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)

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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

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

6 concepts that cultural 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 information here on KYOB that has accumulated through the course of this lil’ corner of the Internet’s existence! I recently wrote a compilation post on some of the more important points regarding engaging millennials within cultural organizations. I also recently found myself in a meeting taking on “the usual clarifications” when it occurred to me that there’s an important opportunity to compile a few of those “usual clarifications” as well!

Here are six sets of terms that often get confused with one another within leadership conversations at museums, theaters, aquariums, zoos, symphonies, and other cultural organizations. When we confuse these terms… well, general confusion tends to ensue and desired outcomes are not as easily achieved. Regular KYOB readers will recognize some of these “usual clarifications” from fast fact videos.

Ready? Let’s dive in! How many of these terms or concepts does your organization regularly interchange or generally misunderstand?


Market research vs. audience research

Audience research is the primary type of research upon which most cultural organizations rely. Audience research is any research conducted on visitors and past visitors in order to gather information about their attitudes, knowledge, interests, preferences, or behaviors. This kind of research comes in the form of exit surveys, zip code collecting, and reaching out to members and visitors through mail or email lists or online communities, for example. Audience research is research conducted on people who are already visiting your organization. Audience research is indeed valuable, but it is often confused with market research and an overreliance on audience research may he holding back even the smartest of cultural organizations.

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 includes folks who are not your audiences (yet) and it is necessary to gather this information in order to reach new audiences. For the sake of long-term solvency, cultural organizations need to become better at reaching new audiences and our overreliance on audience research when we should be using market research results in industry problems like our inability to effectively attract low-income audiences. Market research helps spot trends and helps your organization figure out what to do next – not only to survive, but to thrive.


Admission pricing vs. affordable access

Admission pricing is the cost of admission for folks who visit your organization. It is an intelligently determined price point that contemplates what high-propensity visitors (people who are interested in visiting cultural organizations) are willing to pay in order to take part in your experience. “The gate” is often an important source of revenue for cultural organizations and having a considered price point ensures that your organization is neither leaving money on the table, nor jeopardizing attendance potential from those who are interested and able to support your organization. Admission price is an economically-sound business imperative for many organizations and admission pricing is not an affordable access program if your organization relies on paid admission in some capacity.

Affordable access (that is effective) is generally rather expensive for cultural organizations and it takes real investment that is usually made at least partially possible by gate revenues. Affordability is binary. An admission price is either affordable or it’s not. When organizations lower their optimal price point in hopes of “being more affordable” or “reaching underserved audiences” they aren’t truly doing either of those things. In reality, they are purposefully missing out on the very funds needed to make effective affordable access possible at all. Successful affordable access programs are targeted so that they truly reach folks who are unable to attend – not people who would generally pay full price but are just looking for a deal. Admission pricing and affordable access are two completely different means of access that play completely different roles in the sustainability of visitor-serving organizations.


High-propensity visitors vs. historic visitors

High-propensity visitors are folks who demonstrate the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization. In other words, these are the people who actually visit cultural organizations. They are those awesome kinds of people who say, “Yeah! That sounds like fun!” of even “Yeah. I could do that!” when someone suggests a visit to a museum or performance.We love these folks. As much as we hate to admit it, not all people have this reaction. High-propensity visitors do not need to have visited a type of cultural organization in order to profile as a likely visitor and they are not necessarily past visitors. Instead, they are people with behaviors and characteristics that indicate the potential to visit. Many members of “new audiences” – including millennials and minority majorities  – profile as high-propensity visitors as well.

Historic visitors are the people with the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics that match traditional visitor profiles. Essentially, they are past visitors. Historic visitors profile as a high-propensity visitors, but not every high-propensity visitor matches the profile of a person who has more traditionally visited cultural organizations. Not everyone with interest in visiting today necessarily matches the profile of the kind of person who visited yesterday. Glibly (but it helps illustrate the difference), not everyone who is likely to visit a cultural organization is a wealthy, older, white person. In fact, it’s increasingly the opposite. We need to reach beyond traditional visitor profiles because we are experiencing a negative substitution of the historic visitor in the United States. The issue of confusing historic visitors with high-propensity visitors that we need to more effectively reach is often confounded by confusion related to audience research vs. market research.


Key performance indicators vs. diagnostic metrics

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are used to evaluate the ongoing success of an organization or a particular initiative. Success is often defined in terms of making progress toward achieving the strategic objectives that optimize the solvency of an organization. KPIs have a direct correlation to desired outputs (fundraising, visitation, etc.). For instance, for our nonprofit visitor-serving partners at IMPACTS, we measure items related to market sentiment that include metrics such as reputation (e.g. top-of-mind metrics), educational value, satisfaction, value-for-price perceptions, and other items that correlate directly to the health of an organization and its ability to achieve its bottom line objectives.  Bad metaphor: Let’s say you’re an Olympic runner. Your KPIs are your response times, race times, reflexes, muscle strength, and those things that contribute most directly to your success.

Diagnostic metrics are data points that contribute to KPI performance and aid organizations in pinpointing specific opportunities but they can be a distraction if they are given the same attention as KPIs. These metrics cannot “stand-in” for KPIs because they are a sub-measurement of assessment criteria that lead to desired behaviors. For instance, on the surface, certain social media diagnostic metrics may look positive, but if they aren’t elevating your reputation (a key driver of visitation), then…well, a “like” is just a “like.” Diagnostic metrics are also helpful for listening to audiences and informing organizations of opportunities for improvement. Bad metaphor continued: Let’s say you are an Olympic runner again. Your diagnostic metrics might be your blood pressure, levels of B12, and heart rate. Heart rate contributes to your ability to run a good race time, but focusing on heart rate on its own isn’t the metric to focus on. (It’s your race time.)  You are measuring your heart rate (diagnostic metric), in this case, so that you can increase your race speeds (your KPI). Focusing on diagnostic metrics (like Facebook “likes” and retweets) without focusing on key performance indicators (like changes in reputation attendant to those likes) is a distraction and a waste of time getting a lot of retweets doesn’t necessarily mean that you are increasing your reputation. It is important to know which kinds of metrics are which. 


Discounts vs. promotions

Discounts are when an organization offers free or reduced admission to broad, undefined audiences for no clearly identifiable reason. Discounts do a lot of pretty terrible things for visitor-serving organizations. Simply, offering discounts devalues your brand. Offering discounts – especially via public social media channels – cultivates a “market addiction” that often has long-term, negative consequences on the health of organizations. In many ways, offering discounts creates a vicious cycle whereby a visitor-serving organization realizes an ever-diminishing return on the value visitation. When an organization provides discounts, it often results in five not-so-awesome outcomes that you can read about here.

Promotions offer a targeted benefit for certain audiences for an identifiable reason. The biggest difference between promotions and discounts may be how they are perceived by the market. Promotions celebrate your community. Promotions demonstrate why an organization is offering free or reduced pricing in the communication of the promotion. That reason is usually something that celebrates an organization’s mission or an organization’s audience, and it is made clear that it is something special. While some may learn the differentiation between these two approaches and consider it to be a framing of communication, it’s actually a reflection of an organization’s culture. Whether an organization’s go-to strategy includes either promotions or discounts demonstrates a great deal about the organization and the thoughtfulness of its engagement approach, as well as the value that it places on its reputation. In the end, one approach is more about an organization’s flailing attempts to hit specific attendance numbers at the expense of its brand and mission (and long-term ability to hit those numbers), and the other is more about your organization’s relationship with target audiences and communities.


Fads vs. trends

A fad is any form of behavior that is intensely followed by a population for a short period of time. The behavior will rise relatively quickly and fall relatively quickly once the perception of novelty is gone. Fads certainly have value and they can profoundly change organizations- consider the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge! Utilizing fads in marketing and programs can increase top-of-mind awareness, demonstrate the timeliness of your organization, and serve as a gateway for new audiences. This is all great and important stuff but – remember – fads don’t stick around.

A trend, on the other hand, gets stronger over time and does stick around. Trends have identifiable and explainable rises that are driven by audience needs. They help solve a problem for people. The increasing use of social networks is a trend (that connects us to one another). So is quitting smoking (which lengthens our lives), evidence-based medicine (that removes the guesswork in medical-related situations), and the use of mobile devices (that allow us to look up information in real time). These are things that have grown – and continue to grow – in market penetration. They solve problems. They represent new ways of life. Organizations ignore trends at their own risk. Ignoring trends means that they will either be forced to adapt later and will necessarily be behind, or the organization will fade away. When organizations write off things like web-based engagement or data-informed management (for instance) as fads instead of trends, evolution stops. However, treating fads like trends can lead organizations to become overwhelmed, give up on following along, and, again, stop evolution. (Here’s a tip on how to tell if something is a fad or a trend.)


Think the distinction between these terms and concepts sound obvious? GREAT. Let’s make sure to join the conversation and help organizations keep them straight so that they can survive and thrive. Let’s all help in communicating “the usual clarifications,” because if we don’t, our organizations risk healthy evolution.


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


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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

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 the second?

If you’re the best art museum, for instance, then a visitor to art museums should be able to tell, right? Wrong. As it turns out, it’s a bit more complicated. This week’s Know Your Own Bone – Fast Facts video is about firsts… and seconds. And what to do if your organization is second.

You probably remember your first kiss – and your first car, your first love, and a whole host of other firsts. As human beings, we tend to ascribe a premium to firsts – and visits to cultural organizations are no different. Data suggest that first-time visitors to a type of cultural organization – such as a science center – rate their visitor satisfaction higher than those who have visited any other science center before – 18.1% higher, to be exact.

That’s a huge bump! It’s great news for the first cultural organization of its kind that a visitor experiences. Woohoo! We’ll take it! While this value varies slightly based on cultural organization type (history museum vs. aquarium vs. symphony), they tend to hover around this average.

However, the sad side of this coin is that, for no fault of their own, the second (and third, forth…) like-organization that an attendee visits is likely to suffer from significantly lower satisfaction levels than the first. This is a big deal for many obvious reasons, but one of which is the fact that overall satisfaction is a major contributor to overall value perceptions of organizations. Lower satisfaction levels lead to less word of mouth and thus less support and visitation. Yikes!

First time visitors also rate their experiences 14.8% higher in terms of value for cost of admission. That’s another huge bump that’s great for organizations able to benefit from that “first time” magic. 

We call this phenomenon Point of Reference Sensitivity


We noticed this trend at IMPACTS and we gave it a name. Point of Reference Sensitivity suggests that the market’s expectations are being constantly reframed by recent experiences. Essentially, as a person gains familiarity with an experience, it becomes increasingly harder to impress them. While Point of Reference Sensitivity may make logical sense, it’s still a bit of a bummer for the second cultural organization that hosts that visitor.

What is the solution? Be more unique.

Differentiate yourself as an individual organization rather than priding yourself on being like all other such organizations. That may sound overwhelming, but the good news is that we live in a connected world where differentiation may be easier – and more expected – than ever before. It’s a call to organizations to undertake smart experiments and creative programs, and to incorporate avenues for personalization and shared experiences. It’s a call to action to know who your organization is and what it stands for as well as why it is uniquely important. Achieving that “first time” satisfaction bump with every visit means smart integration of trends and awareness of market perceptions. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it all comes back to doing well what you do well – and letting folks know about it!

Those organizations that are most susceptible to Point of Reference Sensitivity are those that believe themselves to be mostly a type of attraction rather than a unique organization. The key to overcoming Point of reference sensitivity is to be yourself. That is how the market determines which organization is “best.”


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


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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution 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:


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, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

Why Cultural Organizations Are Not Reaching Low-Income Visitors (DATA)

Why Programming for Low-Income Audiences are Unsuccessful

Data suggest that some types of cultural organizations are perceived as more welcoming than others. Here’s how we could do better.

With missions to educate and inspire audiences, many visitor-serving cultural organizations (e.g. museums, zoos, aquariums, theaters, symphonies, etc.) aim to serve low-income audiences in addition to their high-propensity visitors. So, just how good of a job are organizations doing when it comes to engaging lower-income audiences, and how can we make it even better?

Attitude affinities are a way of quantifying how the market perceives an organization in terms of its hospitableness and attitudes towards certain types of visitors. In summary, attitude affinities inform responses to visitor questions such as, “Is this type of organization for people like me? Do people like me ‘fit-in’ at this type of organization? Are people like me made to feel welcome and comfortable at this type of organization?” Extant data indicate a strong correlation between attitudes affinities and intentions to visit an organization. If people don’t feel welcome at an organization, then they are less likely to visit that organization.

IMPACTS quantifies attitude affinities on a 1-100 continuum, whereby the higher the value, the more welcoming (or greater affinity) a visitor perceives the organization. Data indicate that intentions to visit decline when attitude affinity-related metrics drop below 63 on this 100 point continuum. Due to this observed decline in intentions to visit, persons reporting attitude affinities ≤62 are generally not considered to be likely visitors because they do not feel welcomed by the organization.

Certain types of organizations seem to struggle more with negative attitude affinities as a barrier to onsite engagement than do others. Before we dive into the data, it is worth noting the attitude affinities have nothing to do with content – these are not measures of if people prefer animals to art. These are measures of peoples’ perceptions of feeling welcome at any organization. In other words, some organizations may defensively blame these numbers on a phenomenon innate to their content, but that’s generally not the case. After the data, I’ll discuss this a bit more. For now, let’s dive in!


IMPACTS - Art museum attitude affinities

As represented in the above chart, 552 of the 1,385 person sample population (39.86%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for four of 10 adults, a perception of not feeling welcome at an art museum poses a significant barrier to their onsite engagement. Remember: these metrics don’t even begin to contemplate other barriers like content interest/relevance, transportation, or schedule (a key barrier for general audiences). Out of the gate, four of 10 members of the US market don’t feel welcome in an art museum. But, hey, it’s not just art museums…


IMPACTS - History museum attitude affinities

510 of the 1,372 person sample population (37.17%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62. The data indicate that history museums are perceived to be slightly more welcoming to lower income audiences than are art museums.


IMPACTS - Science museum attitude affinities

448 of the 1,390 person sample population (32.23%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for approximately three of 10 adults, a perception of not being welcome at a science museum or science center poses a significant barrier to their onsite engagement.

We have combined science centers and science museums because the market generally does not differentiate between these two types of organizations. This lack of differentiation may sound like blasphemy for folks working in a science center or science museum, but the market doesn’t parse the nuance that may differentiate these types of organizations. (Preempting a question: No – the data is not meaningfully different when science centers and science museums are separately distinguished for this type of analysis.)


IMPACTS - Aquariums attitude affinities

300 of the sample size of 1,335 persons (22.47%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for approximately two of 10 adults, a perception of not being welcome at an aquarium poses a significant barrier to their onsite engagement. Comparatively, this is excellent news for aquariums “walking their talk” in terms of being seen as welcoming places! Loyal KYOB readers know that aquariums serve a bit like crystal balls for the future of cultural organizations because they tend to be both the most for-profit and nonprofit among their visitor-serving brethren. Market forces dictate that aquariums, as a simple means of business survival, often need to address changing attitudes, behaviors, and engagement strategies years before other types of organizations that may rely on large endowments and government support.


IMPACTS - Zoos attitude affinities

277 of the 1,512 persons sampled (18.32%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for less than two of 10 adults, a perception of not being welcome at a zoo poses a significant barrier to engagement. Good work, zoos!


Orchastra and symphony attitude afffinities

703 of the 1,540 persons sampled (45.65%) indicate attitude affinities ≤62 – suggesting that for nearly half of the sampled adults, a perception of not being welcome at an orchestra or symphony poses a significant barrier to their onsite engagement. Yikes!

However, for several orchestras and symphonies, this data would hardly qualify as surprising. Many orchestras and symphonies have been challenged by dwindling audiences and are experimenting with creative engagement strategies to better cultivate new constituencies. These data may suggest that overcoming the barrier to engagement may have less to do with promoting a new artist or performance, and more to do with promoting effective access programming.


In sum, what do these negative attitude affinities look like among the cultural organizations discussed here? At the risk of inserting one of the most glass-is-half-empty charts to ever grace KYOB (but in the spirit of “real talk”) here’s a summarized analysis: (Don’t worry! There’s a lesson here for improvement so we can move toward beating this! More after the chart…)

IMPACTS - Negative attitude affinities

Why are attitude affinities better for some organizations than for others? There’s a possible, data-informed reason. But first, I need to myth-bust the immediate go-to reason that is probably popping into many-a-reader’s head right now:


A) Attitude affinities do not generally correlate with admission price

It was my first thought, too. (Or I guess it would have been if I didn’t do so much data-driven work with regard to admission pricing). Data suggest no correlation between admission cost and attitude affinities. The average visitor to an aquarium reported paying approximately 52% more to visit than did a visitor to an art museum, and also reported 73% lower negative attitude affinities. In other words, persons who don’t feel welcome at an organization don’t necessarily do so because of cost-related factors.

It is important to remember that admission price is not an affordable access program. These things are different. Admission pricing enables successful affordable access programming by supplying the funding required to actually serve low-income audiences – a thing that many organizations (even free ones) aren’t doing very well.

IMPACTS - Average admission price paid


B) Attitude affinities DO correlate with lack of awareness of access programming

Interestingly, when it comes to tactics to mitigate cost as a factor to visitor engagement, households reporting annual incomes >$250,000 are significantly more likely to be aware of an organization’s affordable access programming than are households with annual incomes <$25,000. In other words, there are more people annually earning $250,000 receiving messaging about access programming than the people that actually need the access programming! In the case of orchestras and symphonies, high-income households are 3.35x more likely to be aware of an organization’s affordable access programming than are low-income households for which these programs are created!

IMPACTS - Access programming awareness

Low-income audiences that most need access support or assistance are comparatively unaware of access programming opportunities from these types of organizations. BUT that doesn’t mean that those organizations aren’t offering them (as evidenced by the relatively high awareness of these access programs among households with annual incomes >$250,000).

The reason why this is happening is that same reason why “free days” to cultural organizations attract people with higher average annual incomes than do non-free days: Organizations market access programs to high-propensity visitors and historic audiences because those are the folks that they know how to reach. This is happening because organizations generally neglect making meaningful, sustained investments in promoting these programs to the audiences whom they most intend to serve.

Underserved audiences are by their very definition not currently engaging with our organizations. They are not onsite to complete audience research surveys. They are not on our email lists. They are not following us on Facebook. They don’t like our Instagram posts or retweet our messages. So when we boast of our affordable access programs using these channels, we are mostly speaking with our current constituencies.

Engaging underserved audiences requires a sincere and sustained investment. We can create the greatest access programming possible, but if the people who need it aren’t made aware of it, they are unlikely to engage with our organizations.

In order to reach these audiences, we need to have a different messaging strategy than we do to reach other types of visitors. This means building relationships with leaders in lower-income communities to help spread the word, partnering with organizations that already serve these audiences (e.g. churches, schools, libraries, etc.), and actually thinking about how these hopeful audience members make decisions. It is completely different than the marketing and PR that you are already doing in order to reach non-affordable access audiences (i.e. the people that you need to engage in order to keep your lights on and make that messaging to lower-income audiences possible).

Lack of access programming awareness is not the only barrier to engagement for low-income audiences. There are a whole host of barriers to access that cultural organizations should work to overcome (including schedule, relevance, content disinterest, transportation, etc.). These data focus on attitude affinities and do not aim to resolve other barriers to engagement. That said, it stands to reason that access may be the key issue on the critical path to engagement. After all, if audiences are not aware that you offer an access program for them, then, well, they aren’t aware that you offer an access program for them. These folks may not know that you are doing anything to reach them in the first place!

On the surface, these data may look like bad news – but they’re not. This is potentially good news because we can see something that is happening and how it may be unknowingly sabotaging our access programming. More importantly, we can fix it! This information allows us to stop spinning our wheels and focus on where our access programming may be getting stuck – in our messaging.


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, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 6 Comments

Nonprofit Recognition: What Matters More To Visitors Than Your Tax Status (DATA)

Do visitors know that museums  and other cultural organizations are nonprofits? Data says: Nope. Here’s what really matters to audiences about your organization.

This week’s Fast Facts video covers a big misconception that folks working within cultural organizations (often unknowingly) promulgate: That being a nonprofit is a key differentiating factor to their audiences. As it turns out, data suggest that your organization’s tax status is relatively unknown among visitors and non-visitors alike.

This video explores the data. Not a video person? (That’s cool. You do you.) Here’s what you need to know:


1) The majority of people in the US do NOT think cultural organizations are nonprofits

Check out this data from IMPACTS that uncovers the percentage of the US adult population that believes that cultural organizations such as museums (e.g. art, science, history), zoos, performing arts centers, botanic gardens, and aquariums are nonprofit organizations. Like much of the non-proprietary data that I am able to share on Know Your Own Bone, the findings informing this analysis come from the ongoing National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study of 98,000 adults (and counting).

KYOB- Nonprofit recognition data

The findings may be a tad alarming to some. I’ve personally heard the “but we’re a nonprofit” excuse for not keeping up with financial realities (among other things) more times that I can count. This data flips the popular excuse for lack of evolution on its head. Not only are most non-visitors to these institutions not aware that cultural organizations are nonprofit organizations, but over half of the people who do visit these types of organizations are unaware that they are nonprofit organizations.

Take a look at history museums, for instance. Only 47.2% of visitors to history museums know that they are nonprofit organizations. The other 52.8% of visitors (over half) are unaware that they are reliant on philanthropic support: They believe that the organizations are for-profit entities, or government-funded operations that are otherwise provided for by their taxes.

Regardless of the reason for the misperceptions, more than half of visitors to ALL cultural organizations do not believe that they play any role in keeping these organizations healthy or alive after walking in the door. Beyond paying admission (to what they consider a business) or paying their taxes (to an organization with free admission because their taxes fund a government-operated entity), the majority of visitors risk believing that there is no further need for their support.


2) The market is sector agnostic

The misconception that these types of cultural organizations do not need support as nonprofit organizations is a problem – but how big of a problem? We’ve created a situation wherein people think admission to cultural organizations is largely either a pre-paid entitlement (thanks to taxes), or a fee paid to a for-profit company. Admission to most cultural organizations are neither of these things.

Tied to the misconceptions regarding the need to support cultural organizations is another market-based truth: Today’s audiences are generally sector agnostic. This means that they don’t much care about an organization’s tax status. They care about how well your company or organization does what it claims to be expert at doing. Loyal Know Your Own Bone readers (you guys rock) know that I’ve shared this nonprofit recognition data before in a post about how, today, for-profit and nonprofit organizations compete against one another. At IMPACTS, we continue to find evidence supporting this fact nearly every day.

Let’s be honest: Market confusion makes sense in the case of many nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations. We’re nonprofit, but our operations often follow a traditional economic utility curve. In other words, unlike giving to a charity that supports the homeless, people are “paying” for the personal experience of visiting our organizations. But unlike SeaWorld (for instance), those revenues cycle exclusively back into our social missions to educate and inspire…because that’s what 501(c)3 organizations do. And that brings up another potential point of confusion: Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal Studios are for-profit companies – and SeaWorld hits the “we’re mission-driven” button hard (or rather, it tries to). It makes sense that the market might give up on differentiating visitor-serving nonprofits from for-profits! And until recently, most nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations were marketing themselves primarily as attractions – NOT mission driven organizations. Some laggard nonprofit visitor-serving organizations still do…


3) The tax status of cultural organizations is not their differentiating factor

So far this is looking bad. Our audiences largely don’t know that we rely on their support in order to stay alive and they are sector agnostic so they, in a sense, don’t even care that we are nonprofit. So what do our audiences care about? How well we carry out our missions.

But nonprofits don’t “own” social good, and that’s a big reason for evidence of the market’s sector agnosticism. Corporate social responsibility is a necessity for companies today. There are countless articles on the importance of for-profit companies “doing good.” It is a key tactic for gaining more customers. And that’s interesting because there are still some cultural organizations that do this weird, outdated thing where they try to overlook their social advantage and exclusively promulgate “visit us today!” messages (and even offer discounts that devalue their brand and cause even more sector confusion for cultural organizations). It’s like some of them are trying to be like Disney World…

Being good at your mission is good business. Data demonstrate that organizations highlighting their missions outperform organizations marketing primarily as attractions. Perhaps, in all of our “But we are a nonprofit” excuse making, we missed the true differentiator that has provided us that tax status in the first place: Our bottom line of making a difference.

Our key differentiator is not our tax status, but that our dedication to making a difference is embedded in the very structure of how we operate. There’s a thought that we need to run “more like for-profit companies” (and in some ways we do, but the blanket directive is an ignorant miss). But look around. For-profit companies are actually trying to be more like us in the sense that they want audiences to know that they stand for something that makes the world a better place.


4) Communicating nonprofit status is critical in order to make the case for support (but it is a secondary communications goal)

When people don’t know that we are nonprofit organizations, it is a lot more difficult to secure members and donors. For that reason, we do need to better communicate our need for support. But perhaps before we ask for support, we need to do a better job showing the world what supporting us means. In other words, the lack of knowledge about our need for support may be indicative of a long-term communication and programmatic failure.

We educate. We inspire. We connect. We conserve. We teach. We change the world, one mind at a time. But perhaps the misconception about the need for support stems from our own communications focused not around how we change the world, but how we don’t change the world: “Visit!” “Discount!” “New exhibit!” Those messages are important, but are they most important? After all, can we blame the market for not knowing that we are nonprofit organizations if we bury the missions and ideals that are the foundation for our existence in more commercial messages and programs?


Fewer than half of U.S. audiences are aware of the nonprofit status of cultural organizations. That’s a big deal, because it makes it harder to secure support. But it’s also a good reminder that audiences are increasingly sector-agnostic, and our competitive advantage may not be our tax status, but what our tax status means: That we are here to change the world.


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, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 1 Comment

Most Popular Posts of 2015 For Cultural Organizations

Most Popular Posts of 2015 for Cultural Organizations

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

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

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

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

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


How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance

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


What Ultra Wealthy Donors Consider Before Supporting a Nonprofit

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


Why Millennials May Be The Most Valuable Generation for Cultural Nonprofits

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


Influencing Leadership: Three Findings to Effectively Communicate with Cultural Executives

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


Visitation to Increase If Organizations Evolve Engagement Models

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


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


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

IMPACTS data- Membership interest by age cohort 2015


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


IMPACTS generational membership interest multi-year


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


IMPACTS data- Primary benefits of membership

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

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

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


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


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

A Cure For Point of Reference Sensitivity: Why Visitor Satisfaction For Your Nonprofit Is Lower Than It Could Be

opinion_of_our_productIMPACTS data indicate that visitors to zoos, aquariums and museums (and other visitor-serving organizations such as historical sites, theaters, symphonies, etc.) who have never previously visited any other like organization rate their experiences 18.1% higher in terms of overall satisfaction and 14.8% higher in terms of value for cost of admission than visitors who had previously visited any other zoo, aquarium, museum, etc. Further, as the number and frequency of one’s visits increases, a visitor’s level of satisfaction and perceived cost for value of admission tends to decrease.

This is just fine if your art museum (for instance) is the first art museum that your every guest has ever visited, but it has a host of potential repercussions on your organization’s bottom line (like tackling a social mission and achieving long-term financial sustainability) if you’re the second art museum someone visits. Or third, or fourth, or fifth….

This phenomenon is known as “Point of Reference Sensitivity” and suggests that the market’s expectations are being constantly reframed by recent experiences. In short, as the market gains familiarity with an experience, it becomes increasingly harder to “impress” the market.

So, what can be done to minimize the deleterious effects of Point of Reference Sensitivity? [I will henceforth refer to Point of Reference Sensitivity as “PoRS” because a) that’s just the kind of relationship that we’ve developed and b) it sounds a bit like a disease, which may be appropriate.] PoRS is an important consideration for visitor-serving organizations with regard to key performance indicators, and not even the very best visitor-serving organizations in the world are immune to its negative effects. The commonality of PoRS, however, does not mean that it is unimportant to your own organization’s reputational performance. Just because many other organizations suffer from PoRS doesn’t “even the playing field.” The market – not other organizations – are the ultimate arbiters of your organization’s success…and data suggest that despite your best efforts (great exhibits, well-trained staff, thoughtful access programs), you are still likely to experience a decline in satisfaction over time from a sizable portion of your audience simply because folks visited other organizations before they walked in your door.

The good news is that strategic prioritization and effective PR/communications practices may provide both prophylaxis and remedy against even the most stubborn case of PoRS.

What causes PoRS in visitors?

Qualitative research related to these findings suggest that PoRS may be due, in part, to a “been there, done that” mentality that tends to accompany repeat visitation to “like” organizations. The research suggests that this sentiment stems from a perceptual belief that “like” organizations (think of one zoo compared to another zoo, or one art museum compared to another art museum) share an elemental “sameness” that challenges the market’s ability to differentiate the unique attributes of individual organizations. Further exacerbating PoRS is the premium that we tend to psychologically ascribe to “firsts” – first love, first car, first baseball game, first kiss. When someone first visits a zoo, it may be the first time that they have ever seen live animals up close, but upon visiting a second zoo, there is a loss of “newness of experience.” There may be other factors that contribute to PoRS: Perhaps the first zoo visited is in an individual’s hometown and is a point of civic pride. Perhaps the newness of the experience is matched with a memory of sharing the experience with a favorite friend or family member, thus creating a unique, personal remembrance that is difficult to duplicate and impossible to top.

How is PoRS hurting your organization?

Reputation is a leading driver of visitation, and reviews from trusted resources (such as word of mouth recommendations from friends, peer review sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor, and even social media) are the strongest contributing factors to building your reputation (12.85x greater than any paid advertising channel). Aside from the more obvious impacts of lower guest satisfaction metrics and potential declines in the likelihood of repeat visitation, PoRS may also affect your organization’s word of mouth value. This may result in securing fewer visitors, fewer opportunities to cultivate donors with affinity for your organization, and fewer evangelists to amplify and promulgate your organization’s mission.

How can your organization overcome PoRS?

Data based on visitor feedback suggest that the solution may be very simple in theory: Be more unique. One way to do this is to utilize social media and other communication resources to underscore what differentiates your organization as a unique experience. Focusing more on your mission – as opposed to your existence as a “destination” – may help. An emphasis on mission-related content may allow your organization to increase its relevance beyond being a visitor-serving destination on real-time, online platforms by more actively defining the public perception of your museum. If your organization can cultivate a reputation as “more than just a visitor-serving organization” prior to a guest’s arrival, then your organization may also improve its satisfaction-related metrics.

It seems that our mothers were onto something – “You’re judged by the company that you keep.” PoRS is particularly insidious amongst the perceptual middle ranks of visitor-serving organizations – those places that are so “destination-focused” in their communications that they end up positioning themselves as “just another museum” (or zoo, or aquarium, or botanical garden, etc.) The overcome may be in elevating your organization from the sameness of a sector by differentiating not only your experience, but by the means by which you achieve your mission (the impacts that you have and the differences that you make).

As stakeholders for visitor-serving organizations, we tend to believe that the entities that we serve (or support, or visit) are unique and superlative.  Our challenge – and, indeed, our opportunity – is to similarly articulate these differences to our visitors so that they, too, consider us as more than a place. What makes your organization unique is probably not the artifacts that you house, the collections that you keep, or the building within which you keep them. What makes you unique is the outcomes that you achieve by fulfilling your mission… and communicating these outcomes is the best defense against a nasty case of PoRS.


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, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

Information Overload: How Case Study Envy Stifles Nonprofit Success

whatever competition does

Between numerous conferences, written reports, podcasts and other resources, nonprofits should have no problem accessing an abundance of industry case studies. And smart organizations actively seek them out in order to appropriately consider precedents. However, too many nonprofits seem to distract themselves from opportunities by making inappropriate comparisons between other organizations and their own. They risk the loss of their own identity when they become too easily seduced by the (alleged) successes of others.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the nonprofit industry – one with an innate value for transparency and a culture that celebrates collaborative knowledge transfer – is so often easily misled by these “success studies.” Arguably, nonprofits are the most communicative of any business sector.  Due to a culture of sharing, organizational risk aversion, and a very mature business model, there isn’t a lot of “secret sauce” in the nonprofit space.

“So how can nonprofits be considered laggards when it comes to building effective ‘business’ strategies?! We’re in constant dialogue. We listen to one another!”

Well, maybe that’s the problem.

Having a lot of information is good. Not taking the time to develop a culture of thinking about it critically is bad. While sharing experiences certainly has undeniable advantages and can positively inform organizational strategies, I’ve noticed a detrimental trend in how nonprofit organizations discuss the operations of perceived industry leaders whom they’d like to emulate. Namely, nonprofits seem increasingly less able to differentiate between models and examples, and this confusion creates unrealistic expectations that may hinder the success of organizations.

When considering case studies and the operations of other nonprofit organizations, it may help to keep in mind the following four items:

1) Many singularly successful organizations are terrible models

IMPACTS collects intelligence concerning 224 visitor-serving organizations in the United States. Data indicate that the US public overwhelmingly considers the Monterey Bay Aquarium to be the “best aquarium in the world.” Increasingly, we hear organizations (and not just aquariums) attempting to emulate the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the hopes of similarly increasing their own reputations, securing their financial futures, maximizing audience engagement, etc.

(I am exploring the category of aquariums (again) because the aquarium industry has a clear, defined market leader. Museums, symphonies and zoos have tighter “line ups” with greater variance in public opinion concerning which is the “best.”)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a wonderful example of a world-class organization achieving enviable business and mission successes…but, as far as being easily replicated, it is a terrible model. Consider: The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the dominant – and near exclusive – major attraction in a very popular coastal destination.  It is led by one of the most influential leaders in the global conservation community.  It opened its doors unburdened by debt or other financing obligations. The lists of singular superlatives associated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium could go on…but, I think that you get my point. While it is easy to identify the attributes and practices that make the Monterey Bay Aquarium an acknowledged market leader, it is very difficult to duplicate these conditions.

Do other organizations also have some of these things? You bet. Do they have all of them? No. Similarly, your organization likely has its own, unique conditions. (Monterey is the example I am using here to make a point. It is not the only organization with unique conditions and the promise or potential of a successful enterprise).

(Uh oh! I feel a bad analogy coming on…) Other organizations cannot reasonably expect to copy the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “recipe for success” because they aren’t working with the same ingredients (or, for that matter, the same kitchen and same executive chef). Organizations have their own unique ingredients (and kitchens and chefs), and they have to optimize those to best respond to their own unique opportunities.


2) But organizations can provide helpful examples

Continuing with my horrible “recipe for success” analogy, if you spot an admired market leader that shares some of the same ingredients as your organization, noting how they successfully utilize these ingredients may help your organization cook up an equally tasty dish. In fact, if you add on to the case study by contemplating and incorporating your own unique advantages, you may end up with something even better (for you) than your would-be model.

For instance, although Monterey Bay Aquarium is a terrible model (again, in the sense that they – like many other organizations- aren’t replicable), their ability to experiment and take on unique initiatives in creative ways provides several examples that may benefit the balance of the museum and nonprofit industry. Examples may be broad and deal with the evolution of best practices, or serve as case studies for engaging the market.

As an aside: Question case studies. Sharing case studies (especially in conference settings) is frequently a way that organizations pat themselves on their own backs, but just because a case study was shared doesn’t mean that the initiative aided in securing donations, getting people in the door, or increasing brand reputation. There are some gemstones, but there’s also a lot of hot air out there. Be wise enough to tell the difference.  (People regularly ask me what are some of the biggest differences that I observe in my work with both for-profit and nonprofit clients.  Easy!  Whereas the nonprofit case studies presented to industry colleagues are invariably sunshine-filled, self-congratulatory success stories, the vast majority of case studies that I observe being presented in the for-profit world are cautionary tales of woe, struggle, and failure.  I don’t know what to make of this dichotomy, but I think it is interesting).

3) If you aspire to replicate a model, you jeopardize your relevance

If a similar organization with the same brand equities that you strive to achieve already exists (i.e. if you have a true model), then your organization is probably less relevant and you may be cannibalizing the market and unnecessarily dividing the resources needed to efficiently tackle the shared social mission.

However, a “conceptual model organization” that exists in another market could be a valuable tool – provided that two conditions are met: 1) You understand how this organization (its positioning, reputation and resources) differs from yours and you create a plan for optimizing these same areas uniquely for your own equities; and 2) You understand that successful organizations evolve to meet market needs and opportunities. What was true and a “best practice” yesterday may not necessarily serve as a suitable precedent for tomorrow. Your model will change its operations over time (especially if it is a good model), and you will likely need to change yours, too. Frequently, the best things that a “conceptual model organization” can be are thought provoking and inspirational – its practices may not be transitively applicable. 

4) Making nonprofit best practices the basis of your business strategy is a bad strategy

Another disadvantage of the “sharing” nature of the nonprofit industry is that organizations often become more caught up with what other organizations are doing than paying any attention to their markets – which (decidedly unlike the behaviors of other nonprofits) is directly correlated to their financial and social success. (Read: It doesn’t matter at all how many other nonprofits are utilizing social media. What matters is that the market is utilizing social media as its single most influential, go-to source of information.)

Think it’s great that your nonprofit is almost at the industry average for email open rates? Congratulations on being almost mediocre. (Tough love? Maybe. But think about it: You won’t catch successful for-profit companies celebrating benchmark victories…so why do we allow ourselves to frame averageness as “achievement?”) We can do better than simply keeping up with the Vastly-Underperforming-And-Almost-Broke Joneses. It’s important to be marketing your nonprofit and creating programs for the folks that actually matter – not to keep company with peer organizations (a large portion of which may be flailing).

My advice to nonprofits with one eye on their neighbors: Take what you can from case studies as applicable, but don’t get caught up in becoming another organization.  Gosh darnit:

Be yourself oscar wilde

(Full disclosure: As the Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS, I work with the Monterey Bay Aquarium…and, for that matter, with a number of other aquariums, museums, performing arts organizations, zoos and similar visitor-serving enterprise. The reason that I reference the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a specific example is two-fold: (1) Data compellingly indicate its public perception as “best in class,” and thus a natural topic for case study; and (2) It is a frequently cited aspirational “model” suggested to me by other aquariums – as well as several other types of visitor-serving organizations – when they reference a third-party entity.)

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 Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 6 Comments

A Hint for the Future of Museums: Europe is Looking to US Aquariums

In my line of work (developing predictive data) and my spot in that line (analyzing and applying data on behalf of organizations equally concerned with social and fiscal bottom lines), opportunity often comes from keeping a pulse on the market. Along these lines, I’ve recently experienced shifts in my professional world that may be illustrative of the future of museums and the broader nonprofit community.

"7 hours and 57 minutes until I am officially based out of Chicago AND London! Let's do this!"

“7 hours, 57 minutes until I’m officially based out of Chicago AND London! Let’s do this!” (4/1/13)

In April, I officially joined the ranks of part-time expatriates (and long-haul commuters) when IMPACTS asked me to help open our London office while also maintaining a “home base” in Chicago.  Preparations for our London office enabled me to hire a Digital Marketing Manager to provide additional support to our projects, and also challenged me to be more thoughtful about how I could focus my efforts to best serve our clients.  A few months removed from my hop across the pond, I’ve been reliably asked two questions from colleagues, other museum professionals and even friends and family – the answers to which are closely related and may provide interesting insight to the museum industry:

1) Why London?

The obvious answer: proximity. I am in London largely because it is an accessible base for much of the work that IMPACTS is currently performing on behalf of visitor-serving organizations (e.g. museums) throughout the Americas, Europe and the Middle East.

The more interesting answer: market demand in Europe for the American nonprofit business model. You read that right! Any quick glance at the news tells stories of shifting economies that have created an unprecedented struggle for many of Europe’s most treasured museums.  While not-too-long ago many of the elite European institutions might have politely sneered at the suggestion of adopting a more “American model” of doing business (especially “nonprofit business!”), these sentiments are quickly shifting.

The “American model” (as it is colloquially referred to in my dealings) is a euphemism for a visitor-serving business that doesn’t rely on government support (or grants or endowments) and, instead, is a market-driven enterprise whose success hinges on engaging a diverse, sustainable constituency.

In other words, many of the world’s greatest museums – the ones that we Americans revere and admire with a distant and mysterious “otherness” – are looking to U.S. visitor-serving organizations as sources of inspiration, innovation and know-how when it comes to reinventing their business models to best respond to their current economic conditions.

2) Why do you spend so much time working with aquariums?

It’s true. I do find myself increasingly spending more time and energy working closely with aquariums. Here’s the end-game: We have an interest in aquariums because they are often cited by our clients as best-in-class practitioners of the “American model.” (Stick with me, other-types-of-museum folks. I’ll connect the dots…)

IMPACTS works with nearly every form of visitor-serving organization from art museums and symphonies to science centers and botanical gardens, and there’s one thing that we’ve found to be generally true: The market-driven practices developed by aquariums may have the greatest impact and “usability” for exalting the entire visitor-serving industry.  While the role of aquariums as models may seem surprising to many of America’s most venerable museums, the relative esteem with which U.S. aquariums are internationally regarded evidences itself in my work on a daily basis. In fact, the European organizations (including many art museums) that I work with have less interest in the “best practices” of American art museums and, increasingly, more interest in those of American aquariums.

Here’s why.  There are two conditions that make U.S. aquariums of particular interest to the global museum and visitor-serving industry:


A) The U.S. aquarium business model is motivated by market demand (and not overly dependent on grants, endowments, or government funding)

This is not to say that aquariums do not seek to obtain grants or secure government appropriations – but, as a group, the chart below indicates that aquariums tend to rely least on contributed and dividend revenues when compared to other types of visitor-serving organizations:

IMPACTS Visitor Serving Organization Earned Revenue

Theoretically, if government funding were to cease on a macro-level tomorrow, aquariums (as well as select museums, theaters, science centers and other more self-reliant organizations) may have the greatest chance of keeping their doors open long-term.

Also, after evaluating a representative sample of 224 U.S.-based visitor-serving organizations, aquariums generally have the smallest endowments relative to their annual operating budgets – perhaps suggesting that aquariums must be particularly attuned to the market since they have less “cushion” in their revenue streams. We see outcomes of this market responsiveness all the time: While some museums are hiring extra grantwriters and expanding their lobbying efforts for funding, many aquariums are hiring social media and online community managers because they understand that digital engagement helps drive attendance. Of course, smart museums also realize this and are hiring these kinds of people, too – but as the chart below illustrates, the lack of a “safety net” places a particular financial imperative on aquariums to be responsive to market opportunities:

IMPACTS - Visitor Serving organization endowment backstop


B) Many aquariums regularly invest in active, global, social missions that extend beyond education and research

I can hear you now: “But all museums aim to change the world!” I know. This does not mean that other missions are any less important – simply that many organizations with which I work consider aquariums to be at an interesting intersection between topic expertise and “right now” relevance…particularly when it comes to prominent, controversial issues such as climate change and other environmental topics. In short, while the social missions and operations of aquariums tackle education and research (two critical items that are also common among other, select visitor-serving organizations), they also take up the battle of ocean conservation. The initiatives attendant to this addition are particularly timely, global, and live in a rather elusive “save the world” space.

It’s a seemingly at-odds and extreme combination:  Aquariums may be considered among the most “for profit” of organizations in that they rely heavily on earned revenues, but they also aim to be among the most globally impactful among organizations pursuing active, social missions.


I “go deep” in my work with aquariums because helping them evolve and perfect their business model to remain solvent in both fiscal and social terms provides the lessons that help other organizations achieve their similarly aspirational ideals.

I’m intentionally speaking in terms of sector generalities – not all zoos rely on government funding, not every museum lives on its endowment, and, for that matter, not all aquariums are truly bringing their A-game to the “save the ocean” effort. The organizations operating with the objectives of being both market-relevant AND “big mission-serving” (aquarium or not) may be our best models for the future of museums. They can survive on their own, and they can do it while serving a very large-scale social mission.


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 Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments