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making connections

Hubs for Human Connection: The Social Role of Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Hubs for Human Connection: The Social Role of Cultural Organizations

Heartbreaking tragedy has dominated the recent news. Monuments around the world shine brightly with the colors of the French flag, and conversations about the roles of cultural organizations to create common ground in diverse societies are in full swing.

Sometimes several data sets come together to highlight an overwhelming trend – like how personalization is affecting everything about the market’s experiences with cultural organizations. Another data-supported reality that resonates as all the more profound in light of the recent tragedy is this one: Successful cultural organizations today are actually all about connections to and between people.

Data suggest that at our best, cultural organizations are social and facilitate human connection. 

I’m not (only) talking about social media, or re-considering reverential silence policies in galleries or at concerts. I’m also talking about what people consider to be the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization (i.e. who they are with), and the most effective way to increase visitor satisfaction (i.e. more human connection).

Our collections, programs, and performances are important, but they are only important insofar as they inspire, educate and connect people. Here are five, data-informed reasons for cultural organizations (museums, aquariums, performing arts organizations, historic sites, botanic gardens, etc.) to take going social seriously and consider integrating it into everything that they do.

Side: I love it when data reveals positive things about human beings and human nature, so I share these types of data a lot. For those of you who are regular KYOB readers, you might consider this post a sort of “KYOB’s Greatest Hits.”


Human connectivity, folks…


1) It is the best thing about visiting a cultural organization

Data suggest that who visitors are with is often more important than what people see when they visit a cultural organization. Check out my Fast Facts video from last week for the quick run-down.

When it comes to visiting a cultural organization, with > what.

What is so compelling isn’t so much that visitors believe that spending time with friends and family is the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization. Indeed, what is so striking is the fact that who people are with is more than twice as important as what people see. That’s a whole heck of a difference. This data underscores the role of cultural organizations as facilitators of shared experience – a role that many organizations may overlook in favor of more object-centric programming that overvalue the isolated experience of a visitor. (You can read more about this data here).

IMPACTS- With over what data


2) It is how we want to experience cultural programming

I was with the IMPACTS team in a meeting with Stanford University discussing the engagement of students and community members alike in classical music. The group began discussing opportunities around “shaking up” the way that audiences experience classical music, and the merits of making the concert-going experience more “social.” One of the University’s leaders suddenly exclaimed, “It’s getting back to performing Handel in the same, social way that the music was experienced in Handel’s time!”

We all stopped in our tracks. We thought being social in this environment was more of a new idea. Lifting the demand for silence at certain programs? Serving food (chewing while listening)? World-class musicians performing important, inspiring, and moving pieces while mingling with listeners? Many might consider that sacrilegious! One can well imagine avowed classicists muttering under their breaths, “These uncultured young people are destroying classical music!”

In reality, the concept of orchestrating isolated cultural experiences in shared spaces is the relatively new idea. In Handel’s time, music was enjoyed socially – audiences ate, drank, and generally partook in all sorts of merriment while musicians filled the concert hall with beautiful melodies. Why is being social in shared spaces considered “new” when it is the very way that many types of art were intended to be enjoyed, discussed, and explored?

Perhaps it’s a classic case of “the more things change, the more that they stay the same.” Why would the idea of going social (at least in some contexts) be perceived as an attack on the arts?

After all (and for example), dedicated listening to classical music only accounts for 20.9% of all classical music listening activity – and the behavior doesn’t vary as dramatically between students (i.e. “young people”) and non-students as some might suspect. Some organizations may choose to focus their programmatic offerings to try to fit into that 20.9% of their audiences’ dedicated listening time…but why not create programs to include the other 79.1%?

The data below represents the classical music listening behaviors of 915 undergraduate students, and 2,115 non-student adults living in the San Francisco Designated Market Area. The commonality of behavior is particularly interesting as students and non-students spend 79.1% and 82.8% of their time (respectively) listening to classical music while also doing something else.

IMPACTS- classical music listening behaviors

These data are particularly interesting because they indicate self-selected cultural behaviors – classical music listeners (arguably among the most “traditional” of contemporary cultural participants) report that only about 1/3 of their time spent engaging with content is experienced in a state of solitude (e.g. dedicated listening or while reading). The balance of their engagement invites connection and a public context – while traveling, while dining, while cooking, while exercising. For the vast majority of time for its listeners, classical music accompanies another activity or supports a social context…it is not a dedicated activity.

Yet, too many organizations that present classical music create environments focused solely on dedicated listening, and, indeed, actively dissuade a social context. And these organizations are not alone – there seems to exist a false dogma in some organizations that dedicated, solitary experiences are the preferred way to engage with a cultural experience. The data suggest otherwise. Perhaps the audiences of Handel’s time had it right – culture may be a component of a greater, social experience.


3) It is the most effective way to increase satisfaction

This data is a KYOB classic and I have made a Fast Facts video on the related findings that you may find of interest. Don’t have two minutes and thirty-five seconds? Here’s a brief summary:

Supporting interactions between a staff and a visitors significantly increases visitor satisfaction. These interactions (we call them personal facilitated experiences (PFEs)) also increase perceived admission value, employee courtesy, entertainment value, and education value.

A PFE is a one-to-one or one-to-few experience and a prime example of personalization. It is a staff member or volunteer essentially saying, “I see you. I would like to share my knowledge and passion with you.”

PFEs are so successful at increasing visitor satisfaction because they involve humans connecting with other humans. Check out the first chart in this article about the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization. Interacting with staff is just behind seeing/interacting with exhibits or performances. This further underscores the incredible importance of with>what.

Personal facilitated experiences are so effective at increasing visitor satisfaction that they can be used to increase visitor satisfaction by daypart. (Again, for more on this data, click here.) Human connection is where it’s at, folks.

PFE satisfaction by daypart


4) It is how we determine reputation and make visitation decisions

This is probably the tidbit of information that I go through or reference most in my work at IMPACTS. I find myself referring to it several times a week in meetings and it’s the driving reason behind the need for many organizations to evolve. See my Fast Facts video – How Social Media Drives Reputation – for more information.

Reputation is absolutely critical for driving visitation. Reputation is the second most important decision making utility when it comes to driving high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations. In today’s world, reputation creation and management (and sometimes demise) is overwhelmingly a social function.

What people say to one another about your organization is 12.85 times more important in driving your organization’s reputation than things that your organization says about itself. In our connected world, reputations are determined by what you put out and what folks say about you on social media, earned media, peer review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and what people say to their friends and family.

“Social” (and not just social media) represents how we make visitation decisions.

Diffusion of messaging- IMPACTS


5) Is a reliable indicator of successful organizations

Here’s another set of data that I’ve presented and written about recently – and that IMPACTS continues to monitor over time. (Stay tuned! I have a video summary of this data hitting my YouTube channel next week.)

Being good at your social mission is good business. 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 is 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.

We reliably observe that those organizations that the market perceives as most effectively delivering on their mission are the same organizations that achieve the greatest revenue efficiencies. Since IMPACTS commenced tracking this metric several years ago, the data continue to evidence a strong correlation between reputational equities and revenue efficiency.

IMPACTS- Museums revenue and reputation correlation


“Going social” isn’t new. It’s one of the oldest natural behaviors that we know as human beings. Especially during this difficult time, let’s be places where people can come to connect to one another – and to the past and the future.

Yes, it’s a smart business move. I have put all of these “greatest hits” together so that folks interested in putting social connectivity at the heart of their organizations have the data that they need to support the important conversations taking place right now. The math is there. Let’s get our hearts on board.

We are connected. We long to be connected. And we reward places that connect us.


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, Digital Connectivity, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 1 Comment