Audience Insights: Organizations Overlook the Most Important Clues

Clues for increased satisfaction and visitation are often right under the noses of cultural organizations. I frequently hear executive leaders Read more

Do Expansions Increase Long-Term Attendance? (DATA)

Sometimes it feels like nearly every cultural organization is taking on a major expansion project. But do these projects Read more

Over 60% of Recent Visitors Attended Cultural Organizations As Children (DATA)

You may have guessed it was true – but here’s why this statistic matters. The idea that those who visit Read more

Cultural Organizations: It Is Time To Get Real About Failures

Hey cultural organizations! Do you know what we don’t do often enough? Talk about our failures. It’s a huge, Read more

How Annual Timeframes Hurt Cultural Organizations

Some cultural executives still aim for short-term attendance spikes at the expense of long-term financial solvency – and they Read more

Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA)

Special exhibits don’t do what many cultural organizations think that they do. If fact, they often do the opposite. Read more

death by curation

Breaking Down Data-Informed Barriers to Visitation for Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Here’s a round-up of the primary reasons why people with an interest in visiting cultural organizations do not actually end up visiting…and what your organization needs to know to overcome these barriers.

I frequently dig into data about barriers to visitation among likely visitors to cultural organizations – and a round-up article is calling my name. Data suggest that over 30% of folks who report interest in visiting a cultural organization (such as a museum, zoo, aquarium, symphony, ballet, theater, or other visitor-serving organization) still haven’t visited one of these entities within the past two years. Many of the folks who report interest in visiting cultural organizations are high-propensity visitors. These are the people who possess the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of attending a visitor-serving organization. Simply put, they are the people most likely to attend our organizations.

While data suggest that the specific barriers to visitation vary slightly among different visitor-serving organization types (e.g. a history museum vs. a symphony), we don’t observe generally massive differences – a barrier to visitation is a barrier to visitation. In other words, regardless of organization type or relative “rank” of the barrier, visitation barriers have the same outcome: They stop people from coming. A person who did not attend a cultural organization within the last two years because they had a schedule conflict and a person who did not visit because they had a negative experience with that organization both still did not visit.

IMPACTS consulted the trusty National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, and we dug into why those 30% of folks with reported interest in visiting cultural organizations hadn’t actually visited one within the past two years. You can see the outcomes at the top of this article. These data are indicated as index values. Index values are a means of quantifying proportionality and relativity between assessed conditions, and they are a helpful way to benchmark and measure differences. Typically, a base measure (e.g. an average) is expressed as a value of 100, and all other data points are quantified in relation to the base measure.

I have conducted entire workshops on data related to overcoming these visitation barriers – and there’s quite a bit to dig into and discuss here. I encourage you and your organization to take a look and challenge yourselves to ask hard questions about your audiences. When leaders “That doesn’t apply to me” data, nobody wins (least of all the organization). Instead, I encourage organizations to consider these barriers and ask themselves, “To what extent is this a barrier to visitation for my organization, and what can I learn from this?”

Let’s jump in!

 

A) Preferred alternative leisure activity (Index 147.3)

With an index value of 147.3, this barrier to visitation is the strongest among cultural organizations. While it may sound obvious, despite having a general interest, those who do not visit may prefer to do something else. Of those folks who reported interest in visiting a cultural organization – but hadn’t done so within the past two years – the top reason is because they prefer an alternative activity. This may include an activity such as seeing a movie or sporting event, going jogging, bowling, or even enjoying trivia at a bar with friends. Simply put, for a good number of people interested in visiting a cultural organization, there are many other things that compete for their precious time. And, it seems, some of these other things take precedent. Yes, they are interested in visiting…but they would still rather do something else.

Compounding matters is the growing competition with the couch. In fact, the number of people who have expressed a preference to stay home during a week off from school or work has increased by 17.3% in the past five years. The amount of people who express a preference to stay home over the weekend has increased by 19.4%. Here’s a deeper dive into data on the couch contingent, and what your organization needs to know. Need a quick hit to communicate this trend with others? Here’s a Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video on the topic:

 

B) Access challenges (Index 132.2)

This barrier is perhaps as obvious as it is overlooked. When organizations consider why folks don’t attend, we often forget to consider some of the technicalities associated with getting to our front door. This barrier metric includes traffic, travel time and distance, construction along the way, etc.

These data are collected by way of lexical analysis, meaning that respondents identified barriers in their own words and they are quantified here as index values based on frequency of mention and strength of conviction. We didn’t ask folks to choose from a list of barriers and, as such, this category includes the perception of access as well. (Because humans.) For instance, if someone lives in the suburbs and the cultural organization is in the city, there may be a perceptual barrier associated with that trip (e.g. “It’s a hassle.”)

This barrier is a bit of a frustrating one, because until we can sponsor potential visitor teleportation, most organizations are stuck without control over traffic or travel time. The way to overcome this barrier often depends upon demonstrating that your organization’s unique experience is worthy of facing down access challenges. In this way, aiming to overcome the primary barrier to visitation of preferring another activity also may serve to aid in overcoming access challenges. There are also things that an organization can do to ease perceptions such as providing tips for traveling to your destination. Highlighting ease of access from popular destinations in the city may also play a small role in easing perceptions because data suggest that high-propensity visitors do not generally head into the city, for instance, only to visit a cultural organization.

Parking challenges are their own, separately identified barrier that were cited on their own (index value 88.8). Transportation issues – such as not having a car or easy means to get to the organization in the first place – also came up as uniquely differentiated from access challenges.

 

C) They have already visited (Index 118.4)

This barrier is our own dang fault, and if we want to overcome it, we’re going to have to do it together as a sector by developing smarter, more sustainable business practices. Not visiting because there’s “nothing new to see or do” is the outcome of decades of bigger organizations practicing the phenomenon of death by curation. Death by curation (also known as “blockbuster suicide”) is the unfortunate practice of sabotaging long-term solvency by dedicating a disproportionate level of resources in the pursuit of blockbuster, special exhibits at the expense of the everyday awesomeness of your permanent collections. Here’s data on the terrible cycle of death by curation and what it is doing to the cultural organizations that rely upon it as a business practice.

This is a barrier because, as a sector, we’ve trained audiences to come only when we’re doing something “special” (as opposed to underscoring our kick-butt permanent collections). As a rule, I do not call out bad practices of individual organizations with IMPACTS’s data (that’s not my place), but if you take a moment to think about many of the organizations that have fallen on hard times, chances are blockbuster suicide played a role. This is especially true for the kinds of organizations that have hosted our industry’s most well-known blockbusters (Body Worlds, Titanic, etc.) – though it doesn’t affect these types of organizations exclusively by any means. A fun fact that’s too strange for me to make up: There’s even a Jurassic World blockbuster exhibit making the rounds right now and I use the movie Jurassic World to illustrate the very deleterious cycle of death by curation.

 

You’ve likely heard an exchange that goes something like this:

Person 1: Let’s go to [X awesome organization]!

Person 2: What’s their special exhibit right now?

When a temporary exhibit becomes the decision-making qualifier to visitation, your organization suffers severely from the industry-driven phenomenon of death by curation. Unless your organization is solely an empty space for the passing through of exhibits, what’s coolest about your organization should be your organization. Special exhibits can motivate visitation, but when the allure of the exhibit trumps the allure of your brand, there’s a problem.

Is it a bad idea to have special exhibits? Not at all! Is it a bad idea to make them the primary reason to visit you? Yes. Very much so.

 

D) Schedule conflicts (Index 105.3 to 95.5)

Schedule is the leading motivator for visitation to cultural organizations, so it makes sense that work, school, and holiday conflicts are separate, leading barriers to visitation. The chart below is from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, and “schedule” is – quite simply – being open during the dates and times that people want to attend your organization.

One of the biggest lies that we cultural organization folks tell ourselves is that we can lucratively impact and influence a visitor’s schedule. Frustratingly, the importance of schedule as a leading decision-making utility is the reason why cultural organizations generally cannot cost-effectively move visitation to shoulder seasons to distribute annual attendance.

Schedule is the leading barrier to visitation that we don’t seem to talk about. To overcome this barrier, we’ll have to start talking about it.

 

E) Negative precedent experience (Index 83.7)

Satisfaction and reputation drive visitor engagement, and having a negative precedent experience negatively influences both aspects of the engagement cycle. In short, those who have had a bad experience risk providing negative reviews (via word of mouth, social media, etc.) of the organization. This stinks, because likely visitors to cultural organizations qualify as “super-connected” – they have access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device.

These are the biggest onsite dissatisfiers for visitor-serving experiences, broken out by exhibit-based and performance-based organizations. (Spoiler alert: The worst thing about a visit to a cultural organization is the same for both organization types. According to visitors, negative interactions with staff members or volunteers is the worst thing about a visit to a cultural organization. Interestingly, positive interactions with staff and volunteers can have the most significant positive impact on visitor satisfaction as well.)

 

F) Not for adults (Index 76.7)

As you can see, being perceived as “not for adults” and also “not suitable for children” both make the barrier list. However, an important distinction is that organizations perceived as not suitable for children generally do not aim to primarily attract children (i.e. orchestras), while some organizations that aim to regularly attract adults and children alike (i.e. science museums) are perceived as not for adults. That’s a big problem. In fact, for science museums and science centers, being perceived as “not for adults” is the second strongest barrier to visitation. This is also a particularly big problem for aquariums and zoos.

I’ve previously shared a data-informed hack for overcoming this barrier, informed by data from IMPACTS clients. Here’s how to overcome the barrier of being viewed as “not for adults” if your organization does, in fact, aim to attract audiences beyond children and families.

 

G) Cost (is not a primary barrier to visitation for likely visitors)

Cost is simply not a primary barrier to visitation for likely visitors. This isn’t to say that it’s not a barrier at all, but it’s not anywhere near the barrier that cultural organizations pretend that it is.

In order to discuss cost at all, we need to underscore that admission pricing is not an affordable access program. They are not the same thing. Likely visitors are people who want to visit you, and data suggest that they will pay to do that. Axiomatically, unlikely visitors generally do not want to visit you at all, and, thus, are not likely to pay to do so. Affordable access programs should be targeted for those who truly do want to visit but cannot afford to do so. (This is different than not being willing to do so.) Effective affordable access programming is an investment, and understanding the basics of audience access makes these types of programs possible. A misunderstanding of what truly fuels audience access motivations is the reason why many organizations do not have effective access programming.

Data suggest that cost is simply not a primary barrier to visitation for people who want to visit – and free admission is not a cure-all for engagement. When it comes to measuring free admission as a barrier to visitation, things often get difficult because “free admission” is both a lazy person’s response to why they aren’t attending, and a lazy organization’s excuse for not reaching more audiences. Namely, when asked why people didn’t do something, cost generally comes up first for anything. Why didn’t I buy the daisies from the flower store? They were too expensive! The key to understanding the reality of cost as a barrier to visitation is to get to the end of this sentence, “Admission cost is too expensive for…”

…For missing an afternoon that I could spend doing something else with my friends? For taking the financial hit of taking off a day of work? For missing quality time with my kids? For spending an hour on the bus? For navigating through traffic to get there? For something that I’m not interested in seeing or doing? When it comes to removing barriers to visitation for folks who are not affordable access audiences, getting to the end of that sentence is important.

But lack of free admission is also the lazy cultural organization’s excuse for lack of engagement. It’s a thing that we can blame on the world, or on the board, or on the government, or on higher-ups. Of all of the primary barriers to visitation, it’s the one that causes us to question our own organizational practices the least. It’s the safest excuse for lack of evolution and time spent donning our thinking caps. But it’s a terrible excuse, as it doesn’t have a strong basis in reality.

Embedded below is a data-slam video about some of the reasons why we need to stop distracting ourselves with the idea of cost being a primary barrier to visitation for likely visitors. The economics don’t support it. (Want to read about the data and explore more links on this topic? Click here.)

 

Understanding barriers to visitation play a big role in the solvency and long-term sustainability of cultural organizations. For weekly data-informed analysis regarding best practices for cultural executives, don’t forget to subscribe to Know Your Own Bone.

 

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:

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution Comments Off on Breaking Down Data-Informed Barriers to Visitation for Cultural Organizations (DATA)

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

Death by curation- a lesson from Jurassic World

Indominus Rex would not have sparked a long-term increase in Jurassic World visitation anyway. Here’s a real-world, data-informed reminder of the dangers of “Death by Curation” for cultural organizations.

Considering my obvious museum nerdiness, you can bet that I was one of the folks contributing to Jurassic World’s $511.8 million opening weekend (in 3D glasses and parked eagerly in front of an IMAX screen on opening day, no less). I was giddy about the dinos, of course, but, throughout the film, I couldn’t help but focus on the data-denying stupidity of the Jurassic World business model (Of all things…). While watching, I mentally revisited data from a popular Know Your Own Bone post titled “Death By Curation”. In consideration of Jurassic World – and in the spirit of sequels – data about the realities of “death by curation” (or, “blockbuster suicide”) are worth a revisit for visitor-serving organizations. Let’s re-bust the myth of the blockbuster exhibit strategy. 

Also, in honor of Jurassic World, let’s do it dramatically (…but with real data).

Blockbuster exhibits sound nice, but they often create a negative cycle that threatens the solvency of the visitor-serving organizations that deploy them. Within this cycle, organizations (museums, zoos, aquariums, science centers, etc.) rely heavily on visitation from special exhibits – rather than their permanent collections – in order to achieve their attendance and financial goals. This is a case of “death by curation” – bringing in progressively bigger and bigger exhibits in order to sustain and grow revenues. It’s no secret that a true blockbuster exhibit can boost a museum’s attendance to record levels. However, a “blockbuster” is rare, and the fact that these blockbusters spike attendance so dramatically is an important finding: Blockbusters are anomalies – NOT the basis of a sustainable plan.

Though Jurassic World is just a(n awesome) movie, “Death by Curation” is an actual, data-informed problem jeopardizing the long-term existence of many entities. Thankfully, when cultural organizations commit “Death by Curation” in the real-world, the result is typically… well, much less literal than it was in Jurassic World.

 

1) Misunderstanding

We know the story well: a museum decides that the best way to increase long-term visitation and attract new audiences is to create or host a special exhibit. They hear of attendance spikes from other, similar institutions that host or create blockbuster exhibits, and they see the newspaper articles boasting increased attendance during the exhibit. This is an innocent enough start. Not all special exhibits are blockbuster exhibits. But the want for a “blockbuster” increases among executives who are unaware of the long-term consequences of this kind of special exhibit. So the organization hosts one.

The organization sees a spike in attendance, which dips when the exhibit closes. The museum wants to hit these high numbers again so it hosts a “bigger” exhibit and hopes for the same visitation spike. This is the beginning of a costly, ineffective cycle.

 

2) Dependence

If the exhibition is successful, then the sequel must be grander – and usually more expensive. The organization comes to believe that it cannot motivate visitation without rotating, creating, or (in the case of Indominus Rex) genetically modifying increasingly “blockbuster”/ “bigger and better” exhibits. And, by doing this, museums train their audiences only to visit when there is a new exhibit. Thus, they risk curating themselves into unsustainable business practices.

Organizations train audiences to respond primarily to blockbuster exhibits. I like to think of this as a sort of “Pavlov for the museum world” – except instead of inspiring behavior with a bell, we’ve decided to provide Monet, Mondrian and Picasso as stimuli. This is all perhaps well and good…but it isn’t sustainable.

Consider the 20-year attendance history of a museum client of IMPACTS (the company for which I work). Take a look at the “blockbuster” years.

Death by Curation special exhibit attendance KYOB

Still drunk with success from their blockbuster exhibit in year 2004, this museum went to the “tried” (but, not necessarily, “true”) blockbuster formula in year 2009. As you can see, in terms of visitation, history decidedly did NOT repeat itself. In this example (which I selected because it is representative of the experience of many museums), the “blockbuster” exhibit of year 2004 resulted in a 47.6% spike in visitation. What is perhaps most telling is how quickly – post-blockbuster – the client’s annual visitation returned to its average level. Does this suggest that the client shouldn’t pursue another blockbuster? Well, they did. But not with the expected results.

Let’s consider the same chart again – this time with the special exhibits costs by year also indicated:

Death by Curation cost verses attendance

This where it becomes additionally important to acknowledge that “expensive does not a best-ever exhibit make” (although sometimes it can help when the investment is intelligent). If the museum begins to believe that they are being successful with this strategy of rotating and/or releasing blockbuster exhibits, then the exhibits grow grander and the attendant costs often grow at unsustainable rates…but become conceptually necessary for the museum to keep their lights on. Organizations often need to pay more money in order to hit that same, first-time blockbuster exhibition spike.

Also, I’m just going to leave this little chart right here…

Death by curation sequels KYOB

Another fun fact that will surprise absolutely no one in the museum world – audiences are fickle! Their preferences shift quickly and they become increasingly hard to please. In fact, first-time-ever museum visitors rate their overall satisfaction 18.1% higher than persons who have previously visited any other museum. We call this “point of reference sensitivity”– the market’s expectations, perceptions and tolerances are constantly shifting and being re-framed by its experiences.

 

3) Alienation

What of the hopeful thought that visitors to blockbuster exhibits will become regular museum-goers? It is largely a myth. An IMPACTS study of five art museums – each hosting a “blockbuster” exhibit between years 2007-2010, found that only 21.8% of visitors to the exhibit saw the “majority or entirety” of the museum experience. And, of those persons visiting the sampled art museums during the same time period, 50.5% indicated experiencing “only” the special exhibition. This data indicates that these special exhibit visitors are not seeing your permanent collections and, thus, are missing an opportunity to connect with your museum and become true evangelists.

The museums in this cycle train audiences to respond to blockbusters, not to develop relationships with permanent collections and that hurts their bottom lines. More often than not, organizations that are caught in the “Death by Curation” cycle actually cultivate visitation that is generally unsustainable. Or, at least less sustainable than many executives believe when having conversations about hosting or developing blockbuster exhibits. If you’re a visitor-serving organization always focused on releasing something bigger, better, and newer, you must be cautious not to devalue your permanent collections, and continually reinvent them as well.

 

4) Deprivation

Here’s where things get really ugly. Not only are organizations engaging in “Death by Curation” (a.k.a. “Blockbuster Suicide”) training regular audiences to respond primarily to special exhibits, failing to inspire connections with permanent collections, AND getting caught in an increasingly-expensive and unsustainable exhibit cycle…they are also creating and cultivating less loyal members.

Even members, whom museums often assume are more connected to their permanent collections than the general public, have been trained to respond almost exclusively to “blockbuster” stimuli by those organizations that consistently highlight these “bigger and better” exhibits year over year. To wit: The National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study recently updated in March 2015 indicates that of lapsed museum members with an intent to renew their memberships, 87.5% state that they will renew their memberships “when they next visit.” Of these same lapsed members, 60.8% indicate that they will defer their next visit “until there is a new exhibit.” In other words, museums have trained even their closest constituents to wait for these expensive exhibits in order to justify their return visit. It’s an unhealthy cycle. When hosting a series of blockbuster exhibits, an organization may get “high” on an attendance spike…but a crash is right around the corner.

After the “depravation” phase, many organizations cycle right back to “misunderstanding” and continue to spiral. Think of nearly any major museum that had made news with layoffs. Chances are that organization created a form of blockbuster suicide.

 

An alternative to blockbuster suicide

Here’s the good news: this cycle can be broken – or avoided entirely.

Museums and other cultural organizations often fail to recognize that the best part of the museum experience, according to visitors and substantial data, is who folks visit and interact with instead of what they see. Understanding that a museum visit is more about people than it is about exhibits can help organizations keep the relative success of blockbuster exhibits into perspective.

Instead of relying on the rotation (or new, ongoing addition) of increasingly expensive exhibits, many successful organizations instead invest in their frontline people and provide them with the tools to facilitate interactions that dramatically improve the visitor experience. Improving the visitor experience increases positive word of mouth that, in turn, brings more people through the door. Importantly, reviews from trusted resources (e.g. word of mouth, social media, and peer review sites) tend to not only inspire visitation, they also have the positive benefit of decreasing the amount of time between visits. People who have a better experience – which has a clear association with interactions with staff members – are more likely to come back again sooner (Okay, this is obvious…but when you bust outdated cultural business strategy myths for a living, it’s important to reexamine things that seem obvious, too).

KYOB intent to revisit based on satisfaction

The power of “with” over “what” has other positive financial implications for museums. If the institution focuses on increasing the overall experience (which, again, is a motivator in and of itself – as opposed to the “one-off effect” of gaining a single visit with a new exhibit), then the museum’s value-for-cost perception increases. In other words, it allows the organization to charge more money for admission without alienating audiences because these audiences are willing to pay a premium for a positive experience. (For you mission-driven folks shaking your head about how this potentially excludes underserved audiences, this is where your accessibility programs will shine. Admission revenues enable effective affordable access and increase their perceptual value as well.)

The “bigger, better, more expensive” business model is financially unsustainable and it alienates audiences. A better solution? Actually be good at fulfilling your mission/purpose and highlight considered experiences that support it.  

This isn’t to say that new content and engaging exhibits are not often critical to a museum’s success. Updating overall collections, keeping museums up-to-date, and developing timely, relevant programs is increasingly no longer optional for cultural center survival. It is to say, though, that times are changing. To sustain both in terms of economics and relevance, museums must evolve from organizations that are mostly about “us” (what we have is special and you’re lucky to see it), to organizations that are primarily concerned about “them” – the visitors.

Like it or not, the market is the ultimate arbiter of a museum’s success. Those of us with academic pedigree, years of experience, and technical expertise may well be in a position to declare “importance,” but it is the market that reserves the absolute right to determine relevance. In other words, while curators still largely design the ballots, it is the general public who cast the votes. In the race to sustain a relationship with the museum-going public, the returns are in and the special exhibit isn’t so special anymore.

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 6 Comments

There Is No Mission Without Money: Why Cultural Organizations Need To Get Smart About Pricing Practices

museum admission line

This article concludes a four-part series intended to help visitor-serving organizations understand and respond to emerging trends that will impact their financial and mission-related goals. Learn more about the series here. 

Austerity measures and the loss of heretofore “reliable” funding mechanisms pitched many European cultural organizations into a tenuous financial state and catalyzed a conversation concerning the sustained solvency of visitor-serving enterprise worldwide. In an increasingly competitive market where volume-based strategies (such as an ever-increasing attendance) are less likely remedies to the new economic reality that emphasizes earned revenues, 2014 will mark the year when organizations will need to “get smart” about leveraging data to develop intelligent, efficient price indices. In turn, analysis of an organization’s pricing structure will likely – and necessarily – foster additional discussion concerning the creation of more effective affordable access programming.

Nonprofits are increasingly competing with for-profit organizations as private companies capitalize on shifts in market behavior toward supporting social causes. The market – and especially millennials – are also increasingly sector-agnostic, meaning that simply being a nonprofit doesn’t necessarily indicate to audiences that your organization is providing more social value than a private company.   This is one of the reasons why visitor-serving organizations that highlight their mission outperform museums that market themselves primarily as attractions. 

It’s time to pause and think about your organization’s relevance – and relevance is determined by the market and the support that your organization is able to summon. In short order, museums that cannot survive a “natural selection” and appeal to audiences will sink due to lack of support (relevance), while those that remain solvent and vital (while also pursuing their mission), will enjoy sustained success.

 

1) Here’s why your organization needs to think about revenue and pricing right now (and more than ever before):

 

A) In general, fewer people may be attending your organization because of negative substitution of traditional visitors so increasing attendance may prove challenging in the near-term.

Visitor-serving organizations’ (VSOs) “historic” visitors are leaving the market at a faster rate than new high-propensity visitors are entering the market, creating a negative substitution phenomenon that does not paint a bright future (or present, for that matter) for VSOs. In fact, for every one historic HPV that leaves the market, they are being replaced by 0.989 “new” high-propensity visitors. That may sound like a small difference, but these people add up! Keep up your hard work reaching your traditional audiences and – for no fault of your own – negative substitution factors would suggest that an organization currently serving one million annual visitors will attract 946,000 visitors five years from now (that is 54,000 fewer people, and a likely corresponding decline in membership and program participation). This troubling “glide path” also considers that you’ll be doing everything that you can do to meet your current audience’s needs, and continue to market to them like exceptional rockstars! This data suggests that the key to long-term organizational solvency is to evolve our engagement strategies to include your emerging high-propensity visitors.

The good news: If museums begin to target and cultivate new audiences now, we should start to observe a broad attendance turnaround in year 2019 as emerging audiences (such as English as Second Language households) continue to acculturate into the “mainstream” market and if millennials (who will dominate the market in terms of number and purchasing power) have been engaged by VSOs. But the attendance trend still stands: In spite of overall population growth and even if your organization does its very best and starts evolving right now (as you should in order to get things back up when the market is ripe around 2019), there’s a good chance that your attendance numbers may flatten out these next few years.

 

B) Expensive special exhibits are often financial drains when compared to the potential alternative uses of these same funds.

Despite clear data that utilizing special exhibits to cultivate visitation is an ineffective long-term strategy and has particularly costly and detrimental consequences for organizations, many VSOs (and museums, in particular), get wrapped up in this bad, bad practice when times get tight.

In my world, we refer to organizations that prioritize special exhibits over building affinity for permanent collections as committing “blockbuster suicide.” And – though I won’t throw any organizations under the bus by mentioning their names – I’ll bet that you can think of an organization or two that has “committed suicide” in this way and is now in quite a financial pickle.  These museums train even their closest constituents to wait for expensive exhibits in order to motivate a return visit. Not only is this plan ineffective and ridiculously short-sighted, but it’s also very expensive.

In an economy that increasingly relies on maximizing earned revenues from a finite audience, the margin of financial success is very small. Many organizations cannot afford expensive vanity projects that do little to improve net revenues but add significant costs to their financial model.  Alternative uses of funds that focus on improving the visitor experience frequently realize better returns than the costs to actualize a “special” exhibit.  While many organizations have become very astute at calculating per capita revenues, it may also be wise to similarly calculate the per capita operating costs attendant to serving your visitors.  We reliably observe that exhibits increase per capita operating costs at a level that exceeds any short-term increase in per capita revenues.  In other words, there is little evidence to recommend the viability of special exhibits as a sustainable revenue maximization strategy.

 

C) Visitor-serving organizations that discount to increase word of mouth and drive attendance experience the backlash of negative reputational equities.

What about social media? Can’t we use that to drive attendance? Yes, data suggest that utilizing social media to increase reputation in order to drive attendance is effective and indeed you should! However, when times get tight financially, we see many organizations resort to offering discounts via social media…and offering discounts via social media is a big mistake. This practice cultivates a “market addiction” that has long-term, negative consequences on the health of your organization.

Moreover, the more steeply you discount, the less likely visitors are to return. (Here’s the data again). People also tend to value what they pay for. Those who visit your organization at a discount are also statistically less satisfied with their experience and report more negative reviews than those who come in at full price (Hey, you devalued your brand first!). So much for crossing your fingers for better word of mouth as the result of a discount…

 

 

2) Now look at how most organizations decide how to price for admission:

Many organizations price their admissions based on what we at IMPACTS have termed “unintentional collusion.” Take a look back in time to your most recent conversation about pricing. The origin of your pricing framework probably went something like this:

IMPACTS unintentional collusion pricing

This happens because organizations misunderstand a fundamental principle of pricing.

Museums actually have different reputational equities and thus differing values that the market is willing to pay for a unique experience. If you’re a zoo that is charging the same admission as a nearby children’s museum (or vice versa), then your organization may be ignorantly “leaving money on the table” by relying on the comparative price of a neighboring or “like” organization. Each museum actually has an optimal price index (often best derived as the result of data-based price analyses) wherein the optimal price to visit an organization maximizes revenues without demeaning attendance potential. Along these same lines (and for the reasons stated above), I’d like to offer up a concept that is increasingly critical for the long-term health and vitality of many VSOs:

The amount of revenue that your organization secures is more important than the amount of attendees that walk through your door.

Many executive leaders and board members have a shockingly hard time understanding this necessary – and completely pragmatic – evolution in visitor-serving “business” practices. Many have been hardwired over time to think of success as the number of people that walk through the door. (Why do we even think this way anyway?! It’s an outdated preoccupation with a relatively meaningless nonprofit output.)

The most direct and savvy way to reap the benefits of your labors cultivating evangelists and working to increase your reputation?  Utilizing it to increase your revenue. And when attendance plateaus at the time that your brand is at its most premium, the most efficient way to do this is to adjust your admission price accordingly.

 

3) Optimized pricing will necessitate conversations about affordable access programming that serves lower-income and other underserved constituencies (in other words, programming that actually works)

If your organization has been value-advantaged (“leaving money on the table”) when it comes to your admission price, then raising the price of tickets may, indeed, increase the barrier for low-income households to attend your organization. Because affordable access is often a key part of many organizations’ missions – or even required in order to be eligible for certain grants and government funding opportunities –  getting smarter about pricing will mean getting smarter about affordable access programs as well.

Experience at IMPACTS has shown time and time again that many affordable access programs are extremely inefficient. Specifically, many affordable access programs achieve startlingly little in terms of providing targeted benefit to low-income households and, instead, allow discounted access to those who would otherwise be able and willing to pay full price. These programs are neither capturing low-income households, nor are they increasing revenues so that museums may more effectively and efficiently fulfill their missions. They are glorified discount programs that organizations offer so that they may check off a symbolic box of “affordable access.”

As visitor-serving organizations realize the need to pay attention to pricing and maximize their investments, there will be incentive to re-evaluate affordable access programs so that they actually work. Namely, that they provide an opportunity for low-income households and other targeted underserved audiences to visit the organization without concurrently discounting admission for those who would be willing to pay full price for your unique experience.

All of this is a long way of saying that nonprofit organizations are finally going to have to think about money and stop defending outdated nonprofit dogmas that tend to demonize revenue as a “necessary evil.”  Museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts and other cultural organizations are big business – accounting for $135 billion in annual economic activity and more than 4.1 million jobs.  Instead of considering volume of visitation as a key performance indicator, we ought to instead focus on meaningful outcomes and recognize that our collective ambitions to achieve social good require revenues.  In other words, there is no mission without money. 

 

*Photo credit: Telegraph, AP (The photo choice has nothing to do with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s pricing!)

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