People Trust Museums More Than Newspapers. Here Is Why That Matters Right Now (DATA)

Actually, it always matters. But data lend particular insight into an important role that audiences want museums to play Read more

The Top Seven Macro Trends Impacting Cultural Organizations

These seven macro trends are driving the market for visitor-serving organizations. Big data helps spot market trends. The data that Read more

The Three Most Overlooked Marketing Realities For Cultural Organizations

These three marketing realities for cultural organizations may be the most urgent – and also the most overlooked. This Read more

Are Mobile Apps Worth It For Cultural Organizations? (DATA)

The short answer: No. Mobile applications have been a hot topic for a long while within the visitor-serving industry. Read more

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 Read more

Market to Adults (Not Families) to Maximize Attendance to Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Marketing to adults increases visitation even if much of your current visitation comes from people visiting with children. Here’s Read more

IMPACTS data

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


Hint: It’s not seeing exhibits or performances. (That is a distant second.)

In our attempt to provide educational and inspiring programs, organizations may be overlooking their role as facilitators of shared experiences. Check out this “Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts” video for the run-down.

As it turns out, with > what.

This doesn’t mean that our exhibits, programs, and performances are unimportant! But it does mean that organizations may be better able to engage audiences by realizing that who people are with is often more important that what they see when they visit a cultural organization such as a museum, performing arts organization, science center, historic site, aquarium, zoo, etc.

Check out this data from IMPACTS. This information comes form the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study, which is an ongoing data set with 98,000 responses and counting.

IMPACTS- With over what data

You’ll notice that “time with friends and family” is more than twice as valued as the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization than is “seeing/interacting with exhibits/programs.” In the data world, that is a huge difference. Heck, in any comparative world, that is a huge difference! And, in fact, “interacting with staff/volunteers/performers” is just behind seeing exhibits and performances…further underscoring the importance of interaction and connection with people.

In today’s world, cultural organizations are especially valuable hubs for connection and interaction – not only with onsite content – but with one another.

Our “stuff” is important. Knowing that we are places of connection may be just as – if not more – important. When armed with this information, cultural organizations may be better able to create programs that harness the power of with > what.

Isn’t it interesting that in our age of glowing screens and new technologies, it is the areas of the visitation experience that underscore “real life connection” that are increasingly the most important?

 

Like this video? You can check out more on my YouTube channel. Here are a few Fast Fact post 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 updates and information, follow me on Twitter

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 4 Comments

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

Free Days Do Not Reach Underserved Audiences

In reality, free days often do the very opposite of mission work. Here’s the data.

This post is going to make people angry. And that’s a good thing. Get angry. Being challenged helps us think critically and evolve our strategies to more effectively serve our missions and audiences.

I made some folks angry when I shared data and pointed out the compelling economic research behind why free admission is not a cure-all for getting folks to visit cultural organizations. How much does free admission really affect attendance? Turns out, not all that much. I’ve also pointed out that admission pricing is a science (not an art), and how admission pricing is such an emotional topic for cultural organizations is because we confuse admission with affordable access programming. As a sector, we cultural organizations often really mess that up.

Today I’d like to share another data-based finding that should turn our traditional business strategies upside down: Free admission days do not usually engage affordable access audiences. In fact, data suggest that free days often accomplish the very opposite of their intended purpose for many cultural organizations.

Here are four, data-informed realities regarding free days for cultural organizations. (This includes museums, aquariums, zoos, theaters, symphonies, historic sites, etc.) It’s time to face some realities and put on our collective thinking caps…

 

1) Admission price is not usually the primary barrier to visitation

When contemplating a free program or event, many organizations mistakenly believe that, “If we build it, they will come.” It is a line from a great movie, but it’s an ineffective business practice. Admission price usually isn’t the primary barrier to engagement for non-visiting audiences. It just happens to be our most convenient excuse.

True primary barriers for non-visiting audiences usually revolve around other factors than simply cost. These often include things like reputation (i.e. they just aren’t interested in the content and programs), transportation and parking (“How are we going to get everyone together and get there?”), or schedule (“That’s awesome that you have a free day on Tuesday. I have to work on Tuesday.”) When the primary barrier to visitation is anything other than admission price, then having a free day becomes relatively irrelevant. An admission fee is straightforward, but for many potential visitors, other barriers are the most challenging part of the visitation equation.

When we think that making something free means that everyone will come, then we are assuming that visiting us is the most important thing in every potential visitor’s life after cost savings. We all know that’s not true… and, somehow, we still resist thinking critically about primary barriers to entry. We aren’t taking the time to do the necessary market research that enables us to be more responsive to audience needs. Sometimes admission really is a big barrier to entry. Yes – money is precious. Many organizations seem to know this. But time is precious, too. Too many organizations seem to forget this.

 

2) Free days attract higher earning and higher educated audiences than paid attendance days

This is a hard pill to swallow: For most organizations, data suggest that people who visit on free days actually have higher household incomes and educational attainment than people who visit on non-free days. For many organizations, free days are reaching a relatively small number of true affordable access audiences – and a whole heck of a lot of people who could pay to support your organization through regular admission or membership instead.

Check out this data from IMPACTS that is collected from 48 cultural organizations that offer regular, scheduled free days in an effort to reach affordable access audiences. The sample represents museums, performing arts organizations, and other visitor-serving organizations.

Annual household income on free days- IMPACTS

Educational attainment on free days- IMPACTS

The common, defensive response to this data is to make an excuse and say that this data does not apply to your organization’s free days. After all, you may have attended your organization’s free day and you saw a lot of folks who seemed like they might be affordable access audiences. Indeed, you probably did – but you probably didn’t truly see as many affordable access audience members as you would see on a paid admission day when you weren’t looking for affordable access audiences. This topic may be our industry’s best example of confirmation bias.  Free days engaging higher earning households instead of affordable access audiences is the rule – not the exception. At IMPACTS, we are asked to supply this kind of information to many grant-making entities. So please, instead of making excuses, do your organization a favor and actually look into this situation. Increasingly, smart grant-making entities are catching onto these things and are aching to see programs that actually engage the targeted audience segments.

 

3) Free days engender less trial from new audiences than paid admission days

Why do folks visiting on free days have higher household income levels? One of the reasons is because data suggest that the folks actually attending free days are more likely to be repeat visitors than on paid attendance days- and repeat visitors often profile as higher-income high propensity visitors. The people who attend free days for cultural organizations have usually visited the organization before, and the free day is simply accelerating their pace of re-visitation.

Repeat visitors on free days- IMPACTS

“Great!” you may say. “We are getting folks to come back!” But now think about this: These people are coming back for free and they are higher earners who could have been converted into members. “Free” actually provides an incentive for your most likely and loyal audiences to visit you again. These are the very same people who – with proper cultivation – likely profile as potential members. Free days directly cannibalize membership opportunities and do not engender increased trial from underserved audiences. 

You may notice a few audience members that you believe to represent your organization’s underserved audiences roaming your halls on a free day. But keep in mind, you’re likely looking for these types of people on these days. (There likely are some affordable access audience members- just fewer than there are on paid admission days.) Instead of offering proof of the efficacy of your initiative, these sightings are more likely a classic case of confirmation bias (i.e. the tendency to search for data that confirms one’s hopes or preconceptions). When considered in the relative context of total attendance, many free days don’t engage a higher percentage of first-time visitors than do non-free days.

 

4) Cultural organizations do not generally target affordable access audiences for free days

This fact is basic, overlooked, and often a driving reason for the last two conditions: A majority of organizations don’t even reach out to affordable access audiences regarding their free days. Instead, we tend to target high-propensity visitors- the people we know how to target. Here’s an entire article on the data behind why cultural organizations have such a hard time attracting low-income visitors on free and reduced admission days. 

In a nutshell: Underserved audiences are not in your database. These audience members are not likely on your email list (they are underserved!), in direct mailings (you don’t know their names!), or following you on social media (they don’t visit you!). Many of them also may not be subscribers to the local newspaper (depending on the demographic subscribed to that newspaper). When we use our traditional communication channels to spread messages about free days, we are often primarily connecting with high-propensity visitors instead of underserved audiences.

But we don’t make affordable access promotions available primarily to upper middle-class, educated people because we’re stupid. We often use these channels because we don’t want to lose even more money. Reaching real affordable access audiences is a true investment. It often involves buying advertising that specifically targets those audiences who do not generally engage with your earned and social media programming. It occasionally requires creating programs that do not interest traditional audiences. It means spending money so that audiences who are not likely to provide any significant financial support can engage with your organization and not contribute admission revenue on top of it.

Many organizations may be relatively comfortable with the notion of needing to spend money to make money. But affordable access programs often require spending money to better achieve our missions… and lots more money than a loss of a day of revenue.

 

In a way, many organizations unknowingly do free days to feel better about themselves and their missions – not because they work.

This doesn’t mean that free days are always a bad idea. Sometimes the situation is complicated and that’s when having a free day could logically be on the table as a smart move. For instance, a government entity may request access for locals in order to provide significant support.

We will only create effective programs that reach underserved audiences when we realize that many past practices have been largely inadequate at achieving the very outcomes that they are created to achieve. The fact that underserved audiences exist at all means that, well, we haven’t been effectively engaging all of our potential audiences – even when we’re free.

 

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

 

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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 21 Comments

Devastating Defenses: Five Common Excuses Sabotaging Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Devastating Defenses: Five Common Excuses Sabotaging Cultural Organizations

Cultural organizations use these defenses almost daily – and they are having a devastating effect on our institutions.

We live in a connected and constantly evolving world. Keeping up can be tough – and being cutting edge in developing new business strategies that actually aid in mission execution and long-term solvency sometimes feels overwhelming for cultural organizations such as museums, theaters, aquariums, symphonies, zoos, botanic gardens and historic sites. Our common industry response often seems to be to create more technology for technology’s sake – a distraction that allows us to show fancy things to board members that don’t necessarily help us achieve our goals…but they touch on something “digital” so they seem to scratch the superficial “we need to evolve” itch.

It leaves me frequently wondering: Why don’t we do much to really change our business strategies? Why don’t we talk more about changing membership structures and the informed economics of special exhibits instead of window dressing like mobile applications?

Here are the five most common defenses that I observe as excuses for failing to innovate and evolve. Let’s stop talking about how the dog ate our homework and get busy educating and inspiring audiences. It’s going to mean eliminating these five phrases from our daily dialogue.

 

1) “That does not apply to me!”

My colleagues and I frequently encounter this pervasive and poisonous “defense” when exploring data and attendant implications with various visitor-serving organizations that are having a difficult time adapting to change. Instead of thinking critically about findings, folks often say, “I’m not a museum, I’m a theater…so this could not possibly apply to me!” Even worse is something like this, “I’m not a children’s museum, I’m an art museum!” or “We’re not a symphony, we play jazz!” or “We aren’t a science museum, we’re a science center!” or “That science museum is in San Francisco and we’re in Texas. It’s completely different!”

This doesn’t just happen with visitor-serving industry data (which is drawn from organizations that generally have the same bottom lines of mission execution and financial solvency based largely on onsite engagement) – organizations seem to do this for every kind of data, including market data. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we make excuses for why we shouldn’t think critically about the applicability of data from every industry…especially data from our own industry.

Here’s what many cultural organizations have in common that fundamentally ties them together: Cultural, visitor-serving organizations are entities whose solvency relies upon attracting attendees and garnering financial support from advocates interested in the organization’s cause. At IMPACTS, we keep looking for big differences between visitation to various cultural organizations, and we find that the differentiation is often simply the content provided by each organization. Best practices remain fairly similar. Are all VSOs the same? Of course not – but these entities rely upon providing physical, social, and emotional experiences, and data suggest that makes these organizations unique as a group. Please don’t short sell your organization by dismissing data that is inconvenient. The world is full of emerging ideas and trends. Our industry needs more market data on the whole. Knowing what is going on in the world is part of our job as professionals.

Here’s my challenge to you: If you catch yourself ever saying, “Well, there’s no way that’s true for my organization for XYZ reason,” then pause and regroup. You may be right, but then ask yourself, “Wait. Am I sure of that?”

 

2) “But we are a nonprofit!”

When visitor-serving organizations don’t like nonprofit data, they sometimes say, “But we operate more like a for-profit!”…and when for-profit best practices surface, the inevitable rebuttal is, “But we are a nonprofit!” It’s a vicious habit wherein cultural enterprise put themselves in a never-ending position to “deny” themselves out of the realities of change and the need to keep up with the rest of the world.

Today, nonprofit organizations compete directly with private companies and audiences are largely sector agnostic. We don’t “own” social good, and data suggest that a majority of your visitors likely have no idea that your organization is nonprofit in the first place. Here’s a reminder of that data.

IMPACTS perception of VSOs as nonprofit

 

3) “Most industry changes have to do with marketing or technology or added tasks for lower-level staff. That is not my role!”

This is probably the mother of all uninformed, defensive excuses and arguably is the one most threatening to cultural organizations. Industry evolution is particularly critical for the leaders of visitor-serving organizations in all departments. Because the Web informs much of the world that we live in today, some leaders ignorantly shrug off these conversations, mistakenly thinking, “This isn’t my job.” The information age that we live in affects everything – and, increasingly, treating conversations with the word “digital” as someone else’s responsibility is doing nothing but making those professionals less qualified for their own jobs. In fact, the way that our industry approaches “digital” within higher level leadership may be the very thing keeping “digital from being effective.

So please, as you peruse the Web and go about your day, resist any potential desire to skip important articles, thinking, “This relates only to marketing” or, “I’ll just pass this along to a Coordinator.” It doesn’t and please don’t (without considering it first for yourself). Even the role of marketing has changed in today’s world. Hint: It is no longer a service department.

This excuse is likely why industry leaders are not often at conferences aiming to discuss industry evolution. Many leaders believe that “industry evolution” means “creating more mobile apps” – which, of course, is a huge miss.

Speaking of conferences…

 

4) “Let us share that failed project at [industry conference] and frame it as huge success!”

Of course, people don’t say that directly (that I know of…). But when you dig into 990s and look at them alongside presentations at conferences, it becomes clear that many institutions are actually sharing their current 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.

Sadly, this response makes complete and total 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 it’s 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 manner, but it helps position us as ‘experts’ in our industry! To prove it, we’ll share it at [insert industry conference].”

I’m not saying it’s not messed up, but I am saying that the fear of calling a 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. 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

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” harder than spotting a sundress at Nordstrom Rack in the wintertime. It might be there – but you’ll have to search long and hard for it.

While excuses are prevalent in the industry, there are many excellent examples of organizations doing forward-facing things. It’s a shame that those examples are scarce and diluted by so many glorious funeral ceremonies for failures disguised as successes at conferences.

 

5) “Let us be leaders! But first find me a similar institution in our area who has already done it.”

This one may be a matter of courage and, again, a matter of pleasing key stakeholders. To be a leader, somebody needs to step forward and lead. Leading involves investment and risk. If you have a great idea for a program and you have market data to indicate that it may be effective in helping to reach your organizational goals, make like Nike and just do it.

I’ve worked with organizations that have devised entire strategies and then sat on them because they wanted another organization to do it first. It’s okay (and actually important) to do things that the Monterey Bay Aquarium, San Diego Zoo, LA Philharmonic, Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Smithsonian Institution aren’t doing yet. These organizations can be amazing examples of institutions doing incredible things, but they – like any organization- can be terrible models.

Perhaps all of these excuses and defenses are failures of courage. Times are hard for cultural organizations and maybe we just need a little bit more love. Running a cultural organization today is hard. Very hard. And perhaps we don’t always give credit where it’s due.

It’s time that we acknowledge the hard work of inspiring engagement within cultural organizations and own up to our shortcomings. Let’s knock it off with these five excuses. They deny our organizations the benefit of our critical thinking and leadership.

 

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

 

Please subscribe over on the right hand column to get KYOB posts delivered right into your email inbox. Interested in getting tips and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

Photo credit goes to TravelPod member Eundel

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 6 Comments

Why Discounting Hurts Your Cultural Organization And What To Do Instead (Fast Fact Video)

Discounts don’t do what organizations think that they do…

Check out this week’s KYOB Fast Facts video to get the two-minute low-down on discounts verse promotions (Hint: promotions are a much better idea – and, yes, they are extremely different). 

Discounting Is Bad Business For Cultural Organizations

It’s true: “Getting discounts” is often cited as the top reason why many people engage with an organization’s social media channels. So it seems logical that if you want to bump your number of fans and followers, offering discounts is a surefire way to go. And it works – if your sole measure of success is chasing these types of meaningless metrics. But, before you go crazy with discount offers on social networks just to get your “likes” up, here’s another thing that’s true: Offering discounts – especially via public social media channels – cultivates a “market addiction” that often has long-term, negative consequences on the health of your organization. In many ways, offering discounts creates a vicious cycle whereby a visitor-serving organization realizes and ever-diminishing return on the value visitation.

A discount is when an organization offers free or reduced admission to broad, undefined audiences for no clearly identifiable reason. Offering discounts devalues your brand and often makes it look like your organization’s admission isn’t priced correctly in the first place. This is generally true for discounts delivered via all channels, but discounts breed a special type of pervasive problem when they are offered on the digital platforms. When an organization provides discounts, it often results in five not-so-awesome outcomes:

 

1) You verify that your communication channels are sources for discounts and, thus, encourage your community to expect these discounts

Posting a discount to attract more followers on a social media channel (or to get people to engage with a social media competition, etc.) will very likely result in a bump in likes and engagement. But know that in doing this, you are verifying that your social media channel is a source for discounts.

Discounting attracts low-level engagers who are more likely to be following your channels for a discount than they are for any reason related to your mission. It is far better for your brand and bottom line to have 100 fans who share and interact with your content to create meaningful relationships than it is to have 1,000 fans who simply like you for a discount.

I can hear the rumbling now: Some of you are thinking, “But we’ve used discounts to attract more likes and it worked” (i.e. it generated more likes on social media). That’s not surprising at all. Over time, however, these low-level engagers may stop following you or simply disengage if you do not continue to offer discounts. That is, after all, the reason why they followed you in the first place…and you have shown them that, yes, indeed, you will post discounts on social media.

Generally, these people are not actual evangelists – and cultivating real evangelists to build a strong online community is the whole point of social media. You want folks who actually care about what you’re doing.

 

2) Your community will wait for discounts before deciding to visit, thereby altering visitation cycles

Data indicate that offering coupons on social media channels – even once – causes people to postpone their visits or wait until you offer another discount before visiting you again. Worse yet, the new discount generally needs to be perceived as a “better” offer (i.e. an even greater discount) to motivate a new visit. This observation is consistent with many aspects of discount pricing psychology, whereby a stable discount is perceptually worth “less” over time. In other words, the same 20% discount that motivated your market to visit last month will likely have a diminishing impact when re-deployed. Next time, to achieve the same outcome, your organization may have to offer a 35% discount…and then a 50% discount, etc. You see where I’m going with this…

 

3) You are not necessarily capturing new visitation with discounts

In fact, data from IMPACTS suggests that many of the folks using your discount were likely to visit anyway…and pay full price! This is a classic example of an ill-advised discounting strategy “leaving money on the table.”

“But visitation increased when we offered a discount!” you say. But did it really? The average person in the United States visits a cultural center once every 19 months. When an organization offers a discount, it is rarely actually attracting larger volume of visitation to the organization. Instead, the organization is often simply accelerating its audience’s re-visitation cycle on a one-time basis. This sounds great…until the organization realizes the significant downside to this happening: Your audience just visited your organization without paying the full price that they were actually willing to pay and  likely won’t visit your organization again for (on average) another 19 months. 

Think of it this way: A visitor coming to your organization in May may be (on average) likely visit to again the following December (i.e. in 19 months). Let’s say that you offer them a discount that motivates them to visit in October instead of December. Now, you’ve linked their intentions to visit to a discount offer and decoupled it from what should be their primary motivation – your content and mission! And, by doing so, you’ve created an environment where content as a motivator has become secondary to “the deal.” In other words, you will have moved your market from their regular visitation cycle to a visitation cycle dependent on an ever-increasing discount. Can your organization afford to keep motivating visitation in this way?

A note: Different organizations generally have different visitation cycles. 19 months is a US average. Regardless of how many months make up your organization’s visitation cycle, discounting disrupts that cycle and partners it with a perceived “deal.”

 

4) Discounts actually decrease the likelihood of re-vistation

What of the idea that discounts get people to try your organization and become regular attendees? It’s largely a myth. In fact, the steeper discount, the less likely folks are to re-visit within one year. This is classic pricing psychology at play: People value what they pay for. If your organization’s admission price is set at an optimal point, then your organization has largely removed price as a barrier to engagement, and discounting actually does the exact opposite of what many organizations think that it’s doing. That “discounted trial” that some organizations believe that they are offering falls flat because the folks who profile as being likely attendees are able and willing to pay the full price. Your organization is demonstrating that it devalues its brand and, in turn, audiences devalue your brand.

Hey. You started it.

IMPACTS-Revisitation and discounts

 

5) Your organization becomes addicted to discounting

Organizations sometimes confuse the response (i.e. a visit) to the stimuli (i.e. a discount) with efficacy. Once a discount has been offered to motivate a visit, we regularly witness the market “holding out” for another discount before visiting again. And what are organizations doing while the market waits for this new discount? Often times the answer is that they are panicking.

If you run an organization that offers discounts, you’ve probably spent some time in this uncomfortable space – we observe the market’s behavior (or, in this case, their lack of behavior), and begin to get anxious because attendance numbers are down. What’s a quick fix to ease the pain of low visitation? Another discount! So we offer this discount…and, in the process, reward the market for holding out for the discount to begin with. That is the insidious thing about many discounting strategies: They actually train your audience to withhold their regular engagement, and then reward them for their constraint. We feed their addiction and, in turn, we become addicted ourselves to the short-term remedy that is “an offer they can’t refuse.”

Like most addictive – but ultimately deleterious – activities, there is no denying that discounts “work” – provided that your sole measure of the effectiveness of a discount is its ability to generate a short-term spike in visitation or increase low-level social media “likes.” But, once the intoxicating high of a crowded gallery or filled theater has passed, very often all that we’re left with is a nasty hangover.

 

Promotions are a better strategy

“But aren’t promotions pretty much the same thing as discounts?” No. They aren’t. Many organizations fail to stop and consider the differences between discounts and promotions and, specifically, the different effects that each has on the perceptions of the cultural organization offering the opportunity. If your organization confuses the two, then you’ll likely end up paying the price. Literally.

Promotions offer a targeted benefit for certain audiences for an identifiable reason. The biggest difference between promotions and discounts may be how they are each perceived. As previously mentioned, discounts offer free or reduced admission to a broad, undefined audience for no apparent reason. Promotions celebrate your community. Examples of promotions may include reduced admission for mothers on Mother’s Day, a pricing special to celebrate a new program, or a reduced admission day for local audiences. 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 your organization’s flailing attempts to hit specific attendance numbers at the expense of its brand and mission, and the other is more about your organization’s relationship with target audiences and communities.

Promotions make people say, “Wow, I feel valued by this organization!” Discounts make people say, “Hey, I got in cheap.” The approach that respects both the organization and its community beats out the short-sighted discount strategy when it comes to increasing long-term visitation.

 

Want to see more Fast Fact videos? Subscribe to my YouTube channel, or check them out here:

 

 Please subscribe over on the right hand column to get KYOB posts delivered right into your email inbox. Interested in getting tips and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing Comments Off on Why Discounting Hurts Your Cultural Organization And What To Do Instead (Fast Fact Video)

How to Engage New and Diverse Audiences in Cultural Organizations (DATA)

How to engage new audiences in cultural institutions

Cultural organizations need to reach new audiences or they risk their long-term survival. Here’s the data-informed cheat sheet on how to do it.

I am excited to have had the opportunity to recently speak at MuseumNext at its first stateside conference. My talk was called Inclusion or Irrelevance: The Data Behind The Urgent Need to Reach New Audiences. (Here’s a link to a video of the talk.) And, indeed, that need is desperately urgent. Here’s a strategic framework for how to do it.

 

Why cultural organizations need to reach new audiences

At IMPACTS, I work on projects that help keep visitor-serving organizations solvent. My experience is that non-executives hate “solvency” talk. It seems almost evil and at-odds with mission to some (it’s not). It also demands accountability. However, smart executives understand its necessity – an organization cannot invest in its mission or people if it has nothing to invest.

While “inclusion” may immediately strike many as “mission work,” it’s increasingly a business requirement. Here’s why:

A) The US population is increasing, but visitation is on the decline.

Not only that: High-propensity visitors are increasing and attendance remains in decline. A high-propensity visitor is a person who demonstrates the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization.

High-propensity visitors are potential visitors that are actually likely to come to a cultural organization. As you can see, we are in an even more target-rich environment than we were 5 years ago and attendance has still declined in that same duration. It’s a big problem.

IMPACTS VSO US attendance vs HPVs

Below is the same data contemplated in another way. This is what this data looks like when we consider how these markets are performing when compared to expectation over the last 5 years. Considering the growth of high-propensity visitors, here’s how much cultural organizations are underperforming the opportunity:

IMPACTS VSO attendance performance vs expectation

B) This is in large part due to the negative substitution of the historic visitor.

First of all, a “historic visitor” is different than a high-propensity visitor. High-propensity visitors have potential to visit; historic visitors are people who actually do visit. All historic visitors are high-propensity visitors, but not all high-propensity visitors fit the profile of our average historic visitor.

Today, for every one historic visitor that leaves the market, they are being replaced with less than one visitor. Or, for every thousand people leaving the market, only 948 similar historic visitors are replacing them.

IMPACTS negative substitution

Let’s say that we keep doing exactly what most organizations are doing today (i.e. having a few one-off inclusion programs here and there and not making a more sustained investment in engaging these audiences). If we keep on our current path, an organization in the United States that has one million onsite visitors today would only stand to engage 808,000 historic visitors five years from now. In other words, negative substitution would suggest an onsite audience decline of 192,000 visitors for this hypothetical organization in the next five years.

For many organizations, this situation can all be generalized in one, honest sentence: America is producing fewer and fewer rich, educated, white people – the broad cohort that has been the historic visitor, member, and donor for many organizations.

This is the current glide path. To remedy this condition, we must change the profile of our historic visitor. We need to convert potential visitors in emerging audience groups to ACTUAL visitors. This means making them not our special visitors, but our regular, paying (if you have admission) visitors, supportive members, and donors.

This is a big deal. As far as we know, cultural organizations in America have never, ever changed the general profile of their historic visitor. Those rich white folks have largely provided the support that keeps these types of organizations going.

 

C) Organizations must cultivate new visitors from three emerging audience groups.

We need to pull new audiences from these three audiences in order to achieve long-term solvency:

  1. Millennials
  2. “Minority majorities” (generally, people of ethnic and racial backgrounds that differ from historic visitors)
  3.  Affordable access audiences

All three of these audiences are important. However, millennials and minority majorities represent the key demographics wherein high-propensity visitors are increasing, but these same folks aren’t converting to actual visitation in representative numbers. So the first two groups represent more immediate opportunity and payoff.

The good news is that organizations will experience positive substitution in the future as emerging audiences acculturate – so long as organizations begin engaging them today. However, the realistic news is this: Cultivating new visitors is going to take time and it needs to start now.

 

Taking a MAPS approach to integrating new audiences helps cultivate regular attendees and supporters 

So how do we convert emerging audiences into regular audiences? We use MAPS. MAPS is a data-informed framework for tackling the challenge of engaging emerging audiences. This framework is equally applicable to all organizations regardless of size, city, and operating budget. It focuses on four elements: Highlighting your mission, understanding access barriers and opportunities, providing personalized programs, and facilitating shared experiences.

MAPS a framework for engaging emerging audiences

1) (Underscore your) MISSION

Being good at your mission matters. Organizations that highlight their mission consistently outperform organizations that market themselves primarily as attractions. The best way to show this data is using two, composite metrics:

Revenue efficiency contemplates revenue streams (including admission, membership contributions, and program revenues) relative to operating expenses and the number of people that an organization serves.  A more “revenue efficient” organization is generally more financially stable.

Reputational equities contemplate visitor perceptions such as reputation, trust, authority, credibility, and satisfaction. Basically, it’s the market’s opinion of how well an organization delivers its mission and experiences.

In the interest of maintaining appropriate confidences, I’ve anonymized the organizations represented. You’ll still get a good sense of the trend. Each letter represents one of 13 notable US museums.

IMPACTS- Museums revenue and reputation correlation

We reliably observe that those organizations who the market perceives as most effectively delivering on their mission are the same organizations who achieve the greatest revenue efficiencies. Since commenced tracking this metric several years ago, the data continue to evidence a strong correlation between reputational equities and revenue efficiency. Though the data shown here represents museums in particular, we observe a similar relationship among nearly all types of visitor-serving organizations – including zoos and aquariumsBeing good at your mission is good business.

 

2) (Understand your) ACCESS OPPORTUNITIES/BARRIERS

Identifying access opportunities means finding out why emerging audiences aren’t coming and removing those barriers. You can only figure this out by asking the people who aren’t coming why they aren’t coming.

On the whole, visitor-serving organizations pride themselves on their understanding of the need to do audience research. Indeed, many organizations have in-house capacities for audience research. Organizations need to shift their focus from audience research to market research.

Often, true barriers are completely different than what an organization believes to be its barriers to engagement. True barriers may be reputation (specifically, affinity attitudes – or audiences believing that an organization is “not for people like me”). Reputation plays a very important role in visitation. Other barriers to engagement may include the timing of programs, hours of operation, or transportation barriers.

A word to the wise: Be careful about jumping to price as a primary barrier – it usually isn’t the sole barrier. Remember, we are trying to cultivate emerging audiences as regular visitors – not affordable access visitors – so do your organizations a favor and don’t jump to this “barrier” first. This is difficult, because price is usually where lazy organizations start the conversation. In other words, many organizations believe simply that if they build something, people will come…and if people don’t come, then it must be because of the price.

Making matters worse, “expensive” is also how lazy visitors fill out survey questions. When asked why they don’t attend a new program, many folks will simply report, “It’s too expensive.” Be wary of this response. Certainly, sometimes program fees ARE too expensive, but we can find our true barriers this by figuring out the end of this sentence: “It’s too expensive for….”.

“It’s too expensive for….” what? It may be “Too expensive for doing something that I think is boring.” It may be “Too expensive for missing dinner with my family.” It may be, “Too expensive for the time that I spend stuck in traffic to get there” or “Too expensive for the distance that I need to travel.” Uncovering the end of this sentence can help organizations pinpoint primary barriers.

In sum: It’s critical to know why people ARE NOT coming to your organization before you can even try to engage emerging audiences. Without this information, other programmatic investments may be a waste of resources.

 

3) (Create) PERSONALIZED PROGRAMS

Once your organization knows its true barriers, it can create programs that help to remove them.

Increasingly, we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world. Programs to reach emerging audiences are not one-off initiatives, but should be integrated into everything that an organization does. And personalization is affecting everything.

For example, personalization trends are affecting how people measure the satisfaction of their onsite experiences. Personalization affects how different audiences prefer to experience cultural organizations. It affects expectations for communication on social media and other online platforms. It also demands that communications and content are more targeted and connective. Perhaps most importantly, the preferences of different audience members demands full integration into day-to-day operations and support structures.

 

4) (Facilitate) SHARED EXPERIENCES

Shared experiences close the circle. This means allowing for sharing both onsite and digitally. HPVs profile as being “super-connected,” or, connected to the web at home, at work, and on mobile devices. Word of mouth endorsement is absolutely critical to this audience. Digital connectivity helps organizations tap into this cycle and allows successfully engaged audiences to communicate with their friends (who may also be emerging audience members).

Perhaps most importantly, the numbers are growing in regard to shared experiences being the best part of a visit for all audiences. Who people are with is more than twice as important than what people see when they visit a cultural organization.

IMPACTS with over what

That means that being places for creating connections – not just to collections, but to other people – is incredibly important. We must understand that our organizations themselves are facilitators of shared experiences. It is one of our greatest assets. It’s where that market believes that we shine.

 

Take this MAPS strategic framework. Use it as a road map. Fill it up with your own data-informed inputs.

We all need to work together to change up the profile of our “historic” visitor to better engage emerging audiences as our regular attendees and supporters. Let’s be places where everyone wants to visit and where everyone feels welcome. Only then can we achieve our missions while ensuring our long-term solvency.

 

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

 

Please subscribe over on the right hand column to get KYOB posts delivered right into your email inbox. Interested in getting tips and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Millennials, Sector Evolution, Trends 6 Comments

The Most Reliable Way To Increase Visitor Satisfaction To Cultural Organizations (Fast Fact Video)

It’s probably not what you think.

It isn’t a brand new wing or fancy new exhibit. Today’s KYOB Fast Facts video explains why providing a certain kind of interaction with frontline staff may well be a visitor-serving organization’s most impactful and reliable investment.

 

Words to know to be in-the-know:

 

Personal facilitated experience (PFE):

A one-to-one or one-to few-interaction between a staff member and visitors. This may include wayfinding aid, a cart experience, or any kind of personal attention paid to an individual, couple, or small family onsite. This does not include shows or group tours. Instead, PFEs are more personalized experiences. The thing that sets PFEs apart from other interactions between visitors and frontline staff (shows, tours, etc.) is that personal facilitated experiences provide personalization by way of personal attention. 

 

A look at the data

Here’s a closer look at the data from the video. Though this particular data is from one IMPACTS client that serves as an example, we are finding these types of interactions to be successful in increasing admission value, entertainment value, education value, and employee courtesy perceptions across the board.

IMPACTS- PFE admission value

IMPACTS- PFE entertainment experience

PFE educational experience

IMPACTS- PFE employee courtesy

In fact, PFEs are so successful in increasing visitor satisfaction that they can be used to elevate satisfaction perceptions by daypart. This may be particularly helpful if your organization is undergoing construction, setting up an event before closing, has an exhibit or program down, or has something else taking place that may otherwise negatively impact visitor perceptions.

PFE satisfaction by daypart

No matter how you cut it, deploying engaging frontline staff is a smart investment for increasing satisfaction and other visitor perception metrics. Let’s start the conversation here before we talk about blockbuster exhibits, expensive programs/exhibits, and draw out a plan for a new wing of the building.

 

Want to see more Fast Fact videos? Subscribe to my YouTube channel, or check them out here:

 

 Please subscribe over on the right hand column to get KYOB posts delivered right into your email inbox. Interested in getting tips and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

A deeper look at the data:

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

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

IMPACTS Affordability is binary

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

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

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

IMPACTS- General admission pricing analysis

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

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

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

 

Want to see more Fast Fact videos? Subscribe to my YouTube channel, or check them out here:

 

 Please subscribe over on the right hand column to get KYOB posts delivered right into your email inbox. Interested in getting tips and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

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

How Social Media Drives Visitation to Cultural Organizations (FAST FACT VIDEO)

Today marks the publication of the third-ever Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video. You can check out the first two videos here

How does social media play an important role in driving visitation to cultural organizations? It’s rather straightforward. The answer is in how these social platforms influence an organizations’ reputation. Take a closer look at the data introduced in today’s video below.

Here is how social media drives visitation in a big way:

 

1) Reputation plays a major role in motivating visitation.

This is especially true regarding high-propensity visitors.

What influences the visitation decision-making process- IMPACTS

 

2) Social media plays a major role in driving reputation.

What others say about an organization is more important in influencing an organization’s reputation than what the organization says about itself -12.85 TIMES more important! Makes sense if you think about it, right? Well, there’s actually math around it.

The value is an outcome of a diffusion model developed by IMPACTS to quantify the relative influence of imitation when compared to innovation on the adoption or trial of a product. Frank Bass pioneered this work in 1969 with the publication of his paper “A New Product Growth for Model Consumer Durables” and many persons and organizations – IMPACTS included – have iterated and expanded on this original work for various applications. Reliably, the average value of “q” has approximated 13x that of the average value “p.” The IMPACTS application of this method averages a “q” value that is 12.85x that of “p,” and, thus, I reference this specific value in instances informed by IMPACTS data.

Diffusion of messaging- IMPACTS

3) Thus, social media plays an important role in driving visitation.

There’s no functional amount of paid media that can overcome negative reviews – or a lack of reviews from trusted sources, for that matter. Effective social media strategy is critical for organizations aiming to maximize engagement.

It’s not an anecdote or a wish upon a star…it’s math.

 

Words to know to be in-the-know:

 

High-propensity visitors:

These are the folks who demonstrate the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood to visit a cultural organization. These are the people who actually go to museums, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, performing arts events, etc. In short, they are the market segment keeping your organization’s doors open.

Coefficient of innovation:

The “P” value in the diffusion model. The coefficient of innovation includes messages that your organization pays to say about itself. Examples include radio spots, television, and nearly all forms of traditional advertising.

Coefficient of imitation:

The “Q” value in the diffusion model. The coefficient of imitation includes reviews from trusted resources. Examples include earned media, peer-review sites (think Yelp and TripAdvisor), word of mouth and, of course, social media. Reputation is a driver of visitation,

 

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, Digital Connectivity, Fast Facts Video, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance (DATA)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

IMPACTS HPV time verses money

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

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

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

 

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

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

IMPACTS intent to visit by admission price

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

IMPACTS intent to revisit by admission price

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 27 Comments

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.

 

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

 

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

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