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

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

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 Read more

Why It Is Okay If Your Nonprofit Hates Data (And Why You Need It Anyway)

It’s true: If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. On one hand, I absolutely love it when nonprofiteers Read more

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 Read more

Four Strategic Concepts That Many Cultural Organizations Have Backward

We’re doing it wrong. It’s time to recognize that cultural organizations may have to switch direction regarding these four Read more

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 Read more


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 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 26 Comments

Fast Fact: Admission Pricing is a Science- Not an Art (VIDEO)

Organizations don’t have to guess when it comes to determining an optimal admission price.

Let’s try something new – starting today. I’d like to introduce you to a new project: Know Your Own Bone: Fast Facts for Cultural Executives. Traditional Know Your Own Bone posts will continue to be posted every-other Wednesday. In the weeks between, I will be posting short (around three minutes or less), Fast Facts videos featuring a key takeaway for cultural executives and staff members alike. I hope that you will provide me with feedback, and I am eager to know what you all think! Let’s start here:

Admission pricing is a science. Check out the video to learn why.


A deeper dive into data:

Unintentional collusion drives many-an-organization’s pricing strategy, but it’s a bad practice (or, at least a silly one). Today, your organization should be looking at data to inform its optimal price point for admission. Here’s an example of an organization’s data-informed pricing “sweet spot” that data suggest is neither leaving money on the table nor jeopardizing attendance. Every organization has this kind of optimal price point:

Adult Admission Analysis- Aquarium

Your pricing should be contemplative of the attributes of your organization’s high-propensity visitors (jargon translated: it should consider the people who profile as being actually interested in attending your organization). The above example indicates relative price inelasticity between $15.95 and $19.95 – suggesting that as many folks would visit the organization at a $19.95 as they would if the price were $15.95. If this is your organization and you are charging $15.95, you’re not losing visitors – you’re losing revenue that can help keep your doors open and your mission alive.

Different markets, different audiences, and different experiences demand different price points, so I want to emphasize that while this graph is a real example, it’s not necessarily a replicable model for your organization. (Read: I’m not encouraging everyone out there to charge $19.95. I would encourage THIS organization to change $19.95.)

To illustrate, here’s another example of a pricing analysis for a different organization and experience:

Adult admission analysis- performing arts

Finding an organization’s optimal price point has two, basic steps: Collecting data and modeling the data. Optimal pricing is informed by the type of data typically acquired via the conduct of an awareness, attitudes, and usage study that includes price-related metrics and perceptions from visitors and non-visitors alike. From there, price elasticity of demand models aid organizations in quantifying the demand for your experience. If you don’t have the know-how the collect this data on your own or you need help with the models, universities make excellent partners – as do professionals with experience working in this space! The point is: In today’s world – in which data is increasingly available, and more organizations are collecting it – there’s no excuse for blindly following the “leader” or simply guessing when it comes to your organization’s optimal admission price.


Words to Know to Be In-the-Know:


Unintentional collusion:

Many organizations unknowingly have strategies based upon unintentional collusion. Unintentional collusion is what happens when an organization follows the “leader” thinking the leader knows something that they don’t. Basically, it’s when somebody guesses and other organizations simply copy that guess. When organizations do this, they reaffirm one another’s unscientific strategies.

Value advantaged:

Admission pricing that is set too low and thus “leaves money on the table” for an organization. It is a price point that fails to maximize the data-informed level of revenue that an organization may be able to achieve.

Value disadvantaged:

Admission pricing that is set too high and risks jeopardizing attendance. It is a price point that fails to inspire visitation among those who profile as likely visitors because the high cost to attend poses a barrier to engagement.

Let’s stop guessing when it comes to admission pricing. Today, pricing is not an art. It’s a science.


I hope that these Fast Fact videos will provide thought-fuel for your organization! Please let me know if you have thoughts or feedback so that I may evolve these videos to be most helpful over time.  The next short video will be posted on August 19th.

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, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 8 Comments

Why Millennials May Be The Most Valuable Generation for Cultural Nonprofits (DATA)

Data Show That Millennial Visitors May be Most Valuable Visitors for Cultural Organizations (DATA) {Know Your Own Bone}

The sheer size of the millennial generation makes them a critical target audience, but data suggest that millennial visitors may actually be the best visitors. Here’s why.

Millennials are the largest generation in human history. We know that they are a critical audience to engage now in order for cultural organizations to exist later. And, quite frankly, you’re probably tired of hearing about this public-service motivated, connected, social, educated, super-duper-special, hierarchy-hating, everyone-is-an-MVP bunch. (Heck, I’m a true-blue millennial and I’m right there with you!) However, all this talk about the need to engage millennials seems to still be met with an eye-roll and a “Here are even more things that we need to do for them” attitude from too many executive leaders. It seems that the size of this generation is the primary reason driving the need to engage millennials for many…and that’s an important reason. But it’s even close to the whole story.

Let’s change this attitude. Let’s do it with data.

Data suggest that millennial visitors are an organization’s most loyal – and they do much more loyalty-driving work for organizations than older audiences. When it comes to engaging millennials, a little is a lot more likely to go a long way. (But…that doesn’t justify organizations doing a little.) This generation is most likely to work for you. Overall, millennials are arguably a cultural organization’s most valuable visitors.

High-propensity visitors (HPVs, in my world (hold judgement on the acronym)) are people who possess the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood to visit cultural organizations such as museums, aquariums, gardens, performing arts organizations, historic sites, science centers, zoos, etc. These are the people who actually go to cultural organizations and data can bring to light what these folks have in common. Interesting findings arise when we take a look at millennial high-propensity visitors compared to non-millennial high-propensity visitors. Here are three, data-informed millennial visitor qualities that work to an organization’s terrific advantage compared to more traditional audiences:

High-propensity visitor indicators by age

(A quick note on the data: It comes from IMPACTS and the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations, first published in 2011 and updated annually thereafter. Since its initial publication, the study has tracked the opinions, perceptions, and behaviors of a sample population totaling 98,000 US adults, and is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind.)

1) Millennial visitors are most likely to come back sooner.

Millennial high-propensity visitors have a shorter re-visitation cycle than even other generations of high-propensity visitors. In fact, millennial high-propensity visitors are 30.9% more likely to revisit an organization within one year than high-propensity visitors aged 55 or older. That’s a big difference. Moreover – and to the possible surprise of many – millennial HPVs are 20.5% more likely to join as a member than HPVs aged 55 and older. (Though those age 35-54 still take the cake when it comes to likelihood to become a members.) Millennials are an organization’s most loyal high-propensity visitors when it comes to driving repeat visitation. Capture us, and the data suggest we are most likely to come back – and relatively quickly!


2) Millennial visitors are more likely to spread positive word of mouth about cultural organizations to drive visitation.

As a reminder (that I provide on KYOB constantly): Data suggest that reputation is a key driver of visitation, and what other people say about your organization is 12.85x more important in driving your reputation than advertising. So what people say about your organization to one another is really important in getting people in the door. We millennial HPVs shine here compared to other HPV generations, and are 18.1% more likely to recommend experiences to a friend than those aged 35-54 and 20.5% more likely than HPVs aged 55 and older. Show us an organization that we like, and we are significantly more likely than older generations to endorse that organization to other people. Millennial high-propensity visitors are more likely than any other generational cohort to provide your organization with what data indicate is the single most valuable form of marketing.


3) Millennial visitors reach more people.

Why does being most likely to recommend a cultural experience to a friend particularly matter? Because millennial high-propensity visitors are crazy “super-connected.” This means that we are empowered to recommend experiences with a collective reach that’s like “traditional media” on steroids. “Super-connected” means that these folks are most likely to have access to – and be engaged with – the web at home, at work, and/or on mobiles devices. Admittedly, this can be an incredible asset or detriment to organizations based upon whether or not an individual had a positive or negative experience, but, provided that your organization is doing it’s best on the “satisfying experience” front, positive experiences can go a very long way.

We’re also much more likely than other HPV generations to make purchases online, further underscoring that if your audiences aren’t buying tickets online, it may have to do with your own organization’s online ticket buying strategy. As the world becomes more digital, more folks are making purchases online. Millennials are more than twice as likely to have made a large purchase online within the last year than folks aged 55 or older.


4) Millennials likely have the highest lifetime value.

This generation’s size and lifetime customer value suggest that organizations that successfully engage millennials stand to reap a big reward. Millennials are the youngest of the three generations (i.e. Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers) currently visiting cultural organizations – meaning that millennials have the longest expected lifetimes to contribute value as customers. In addition, the large size of this demographic (nearly twice that of Generation X) compounds the composite lifetime value of engaging this audience.

Note that high-propensity millennial visitors are more educated than their generational predecessors. This is important to understand, because often when organizations say, “Let’s target millennials!” they mean ALL millennials. That’s not always a bad move. But, the reality is that millennials who currently profile as being likely to visit cultural organizations are a subset of the population just as high-propensity visitors from other generations are a subset of the population. Not everyone on the planet thinks, “Hey, I’ll do that!” when someone suggests visiting a cultural organization. For various reasons (e.g. free time, access to transportation, cultural background, income, etc.), that’s just not the case with some people. A goal of efficiently engaging millennial audiences is to tap into high-propensity visitors – those persons most inclined to visit in the first place (i.e. “the path of least resistance”).

Heads-up: We also aren’t watching a lot of live TV. Those aged 55 and older are nearly 60% more likely to be watching more than 10 hours of weekly live TV than we millennials. So if you’re appearing on a morning news show, we’re less likely to be tuning in. It may be beneficial to record that segment and put it somewhere where we can see it later if millennial viewership is a particular goal


Compared to other generations, millennial high-propensity visitors are more likely to visit more often. They are also super-connected and more likely to spread an organization’s message, providing incredibly valuable word of mouth endorsement. All things being equal, millennial audiences may well be a cultural organization’s most valuable visitors.

Let’s stop rolling our eyes and get psyched about engaging these cheerleaders! (Too much enthusiasm? I’ll it step back.) Here: Let’s change how we frame the conversation. Instead of groaning about the “otherness” of millennials, let’s embrace this opportunity to engage a new cohort of folks who will visit us again and again, tell their friends, and – if we do our jobs right – will be around loving us for a long time.


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, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 1 Comment

Influencing Leadership: Three Findings to Effectively Communicate with Cultural Executives (DATA)

Influencing Leadership at Cultural Institutions

Here’s a data-informed peek at what influences leaders in cultural institutions.

I’m in the business of cultural sector evolution and – given that the cultural business model is in need of an update – we at IMPACTS have been looking at how the opportunity for evolution may be best understood. We work directly with many industry leaders (the Chiefs, or the “Cs”), and recently had occasion to scour the minds of these executives in order to better understand how they obtain information, and the roles that various information channels play in influencing their executive decisions. Potentially innovative, groundbreaking ideas risk dying on the vine if they aren’t understood and supported by an organization’s leadership. We wanted to find out more about how to keep that from happening.

The data below is from a survey of 306 executive leaders working at nonprofit visitor-serving organizations (e.g. museums, aquariums, cultural centers, theaters, orchestras, zoos, historic sites, etc.). The study identified the primary information channels that executives use to inform their decision-making processes, and further measured the relative trust and influence that these same leaders ascribe to the various information channels. These values are quantified on an index value basis – a way of assessing and comparing these measurements in relative terms (i.e. an information channel with an influence value of 200.0 is 2x as influential in the surveyed leaders’ decision-making processes than is an information channel with an influence index value of 100.0).

The findings of this study are relevant to anyone whose profession requires influence, motivation, and collaboration with or among leaders.  If we know what informs and influences leaders, then we can more effectively communicate with, and, in turn, influence leadership. Before you can change the world, you likely need to change some minds. Here’s data that will help:


1) Timeliness matters

KYOB IMPACTS - Sources of information  for cultural leaders

Let’s start with the obvious: It’s easiest to reach fellow leaders via the information sources that they are actually using.

Books and manuals generally have some influence power and are perceived as trustworthy and relatively influential sources (more on that in the charts that follow). This is frequently because book publishers employ credibility protectors such as fact-checkers, researchers, and editors, so leaders often regard this information channel as an expertly vetted, reliable source of information. But, it also takes time to write, edit, publish, and distribute (not to mention read) a book. That may be why the data suggest that leaders aren’t primarily relying on books and manuals for information (which they reference for information approximately 3.5x less often than they do online daily news sources). So, yes, books are potentially influential – if you can get the leader to read the book!

Data suggest that more timely information channels win the day when it comes to providing value as an information resource for leaders. Consultants/industry experts, peer-to-peer communications, and especially daily newspapers and blogs are timely by nature. Timely information sources are likely to be more right-now relevant than sources with more labored publication processes.

In addition to books, industry publications (often published periodically) and conferences (typically occurring annually) struggle to meet the timeliness requirement that agile leaders demand of their most important information sources.


2) Experts are far more valuable than participants

KYOB IMPACTS - influence of sources for cultural leaders

Perceived expertise is a significant driver of influence. Daily newspapers are definitionally timely – and the perceived prestige, credibility, and expertise of publications (think The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, etc.) inure to the benefit of their journalistic staff. There’s a high level of trust and influence embedded in these brands despite the fact that the web allows nearly anyone to be a “reporter” these days. Sources perceived as expert – such as industry experts, consultants and industry executives – dominate influence on leaders.

KYOB IMPACTS - Trust of sources for cultural leaders

Conversely, sources based heavily in participation don’t perform nearly so well. Not everyone who participates in something is an expert. This may be a challenge for industry publications and conferences – they often feature far more participants than experts. More heavily participation-based (versus expert-based) sources often supply unfiltered noise in the already-noisy world of an executive leader…a circumstance that may be the opposite of helpful in the eyes of the “Cs.”

I wonder if – as the most effective leaders increasingly play the symbolic role of a conductor within organizations – the influence, trustworthiness, and go-to value of professional staff will increase. That’s a tide that may necessarily turn as cultural organizations evolve: Leaders may need to trust the (increasingly nuanced and specialized) experts that they hire in order to simply run their organizations.

Fun fact: Leaders right now utilize printed newspapers far, far more frequently than the general population. Nope, it’s not because printed newspapers are different than online newspapers in terms of content – it’s because today’s head-honchos are generally educated Baby Boomers who simply still prefer getting their news in print.


3) It’s a small world after all

What leaders say to one another is far more influential than what non-peers say to leaders. This is evident when observing the high impact of peer-to-peer communications and industry experts. Leaders seek out and listen to other leaders.

While this may be slightly disappointing for non-Chiefs, I urge these future leaders to look at the very bright side of this finding: If you can influence a small group of leaders, then you may be able to influence the entire sector. Hopeful? Perhaps. But identifying this narrow band of very specific influencers could prove enlightening for both current and future leaders alike – especially considering the imperative to evolve the way that many nonprofits do business. Think of other relatively small groups of folks who knew one another and changed the course of history. The Beat Generation. The Lost Generation. The Cultural Institution Reinvention Generation? Perhaps change in this sector is not so different. Or, perhaps I just want an excuse to include references to both Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a post.

Ours is not a kingdom, it is a collaboration. To influence leaders, we must compellingly communicate a point of view…and it’s easiest to do this when we communicate in consideration of leadership’s most preferred, trusted, and influential information sources.


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

Image credit: Scientific American

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in IMPACTS Data, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

Six Ways Personalization Trends Are Affecting Museums and Cultural Centers (DATA)

Personalization trend in cultural organizations

The personalization trend is here. And it’s affecting nearly everything visitor-serving organizations do.


Once in a while – usually when considering topics for a trend meeting with clients – I look over collections of recent IMPACTS data and glaring patterns emerge. Sometimes these trends are obvious – like myth-busting traditional ways of thinking that data suggest are now largely irrelevant. Sometimes they come together to tell a story about sector evolution and solvency. And other times – like today- they represent a connection so glaringly apparent (because it is already in the broader business media spotlight) that I’ve mentioned it only in passing.

Personalization has been an increasing and unrelenting theme in much of the data collected regarding visitor-serving organizations – and it is begging for more attention in the world of cultural centers. Typically, conversations about personalization within these institutions are interpreted as a need for crowd-sourced exhibits/programs or more creative, online initiatives. And those can be excellent ways to actively incorporate personalization into an engagement strategy! What’s decidedly NOT excellent is assuming that personalization doesn’t affect nearly everything in regard to operations and engagement these days. This goes way beyond new exhibit development and social media stunts. 

Personalization is one of the most important trends for brand evolution today and is predicted to continue to emerge as a hard-hitting trend. And, if you haven’t heard, 2015 is the year of personalization. Personalization has been sited – alongside transparency – as an increasingly required brand attribute and a prime example of how the Internet has changed the world in which we live.

From the Share a Coke initiative to the secret sauce of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Spotify, and Pandora, personalization initiatives are everywhere. Most of all, personalization serves as a helpful lens through which to consider initiatives and the evolution of engagement practices.

Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all communications online and offline. Personalization is actually playing a role in nearly all aspects of visitor-serving organizations – beyond the creative development of new exhibits and programs. Personalization has lead to the emergence of the following trends:


1) An increased need for onsite personalization to increase satisfaction levels

Data suggest that personal interactions between staff and visitors significantly increase overall satisfaction, improve value perceptions, and contribute to a more meaningful overall experience. IMPACTS data has uncovered that a single personal facilitated experience (PFE) during a visit can have a major impact on satisfaction levels. A PFE is a one-to-one or one-to few interaction that occurs between an onsite representative of the organization and a visitor.  And not only do PFEs increase satisfaction levels, but they also increase perceived value for admission, education value, staff courtesy, and entertainment value. See the data here.

IMPACTS satisfaction by daypart PFE

Organizations may even deploy PFEs as a mitigation strategy to minimize the impact of crowding perceptions on overall satisfaction! The chart above shows data points from a representative organization with whom IMPACTS works. Keep in mind: The experiences represented by PFE and non-PFE visitors are largely the same (same facility, same content, same basic experience) – except for the opportunity to have a personalized experience with a staff member.


2) A growing disinterest in group tours and standardized experiences

Your organization isn’t imagining things: It’s harder to attract leisure tour groups today than in the past. This mass, standardized experience business has been in decline – and the data suggests that it’s not because the salespeople suddenly got bad at their jobs.  It’s because people do not want to go on the same old, standardized group tours.  This makes sense: During a time in which audiences are leaning toward more personlized experiences, many group tours are currently the precise opposite – every experience is commonized.

IMPACTS group tours are fun way to visit museums

The Y-axis in the chart above indicates the mean scalar variable response so as to indicate the level of agreement with the statement on a 1-100 scale.  Anything much below 60 tends to indicate a level of disagreement (i.e. “not fun”).

Perception of the enjoyment of museum visits through group tours not only started out at less-than-impressive levels when IMPACTS began tracking the metric in 2008, perception has since been in steady decline. This is also the case in regard to group tours to zoos and even cities, suggesting that it isn’t the museum group tour that’s “broken” – it’s the group tour concept itself. Similar data exists for sporting events, aquariums, theme parks…you name it. Again, the personalization trend is at odds with the standardized experience of group tours – regardless of the venue. More on this here.


3) The expectation of social care on digital platforms

When organizations consider social media and personalization, they often think about creative initiatives. However, this may be missing the boat. There’s an ongoing expectation for personalization that may be more critical to your organization than more creative, additive endeavors.

The buzz term for personal, customer service-like community management issocial care” and it is hugely important for all organizations. Why? Online audiences expect engagement from organizations.

Consider this data by Lithium Technologies: 70% of Twitter users expect a response from brands they reach out to on Twitter, and, of those users53% want that response in less than one hour. The percentage of people who expect a response within the hour increases to 72% when they’re issuing a complaint. And there’s more: 60% of respondents cited negative consequences to the brand if they didn’t receive timely Twitter responses. That said, it isn’t only negative comments for which audiences seek interaction…

Lithium expect response within hour of tweet

This may all sound doom and gloom, but according to the same survey by Lithium Technologies, there’s a benefit to interacting with folks on social media sites:

Lithium positive response data


4) Promulgating connective content with personal meaning

By now, organizations likely understand that an organization’s number of followers on social media doesn’t matter. The quality of followers is more important than having thousands who do not promulgate your messages and are disinterested in acting in your organization’s interest.

Content is no longer king. Connectivity is king. Content can operate in isolation, but connectivity requires a kind of “passion match” between the organization and the potential supporter or advocate. This “passion match” is personal, and – while indeed many exhibits or specific programs are being developed for more unique audiences – the understanding that personal connection is the goal is driving the content strategies of intelligent organizations to post not what the most people on social media will like, but what actual, potential supporters will find most meaningful.


5) The availability of more diverse membership structures

The concept of personalization may begin with allowing for alternate gateways to engagement and understanding that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to membership simply isn’t optimal anymore. One data-based example of this can be seen in IMPACTS work with a large (over one million visitors per year) visitor-serving organization with a mission related to conservation. More on this finding here.

IMPACTS- Benefits of membership

Adults under thirty-five provide a sneak-peak into the need for organizations to create alternate programs to cultivate new and emerging audiences. Extant data indicate that members of Generation Y are public service motivated and appreciate a feeling of belonging and connectedness with one another and with a cause. This is consistent with the responses gathered from millennials in the data above. Instead of being interested in the more “transactional perks” of membership, this generation desires a feeling of connectedness with a broader social good. Creating a range of membership programs that engage different audiences allows for more personalization in approach. Is the primary “passion match” between members and your organization actually transactional? For some it may be. But what about the increasing majority that care about impact and connectivity?


6) The evolution of digital platforms and technology usage

Thanks to the personalization trend, the role of email has changed. It is no longer effective for “spamming” groups of people, but rather for cultivating individual audience members based on their “passion matches.” Personalized emails deliver six times higher transaction rates, but seventy-percent of brands fail to use them.

Moreover, data suggests that static websites and homepages are no longer the digital platform motivating visitation decisions.  Increasingly, social media plays an important role in this process thanks to the personalization and perceived transparency that it provides. Simply put, folks can log onto social media sites and see how well an organization actually “walks the talk” of its mission by way of the content that it posts – and make decisions about the organization on their own.

There is buzz about the importance of utilizing mobile devises to hone in on personalization opportunities. This is a particularly good idea right now because Google has announced that there are now officially more searches taking place on mobile devices and tablets than laptops and desktops. Let the personalization trend continue!


Ours is an era of personalization – every experience is increasingly tailored. And data suggest that more standardized experiences suffer in comparison. It’s time that cultural centers ingrain this brand attribute into overall organizational strategy in order to future-proof their experiences and offerings, and better attract and retain donors and supporters.


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, Digital Connectivity, Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Millennials, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 5 Comments

Group Tour Interest in Decline: Why Museums Should Invest Elsewhere (DATA)

group tours

Investing in attracting tour groups is an increasingly futile endeavor for museums. Here’s the data and what to do instead.

Many visitor-serving organizations increasingly bemoan the challenges associated with the leisure group tour market. (This being a different attendance category – and revenue line item – than school groups.) Typically, visitor-serving organizations have salespeople dedicated to the process of soliciting tour groups. In other words, their job is to get group business.

This business has been in decline – and the data suggests that it’s not because the salespeople suddenly got bad at their jobs.  It’s because people do not want to go on group tours.  This makes sense: Ours is an era of personalization- every experience is tailored.  Group visits are the exact opposite – every experience is standardized.

Your organization isn’t imagining things: It’s harder to attract leisure tour groups today than in the past. Here are three, data-based reasons to utilize full-time staff (FTEs) in a way that is more likely to drive actual visitation than futilely increasing investments in the leisure tour group market:


1) People do not think group tours are a fun way to visit a museum

IMPACTS group tours are fun way to visit museums

The Y-axis in the chart above indicates the mean scalar variable response so as to indicate the level of agreement with the statement on a 1-100 scale.  Anything much below 60 tends to indicate a level of disagreement (i.e. “not fun”).

Perception of the enjoyment of museum visits through group tours not only started out at less-than-impressive levels when IMPACTS began tracking the metric in 2008, perception has since been in steady decline. This is also the case in regard to group tours to zoos and even cities, suggesting that it isn’t the museum group tour that’s “broken” – it’s the group tour concept itself. Similar data exists for sporting events, aquariums, theme parks…you name it. Again, the personalization trend is at odds with the standardized experience of group tours – regardless of the venue.

We decided to look into this a bit more, and the outcomes to this inquiry were also extremely telling (although perhaps altogether unsurprising)…


2) Group tours do not likely have a sustainable future

 IMPACTS group tours are fun chart

Like the previous chart, the data above also demonstrate a mean scalar variable response so as to indicate the level of agreement with the statement on a 1-100 scale. Again, dipping below 60 tends to indicate a level of disagreement (i.e. “not fun”). The data here is unassailable: The market – and especially millennials – do not think group tours are fun.

Millennials represent the single largest generation in human history and will make up the largest consumer segment of the market for the next 40 years at minimum. These folks don’t think group tours are fun – and their perceptions are declining rapidly. “We aren’t trying to attract millennials with group tours anyway,” you say? Well, the general market (even excluding millennials) doesn’t think group tours are much fun either.

This trend toward the negative perception of the enjoyment of group tours – like most evolution within the industry – mirrors the general market preference for more tailored experiences. On social media, the ads that come up in your newsfeed are picked just for you. Email has evolved to become a more personalized way to tell important stories than an opportunity to “spam” with broader messages. Audiences want to decide what they think of organizations for themselves. Today, everyone’s a curator. Group tours embody the opposite of these market preferences – the regulated, homogeneity of a common experience.


3) There are areas in which staff resources for group tours may be reallocated in order to truly drive visitation.

I think it’s interesting that some organizations that claim to not be able to afford to augment their social teams still maintain group salespeople.  The alternative use of those same funds would likely have a better ROI more broadly engaged to support the communications effort.

Digital engagement isn’t the only area in which data suggest alternative investments may yield more visitors and donor support. Indeed, any position that supports more personalized experiences has been proven to drive both reputation and satisfaction levels within institutions. Investing more in front-line staff and deploying personal facilitated experiences is an urgent need that many institutions are overlooking.

In short: Museums often have full-time staff dedicated to managing a program that many folks don’t even want. At the same time, there are data-supported audience “touch points” that may not be receiving adequate investment. Once a month, one of us at IMPACTS seems to get asked, “What can we do to improve our leisure group business?”  The answer is: Get out of the group business (and get into the personalization business)!


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, IMPACTS Data, Millennials, Myth Busting, Trends 8 Comments

Audience Acquisition: The Cost of Doing Business for Visitor-Serving Organizations (DATA)

Visit us v2

Here it is: the data-informed equation for how much money organizations should be spending in order to maximize opportunities for financial success.  

Data suggest that approximately 70% of visitor-serving organizations are not investing optimal funding in acquiring audiences.

Marketing budgets seem to be an unnecessarily emotional topic for many nonprofit organizations. Optimizing marketing investments – like admission prices – are increasingly a product of math and science (read: decidedly not “intuition” or “trial and error”). They need not be based on fuzzy-feelings and inappropriate loyalties to failing business models that ignore the realities of the outside world.

We live in a pay-to-play world where organizations have to spend money to make money. When it comes to budgeting for audience acquisition costs, many organizations seem to have fallen into that familiar trap of “last year plus 5%” that lazily assumes the continued efficacy of the same old platforms and strategies. Of course, such a strategy completely ignores shifting advertising cost factors, evolving platforms and channels, and technological innovation. Say it aloud: Nonprofits do not operate in a vacuum and cannot afford to ignore the changed economies and technologies of the world around them.

Several organizations that have made this realization have asked IMPACTS if there is an equation to inform their audience acquisition costs so as to maximize their opportunities for financial success. And, the findings of a three-year study suggest: Yes, there most certainly is!


The key equation for acquisition costs

Let’s first establish a few definitions and “same page” this conversation:

Audience acquisition costs are the investments that an organization makes in advertising, public relations, social media, community relations…basically, anything and everything intended to engage your audiences.

Market potential is a data-based, modeled outcome that indicates an organization’s potential engagement with its audiences. For most organizations, “market potential” primarily concerns onsite visitation. In other words, it answers the question, “If everything goes well, how many people can we reasonably expect to visit us this year? (NOTE: Market potential may not match an organization’s historic attendance – organizations “underperform” their market potential all the time…for reasons that we’ll soon explore.)

Earned revenues are the product of admissions, memberships, merchandising, food and beverage, facility rentals…basically, all revenues attendant to the onsite experience that are supported by audience acquisition investments. These revenues exclude annual fund, grants, endowment distributions and other sorts of philanthropy.

Here’s the equation to maximize your market potential (as suggested by the recently completed three-year study):

 IMPACTS audience acquisition equation

Expressed another way: Optimal Audience Acquisition Costs = 12.5% of Earned Revenues. For example, if your organization generates annual earned revenues of $20 million, then this would suggest an annual audience acquisition investment of $2.5 million.

Further, additional analysis would suggest that 75% of the audience acquisition costs should be earmarked to support paid media (i.e. advertising). So, of the $2.5 million suggested above for audience acquisition, nearly $1.9 million should support paid media.  The remaining 25% (or, in this example, approximately $600,000) would support agency fees, public relations expenses, social media, community engagement – all of the programs and initiatives that round out an integrated marketing strategy. Forget to invest that 25% at your own peril. Earned media is critical for success and many social media channels are also becoming pay-to-play.

And now the other side: Why such a large percentage allocated to paid media? Again, ours is an increasingly pay-to-play world. Rising above the noise to engage our audiences frequently means investing to identify and target audience members with the propensity to act in our interest (e.g. visit our organizations, become members, etc.). There is tremendous competition for these same audience members – from the nonprofit and for-profit communities alike.  Think of the most admired and successful campaigns in the world – do Nike and Apple rely on 3am cable TV “bonus” spots that they get for a reduced rate and that don’t hit target audiences? Nope. While earned media plays a major role in driving reputation, paid media plays an important role in a cohesive strategy – and doing it right costs money.


The equation in action

How does the study suggest this equation? Check out the chart below. It indicates the relationship between performance relative to market potential (i.e. how well the organization actually performed when compared to its market potential) and the audience acquisition investments made by 42 visitor-serving organizations (including aquariums, museums, performing arts organizations, and zoos) over a three-year period:

IMPACTS - Audience Acquisition

The data strongly suggests that there is a correlation between an optimized audience acquisition investment and achieving market potential. It also indicates the perils of “underspending the opportunity” – a modest investment intended to achieve cost-savings may forfend exponential revenues. (Though the data never has – and likely never will – support it, many organizations seem to foolishly hold dear to the notion that they might somehow “save their way to prosperity.”)

Additional analysis indicates that the studied organizations invested an average of 7.9% of earned revenues toward audience acquisition…but only achieved 76.0% of their market potential. However, the organizations achieving ≥95.0% of their respective market potentials invested an average of 12.7% of their earned revenues toward audience acquisition.

In no instance did an organization investing less than 5.0% of earned revenues on audience acquisition achieve greater than 60.0% of its market potential.

Overall, the data suggests that the “sweet spot” for audience acquisition investment is in the 10.0-15.0% of earned revenue range. Splitting the difference (and further supported by the findings of organizations achieving ≥95.0% of their market potential in the study) gives us our 12.5%.

NOTE: Before we start parsing the nuances of media planning and creative approaches to advertising, let’s baseline the conversation by acknowledging that each of the studied organizations were led by competent persons operating with the best of intentions. Yes – “great creative” matters – but it doesn’t offset an inadequate marketing investment. Sure, a viral social campaign helps…but it doesn’t negate the importance of other media channels. In other words, there aren’t exemptions from the need to invest in audience acquisition for visitor-serving organizations that rely on earned revenues.

If your organization is struggling to meet its market potential, it may have less to do with all of the usual suspects such as parking, staff courtesy, special exhibits, pricing, etc. and more to do with an antiquated view of the necessity of meaningful marketing investments. Can your organization overspend? You bet. However, that doesn’t seem to be the problem confronting most visitor-serving nonprofit organizations. If your organization is struggling to meet its market potential, then it may be that in today’s pay-to-play world, you simply aren’t paying enough to play in the first place.


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 Digital Connectivity, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 15 Comments

Three New Pricing Realities For Visitor-Serving Nonprofits in The 21st Century (DATA)

Admission tickets

Want to keep moving your mission moving forward and your doors open? It’s time to end the debate on these pricing-related topics.

As the visitor-serving industry (museums, theaters, symphonies, historic sites, etc.) broadly struggles with declining attendance trends and a potentially unsustainable reliance on kindness and not commerce, “getting your price right” is more important than ever to nonprofits who depend on the gate to support their missions. Too high of a price may serve as a barrier to visitation. Too low of a price risks leaving money on the table and all of the attendant fiscal challenges associated with failing to maximize earned revenues.

Much is happening in the world that changes/challenges the way that traditional visitor-serving nonprofits operate: social media and technology, the need for real-time transparency, and changing demographics in the United States and beyond are just a few, prominent factors influencing our industry. And, these factors are changing everything from internal operations to membership products and the role of fundraising. And, unsurprisingly, the information age requires embracing new realities related to pricing.

Let’s end the debate on these three pricing-related topics and get on with the business of running effective businesses that enable meaningful missions:


1) Pricing is NOT an art (Pricing is now a science)

Determining the optimal price of admission is no longer a trial and error process. In fact, it’s anything but a “guess” (however well-educated). Data is playing an increasingly important role in the way that institutions operate for good reason.

A near-decade of research including hundreds of interviews with US visitor-serving nonprofit organizations strongly suggests that many pricing models are the product of “unintentional collusion” (AKA “the blind leading the blind”). This deeply-flawed model fails to contemplate two critical factors when it comes to informing a pricing strategy: (i) the fact that a proximate (or competitive, or peer) organization has established a price does not necessarily mean that it is an optimal price; and (ii) the market tends to view organizations – however “alike” they may be – in very unique terms, and this uniqueness frequently extends to pricing.

Unintentional collusion looks something like this:

IMPACTS unintentional collusion

Thanks to readily available data and analyses, there is no reason to base pricing on anything beyond an organization’s own, unique equities. For every organization, there is a data-based “sweet spot” in which admission prices are optimal.

Let’s consider a quick example of what an optimal pricing strategy looks like when charted (Note: This particular example is from a performance-based entity, but this way of considering pricing applies to any type of admission):

 IMPACTS ticket price analysis example

In the above example, the data-informed analysis suggests that pricing less than $75 for a ticket to the performance (more specifically, to a “premium” seat at a non-matinee, live performance) would be “value advantaged” – a polite euphemism for leaving money on the table! However, anything above $75 pushes the price into the “value disadvantaged” realm – a place where the price poses a needless barrier to entry (and, generally, one where the increased per capita revenues will not offset the decline in attendance). For every category of admission, every organization has an optimal price – one that is neither value advantaged nor value disadvantaged.

Organizations guess their price (without leveraging data to inform their pricing strategy) at their own risk. Getting the price wrong can alienate potential visitors and supporters if it’s too high, and make it difficult to raise prices to an optimal value over time if price starts too low.

Looking for ways to help support a price increase? Well, data suggest that a whiz-bang new exhibit or facility expansion isn’t necessarily coupled to an increased price tolerance. Instead, efforts to improving an organization’s reputation or the overall satisfaction of visitors are much more reliable indicators of increased value for cost perceptions.


2) Admission pricing is NOT affordable access (Admission enables affordable access)

A thought that sometimes emerges once an organization’s optimal pricing has been quantified is strangely, “but that’s too expensive to provide affordable access!” Admission is not a substitute for affordable access. Admission and affordable access programs are completely different things…and an organization needs to establish its optimal pricing strategy in order to support effective affordable access programming.

In other words, if you subsidize price in the name of affordable access (i.e. artificially lowering the price to create a value advantaged pricing condition), you are limiting your organization’s ability to fund quality programs that DO provide true affordable access. Making your entire pricing strategy an “affordable access program” leaves money on the table as folks pay an admission price below what they (the market!) indicate they were willing to pay for your experience.

When it comes to the truest definition of affordable access, an admission price point of $15 or $20 or $25 is functionally irrelevant to many of our most under-served audiences…most any price at all may pose an insurmountable barrier to visitation.

What if you aim to provide affordable access for the community? Won’t a high admission price deter folks? The data suggest “no” – at least not the people who were able to pay in the first place – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to develop true access programming to better engage constituents for whom price is barrier while also considering strategic promotions that celebrate your community. Speaking of which…


3) Discounts are NOT promotions (Promotions serve a purpose beyond cheap access)

Promotions celebrate community while discounts devalue your brand. These are very real and very different things. The biggest differentiating factor is the question “So what?” If the point of providing a discount is simply admitting folks for a lower price, then the discount is a bad idea that devalues your brand. (And, as a reminder, data suggests that all discounts provided through social media are bad business for nonprofit organizations.) However, if an organization’s answer to “so what?” is “to celebrate a community” and that purpose is made clear in external communications, then the program that you are describing is a promotion. The feature of a promotion may include a special pricing opportunity – think special pricing for mothers on Mother’s Day, or differentiated pricing for local residents.

Discounts make people say, “I got in cheap.” Promotions make people say, “I feel valued.” Discounts are not only meaningless, but data suggest that they also lead to less satisfying overall experiences and even increase the time before a return visit! While this may be surprising to some folks, it’s classic pricing psychology in action.

IMPACTS intent to revist



If visitor-serving organizations aim to keep providing inspiration and education to the masses, then the first imperative is to exist – and it’s hard to exist (let alone thrive) in the long-term without a sustainable revenue strategy that optimizes pricing.

Pricing strategies – and even pricing psychologies – are not mysterious so let’s stop guessing. The data is not uncertain.


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 Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 4 Comments
1 2 3 4 5 6 7   Next »