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

IMPACTS data

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,

 

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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:

 

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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

Visitation to Increase if Cultural Organizations Evolve Engagement Models (DATA)

Tipping pointAttendance to cultural centers is on the decline, but data suggest that forward-facing organizations may see improvements by 2020. Here’s why.

Overall, data suggest that attendance to visitor-serving organizations is in a general state of decline relative to population growth – and this may suggest a problem with the current visitor-serving organization business model. For organizations that fail to adapt their engagement strategies to respond to emerging audiences, there’s abundant reason to believe that their attendance levels may continue to stagnate or decline. However, data suggest that those organizations willing to evolve their thinking about emerging audiences and access programming stand to benefit by overcoming the negative substitution trends that are currently depressing attendance. There is a reasonable expectation that evolutionary, agile organizations will experience sustained increases in attendance as this century enters its second decade.

Here’s what your organization needs to know about negative substitution, acculturation, and access programming opportunities…and how they are shaping the future of visitor engagement:

1) Negative substitution of audiences is affecting attendance (and it is happening NOW)

While the US population continues to grow, the historic audiences of visitor-serving organizations (i.e. those audiences with the demographic, psychographic and behavioral attributes that indicate a propensity to visit) have been in a state of general decline. One of the reasons for this circumstance is the negative substitution of audiences. Negative substitution is quantified by a deficiency of “replacements” for the historic visitors who exit our markets. For every one person who exits the market, there is fewer than one person to replace him/her.

Currently, for every one high-propensity visitor to visitor-serving enterprise that leaves the market (through death, relocation, or migration), only 0.948 similar high-propensity visitors are entering the market (typically via birth or relocation). When people leave the market without a sufficient number of “replacements,” we have negative substitution.

Why is this happening? For one, affluent, educated white people (i.e. historic audiences) are having fewer children and/or getting older and/or relocating to emerging markets, and visitor-serving organizations on the whole have yet to sufficiently cultivate the engagement of a newer kind of high-propensity visitor. In other words, on the whole, we’ve done a relatively poor job becoming places where emerging audiences (e.g. millennials, Latinos, etc.) feel comfortable declaring “This place is for people like me.” We refer to this as attitude affinity – a perceptual measurement of if a particular market segment believes that an organization is welcoming to them.

Incidentally, emerging audiences (most commonly Latino and other historically underserved populations) are playing a major role in population growth. Historically “underserved” audiences are increasingly the mainstream audiences of the future…and failure to cultivate their engagement may risk a generational alienation from our organizations.

Ultimately, this downward trend demonstrates the failure of access programming within visitor-serving organizations. If the past few decades of access-motivated initiatives had been successful, then we would not be experiencing negative substitution. Instead, we would have cultivated these audience members to become our current visitors. Demographers and researchers have been writing about this inevitability for some time.  If our programming had proven responsive to this opportunity, then we would be experiencing audience visitation that increases alongside population growth. That’s not what’s happening.

 

2) Misunderstanding access programming jeopardizes long-term sustainability

Many organizations incorrectly consider “access” primarily in terms of affordability.  If simply offering a reduced admission was a cure-all to access issues, then very few organizations would still have underserved audiences at all.  The presence of a continually underserved audience indicates the failure of an organization’s access programming.  In the past, organizations could perhaps put access issues on the back burner and get it away with it – there were enough traditional high-propensity visitors to support the organization.  However, as the traditional market shrinks and historically underserved audiences grow to become an increasing majority, the issue of access can’t be de-prioritized any longer.  The future well-being of many visitor-serving organizations hinges on their ability to connect with these audiences. The reality is that effective access programming engenders trial and usage by cultivating new audiences as eventual regular visitors – an organization’s lifeblood.  Access isn’t primarily about price. It’s about eliminating every barrier to engagement.

Do the data suggest letting everyone visit for free?  No.  Of course not.  The data indicate that time is more valued than money for the vast majority of audiences.  A person thinking about visiting a zoo on a Saturday in June is very unlikely to delay their visit until a Tuesday in November simply because of cost.

Access programming is significantly less about affordability than strategic sustainability. This is where organizations are being inappropriately emotional about business matters, and misguided ideas about “affordability” are lessening the solvency of some organizations. Today, there exists compelling, data-informed science that suggest that cost is overstated as the primary barrier to engagement (schedule reliably trumps cost). Think of it this way: If $34.95 proves unaffordable to select audiences, so will $24.95 or $29.95…or any other realistic “discount” from the general admission basis. In terms of true affordability, nearly any price diminishes the visitation potential for our most affordability challenged audiences.

Price is not panacea when it comes to affordability. And affordability is not antidote for access. Price is a revenue optimization tool that provides organizations with the resources to support access programming that, in turn, cultivates the engagement of future audiences.

If you want to be relevant to the audience of tomorrow, you better be working to engage them today.

 

3) Acculturation improves future outlook (provided organizations update engagement models)

IMPACTS- HPV substitution ratios

But there’s hope! Check out this graph from IMPACTS. It demonstrates substitution ratios derived from a predictive modeling process for US visitor-serving organizations. The Y-axis indicates the antecedent term (the first value) in the substitution ratio.  Thus, an antecedent term <1.00 indicates negative substitution – for every one person exiting the market, there is less than one person to replace them.

Why does the trend improve in the future?  Acculturation. Emerging audiences tend to adopt “mainstream” behaviors over time – including, potentially, engaging with visitor-serving organizations such as museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts centers, etc.

Think of the observed differences between first, second, and third generation immigrants to the US. For example, the first generation of immigrants may not speak the language, may have gone to school overseas, may tend to live in clusters of like ethnicities, etc. The next generation was born and raised in the United States – and may be more acculturated than their parents…but still retain certain behaviors due to household customs (English as Second Language, etc.). However, the third generation tends to be even more acculturated, with fewer traces of “old country” behaviors.

Because population growth is being driven by births of second and third generation Americans, acculturation represents a tremendous opportunity to engage these emerging audiences – provided, of course, that organizations have cultivated a relationship with these audiences before they enter the mainstream. Significant research indicates that relationships with brands are often cast during a person’s early, formative years – a failure to cultivate the engagement of a less acculturated first or second generation audience member may effectively preclude the future engagement of a fully acculturated third generation audience member.

The good news about this data? Organizations that intelligently and diligently evolve their engagement models during this critical time stand to benefit from the positive impacts of acculturation in the near future. The perhaps challenging news? Organizations will need to be thoughtful and actively evolving before 2020 (i.e. the predicted “tipping point” in the audience acculturation projections) so as to cultivate the support of these future audiences before they enter the mainstream market.

This isn’t a “Let’s just wait until 2020 to get serious” situation. This is a “If you start thinking strategically and work hard now, then you’ll see a payoff in 2020” situation.

Interestingly (and unsurprisingly), technology accelerates acculturation. This means, of course, that utilizing digital platforms and cultivating real-time communications with emerging audiences is critical for organizations. This is also another compelling reason for leaders to listen to PR and social media staff members throwing around the word “innovation.” In many ways, the industry doesn’t need to “pivot” (that mindset created many of the challenges that visitor-serving organizations are facing today) – it needs to reset.

Organizations that invest in cultivating more strategic “access” models today will be able to take advantage of the engagement benefits suggested by the predicted acculturation trends. Yet again, the time-proven lesson proves true: You reap what you sow.

 

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