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barriers to visitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

1) Time is more valuable than money

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

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

 

2) Free admission does not significantly affect intent to visit

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

4) People value what they pay for

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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, Trends Leave a comment

Admission Price is NOT a Primary Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation (DATA)

Cost is not a primary barrier to visitation Know Your Own Bone

It’s time to get real about why many people aren’t visiting cultural organizations. Generally, price is not the biggest barrier. 

Cultural organizations have their work cut out for them today. These visitor-serving organizations (museums, historic sites, aquariums, zoos, theaters, symphonies, etc.) are experiencing negative substitution of their historic visitors, often resulting in decreased attendance – at least until organizations get better at reaching underserved audiences such as millennials and “minority majorities”.

It’s a big challenge…and the best way to overcome this challenge is to identify and remove the true barriers to visitation for likely visitors. In order to do this, we need to get smarter about which barriers are real and which are excuses for organizations to avoid the need to think critically about their audiences.

We need to knock it off with the excuse that folks aren’t visiting cultural organizations primarily because of admission pricing.  The simple fact is that scant data exist to suggest that admission cost is the primary culprit when it comes to barriers to visitation. When we mistakenly blame price as the primary culprit for lack of engagement, it holds organizations back from providing better access opportunities and more relevant content. Before we dive deeper into the data, here are four important reminders regarding admission pricing:

A) Admission pricing is a science, not an art.

Determining your admission price should involve neither looking around at other institutions nor sitting around a table of executives and saying, “I guess $20 sounds right…”

B) Admission pricing is NOT related to affordable access.

In other words, organizations that charge admission should charge admission and also have intelligent, targeted access programming for low-income audiences if this is part of their mission. Data suggest free days are not a magical elixir when it comes to attracting low-income and other types of underserved audience. Subsidizing admission prices as an affordable access strategy is neither effective nor sustainable because admission pricing is binary – people can either afford it or they cannot. When organizations subjectively lower their data-informed admission price, they hurt themselves AND they are still unable to better engage underserved audiences.

C) Free admission is not a cure-all for engagement.

In fact, data suggest that free admission has relatively little sustained impact on attendance. It is difficult to find a single celebrated economist who denies this fact.

D) Not everyone wants to visit cultural organizations.

The people who want to visit cultural organizations (i.e. they have the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting an organization), are NOT generally low-income audiences. Not everyone wakes up thinking that it would be fun to visit a museum…but the kinds of people who are so inclined do have some things in common. The reality is that the majority of the people who actually visit cultural organizations are able and willing to pay to do so.

Certainly, this is not to say that organizations can charge anything they’d like! But it is to say that this price issue that causes anxiety among the sector isn’t quite the issue that we make it out to be. Now that these baseline conversations are out of the way, here are three items to consider that underscore the fact that cost is often hardly the visitation barrier that many organizations believe it to be:

 

1) Cultural organizations charging admission have similar value for cost perceptions as other experiences

Consider this data from the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations (an ongoing study with a sample size that recently surpassed 100,000 US adults) that quantifies the value for cost perceptions of various leisure activities that charge admission. This is a measurement of how valuable an attendee believes the experience to be relative to the price of admission. (Or, how much bang that a visitor believes that they got for their buck.)

IMPACTS - value for cost of experiences

Cultural organizations that charge admission generally have very favorable cost perceptions – especially when compared to other admission-charging, leisure activities. In fact, folks paying admission to attend a museum, zoo, aquarium, live theater, classical concert, or ballet report – on average – getting better bang for their buck when compared to attending a rock concert or a sporting event (e.g. MLB, NBA, NFL)!

For some reason, it seems that even some cultural leaders who fiercely believe in the value of their organizations worry that people may be feeling ripped off by having to pay to visit a cultural organization. This is not the case. It’s not even close to the case. I don’t know why even our own industry leaders seem to think this, but it is a myth and we need to bust it.

Cultural organizations provide value to people – and this isn’t some inter-industry pep talk! Data demonstrate that cultural experiences are generally worth paying for. Period.

 

2) Organizations that charge admission generally have higher satisfaction ratings than organizations that do not charge admission

The data below measures overall satisfaction as reported by 1,639 individuals who attended these seven types of cultural organizations as both paying and non-paying visitors. In other words, each respondent attended the same type of organization (e.g. science museum) within the past two years, and had at least one experience in which they were charged admission, and at least one in which they were not – either because a similar organization of the same type offers free admission or they attended on a “free day.”

IMPACTS - Free vs paid admission satisfaction

The basic tenant of pricing psychology holds true that people value what they pay for. Organizations that charge admission do not have lower satisfaction metrics than organizations that do not charge admission. In fact, the opposite is true: Organizations that do not charge admission tend to have lower visitor satisfaction rates!

Long story short: Free admission is neither a cure-all for satisfaction nor for increased visitation.

 

3) Cost is not a primary barrier to visitation

This data also derives from the ongoing National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations. We wanted to know why folks who reported having an interest in visiting a cultural organization hadn’t actually visited within the past two years. The results are probably not what some might imagine:

IMPACTS - Barriers to repeat visitation

With an index value far less than 100, cost (i.e. being “too expensive”) is hardly a significant barrier at all! True barriers to visitation revolve around relevant content (i.e. preferred alternate activity), access challenges, and schedule. Schedule issues are a very big deal – and they are among the most prominent barriers to engagement that cultural organizations of every kind prefer not to address.

 

There are many reasons why visitors may not be attending cultural organizations, but for those who are likely to attend, cost is not a primary barrier. We need to move this conversation forward, and in order to do so, we need to retire untrue assumptions and excuses about our barriers to engagement. Sure, people like free stuff. But what cultural organizations offer is valuable and people are willing to pay for it.

Let’s put cost to rest as the immediate “go to” excuse for lower visitation and start focusing on real ways to increase access and create programs that truly fulfill our missions of educating and inspiring audiences. There’s work to be done and we are delaying progress with this excuse that allows us to overlook our biggest opportunities for engagement.

 

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, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment