Admission Price is NOT a Primary Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation (DATA)

It’s time to get real about why many people aren't visiting cultural organizations.  Cultural organizations have their work cut out Read more

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Museums

Admission Price is NOT a Primary Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation (DATA)

Cost is not a primary barrier to visitation Know Your Own Bone

It’s time to get real about why many people aren’t visiting cultural organizations. 

Cultural organizations have their work cut out for them today. These visitor-serving organizations (museums, historic sites, aquariums, zoos, theaters, symphonies, etc.) are experiencing negative substitution of their historic visitors, often resulting in decreased attendance – at least until organizations get better at reaching underserved audiences such as millennials and “minority majorities”.

It’s a big challenge…and the best way to overcome this challenge is to identify and remove the true barriers to visitation for likely visitors. In order to do this, we need to get smarter about which barriers are real and which are excuses for organizations to avoid the need to think critically about their audiences.

We need to knock it off with the excuse that folks aren’t visiting cultural organizations primarily because of admission pricing.  The simple fact is that scant data exist to suggest that admission cost is the primary culprit when it comes to barriers to visitation. When we mistakenly blame price as the primary culprit for lack of engagement, it holds organizations back from providing better access opportunities and more relevant content. Before we dive deeper into the data, here are four important reminders regarding admission pricing:

A) Admission pricing is an art, not a science.

Determining your admission price should involve neither looking around at other institutions nor sitting around a table of executives and saying, “I guess $20 sounds right…”

B) Admission pricing is NOT related to affordable access.

In other words, organizations that charge admission should charge admission and also have intelligent, targeted access programming for low-income audiences if this is part of their mission. Data suggest free days are not a magical elixir when it comes to attracting low-income and other types of underserved audience. Subsidizing admission prices as an affordable access strategy is neither effective nor sustainable because admission pricing is binary – people can either afford it or they cannot. When organizations subjectively lower their data-informed admission price, they hurt themselves AND they are still unable to better engage underserved audiences.

C) Free admission is not a cure-all for engagement.

In fact, data suggest that free admission has relatively little sustained impact on attendance. It is difficult to find a single celebrated economist who denies this fact.

D) Not everyone wants to visit cultural organizations.

The people who want to visit cultural organizations (i.e. they have the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting an organization), are NOT generally low-income audiences. Not everyone wakes up thinking that it would be fun to visit a museum…but the kinds of people who are so inclined do have some things in common. The reality is that the majority of the people who actually visit cultural organizations are able and willing to pay to do so.

Now that these baseline conversations are out of the way, here are three items to consider that underscore the fact that cost is often hardly the visitation barrier that many organizations believe it to be:

 

1) Cultural organizations charging admission have similar value for cost perceptions as other experiences

Consider this data from the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations (an ongoing study with a sample size that recently surpassed 100,000 US adults) that quantifies the value for cost perceptions of various leisure activities that charge admission. This is a measurement of how valuable an attendee believes the experience to be relative to the price of admission. (Or, how much bang that a visitor believes that they got for their buck.)

IMPACTS - value for cost of experiences

Cultural organizations that charge admission generally have very favorable cost perceptions – especially when compared to other admission-charging, leisure activities. In fact, folks paying admission to attend a museum, zoo, aquarium, live theater, classical concert, or ballet report – on average – getting better bang for their buck when compared to attending a rock concert or a sporting event (e.g. MLB, NBA, NFL)!

For some reason, it seems that even some cultural leaders who fiercely believe in the value of their organizations worry that people may be feeling ripped off by having to pay to visit a cultural organization. This is not the case. It’s not even close to the case. I don’t know why even our own industry leaders seem to think this, but it is a myth and we need to bust it.

Cultural organizations provide value to people – and this isn’t some inter-industry pep talk! Data demonstrate that cultural experiences are generally worth paying for. Period.

 

2) Organizations that charge admission generally have higher satisfaction ratings than organizations that do not charge admission

The data below measures overall satisfaction as reported by 1,639 individuals who attended these seven types of cultural organizations as both paying and non-paying visitors. In other words, each respondent attended the same type of organization (e.g. science museum) within the past two years, and had at least one experience in which they were charged admission, and at least one in which they were not – either because a similar organization of the same type offers free admission or they attended on a “free day.”

IMPACTS - Free vs paid admission satisfaction

The basic tenant of pricing psychology holds true that people value what they pay for. Organizations that charge admission do not have lower satisfaction metrics than organizations that do not charge admission. In fact, the opposite is true: Organizations that do not charge admission tend to have lower visitor satisfaction rates!

Long story short: Free admission is neither a cure-all for satisfaction nor for increased visitation.

 

3) Cost is not a primary barrier to visitation

This data also derives from the ongoing National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations. We wanted to know why folks who reported having an interest in visiting a cultural organization hadn’t actually visited within the past two years. The results are probably not what some might imagine:

IMPACTS - Barriers to repeat visitation

With an index value far less than 100, cost (i.e. being “too expensive”) is hardly a significant barrier at all! True barriers to visitation revolve around relevant content (i.e. preferred alternate activity), access challenges, and schedule. Schedule issues are a very big deal – and they are among the most prominent barriers to engagement that cultural organizations of every kind prefer not to address.

 

There are many reasons why visitors may not be attending cultural organizations, but for those who are likely to attend, cost is not a primary barrier. We need to move this conversation forward, and in order to do so, we need to retire untrue assumptions and excuses about our barriers to engagement. Sure, people like free stuff. But what cultural organizations offer is valuable and people are willing to pay for it.

Let’s put cost to rest as the immediate “go to” excuse for lower visitation and start focusing on real ways to increase access and create programs that truly fulfill our missions of educating and inspiring audiences. There’s work to be done and we are delaying progress with this excuse that allows us to overlook our biggest opportunities for engagement.

 

Like this post? Please check out my YouTube channel for video fast facts! 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 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 Leave a comment

Which Is More Important for Cultural Organizations: Being Educational or Being Entertaining? (DATA)

From a visitor’s perspective, which is more important for cultural organizations: Being entertaining or being educational? Here’s what the data says.

This week’s Fast Facts video briefly outlines a data-informed aspect of the “Entertainment vs. Education” debate.

There seems to be an ongoing tension within organizations regarding the relationship between providing an entertaining experience and an educational experience for visitors. All too often, we seem to act as though the two forces are at-odds with one another.

Sometimes, the entertainment value of a visit to a cultural organization gets an internal bad rap. After all, cultural organizations are mission-driven and one of their goals is often to educate. “Entertaining” occasionally seems to be a sort of dirty word – much like considering visitors as “customers” and the idea of “selling” admission. They are concepts/words that might make some staffers uncomfortable. In the best interests of the organizations that we love, however, we need to at least embrace these ideas or risk less solvent futures.

The truth is that providing education and entertainment are both important to our visitors – and knowing exactly how these elements contribute to the visitor experience may help inform future strategies and conversations. So, let’s take a look at some data from a visitor perspective and get to the bottom of this relationship.

 

1) Entertainment drives visitor satisfaction and re-visitation

To tackle the question regarding the importance of entertainment versus education, let’s start by considering the data that goes into developing a visitor satisfaction metric.

Individual evaluation criteria – such as entertainment and education values – aren’t weighted equally because the market is not influenced by them equally. Many organizations aiming to achieve higher overall satisfaction measures mistakenly believe that every aspect of a visitor’s experience is equally important – and that’s just not true. To visitors, some criteria (such as employee courtesy) have more weight than others (such as the quality of the gift shop). With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the weighted attributes that influence overall satisfaction – informed by the market and IMPACTS Research. (These data derive from the National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study of more than 98,000 US adults concerning visitor-serving organizations.)

IMPACTS Overall satisfaction weight

Yes, folks. This is indeed a data-informed chart of exactly how much each aspect of the visitor experience contributes to overall satisfaction when visiting a cultural organization such as a museum, zoo, aquarium, historic site, performing arts event, etc.

Entertainment experience is the single greatest contributor to overall satisfaction. Education value influences only about 5% of overall satisfaction, whereas entertainment value influences more than 20% of overall satisfaction. Favorability is the visitor’s perception of how “likeable” the organization and its experiences are – and the entertainment quotient of the experience contributes even more to overall satisfaction than does favorability. That’s saying something.

The fact that entertainment value drives visitor satisfaction is cut-and-dry and non-negotiable. And any company or organization telling you otherwise is likely paid by an entity that really, really doesn’t want to evolve. Providing an entertaining experience is absolutely critical for visitor satisfaction, and, thus, return visitation. In short, cultural organizations need to be at least somewhat entertaining in order to stay alive.

 

2) Education justifies visitation

It’s clear that providing an entertaining experience is more important for satisfying visitors – but education isn’t chopped liver. Data suggest that being educational plays a critical role in justifying a visit to a cultural organization after the visit is over.

Take a look at this data from IMPACTS (again, from the National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study):

IMPACTS Primary visit purpose

Learning something new and different, seeing something new and different, and wanting a child to learn something new and different are the top three stated responses regarding the primary purpose of a visit after that visit is over. This is a big deal, because it means that while the educational aspect of an organization’s mission may not necessarily bear extraordinary influence on how satisfied a visitor is during their onsite visit, it is thereafter recalled as a primary factor motivating the visit – and this is good news! It helps to reinforce the purpose of cultural organizations externally, underscoring our drive for social good. (And this has financial benefits, too. Organizations that highlight their mission financially outperform those marketing primarily as attractions!)

 

In sum, entertainment value makes a visit satisfying but education value helps justifies a visit. Successful organizations aim to make education entertaining. It’s not a battle, but a balancing act wherein fun and learning work hand-in-hand to make both visitors and the organization better.

I could have guessed that,” many of you may be saying. Well, that’s good. Now when we enter conversations from either the mission or revenue angle, we can be a bit more informed by visitor-driven, industry-wide data. There may be some hard facts to face here, but they are important: We need to prioritize being both educating and educational – and quit thinking of “entertainment” as a dirty word.

 

Like this post? Please check out my YouTube channel for more fast facts! 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 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

The Expensive Misconceptions Surrounding Membership Fraud for Cultural Organizations (DATA)

The Expensive Misconceptions Surrounding Membership Fraud for Cultural Organizations

Setting up ID checkpoints to spot “fake members” at your organization? Data suggest that you may be doing more harm than good.

Many cultural organizations treat “member fraud” as an urgent concern of the utmost importance. I’m talking about organizations that set up ID checkpoints at the entrance or membership deck and believe that their job is to find people getting in on their friend’s membership, and then do this. Data suggest that organizations that think this way may be doing themselves a grave disservice.

How big of a problem is membership fraud and guest pass fraud? How much is it costing organizations? We uncovered a data-informed line of reasoning that should make cultural organizations think twice before deploying the member fraud police (at least in the way that many have in the past).

 

1) Checking IDs is a top dissatisfier for members

This is a good – and obvious – place to start: What are the most dissatisfying elements of the member experience? IMPACTS surveyed premium members (defined as persons who have purchased an annual membership to a cultural organization costing $250 or more within the past 12 months) to better understand the nature and hierarchy of member “dissatisfiers.”

The data comes from the ongoing National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study of US Visitor-Serving Organizations, and contemplates the perceptions and behaviors of more than 98,000 visitors to 224 visitor-serving organizations of various types and sizes. For this component of the analysis, 1,096 “premium” members to these organizations responded to open-ended questions to identify the most dissatisfying aspect of their member experience. A consequent lexical analysis process organized these responses by general consideration, and these same considerations were presented to the studied members who were then asked to rank from 1-10 the considerations in terms of relative dissatisfaction (with 1 being the most dissatisfying aspect and 10 being the least dissatisfying aspect). The Mean Value is the average ranking that the member respondents assigned to each consideration.

IMPACTS- Premium member dissatisfiers

It makes sense that “proving identity” is among the most dissatisfying aspects of the member experience: “You know my name when you call me at home to ask for money. But you forget my name AND imply that I am trying to deceive you when I visit – a benefit for which I paid several times more than regular admission!” Exaggerated? Maybe (or maybe not), but let’s be honest: A premium member making this hypothetical statement would have an excellent point!

A reasonable person may consider showing a membership card and being asked to produce an ID to be excessive. And consider this: You’re openly asking for an ID in addition to the membership card because you believe that your members – the backbone of your organization – are conspiring to perpetrate a fraud against your organization. One need not be a philanthropy pro to realize that this is a pretty lousy way to treat current and potential donors. You know what they say in fundraising and membership development: “The best way to say ‘Thank you’ is to question a donor’s integrity!” Wait…people don’t say that?! Then why do so many organizations actually do it?

 

2) It is often more costly to AVOID membership fraud

“But if we stop checking IDs, won’t we suffer from member fraud and risk letting legions of non-members in for free?!” That’s a very sensible and intelligent question. Let’s look into it. The data below is from a 2014 IMPACTS membership study of 11 visitor-serving cultural organizations – seven of which have (or then had) ID check policies for members, four of which did not verify the IDs of members.

Market potential is a data-driven analysis that quantifies the number of people expected to annually visit an organization (and often at what price). Market potential analyses are the result of a modeling process, and enabled by the data typically acquired via the conduct of an awareness, attitudes, and usage study. The 2014 IMPACTS membership study further segmented the market potential by visitation type (e.g. admission paying visitors, members, etc.).

IMPACT - Membership ID validation market potential

Organizations checking IDs achieved 98.9% of their annual market potential (or 98,900 actual member visits per every 100,000 expected member visits). Organizations NOT checking IDs achieved 100.8% of their annual market potential (or, 100,800 actual member visits per every 100,000 expected member visits). Even if we attribute the entire member visit variance to member fraud (which is not a justified assumption), the maximum member fraud incident rate is 1.9% (or 1,900 fraudulent member visits per 100,000 expected member visits).

And, common sense suggests that attributing the entire variance to member fraud is, at best, a dubious practice. Why? Because at least two other, important factors may play important roles in explaining the delta: 1) It is extremely possible (if not likely) that some ID-checking organizations lose member visitation precisely because they check IDs and, as the data indicate, are dissatisfying their members. It is not hard to imagine a member being annoyed, offended, or inconvenienced by the ID check (or having a friend to whom they lent the membership card being turned away), and then not returning with the expected frequency to the organization. 2) Correspondingly, organizations that don’t check IDs may better satisfy their members with the relative ease of the entry process when compared to the ID police experience at other organizations. It is unlikely that the entire observed market potential variance has to do with member fraud when we know that checking IDs is such a strong dissatisfier, but let’s assume that the member fraud incident rate is 1.9% to be super safe. This begs the question:

Is a member fraud rate of 1.9% worth irritating your most closely held constituencies?

To find out how much money this amounts to for your organization, all that you need to do is plug in some numbers. As an (easy math) example, let’s assume that an organization receives 100,000 annual member visits and that the admission revenue per capita is $20. This would mean that member “fraud” poses a $38,000 annual risk to the organization (100,000 annual member visits x $20 admission per capita x 1.9% member fraud incident rate = $38,000 annual member fraud expectation).

(For easy math purposes, I chose a relatively large-sized organization for this hypothetical example. Extant data suggests that a visitor-serving cultural organization in the US with 100,000 member visits likely has a total annual attendance in the 400-500,000 range. The annual operating budget of this hypothetical organization is likely in the tens of millions of dollars – which may change the way you perceive that $38,000 if your organization is much smaller.)

Based on your own unique member fraud expectation, ask yourself: Is it worth this much money to risk alienating high-level donors and members? Or, here’s a better question: If you could invest that same amount to eliminate a major dissatisfier for members and donors, would you? The answer is probably a resounding “yes.”

 Also, when organizations use the word “fraud” they are making the assumption that everyone who is sneaking in using someone else’s ID would have otherwise opted to visit and pay full admission. These are flawed assumptions.  Sure – perhaps some of these “gate crashers” would have otherwise visited…but surely not all of them would choose to do so.  Some may argue that what we internally call “fraud” is, in fact, a bit like a trial program based on the most valuable kind of word of mouth – the recommendation of someone who is already an important constituent (i.e. the member who shared their ID with the “fraudulent” user).

Even if we assume that every single fraudulent visitor would have absolutely visited anyway and paid full price (which are both silly and dangerous assumptions…but let’s roll with them), checking IDs is still a bad financial practice. Organizations should consider the ill will that ID checks engender with their members (and what this means come renewal time), the onsite spending of “fraudulent” visitors at the gift shop and café, and the future value of these same visitors as potential endorsers! It may be reasonably safe to say that someone turned away at the door by the ID police may not offer a ringing endorsement for your organization. On the other hand, a person who visits at the express recommendation of a member who has shared one of their member benefits with this person may well thereafter visit on their own accord…and maybe even buy their own membership!

 

3) Guest pass fraud has been pre-paid and may be beneficial

But what about guest pass fraud? Many organizations report observing guest passes being offered for sale on Craigslist or offered as a perk for Airbnb rentals. Just how big of a problem is this?

The analysis below contemplates five nonprofit visitor-serving organizations in the US that offer transferable guest cards, tickets, or passes (i.e. the member need not be present for the guest pass to be redeemed) as a benefit of select membership categories. The purpose of the study was to assess if fraud was a major issue with this membership benefit. Here are some of the findings uncovered by IMPACTS:

  • People purchasing membership that included guest passes as a benefit spent on average $48 more than they would have for a similar membership category that did not include guest passes. The average premium paid by members of the five contemplated organizations to receive the guest pass benefit was $48.17.

 

  • Roughly four out of ten members who paid a premium to receive the guest cards didn’t redeem the benefit. 61.35% of eligible members who received the guest benefit actually redeemed the benefit.

 

  • People visiting using guest passes were worth 48.77% more to the organization then they would have been if they had bought a ticket. Explanation: Members who redeemed the guest pass benefit (i.e. shared passes for their guests to use), accounted for an average of 2.32 guest visits to the organization. In other words, of the 61.35% of eligible members who redeemed the benefit, the average usage rate per member was 2.32x. That means that overall, for every membership that included a guest pass as a benefit, actual usage of the guest pass accounted for 1.42 guest visits (61.35% redemption rate x 2.32 usage rate = 1.42 guest visits per eligible membership). At a price premium of $48.17, this equates to equivalent revenues of $33.92 per guest visit ($48.17 price premium / 1.42 guest visits per eligible membership = $33.92 per guest visit). The average per capita admission revenue for the five contemplated organizations was $22.80 – meaning that guest visitors were worth 48.77% more to the organization then they would have been if they had bought a ticket!

 

That said, guest pass visitors are likely worth even more than that. This math artificially demeans the value of guest pass programs as it includes the same, flawed assumptions that seem to plague many member fraud-related concerns: 1) The assumption that every person visiting the organization via the guest pass program would have otherwise visited the organization; and 2) The assumption that every person visiting the organization via the guest pass program would have not only visited but additionally done so on a paid basis. There are two critical factors to consider in assessing the value of a guest pass benefit for memberships:

  1. The people who choose to pay a premium to receive a guest pass benefit are likely among an organization’s best endorsers – they want to share the experience with other people and are willing to pay for it!
  1. If the guest pass program does nothing more than engender trial among new visitors, then this, alone, may be a benefit to the organization – organizations usually invest to engender trial. In the example of guest passes, a member is paying the organization to promote trial (and, these “trialers” likely contribute revenues to the organizations in terms of food and beverage sales, retail sales, parking (if you own that structure), and even potential additional admissions sold to accompanying visitors.)

Do guest cards contribute to fraud? It depends what you mean by “fraud.” Yes, there are likely folks visiting the organization that you didn’t intend to have a guest pass – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, when you think about it from a trial perspective (i.e. reaching new audiences), it may be a good thing.

 

I was recently visiting a large museum in Chicago with my colleagues. The woman in front of us at the entrance had several children with her and, before entering the organization, the ticket-taker asked to see her identification. We overheard the woman explain that she was the nanny and that she was given the membership card to take the children and their cousin to the museum. The ticket-taker turned the nanny and three children away with a look of pride and accomplishment on her face as she explained condescendingly that only the membership holder could visit the organization with the children. The nanny looked extremely embarrassed. Is this what we consider a “win” in the visitor-serving industry?

“That’s extreme,” you may be thinking. Perhaps. But, remember: The person whom you’re turning away is the member’s mother, father, neighbor, nanny, grandparent, sister, brother, coworker, etc. (Believe it or not, folks trying to “sneak in” aren’t likely to be culturally erudite pickpockets and wallet thieves. Seriously. Is that who we think that they are?!) When you annoy members (or embarrass their friends), you’re probably more likely to lose them altogether than upgrade them to a membership that allows for more member entrances or guest passes. In a way, members (and especially premium members) have paid for the right to “defraud” us.

If you’re wondering what your “ID police” should do now, here is an idea: Train them to interact with visitors – which data suggest is the single most reliable way to increase satisfaction.

The member fraud crisis? It’s kind of a (mild) thing – but we’re hurting ourselves both in terms of our mission and financial future thinking it’s a bigger issue than it actually is. The sooner that we stop choosing to dissatisfy our members, the sooner that we can improve our member and donor relations to gain the critical support that we need to both fund our financial futures and execute our missions.

 

Like this post? Don’t forget to check out my Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel. Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:

 

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, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 1 Comment

The Hidden Value of Millennial Visitors to Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Data suggest that millennial visitors possess three behavioral characteristics that make them cultural organizations’ most valuable audiences.

Okay, okay. You’re sick of talking about the importance of reaching millennial audiences…even though industry data suggest that cultural organizations are not attracting these audiences at the rate that we should be AND millennials are not “growing into” caring about arts and culture. But let’s put all that aside for a moment…

This week’s KYOB Fast Facts video covers three behavioral characteristics that data suggest make millennials particularly important audiences. I’ve written about them before with the data cut a bit differently.

Take a look at these findings from IMPACTS that compares three behavioral characteristics of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965- 1979) and millennials (born 1980-2000) who profile as high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations (i.e. museums, performing arts organizations, aquariums, historic sites, etc.). That is, they demonstrate the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization. Like much of the data that I am able to share here on KYOB, it comes from the ongoing National Attitudes, Awareness, and Usage Study.

High Propensity Visitor Indicators -Millennials

Let’s briefly go over these findings one-by-one:

1) Millennial visitors are most likely to come back within the year

Millennials are revisiting more often than other generations. In fact, millennials make up the majority of visits to cultural organizations because they are revisiting these types of organizations. And this is awesome! It means that attracting millennial audiences gives us bang for our audience acquisition buck. In fact, with index values under 100 for both Baby Boomers and members of Generation X, non-millennials are actually unlikely to revisit a cultural organization within one year.

Coming back is important because it helps these audiences grow potentially longer-lasting relationships with these institutions. Why focus on attracting cultural center-loving individuals who are likely to pay a single visit to a cultural organization when there’s a whole host of cultural center-loving millennials that are likely to visit more than once?

 

2) Millennial visitors are most likely to recommend a visit to a friend

Sometimes our reputation for having big mouths pay off! Millennial visitors are more likely than Baby Boomers or members of Generation X to recommend a visit to a friend when they have a good experience. This means that not only are millennial audiences most likely to revisit a cultural organization within a one-year duration, but they are also most likely to tell others to do the same. Talk about payoff!

 

3) Millennial visitors are the most connected visitors

This is important: All high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations profile as being “super-connected.” That is, they have access to the web at home, at work, and on mobile devices. Though the web plays a big role in the connectivity of millennials, it is undeniably critical for Baby Boomers and members of Generation X as well (as evidenced by index values coming in at over 100 for all three groups). If you work for a cultural organization and you are trying to get people in the door, data suggest that the web is insanely important in order to effectively attract any demographic. Got it? Good. I’ll move on…

It’s great that millennials are most likely to come back and also to tell their friends to pay a cultural organization a visit…but they are also the most connected audiences among the three generational cohorts – by a long shot. The constant connectivity of millennials means that this audience shares messages with their friends and family (likely also high-propensity visitors) with a reach that’s a bit like traditional media on steroids.

 

When you put all of this together, the case for prioritizing millennial engagement is rather compelling. While a Baby Boomer may visit once per year and not necessarily recommend their experience to a friend, millennial visitors are more likely to come back and tell LOTS of their friends to do the same. Millennials may be the best connectors to other millennials – and perhaps simply to other people in general.

When data are considered, the task of reaching millennials may even seem less like a burden and more like an opportunity. (Too much? Okay. I won’t push you. I’ll just encourage you to scroll back up to the chart and let the data do the talking.)

 

Like this post? You can check out more Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel. 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 for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

Nonprofit Recognition: What Matters More To Visitors Than Your Tax Status (DATA)

Do visitors know that museums  and other cultural organizations are nonprofits? Data says: Nope. Here’s what really matters to audiences about your organization.

This week’s Fast Facts video covers a big misconception that folks working within cultural organizations (often unknowingly) promulgate: That being a nonprofit is a key differentiating factor to their audiences. As it turns out, data suggest that your organization’s tax status is relatively unknown among visitors and non-visitors alike.

This video explores the data. Not a video person? (That’s cool. You do you.) Here’s what you need to know:

 

1) The majority of people in the US do NOT think cultural organizations are nonprofits

Check out this data from IMPACTS that uncovers the percentage of the US adult population that believes that cultural organizations such as museums (e.g. art, science, history), zoos, performing arts centers, botanic gardens, and aquariums are nonprofit organizations. Like much of the non-proprietary data that I am able to share on Know Your Own Bone, the findings informing this analysis come from the ongoing National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study of 98,000 adults (and counting).

KYOB- Nonprofit recognition data

The findings may be a tad alarming to some. I’ve personally heard the “but we’re a nonprofit” excuse for not keeping up with financial realities (among other things) more times that I can count. This data flips the popular excuse for lack of evolution on its head. Not only are most non-visitors to these institutions not aware that cultural organizations are nonprofit organizations, but over half of the people who do visit these types of organizations are unaware that they are nonprofit organizations.

Take a look at history museums, for instance. Only 47.2% of visitors to history museums know that they are nonprofit organizations. The other 52.8% of visitors (over half) are unaware that they are reliant on philanthropic support: They believe that the organizations are for-profit entities, or government-funded operations that are otherwise provided for by their taxes.

Regardless of the reason for the misperceptions, more than half of visitors to ALL cultural organizations do not believe that they play any role in keeping these organizations healthy or alive after walking in the door. Beyond paying admission (to what they consider a business) or paying their taxes (to an organization with free admission because their taxes fund a government-operated entity), the majority of visitors risk believing that there is no further need for their support.

 

2) The market is sector agnostic

The misconception that these types of cultural organizations do not need support as nonprofit organizations is a problem – but how big of a problem? We’ve created a situation wherein people think admission to cultural organizations is largely either a pre-paid entitlement (thanks to taxes), or a fee paid to a for-profit company. Admission to most cultural organizations are neither of these things.

Tied to the misconceptions regarding the need to support cultural organizations is another market-based truth: Today’s audiences are generally sector agnostic. This means that they don’t much care about an organization’s tax status. They care about how well your company or organization does what it claims to be expert at doing. Loyal Know Your Own Bone readers (you guys rock) know that I’ve shared this nonprofit recognition data before in a post about how, today, for-profit and nonprofit organizations compete against one another. At IMPACTS, we continue to find evidence supporting this fact nearly every day.

Let’s be honest: Market confusion makes sense in the case of many nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations. We’re nonprofit, but our operations often follow a traditional economic utility curve. In other words, unlike giving to a charity that supports the homeless, people are “paying” for the personal experience of visiting our organizations. But unlike SeaWorld (for instance), those revenues cycle exclusively back into our social missions to educate and inspire…because that’s what 501(c)3 organizations do. And that brings up another potential point of confusion: Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal Studios are for-profit companies – and SeaWorld hits the “we’re mission-driven” button hard (or rather, it tries to). It makes sense that the market might give up on differentiating visitor-serving nonprofits from for-profits! And until recently, most nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations were marketing themselves primarily as attractions – NOT mission driven organizations. Some laggard nonprofit visitor-serving organizations still do…

 

3) The tax status of cultural organizations is not their differentiating factor

So far this is looking bad. Our audiences largely don’t know that we rely on their support in order to stay alive and they are sector agnostic so they, in a sense, don’t even care that we are nonprofit. So what do our audiences care about? How well we carry out our missions.

But nonprofits don’t “own” social good, and that’s a big reason for evidence of the market’s sector agnosticism. Corporate social responsibility is a necessity for companies today. There are countless articles on the importance of for-profit companies “doing good.” It is a key tactic for gaining more customers. And that’s interesting because there are still some cultural organizations that do this weird, outdated thing where they try to overlook their social advantage and exclusively promulgate “visit us today!” messages (and even offer discounts that devalue their brand and cause even more sector confusion for cultural organizations). It’s like some of them are trying to be like Disney World…

Being good at your mission is good business. Data demonstrate that organizations highlighting their missions outperform organizations marketing primarily as attractions. Perhaps, in all of our “But we are a nonprofit” excuse making, we missed the true differentiator that has provided us that tax status in the first place: Our bottom line of making a difference.

Our key differentiator is not our tax status, but that our dedication to making a difference is embedded in the very structure of how we operate. There’s a thought that we need to run “more like for-profit companies” (and in some ways we do, but the blanket directive is an ignorant miss). But look around. For-profit companies are actually trying to be more like us in the sense that they want audiences to know that they stand for something that makes the world a better place.

 

4) Communicating nonprofit status is critical in order to make the case for support (but it is a secondary communications goal)

When people don’t know that we are nonprofit organizations, it is a lot more difficult to secure members and donors. For that reason, we do need to better communicate our need for support. But perhaps before we ask for support, we need to do a better job showing the world what supporting us means. In other words, the lack of knowledge about our need for support may be indicative of a long-term communication and programmatic failure.

We educate. We inspire. We connect. We conserve. We teach. We change the world, one mind at a time. But perhaps the misconception about the need for support stems from our own communications focused not around how we change the world, but how we don’t change the world: “Visit!” “Discount!” “New exhibit!” Those messages are important, but are they most important? After all, can we blame the market for not knowing that we are nonprofit organizations if we bury the missions and ideals that are the foundation for our existence in more commercial messages and programs?

 

Fewer than half of U.S. audiences are aware of the nonprofit status of cultural organizations. That’s a big deal, because it makes it harder to secure support. But it’s also a good reminder that audiences are increasingly sector-agnostic, and our competitive advantage may not be our tax status, but what our tax status means: That we are here to change the world.

 

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 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, Fundraising, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

Real Talk: Why Cultural Organizations Must Better Engage Millennials (DATA)

Why Cultural Organizations Must Better Engage Millennials (Know Your Own Bone)

Millennials are cultural organizations’ most frequent and loyal visitors…but this audience remains underserved.  Here’s why that’s a big problem for the future well-being of the industry.

“We need to be better at engaging millennials!” You’ve heard this before. Likely, you’ve heard it more times than you can count. Even if you are a millennial working within a cultural institution, you’re still probably sick of the sentiment. You’re probably sick of it even if you know that data suggest that millennial audiences are cultural centers’ best audiences.

The need for cultural organizations (e.g. museums, zoos, aquariums, symphonies, theaters, botanic gardens, orchestras, etc.) to reach millennial audiences is deeper and more complicated than we may realize.

I’d like to ask you a favor.

Indeed, I’m going to land here at the end of this post: “We need to be better at engaging millennials.” Instead of closing this tab before you dig in and saying, “yeah, yeah, yeah…” I hope that you’ll stop and consider why we need to reach millennial audiences…why it’s a big deal, what it means for our solvency, and why its so hard for some of our executive leaders to do.

Here are four things that all cultural organizations should know about millennial visitors and our efforts to engage them:

 

1) Millennials are the most frequent attendees to cultural organizations

 

Bet some of you didn’t see that coming! Check out this data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study that represents a sample population of more than 98,000 respondents. These particular data compare millennial and Baby Boomer visitors in terms of the composition of attendance to the 224 visitor-serving cultural organizations contemplated in the study during the past five years

IMPACTS- Millennial vs Boomer visitation 

Millennials make up the largest share of visitors to cultural organizations and the observed trend indicates growing percentages year over year. Millennials aren’t coming. Millennials are here and they are already the largest realized audience visiting cultural organizations. This means that the “We need to cultivate millennials while satisfying our current, baby boomer audience” sentence is baseless. And you want it to be baseless. If baby boomers still actually make up the majority of your visitors, then you’re behind. 

This means that programs and initiatives that engage millennials should be in full force right now and integrated into operations. Programs that engage millennials should be recognized as your new way of life. And, please, don’t worry too much about engaging, interactive, authentic, trustworthy, dynamic, participatory, expert, real-time programs alienating members of Generation X and some Baby Boomers. The market at large increasingly has these things ingrained into how they evaluate brands and organizations as well.

Don’t forget that the “white space” here isn’t simply Generation X. It also includes Traditionalists (the generation before the Baby Boomers) and Generation Z (the generation after Generation X). And thank goodness that millennials are the most frequent visitors to cultural organizations! Millennials represent the largest generation in human history, so if they weren’t attending organizations more than their other, large-generation (Baby Boomer) buddies, it would be a huge problem. Cultural organizations as a whole engaging anything smaller than the data-informed expectation for audience engagement relative to their cohort size is very bad news…

 

2) But millennials remain underserved as organizations underperform the business opportunity 

 

…See, but that’s the problem: Millennials ARE NOT attending at the minimum expected levels. To evaluate this, we need to step back and look at visitation to our organizations in the context of the US population. In 2015, there were 322 million people in the United States. Adult baby boomers made up 23.6% of the U.S. population and adult millennials made up 27.1% of the U.S. population.

IMPACTS- Millennials are underserved

According to the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, only 21.9% of adult millennials visited a cultural organization in 2015. To be merely representative, 27.1% of visitation should be adult millennials. The simple fact of the matter is that cultural organizations are underserving millennials when compared to the U.S. population. (“Underserved” means that participation – be it attendance, enrollment, etc. is less than the representative population.) In other words, cultural organizations are underserving millennial audiences by a factor of 19%.

To those of you thinking, “Yeah! But at least we’re getting them!” …I like you, because you are a glass-is-half-full person…but maybe it’s time to strap on your thinking cap a little tighter. Serving representative audiences is one of the top grantmaking considerations for many audience engagement initiatives that are seeking support. Not only that, underperforming the opportunity by 19% with this particular audience puts us in a doubly bad place because of this generation’s attributes and its word-of-mouth-informed visitation cycles.

 

3) Millennials are the most loyal audiences with the highest lifetime value

 

According to the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, 23.8% of boomers said they visited a cultural organization (any cultural organization) in 2015. But Boomers only comprise 22.5% of cultural attendance. Meanwhile, only 21.9% of adult millennials visited a cultural organization, but they comprise 30.9% of total US cultural visitation. What does this mean? Millenials are far more likely to revisit within the year than other generations. They are the most loyal. It proves that millennial “intent to visit” is manifesting itself as actual visits.

IMPACTS- Millennial visitation loyalty

Combine this good news data with the bad news data on how much we are underserving millennial audiences, though, and the picture isn’t a pretty one: For every one millennial that we fail to engage as a sector, we miss out on 1.411 visits to cultural organizations.

If 30% of cultural visitors are millennials, are 30% of organizations’ resources allocated to engaging them? Probably not. We should be representatively engaging this audience because, well, that makes cut-and-dry business sense. Our missions may depend on it.

This is a big deal! Any organization that continues to underserve its best, most frequent, and most loyal customers – that also make up the majority of the country’s population – in the way that cultural organizations are doing risks going out of business. 

 

4) Why this change may be understandably hard for Baby Boomers in cultural organizations

 

Boomers know better than anyone that not all audiences are created equal. They know that because they’ve been by far the most valuable audience for a very long time.

Why is it so hard for Baby Boomers to grasp the necessity of engaging millennials and do more than talk about this audience in conference rooms? Why do they say, “We need to engage millennials,” only to move forward with frozen mindsets?

I’m no psychologist here and I may be going out on a limb, but I work predominantly with Baby Boomers that I have the honor of seeing in action every day, so I’ll give this an outsider shot: Baby Boomers may still think of themselves as primary target audiences (despite data indicating otherwise) because they were trained to think of themselves that way. They’ve have been the apple of every marketer’s eye for decades. For at least 25 years, the Baby Boomers that succeeded most were the ones who were best at marketing and creating programs for themselves. They were trained to successfully engage themselves and they were rewarded for successfully engaging themselves. Most boomers were appropriately predisposed and actively incentivized to reaffirm their generation’s own importance. Thus, it would make sense that there would be a want for boomers to keep doing what they do best: creating programs for themselves. That’s where they’re expert- and being expert at targeting Baby Boomers is why they are successful.

Basically, this same issue is likely to arise with us millennials if a large generation steps up to the plate in our own future. (And when it does, will one of you kindly forward this post to me from your 4D interactive teleportation wrist watch thingy to remind me that I knew it would be equally difficult for us to pass the baton?)

And things get even more difficult yet for Boomers. They may have imagined that they’d pass the baton in more conventional, chronologically successive terms to Generation X. Instead, they need to make a symbolically bigger leap and pass it (largely) to Millennials. It’s got to be hard to (kind of) skip a generation. Certainly, there’d be a conceptual belief that Traditionalists might pass an equal amount of influence to Boomers, who might pass an equal amount of influence to Generation X, who might pass an equal amount of influence to Generation Y…but data doesn’t demonstrate that that’s a smart move.

(Generation X, the always-impossibly-cool-in-my-mind, autonomous, and unlucky generation sandwiched between large and needy millennials and baby boomers, is roughly half the size of Generation Y. So if Generation X and Generation Y combined to form Generation XY, millennials would compose nearly 2/3 of that generation. This is also makes Generation X an often untapped resource to help bridge the generation gap because they seem to see all the crazy that’s above them and that’s below them with clarity in some cases. But I digress…)

 

 

All organizations have finite resources. In today’s world of hyper-targeting, every dollar we spend chasing one demographic is a dollar that we cannot spend chasing another demographic. The data is clear that cultural organizations are underserving millennial audiences. On top of that, millennials are our audiences with the greatest likelihood of re-visitation. Now, I don’t know if we’re the best audiences for post-it notes or patio furniture or tea pots – but millennials (which obviously include the 44.2% of us that are from “minority race” backgrounds) are definitely the most critical audience for cultural organizations to engage right now.

This does NOT mean that Baby Boomers and Generation X are not important targets. But it does mean that the percentage of energy, effort, and investment should be allocated representatively to the percentage of each age cohort’s market potential. Three factors should influence how your organization prioritizes its investments and dedicates its energy: 1) the size of the cohort; 2) the buying power of cohort; and 3) the cohort’s propensities to participate. Millennials represent the largest opportunity on all three fronts and, thus, create a compelling case for where to allocate representatively significant investments of resources.

I’ll end where I promised, but I hope that the sentence carries more meaning and understanding than it did at your last staff meeting: We need to get better at engaging millennials.

 

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 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 Leave a comment

Most Popular Posts of 2015 For Cultural Organizations

Most Popular Posts of 2015 for Cultural Organizations

From data on free admission to donor desires – here are the top ten most popular posts on Know Your Own Bone in 2015.

Happy New Year! I hope that 2015 was a great year for you and your organizations! 2015 brought many new adventures on this front: speaking engagements, lectures, remarkable projects, travel and conversation with amazing clients across the globe, and the launch of Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts videos and my presence on YouTube.

I am grateful for all of the wonderful attention, link-love, thought-fuel, and shop-talking that Know Your Own Bone readers have provided and continue to provide. I write Know Your Own Bone because I (with the support of IMPACTS (the company that patiently puts up with my asking, “Is this information proprietary?!” during every interaction)) believe that information that can be used to help move cultural organizations forward should be shared so that it can best do its duty. I hope that this little corner of the Internet has been helpful to you and your organizations- and I look forward to connecting with even more of my incredible readers and their mission-driven organizations in 2016. There are a lot of great projects in the works for this upcoming year thanks to all of the attention that Know Your Own Bone is receiving and I cannot wait to share them with all of you!

My favorite thing that I’ve noticed about KYOB readers is that they are curious leaders who aren’t afraid to ask hard questions within their organizations.  I love that.

In keeping with my annual new year tradition of posting the year’s most popular posts, here are the (all data-based) articles on Know Your Own Bone that received the most attention in 2015:

 

How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t much. And misunderstanding this may jeopardize industry solvency. Free admission is far from the engagement cure-all that some of its supporters believe it to be. Here’s the data.

.

What Ultra Wealthy Donors Consider Before Supporting a Nonprofit

How can nonprofit organizations engage high net worth board members and donors? To get to the bottom of this million-dollar question, we asked these individuals themselves.

 

Three New Pricing Realities For Visitor-Serving Nonprofits in the Twenty-First Century

It’s hard for cultural organizations to exist (let alone thrive) in the long-term without a sustainable revenue strategy that optimizes pricing. Want to keep moving your mission moving forward and your doors open? It’s time to end the debate on these pricing-related topics.

 

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

In reality, free days often do the very opposite of mission work.  It’s true: Free admission days do not usually engage affordable access audiences. Here’s data that should make organizations think twice about their free days and underserved audience engagement strategies.

 

The Game Has Changed: Nonprofits Now Compete With For-Profits

An organization’s nonprofit status may carry neither the perceptual weight nor the relevance that many leadership teams imagine…and nonprofits may be sabotaging their own opportunities for support because of it.

 

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

Optimizing marketing investments are increasingly a product of math and science (decidedly not “intuition” or “trial and error”). So here it is: the data-informed equation for how much money organizations should be spending in order to maximize opportunities for financial success.  (Heads up: I’ve got a fast facts video of this information coming to you all during the first week of 2016. Get pumped!)

 

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

Blockbuster exhibits sound nice, but they often create a negative cycle that threatens the solvency of the visitor-serving organizations that deploy them. The “bigger, better, more expensive” business model is financially unsustainable and it alienates audiences.  Check out the data.

 

Why Millennials May Be The Most Valuable Generation for Cultural Nonprofits

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.

 

Influencing Leadership: Three Findings to Effectively Communicate with Cultural Executives

Potentially innovative, groundbreaking ideas risk dying on the vine if they aren’t understood and supported by an organization’s – and an industry’s – leadership.  Before you can change the world, you likely need to change some minds. Here’s data that will help.

 

Visitation to Increase If Organizations Evolve Engagement Models

Attendance to cultural centers is on the decline, but data suggest that forward-facing organizations may see improvements by 2020 if they move forward intelligently. Here’s what organizations need to know.

 

Thanks again to each and every one of you for following along with KYOB! Here’s to a great 2016 for all!

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly cultural center/nonprofit geekery on your social media channels? Like my Facebook page,  follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to my YouTube channel. 

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

The Membership Benefits That Millennials Want From Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Don’t have many millennial members? Maybe you aren’t offering a membership program that millennials actually want.

If millennials (folks born between 1980 and 2000) are the largest generation in human history, why don’t they make up a vast majority of members for cultural organizations? Today’s Know Your Own Bone – Fast Facts video dives into research about the kinds of membership benefits that this generation actually wants.

If you think that millennials just don’t want to be members to cultural organizations, then think again. IMPACTS data reveal that millennials report more interest in joining many cultural organizations as members than do their Generation X and Baby Boomer predecessors. Here’s the data (regarding zoos, aquariums, and museums in this case) courtesy of the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study:

IMPACTS data- Membership interest by age cohort 2015

 

And it’s not just a “this year” thing. Interest in membership among millennials is actually on the rise. Notably, interest in memberships among Baby Boomers is on the decline.

 

IMPACTS generational membership interest multi-year

 

In terms of potentially engaging millennials as members, this is great news! But the findings would be even more promising if more organizations knew what it is that millennials want from a membership to a cultural organization. We looked into this question on behalf of a large (annual visitation >1million people) aquarium client with a conservation mission. We found that what millennials want from a membership is a tad different than what older generations want. Take a look:

 

IMPACTS data- Primary benefits of membership

Notice that, with the exception of free admission, the primary benefits of membership according to millennials are less transaction-based than are the responses from their preceding generations. Millennials care about “belonging,” “supporting,” and “impact.”

This information should inform how cultural organizations go about creating and marketing membership programs to these audience members. If we keep focusing on the benefits that millennials don’t actually value – and miss opportunities to highlight our mission impact – then it may be difficult to create long-term relationships with these young supporters. These responses from millennials may not come as a surprise. After all, in today’s world, your mission matters – and carrying out that mission is critical for an organization’s solvency. 

Want to attract millennial members? Make sure that you have the types of memberships that millennials value.

 

Like this video? You can check out more on my YouTube channel. Here are a few Fast Fact post that you might also enjoy:

 

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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, IMPACTS Data, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

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

Free Days Do Not Reach Underserved Audiences

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Annual household income on free days- IMPACTS

Educational attainment on free days- IMPACTS

The common, defensive response to this data is to make an excuse and say that this data does not apply to your organization’s free days! Know this: Free days engaging higher earning households instead of affordable access audiences is the rule – not the exception. At IMPACTS, we are asked to supply this kind of information to many grant-making entities. So please, instead of making excuses, do your organization a favor and actually look into this situation. Increasingly, smart grant-making entities are catching onto these things and are aching to see programs that actually engage the targeted audience segments.

 

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

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

Repeat visitors on free days- IMPACTS

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

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

 

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

This fact is basic, overlooked, and often a driving reason for the last two conditions: A majority of organizations don’t even reach out to affordable access audiences regarding their free days. Instead, we tend to target high-propensity visitors- the people we know how to target.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 20 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

A deeper look at the data:

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

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

IMPACTS Affordability is binary

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

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

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

IMPACTS- General admission pricing analysis

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

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

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

 

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