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case studies

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

Bad things happen to good organizations when conference attendees leave their thinking caps at home.

Industry conferences can provide amazing opportunities for cultural organizations to learn about new initiatives – but there’s a disease that often infects well-meaning leaders at these conferences – they are bringing it back and infecting their organizations. It’s time to talk about case study envy. That’s the subject of this week’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video!

I am a fan of conferences and those who know me personally (or have met me at one), know that I frequently lament how infrequently I can get to them due to my work schedule. On that note, let’s establish/acknowledge this important starting point: Industry conferences are important. We know this. I don’t and won’t dispute this because I believe it to be true. They provide important opportunities to learn about new ideas, celebrate achievements, discuss the state of the industry and obstacles for us all to take on together, and (perhaps most importantly) they connect us to one another as professionals and (when we’re lucky!) as friends.

Now that we’ve very purposefully acknowledged that conferences are generally awesome things for us, I’m going to discuss an important way in which conferences are often NOT awesome. Are we ready? Okay:

Sometimes conferences make us stupid. And interestingly, data suggest that executive leaders know this. (More in a moment…)

There can be serious consequences for organizations that become too easily seduced by the alleged successes of others. I call this Case Study Envy and it takes place at all kinds of conferences. It does NOT mean that case studies aren’t important and that there isn’t value in sharing them. But just because industry conferences can be exciting doesn’t mean that attendees should leave their thinking caps at home.

Case Study Envy can make smart people attending industry conferences believe two, pretty silly things:

 

1) That the organization or person speaking actually accomplished something.

Ouch. First, case study envy makes leaders believe that the presenting organization’s initiative worked and that it met any meaningful goals at all. Sometimes the initiatives are attached to meaningful outcomes and that’s great. But more often than not, the organization holding the microphone is someone that asked for the opportunity to tell you how good they are at something. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are actually good at it. Considering this, it’s not uncommon that programs and initiatives that might more objectively be considered failures are instead presented at conferences as successes. Let’s honest, it stinks to admit that something we thought was going to be cool, turned out to be a total dud. Sometimes, presenting that cool- sounding thing at a conference can internally soften the blow and save some public face.

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

The inclination to frame objective failures as successes makes perfect sense: There’s too much at stake to share our failures as actual failures. There are board member reputations, a CEO’s symbolic capital, and even funder satisfaction at risk when we admit to failure. If we admit our cool-sounding project was a failure, then we have to say to board members, “Hey, this big project that you supported and might have even been your idea didn’t work.” And we really don’t want to say that. So, instead, we say, “It didn’t increase visitation or notably impact our brand equities in a positive or even noteworthy manner, but it was something new and cool! To prove it, we’ll share it at [insert industry conference].”

I’m not saying it’s an awesome situation, but the fear of calling a (very cool looking, new idea, sometimes high-tech) dog a dog may be understandable in this context that disproportionately punishes risk. What’s more is that executive leaders seem to know that many of the case studies presented at conferences are actually failures – or at least, not worth influencing their decision making. It’s a reason for the inverse correlation between trust and influence and information being shared at a conference. Yes. Executive leaders find information shared at conferences to be less trustworthy because it is shared at a conference.

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

KYOB IMPACTS - Trust of sources for cultural leaders

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

KYOB IMPACTS - influence of sources for cultural leaders

And on top of that, they aren’t exactly go-to sources of information, either.

KYOB IMPACTS - Sources of information for cultural leaders

Yikes! Again, this is not to say that all presentations at industry conferences are useless – far from it. Conferences are a wonderful opportunity to connect and share experiences and, indeed, we need them. But they cannot help us unless we change how we approach them and stop making “finding the things that actually work in increasing solvency or summoning support” so difficult. We give the microphone to the folks that ask for the microphone (to talk about, say, membership) without much consideration for how well their (membership) programs actually work. Worst of all, there seems to be a particular want to give the microphone to some of the “biggest” organizations – and that can be dangerous if that particular organization is “touting a failure as a success.” It glamorizes the failure and promulgates it among the industry, resting its glory more on the symbolic capital of other aspects of the organization rather than that, particular (futile) initiative.

There are many excellent examples of organizations of all shapes and sizes doing forward-facing things. It’s a shame that those examples are sometimes diluted by glorious funeral ceremonies for futile projects disguised as successes at conferences.

So how can you determine the truly successful case studies from the hot air and combat Case Study Envy in this case? Ask, “Did this initiative increase membership, result in more people coming through the door, or secure more donors? Did it contribute to meaningful and measurable market perceptions related to their mission?” Not every self-congratulatory program, presented as a success, is actually a success. Case study envy makes it hard to tell the difference.

 

2) That exactly what worked for that organization will work in exactly the same way for your organization

Case Study Envy causes infected leaders to make inappropriate comparisons between other organizations and their own. While case studies can be gold mines of valuable information, its critical that leaders consider that organizations often have different assets and public perceptions. Among the industry, they tend not to be drastically different – but they are different enough that it may not be reasonable for one organization to expect the exact same initiative outcomes as another.

It’s important for organizations to differentiate between models and examples. Both can be tremendously valuable – as long as we don’t mix them up. Many singularly successful organizations are terrible models because they have conditions that are not easily replicated (e.g. they have massive endowments, or a specific location in a specific city that supports their reputation, or they generally have a different funding model and business strategy). However, these organizations may still provide excellent examples for initiatives when elements of their success are identified and considered. Examples can aid in informing strategies and they often deal with the evolution of best practices or serve as case studies for engaging the market.

In sum, when at a conference, aim to evaluate the strategy driving the case study and if that may be helpful to your own organization. Attaching your organization to another organization’s specific tactics, however, can be tricky and may lead your organization to take on an initiative that simply was never strategically sound for you in the first place.

 

Many cultural organizations are doing remarkable things today. They are breaking boundaries, learning new lessons, and leading others! We need to keep these valuable lines of communication open and active. But just remember that there is often a lot of noise and it’s our responsibility to our organizations to think critically about anything that can help make our organizations more successful and impactful.

 

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 Fast Facts Video, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 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