not intended to stand in for any specific organization’s due diligence in determining its optimal pricing strategy.

As a reminder: Value advantaged means that your organization is leaving money on the table. Value disadvantaged means that you may be starting to jeopardize attendance.

In sum, admission and affordable access are separate strategies. Organizations need a strategic price point for high-propensity visitors, and another completely different strategy to reach, celebrate, and welcome underserved audiences. It’s time that we remove the emotion and start recognizing the necessity of “welcoming each” via unique avenues of access.


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

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

Three New Realities for Cultivating Big Donors in the 21st Century (DATA)

Three New Fundraising Realities for Nonprofits in the 21st Century- Know Your Own Bone

Our world has evolved and so has fundraising. It’s time for organizations to embrace these three, new realities for cultivating bigger donors.

Our rapidly evolving, super-connected world has introduced new realities for visitor-serving organizations – particularly with regard to admission and affordable access opportunities. Similarly, the information age has created new opportunities for organizations to more successfully approach fundraising. Maximizing these opportunities requires that organizations embrace many of the challenges currently affecting how nonprofits operate. Fundraising is no exception to this need for evolution.

When organizations consider the evolved role of fundraising, they often seem to think of crowdfunding campaigns aimed to raise money from (often small) donations from a large number of people. No doubt, crowdfunding campaigns can be powerful! (And cultural organizations are benefiting from them, too!) But what about cultivating bigger donors and more directly building long-term affinity for the organization as opposed to a specific project? Well, those realities have shifted a bit as well.  Here are three fundraising realities- contemplative of the fast-paced, connected world in which we now live- that organizations should consider if they want to reach bigger donors:


1) Donor targeting can be done more intelligently than ever before (but this is not done often enough by nonprofits)

I’m big on the fact that optimal admission pricing for cultural organizations is a product of data sciences. While not exactly the same, donor targeting is becoming more of a science, too. There’s reason to consider that soon the days of casting the general “Make a donation today!” net to all audiences may be long gone.

Much like certain people profile as likely visitors to cultural organizations more than others, some folks profile as more likely donors than others. Increasingly, organizations can research current and potential donors (or members!) in order to identify the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate a likely donor. And, while the nuance of this profiling effort will vary by specific organization, extant data reveals terrific insight into the type of people who are currently engaging with cultural organizations as donors. The table below indicates a High-Propensity Donor profile based on member/donors annually contributing at least $500 to a nonprofit, cultural organization (e.g. zoo, aquarium, museum, science center, botanical garden, symphony, theater, etc.) If you’re a cultural organization, your $500+ donors will fit this profile, but the specifics of your organization may lend additional attributes to the mix.

IMPACTS HPV donor profile

Once an organization has an idea of what kind of people are most likely to be their respective high-propensity donors, then the organization can focus on identifying and targeting specific individuals who possess those same attributes and may have an affinity for the organization. And organizations can deploy the same targeting methods for potential donors as cultural organizations do for potential visitors. (Side note: Why don’t more organizations do this beyond the few at the top? From what I can tell, a contributing factor may be the fact that marketing and fundraising are often separate, siloed divisions that tend to consider their own expertise as singular and sacred. How can we do that “we’re better together” thing more often within the same institution?)

Data, analytics, and technologies allow organizations to identify, target, and deliver highly-customized messaging to high-propensity visitors and donors alike. Many smart organizations are already doing this to engage onsite audiences – it’s a natural extension of the same best practices to leverage these resources to support contributed revenue categories. It’s time to invest in fundraising data and intelligence… and then consider this information in the formation, targeting, and deployment of fundraising strategies. Data-informed audience identification and targeting are every bit as useful to development departments as they are for marketing teams.


2) Cultivating donors is a time-investment strategy with a new twist

Today, the speed of information sharing and the ease of connectivity allow for potential donors to hear about the work of organizations long before those organizations reach out to potential donors. It also becomes easier to form an opinion about an organization before an organization is aware of it. This means that fundraising departments are less able to “curate” a donor’s pathway of engagement with clear certainty than in a pre-digital era. In the past, a fundraising department could be relatively certain of a donor’s interactions with an organization. Today, a donor may check out an organization on Facebook, share a post, or even “hide” posts from an organization that is not of interest to them. Donor opinions of organizations can be formed earlier than they were in the past because of our increased connectivity.

This is important to note because a major gift (such as one that is seven figures or above) may require decades of careful donor cultivation. Fundraising big bucks is not like an annual advertising campaign – it requires a substantial investment of time. For more robust fundraising success, organizations benefit by investing for a sustained period of time and actively building a relationship on the potential donor’s desired platforms. (As you can see in the chart, high-propensity donors are “super-connected” via the web, so know what you’re doing with donors on social media.)

Many organizations measure giving amounts in years, not decades. It makes sense that we measure progress on an annual basis, but when we don’t look at fundraising over longer periods of time, we tend to promote a culture wherein we focus on this year’s giving and fail to prioritize long-term potential donors. If it takes ten years to cultivate a ten million dollar donor and fundraisers are primarily focused on the current year, then an organization may never receive that ten million dollar donation. Though the instant gratification of today’s society may be making us perpetually impatient, we must remember that fundraising and building meaningful relationships (still) cannot often be rushed. 


3) Competition for donor engagement has gone global

Competition for donors can now be more global and intense. Potential donors need not be more involved with or committed to organizations in their backyards. We live in a world where a donor in New York can be cultivated by an organization in Los Angeles. Being “local” matters less- or at least, it doesn’t necessarily make an organization a shoe-in for a potential donor’s support. In the past, it was more difficult to connect with organizations that did not reside in a donor’s community. There may be a bit of a lag in this development for cultural organizations, as many donors appreciate having the ability to attend these institutions. However, as cultural organizations necessarily focus more on their social missions instead of their existence as straightforward attractions, they may see the same fate as other types of nonprofit organizations when it comes to global competition for donors. Being a local organization can still be important to a donor , but in our world of increased connectivity, it isn’t necessary and may matter less than the efficacy of mission execution.

The fact that donor competition has “gone global” means that it’s even more critical for organizations to realize that if a donor is giving in a big way to one organization, he/she often cannot give big in the same way to another. This is true across organizations and causes. Big donations are often zero-sum games. A donor who makes a major gift to one organization has that much less giving wherewithal to donate to another organization. Is it possible that this same donor may reach further into their well of largesse to support your organization with a similar, significant, bit-time gift immediately after giving to another organization? Yes. Is this a good strategy to bank on? No.

Think about your own giving! You probably have a kind of overall, annual giving quota based on what you feel comfortable with and what you can afford. Once you max out, you max out. Again, that’s not true for everyone, but it’s probably not a good idea to build a strategy around an exception. Know that there’s competition, and be contemplative of the donors gifts to other organizations and causes as well. As much as we romanticize big givers, most are not – actually- bottomless pits of never-ending cash.


The digital era has changed more on the fundraising front than simply bringing us crowdfunding campaigns and social media communication. It’s increased opportunities for effective donor targeting, altered traditional donor engagement pathways, and increased global competition for big donors.  It’s time to get serious about evolving to more informed methods of fundraising – because if you’re not doing it, then another organization likely is. Let’s take these new realities into account and move forward with the important work of finding and connecting with those who have a passion-match with our mission.

Let’s update our thinking about finding and communicating with people who can help us make the world a better place.


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


 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, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

Connectivity is King (Fast Fact Video)

Move over, content. Connectivity is the new king for nonprofit organizations. Here’s why. 

Today I am sharing the second Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video! (If you missed it, here’s the first video: Admission Pricing is a Science.) The importance of connectivity (and the mistake of instead focusing on “content”) is a key concept for organizations to embrace in order to continue to successfully engage with their audiences. I hope that you enjoy the video and share it with others!

Rather read about the importance of connectivity than watch the video? Here’s more information:

The reign of “content” has ended and – while still important – the “content is king” saying is quickly becoming outdated in today’s increasingly digital world. In fact, the repetition of this saying is causing, cultivating, and excusing misunderstandings among the staff members of many organizations. Let’s clear the air and work together to update the saying so that it can be more effectively applied to the purpose of inspiring action.

Let’s get one thing straight: Content is still important. Compelling content often inspires connectivity. However, our misbelief that content reigns supreme is causing certain organizational problems that risk growing more deeply-rooted each day. Here are some symptoms of the outdated notion that “content is king” that may actually jeopardize an organization’s solvency. These conditions are symptomatic of a content-centric organization that deeply believes that what it outputs is more valuable than its outreach:


Here are five, important reasons why connectivity is king:


1) Connectivity is about your relationship with audiences.

The marketing channels about which the “content is king” saying may have originated were one-way communication channels. In other words, they were channels that generally gave your organization a “mouth” (e.g. television, radio, billboards, etc.). However, today’s most effective and efficient marketing channels have mouths and ears. That is, they provide a means of supplying feedback for the organization in addition to being soapboxes (e.g. social media, peer review sites, email, etc.).  Thus, it makes sense that the driving force in cultivating a desired behavior may have evolved to be more about linking up with an individual by way of a shared passion or situation than about an organization itself.

In other words, content is not necessarily about your audience. Cultivating connectivity, however, breeds and helps to strengthen a relationship with your brand and organization. Connectivity happens when an organization presents a passion or platform that resonates with a potential constituent. It’s about both the organization and the potential constituent. It’s the passion/subject/topic/mission/sentiment that bonds the constituent to what your organization stands for.


2) Connectivity is necessarily relevant

Connectivity is definitionally personal in that it depends on something being of personal interest to an individual.  This means that connectivity is necessarily relevant. Content, on the other hand, risks self-orientation that may not answer one of the most important questions that communicators should ask themselves from the perspective of potential constituents: “So what?”


3) Connectivity is prerequisite to acting in the best interests of an organization.

Remember: Your organization can sometimes determine importance, but the market always determines relevance. In other words, you can talk…but unless people are connected to what you’re saying, nobody may be listening. Simply put: Without connectivity, nobody cares about your organization.

Connectivity is a prerequisite to action (e.g. signing a petition, securing a donor, summoning support, selling a ticket). Content, however, can easily operate in isolation if it isn’t thoughtful and/or doesn’t inspire connectivity.


4) Connectivity is the goal of content.

Content can be a bridge that provides a pathway to connectivity, but if connectivity isn’t there, then content is pointless. This is where connectivity emerges as the true “king.” Certainly, content is critical. Arguably, there could be no connectivity without content. However (and this is where folks are getting confused), there can be a great deal of content without connectivity.  Not all content is connective.

Connectivity that’s created through a shared interest in a topic, idea, mission, purpose, or sentiment aligned with your organization’s brand and values is powerful.  Otherwise, your content will likely fall on deaf ears…and certainly not inspire engagement and supportive behaviors


5) Connectivity means all hands on deck.

Because “content” tends to fall under the conceptual categorization of one-way communication, the idea of “creating content” often falls to the marketing or public relations department. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But what IS a bad thing is when people “not my job” content creation. Today, communication and content creation is an every-department job.  Worse yet, the problem of silo-ing the important work of creating connectivity is often exacerbated within organizations due to some staff members’ ridiculous associations with the word “digital.”

Connectivity can be sparked when the content being communicated is deeply-rooted within your organization and mission. It may seem strange to some leaders, but the ins and outs of your day and your passions matter to your audiences. Often, to audiences, the transparent, unvarnished insights of how and why you do what you do in pursuit of your mission is every bit as important as what you are doing.

There’s a reason why marketing messages increasingly perform poorly in terms of engagement: People want to know what’s really going on…not simply receive your sales pitch (which, frequently, is the charge of the marketing department).  The most connective content often comes from other departments who represent the core of what you do. The marketing team’s best role is strategically making the balance of your organization’s content accessible (i.e. inspiring connections). Let’s stop aiming “to content” and instead aim to connect.


If you supply content, they will come? Nope. Not necessarily.

If you supply connectivity, they will come? It’s much more likely.


At our best, our organizations do more than provide education…even more than provide memorable experiences in the case of visitor-serving organizations.  We provide and facilitate meaningful interaction.  By connecting people to people, people to places, and people to ideas, we transcend mere content and provide pathways to engagement.  People – not artifacts alone – change the world.

Content isn’t dead, but connectivity assuredly is king. Long live the king.


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

Connectivity is king thumbnail

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

How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance (DATA)

Free Admission is not a Driver of Museum Attendance or Engaging New Audiences (DATA)

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t much…and misunderstanding this engagement tactic may jeopardize industry sustainability.

The debate about whether museums should be free is a big one right now. It’s the source of a lot of discussion in the popular press and nonprofit boardrooms alike. What seems to be lost in this discussion are due consideration of two very important factors: First, does eliminating the cost of admission actually help engage underserved audiences? And, second, in a time marked by increasing austerity measures that threaten traditional cultural funding, is eliminating a key earned revenue source sustainable as a long-term business model? The truth is that free admission comes with a cost. Free admission is far from the engagement cure-all that some of its supporters believe it to be.

Am I suggesting that free admission to museums and other cultural organizations is an altogether bad idea? Of course not. For those organizations whose financial models depend less on earned revenues (i.e. those with mega endowments or significant public funding), free admission may prove viable. However, for those organizations whose mission delivery depends on their business viability, then the issue of free admission is a far more complex topic.

Certainly, varying perspectives and important considerations inform this broader conversation, but I’m going to stick to the facts regarding only one aspect of this big issue. For the sake of facilitating intelligent, data-informed conversation about an emotional topic, let’s acknowledge some established facts regarding admission pricing and attendance: 


1) Not everyone is interested in visiting museums- and admission price is NOT the primary barrier to engagement

This is a fact that data folks know well, but it’s one that we often overlook as an industry. At IMPACTS, we gather a lot of information on the general public, but we focus particularly on high-propensity visitors (those people who demonstrate the demographic, psychographic and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization). These are the people who actually go to museums and cultural organizations. They are the people who say, “Yeah! I’d like to do that!” when the suggestion of visiting a museum emerges. Not everyone is a high-propensity visitor – not by a long shot. In spite of all of our best engagement and marketing efforts, some people simply aren’t going to visit our organizations for several different reasons. As it turns out, admission fees are generally not a major factor in their lack of inclination to visit a museum.

Volker Kirchberg’s landmark analysis, “Entrance Fees as a Subjective Barrier to Visiting Museums,” published in the Journal of Cultural Economics, found that admission cost is a secondary factor when considering a museum visit. A lack of time (i.e. schedule considerations) or a simple lack of interest (i.e. relevance) were far more important factors in one’s decision not to visit a museum than were admission fees. In other words, a decision not to visit a museum is often more a function of lifestyle than finances.

When we consider the population subset of high-propensity visitors (HPVs) – our most likely audiences – cost absolutely pales in comparison to schedule and reputation when it comes to factors influencing their discretionary leisure activities. A big contributor to this often-overlooked fact is that, for both the general public and high-propensity visitors in particular, their time is more important than their money. This data from IMPACTS shows this well:

IMPACTS HPV time verses money

Need even more supporting analysis? According to national survey of museum visitors in New Zealand (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, New Zealand, A Measure of Culture: Cultural experiences and cultural spending in New Zealand), convenience and time are more important factors than cost when it comes to considering a cultural experience. The study further revealed that for those persons who visit museums but are unable to visit more often, the main barriers are lack of time (54%), travel distance (30%), and a lack of transportation (15%). For those who had not visited at all, the main barriers were lack of time (49%), travel distance (29%), and a lack of transport (18%). In fact, for both visitors and non-visitors, cost was only cited as a factor 11% of the time – again, this finding doesn’t diminish cost as a factor…but it does lend perspective to its relative importance in the public’s decision-making process.

Similar results were found in the Visitors to Museums and Galleries Study published in the UK by The Council for Museums, Libraries, and Archives. 32% cited a lack of time as a primary barrier, 22% a lack of interest, 19% a lack of anything they want to see, and 11% noted difficulties simply getting to the site of the organization. Only 8% of those sampled cited admission charges as a negative factor.

In sum: Admission fees are generally not a primary visitation barrier.


2) Free admission does not significantly affect long-term attendance.

Admission price doesn’t significantly change intentions to visit for first-time visitors – further reaffirming that if an audience isn’t interested or doesn’t have the time, then “free” won’t get them in the door. There seems to be a sort of thought that free admission means that attendance numbers will go through the roof…and, if an organization does experience a short-term “novelty” spike, then this increase will be sustained. Again, data suggest the contrary. Check out this data from the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations (which is updated annually and has tracked the opinions, perceptions, and behaviors of a sample population totaling 98,000 US adults):

IMPACTS intent to visit by admission price

The data indicate that intentions to visit within any duration do not significantly increase as the price of admission decreases or is even eliminated. In fact, in most instances, audiences indicate greater intentions to visit organizations that charge more than $20 for an adult admission than those that are free.

It doesn’t stop there. The definitive work on the (negligible) impact of admission price on sustained museum visitation was published by noted economists William Luksetich and Mark Partridge in Applied Economics in their analysis, “Demand Functions for Museums Services.” Their study suggests that the adverse effects of admission charges on attendance are small and ”relatively easy to alleviate.”

That, “If it’s not free, people won’t go” argument? The data has spoken. It’s not a thing.


3) Free admission accelerates re-visitation- but for audiences who are already visiting

Free admission does accelerate the re-visitation process – but mostly from existing audience members. This finding is from a study by the UK’s Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) – whose members instituted free admission in year 2001. The DCMS study found that attendance increases frequently attributed to removing admission fees were often due to the same audiences visiting more frequently – NOT necessarily from engaging new audiences.

Basically, to the degree that organizations consider an attendance increase as a successful outcome of eliminating admission pricing, the key visitor count to examine isn’t total visitation – it’s unique visitation. For example: Let’s say that a museum with an admission fee receives 400,000 annual visits from 300,000 unique visitors (1.33 visits per unique visitor).  Then, the same museum decides to “go free” and annual attendance increases by 15% to 460,000 visitors – but from the same 300,000 unique visitors (1.53 visitors per unique visitors). In this hypothetical example, annual attendance went up…but unique visitation remained the same.

Again, data from the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations reaffirms this finding:

IMPACTS intent to revisit by admission price

Whereas free admission does not impact intentions to visit for first-time visitors, it does increase intentions to re-visit for existing audiences. The implication? It may not be wholly accurate for an organization to declare success by citing raw attendance numbers as proof of the efficacy of a free admission policy. There isn’t evidence that free admission generally cultivates increased visitation from new audiences. 


4) We need to engage emerging audiences- and free admission is not a cure-all for greater industry challenges

Data suggest that cultural organizations need to be reaching new audiences right now if we want these types of organizations to be around in the future. Offering free admission in an attempt to appeal to emerging audiences isn’t a complete solution to a more complex problem. We need to reevaluate our strategy for engaging new audiences because the “free admission” fix may not prove sustainable. Moreover, focusing on free general admission may be distracting organizations from cultivating more effective engagement strategies and programs for reaching new audiences.

Consider that Smithsonian Institute museums – without admission fees – saw total attendance decline by nearly 7% from 30 million visitors in years 2012 and 2013 to 28 million visitors in year 2014. In the same duration, the US population increased from 314 million (2012) to 319 million (2014). Also, in the same duration, overseas visits to the US increased from 29.8 million in 2012 to 34.4 million in 2014. Visitation to many museums – even world-famous, free museums – is not keeping pace with population growth.

Our industry is rife with examples of how even organizations with free admission are unable to cultivate increased (or, in many cases, even stable) attendance levels – particularly when considered in the prevailing context of overall population growth and travel to the United States. Free admission does not serve as engagement panacea. For example, In 1997, attendance at the Baltimore Museum of Art – then with an admission basis – approximated 320,000 annually. In 2006, the Baltimore Museum of Art eliminated admission charges. Today, onsite annual attendance is down 44% to 180,000. The organization attributes this decrease in attendance to the BMA’s recent renovation project. There are many factors that affect attendance and admission pricing is hardly the cure-all that many imagine it to be.


This data simply scratches the surface of this controversial debate. There are other, incredibly important factors to consider: individual business models, the impacts of increased reliance on contributed revenues and government funding, opportunities to develop more agile operations so as to allow museums to be more audience-focused, and even the reputational equities attendant to being a “free” organization versus one with an admission fee.

One thing is for sure: Critical conversations are taking place and organizations are realizing that it’s time to evolve both their engagement models and their financial plans. We have too much to lose not to move forward in the most fully-informed manner possible. If we want to keep museums alive, we need to think about engagement, audience motivations and barriers, and actual economics.


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, Sector Evolution, Trends 27 Comments

Fast Fact: Admission Pricing is a Science- Not an Art (VIDEO)

Organizations don’t have to guess when it comes to determining an optimal admission price.

Let’s try something new – starting today. I’d like to introduce you to a new project: Know Your Own Bone: Fast Facts for Cultural Executives. Traditional Know Your Own Bone posts will continue to be posted every-other Wednesday. In the weeks between, I will be posting short (around three minutes or less), Fast Facts videos featuring a key takeaway for cultural executives and staff members alike. I hope that you will provide me with feedback, and I am eager to know what you all think! Let’s start here:

Admission pricing is a science. Check out the video to learn why.


A deeper dive into data:

Unintentional collusion drives many-an-organization’s pricing strategy, but it’s a bad practice (or, at least a silly one). Today, your organization should be looking at data to inform its optimal price point for admission. Here’s an example of an organization’s data-informed pricing “sweet spot” that data suggest is neither leaving money on the table nor jeopardizing attendance. Every organization has this kind of optimal price point:

Adult Admission Analysis- Aquarium

Your pricing should be contemplative of the attributes of your organization’s high-propensity visitors (jargon translated: it should consider the people who profile as being actually interested in attending your organization). The above example indicates relative price inelasticity between $15.95 and $19.95 – suggesting that as many folks would visit the organization at a $19.95 as they would if the price were $15.95. If this is your organization and you are charging $15.95, you’re not losing visitors – you’re losing revenue that can help keep your doors open and your mission alive.

Different markets, different audiences, and different experiences demand different price points, so I want to emphasize that while this graph is a real example, it’s not necessarily a replicable model for your organization. (Read: I’m not encouraging everyone out there to charge $19.95. I would encourage THIS organization to change $19.95.)

To illustrate, here’s another example of a pricing analysis for a different organization and experience:

Adult admission analysis- performing arts

Finding an organization’s optimal price point has two, basic steps: Collecting data and modeling the data. Optimal pricing is informed by the type of data typically acquired via the conduct of an awareness, attitudes, and usage study that includes price-related metrics and perceptions from visitors and non-visitors alike. From there, price elasticity of demand models aid organizations in quantifying the demand for your experience. If you don’t have the know-how the collect this data on your own or you need help with the models, universities make excellent partners – as do professionals with experience working in this space! The point is: In today’s world – in which data is increasingly available, and more organizations are collecting it – there’s no excuse for blindly following the “leader” or simply guessing when it comes to your organization’s optimal admission price.


Words to Know to Be In-the-Know:


Unintentional collusion:

Many organizations unknowingly have strategies based upon unintentional collusion. Unintentional collusion is what happens when an organization follows the “leader” thinking the leader knows something that they don’t. Basically, it’s when somebody guesses and other organizations simply copy that guess. When organizations do this, they reaffirm one another’s unscientific strategies.

Value advantaged:

Admission pricing that is set too low and thus “leaves money on the table” for an organization. It is a price point that fails to maximize the data-informed level of revenue that an organization may be able to achieve.

Value disadvantaged:

Admission pricing that is set too high and risks jeopardizing attendance. It is a price point that fails to inspire visitation among those who profile as likely visitors because the high cost to attend poses a barrier to engagement.

Let’s stop guessing when it comes to admission pricing. Today, pricing is not an art. It’s a science.


I hope that these Fast Fact videos will provide thought-fuel for your organization! Please let me know if you have thoughts or feedback so that I may evolve these videos to be most helpful over time.  The next short video will be posted on August 19th.

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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 8 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