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The Top Seven Macro Trends Impacting Cultural Organizations

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Three Survival Questions That Cultural Organizations Avoid Asking (Because We Do Not Like The Answers)

Three critical questions that cultural organizations are not asking because he do not like the answers - Know Your Own Bone

Visitor-serving organizations are not asking the right questions – or perhaps we would rather ignore the answers…

I bust myths with market data and analysis from my work with IMPACTS here on Know Your Own Bone. At its core, my job is to be curious. It is to ask questions about visitation to cultural organizations and seek answers – even (if not especially) difficult answers. At our best, though, it’s the job of all people working within cultural organizations (museums, performing arts organizations, aquariums, zoos, botanic gardens, historic sites, etc.) to be curious. Our institutions are places for learning and inspiration and we are – I like to think – curious by nature. I feel this shared passion among nearly everyone that I meet who works at a cultural organization and yet I am constantly reminded of the limitations of our curiosities. It seems that we retreat when we are on the brink of an answer that challenges “the way things are done.”

We folks within cultural organizations are armed with defenses for findings that we don’t like. But I still think that, at their core, these leaders also glow with curiousity. Indeed, I believe that it is because Know Your Own Bone challenges our thought processes that this website receives nearly 90,000 visits each month. Maybe we want our outdated notions to be busted – we are just looking for some support.

Instead of sharing traditional, Frequently Asked Questions from cultural organizations received by myself and/or the IMPACTS team, I’d like to share three, macro-level Should-Be Asked Questions. It seems that we avoid the answers to these questions because they are hard – and because we don’t know everything about all of the answers yet. They represent uncharted territory in today’s connected world. But that’s why I like them and why you should, too.

 

ASK: What do people really value about our organization?

(NOT: What do we want people to value about our organization?)

It’s easier to consider what we want people to value about our organizations – we can make that up! We get to decide what’s important in that case! The problem is that while we can declare importance, we need our supporters (visitors, donors, members) more than they need us – and they determine the relevance of what we’ve deemed important.

This confusion is a primary indicator of a serious growing pain for cultural organizations: We are used to thinking about things from the inside out (“We are the experts and we decide what matters!”), but we are still pretty crummy at thinking about things from the outside in. This is more than considering what we think our audiences want from us – it’s about actually finding out what audiences want from us. Asking the question that we need to know – What do people really value about us? – necessitates market research and that generally freaks us out. We tend to have audience research covered and can tell you a whole lot about people who are already visiting us, but we aren’t so awesome yet about learning more about who is not coming and why.

When we change our shift from inside-out to outside-in thinking, we can focus on what our supporters truly like about us. We can focus on relevance over importance. We can learn more about the power of our mission. We can embrace that organizations that highlight those missions financially outperform those marketing primarily as attractions, and we can better understand the roles that education and entertainment play in the visitor experience and motivation process (not the roles that we want them to play). Most importantly, we can come to terms with the unassailable fact that visitor-serving organizations are – at their best – facilitators of shared experiences. When we realize that, we reap both mission-based and financial benefits. But we cannot truly embrace any of this data-informed information until we get more organizations asking the hard question (“What do people really value about us?”) instead of asking questions where we can make up answers that keep us stuck in a rut (“What do we want people to value about us?”)

 

ASK: Why are some people not visiting or supporting us?

(NOT: Why do we think some people are not visiting us?)

We are making things up and we seem not to know what we are talking about. We create programs, offer discounts, hand out free admission, and make excuses based upon assumptions that actually make it harder for us to be financially stable and execute our missions. Nothing changes and we just keep “programming” and “excusing” harder. Not actually uncovering why people (general audiences or subset groups) are not visiting us and making guesses instead is probably the dumbest thing that we do – and we do it so regularly that we forget to step back and look at the bigger picture.

Most of the myth busts on Know Your Own Bone are not challenging tried and true practices, but wild, stab-in-the-dark guesses that we continually perpetuate within the industry – even when they are directly at-odds with well known rules of economics or pricing psychology. Free admission is not a cure-all for engagement. In fact, it’s generally a bad idea in many ways. Discounts devalue your brand and actually keep people from coming back and blockbuster exhibits do the same thing.

Interestingly, we aren’t creating many programs that tackle what data suggest are the actual issues. We undervalue the role of reputation and the importance of social media in driving visitation and support (and we do it in many ways). Moreover, schedule is the top barrier to visitation and we don’t talk about it. We host cultural days and treat them like huge accomplishments because we misunderstand our underserved audiences and think that just because WE consider their ethnicity to be a primary identifier, they must think that is their primary identifier as well. We need to reach millennials, and instead of integrating a mindset of transparency, connectivity, and personalization – we are creating one-off evening programs with alcohol and calling it a day.

When we know our true barriers to visitation, we can crate programs that effectively overcome those barriers.

 

ASK: How can we shift to a more sustainable business model?

(NOT: What programs can we add to help make our current model sustainable?)

We often focus on “add on” solutions instead of asking ourselves hard questions about how we operate and stay in business. Yes – I used the word “business.” I know that we nonprofiteers dislike that word, but when we talk about being sustainable and “staying in business” it’s important to remember that if we aren’t “in business,” we cannot educate and inspire. If we cannot keep our doors open, we cannot execute our missions. “Business” has been viewed as a dirty word in the industry, but I vote that we use it more often. Being good at your mission is good for your organization’s solvency and “business.” 

We often act as though the proper model is to continue promoting ourselves as attractions to get folks in the door while treating potential donors as bottomless wells of potential cash. ….Okay, that’s over-the-top glib, but it’s not altogether untrue. In order to thrive, it’s time for us to take a hard look at our revenues and get smarter about our pricing strategies. We need to invest in affordable access programs that actually work in order to reach goals in attracting these audiences – and we need to put a wee bit more effort in actually attracting them. It’s time to consider who is actually visiting our organizations and who is not. It’s time to get smarter about our membership opportunities and the untapped opportunities for engagement. We need to realize that free days don’t work and, again, discounts and free admission may be bigger curses for long-term survival than blessings.

 

The world is changing and we need to change, too. We need to get smarter about everything that we are doing and I think that the best place to start is taking a look at the questions that we are asking. Certainly, there are many more questions to ask beyond these three, but I think that they highlight some of our biggest challenges, especially this one:

What the heck are we doing on many fronts? Guessing. That’s what we’re doing. The good news is that we don’t need to guess anymore. Now we CAN ask these Should-Ask questions and we can find out the real answers. Without the answers, we can only do more of the same. For the sake of the institutions that we love, let’s agree to get in this game together and be fearlessly and fiercely curious. Let’s ask hard questions – even if we don’t like the answers. It is only by doing that that we can all work together to bust myths and help make cultural organizations thrive.

 

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, Fundraising, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

Fads vs Trends: How Organizations Can Tell The Difference (And Why it Matters)

Mixing up fads and trends often leaves executives frustrated, confused, and – worst of all – fearing innovation. Here’s how to spot the difference. 

Understanding the difference between fads and trends is critical for all organizations. However, many leaders seem to be unaware of their important differences. Today’s Fast Facts video aims to differentiate these critical concepts, and also provides a quick tip for how to spot the difference.

Both fads and trends can play an important role in an organization’s success – but they must be treated differently. If they are not, leaders risk burning out adapting to every fad, and critical trends required for an organizations’ survival may be missed. Let’s start by looking into fads and trends individually.

 

Fads come fast and fade away

A fad is any form of behavior that is intensely followed by a population for a short period of time. The behavior will rise relatively quickly and fall relatively quickly once the perception of novelty is gone.

There are some great fads out there! Collecting beanie babies was a fad, so were pet rocks, sending spam, #followfriday, Ouiji boards, troll dolls, water beds…the list goes on. We can thank fads for basically everything that we wore in the 80’s (or 90’s, or 2000’s…) And there are a lot of fads going on right now that may bring us a laugh twenty years from now. 

Fads certainly have value and they can profoundly change organizations- consider the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge! Utilizing fads in marketing and programs can increase top-of-mind awareness, demonstrate the timeliness of your organization, and serve as a gateway for new audiences.

This is all great and important stuff but – remember – fads don’t stick around.

 

Trends solve problems and get stronger over time

A trend, on the other hand, gets stronger over time and does stick around. Trends have identifiable and explainable rises that are driven by audience needs. They help solve a problem for people. In the words of the forever-awesome Seth Godin, “A trend gains power over time, because it’s not merely part of a moment, it’s a tool, a connector that will become more valuable as other people commit to engaging in it.”

The increasing use of social networks is a trend (that connects us to one another). So is quitting smoking (which lengthens our lives), evidence-based medicine (that removes the guesswork in medical-related situations), and the use of mobile devices (that allow us to look up information in real time). These are things that have grown – and continue to grow – in market penetration. They solve problems. They represent new ways of life.

Organizations ignore trends at their own risk. Ignoring trends means that they will either be forced to adapt later and will necessarily be behind, or the organization will fade away.

 

Confusing fads and trends causes big problems

Trends inform your organization’s successful evolution. When organizations write off things like web-based engagement or data-informed management (for instance) as fads instead of trends, evolution stops. Things get held back.

However, if we approach passing fads as trends, we cry wolf on organizational change. We burn out believing that every week, we need to change our organizations structure based on “what’s hot right now.” Treating fads like trends can lead organizations to become overwhelmed, give up on following along, and, again, stop evolution.

 

A trick for telling the difference between fads and trends

So how can your organization figure out if something is a fad or a trend? A helpful trick may be to consider that trends inevitably affect some form of the organization’s engagement strategy, but fads usually influence tactics. This isn’t a fool-proof trick, but it can help your organization think strategically about the differences between both fads and trends.

For instance, social media use is a trend and that affects your engagement strategy, but selfies affect how you can carry out that strategy. Screaming “YOLO” and going gluten-free are things that folks may be doing these days – and, in order to remain relevant, your organization may benefit by embracing them for now. But these fads affect your organization’s tactics (and messages and programs), not its strategy. Data-informed management affects your strategy. Embracing transparency affects your strategy. The trend toward personalized interactions and programs thanks to our increasingly individually-tailored world is a trend and also deeply affects our strategies.

If there is growing, multi-year data demonstrating that something affects the market, then you know it’s a trend. But sometimes we need to know when and how far we should move and embrace change before there’s multi-year data telling us that something is sticking around.

Both fads and trends have real value for cultural organizations, but understanding the difference may be necessary for survival. Fads can inform your tactics and help you to maintain the perception of being “current,” but ignoring trends can lead to irrelevance and create a divide between organizations and their audiences.

 

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, Financial Solvency, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on Fads vs Trends: How Organizations Can Tell The Difference (And Why it Matters)

The Real Reason Some Nonprofits Stink at “Digital” (And Why It Is Getting Worse)

Dilbert vagueness plan

Within some organizations, “going digital” is causing more problems than it’s solving. This isn’t because of the people who work in digital. It’s because of the people who don’t.

I’ve posted briefly on the dangers of separating “digital” and “marketing,” but this topic arose quite explicitly on the very first day of the annual MuseumNext conference last month and was inspired by a presentation from museum pro, Koven J. Smith. (Sidenote to make good on a promise:  the slides from my keynote at MuseumNext are available here.)  Though the seeds of this article blossomed at a museum-oriented conference, the threat is relevant for many nonprofit organizations and businesses in general.

“Are you saying that ideally nobody in museums should have “digital” in their title?” one person asked in regard to a point in Koven’s talk. He paused for barely a moment. “Yes,” he stated simply.

This idea was a small part of his argument (check out more of his rich thought-fuel here), but I think he’s onto something big…something that I observe everyday in my work with well-intentioned nonprofit organizations: We are breeding a culture of misunderstanding around the important role of “digital” in the future of our organizations and, frankly, it imperils the vibrancy of the very future that we are trying to ensure. “Digital” has been allowed to become an “other” (i.e. “not within my scope of work” and/or “something I don’t ‘get’”) for certain individuals in certain organizations, and, like most “others,” digital (as a concept) is misunderstood, abused, and used as a scapegoat for an organization’s cultural and structural shortcomings.

Dramatic? Maybe…but until we solve this issue, how can organizations steeped in these misunderstandings remain relevant and thrive in the future? Here’s why conceptually separating “digital” – as the rest of the organization understands it – is a problem that is making it harder for nonprofits to succeed.

 

1) It constantly reaffirms that “digital” is about platforms or technological skillsets and not about people (and it actually IS all about people)

Digital engagement and engagement are one in the same – they are both about people and behavior. Likewise, digital fundraising and fundraising are synonymous in successful organizations. Again, they are both about people and behavior. Digital touch can be as powerful in inspiring audiences as physical touch.  “Digital” is a way of communicating and connecting, not “knowing java” or “mastering Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm.” Sure, those skills may have value in the digital world, but they aren’t the point of “being digital.” Communication goals on real-time, digital platforms should serve the exact same purpose and mission as the rest of the institution.

An online donor is still a donor. For visitor-serving organizations, a website visitor is still a visitor (a person connecting with your brand and mission). The difference is the platform (“connection point”), and the goal is the same as “in real life.”  Digital – when it is used with audiences – IS “real life” and organizations will benefit from treating it as such.

 

2) Believing “digital” is about technology instead of people and behavior breeds a desire to simply translate real life to the digital realm (and that is generally a bad idea and waste of resources)

This, too, was a very popular topic of conversation amongst the thought leaders at MuseumNext: The very real-time nature of digital platforms necessitates different behaviors online than would take place in similar offline situations. For instance, a businessman may not check out your collections (if you’re a museum, for instance) at 10am in his pajamas “IRL.”  But, he can do so digitally…and that changes how we need to think about collections, engagement, social care, image rights, accessibility, membership retention, donor cultivation, and donor discovery. It’s not a one-way track wherein we simply “copy and paste” what’s onsite onto the web. That’s not engaging and it misses opportunities. If we didn’t deeply believe that “digital” was aligned more closely with technological skillsets than brand strategy, then we probably wouldn’t still be making these mistakes (i.e. posting our collections to the web or starting a simple blog, patting ourselves on the back for it, and wondering why nobody engages with it.)

 

3) It excuses leaders for being out of touch with the market (which is a glaring sign of bad leadership)

To paraphrase another point made at MuseumNext: It’s okay (and maybe even cute) if your grandmother doesn’t know what Twitter is or how exactly it is used. It’s absolutely NOT okay for today’s leaders, fundraisers, curators, and administrators to not be minimally facile with Twitter, Facebook and basic platforms or means of modern day engagement. Ignorance isn’t cute. It makes you less qualified for your job.

A basic facility with engagement platforms doesn’t mean everyone needs to be tweeting up a storm 24/7 – but if someone claiming a position of influence or leadership doesn’t understand what Twitter is, its benefit as a social force, or how people use it, then you’re dealing with a willfully ignorant, disconnected person. Good tip for organizations whose solvency depends on making connections with the market: Don’t hire people who live in holes.

Tough love moment (which I’ll admit may be funny because I’m an energetic, camp counselor type): I’m talking to you, people who say “digital just isn’t my thing” and write it off as something that isn’t worth your time to minimally understand. You sound stupid. Personally, finance isn’t my innate passion – but I’m a professional, functioning adult and, as such, I make an effort to understand the basics of how the world around me works.   There are no excuses for choosing ignorance and disconnection – especially for people in the nonprofit realm who often claim “education” and “engagement” as their raisons d’être.

 

4) It makes digital teams a dumping ground for nebulous projects

Koven Smith MuseumNext It’s difficult to read, but Koven‘s slide references a quote that was made jokingly, but may be indicative of a larger point: “If my co-workers say, ‘I don’t get this,’ it’s automatically in the digital department.”

When the digital department becomes a dumping ground for all things tech-oriented, an opportunity is lost. “Digital” is not necessarily the same as “IT.” Again, it’s about people, strategy, engagement, and utilizing new platforms in creative ways. When “digital” devolves into a language that certain employees cannot speak or a thing that they’re allowed not to understand, they become more removed from the world that we live in. That excuses and further cultivates an out-of-touch team… and that could be deadly for the future of your organization.

Does this mean everyone needs to run out and learn code? Again, no. Not even a little bit. But join the conversation and start thinking more strategically about organizational goals and creative engagement. It’s okay if you don’t know CSS (of course), but understand what the CSS is trying to achieve.

5) It silos marketers from content (which makes it harder to make connections to audiences)

“Digital” often resides somewhere around marketing within organizations – and that’s good! But if “digital” is considered too much of an “other,” then it forces web engagement teams to operate on their own. Social media is an every-department job, and often, creative engagement is as well. Marketers have no connective content without the aid of other departments. Basically, if we conceptually divide “digital” from the strategic functions of the organization, then we lose the very benefit of being “digital” – creating connections to people and creating meaning that will inspire a desired behavior (e.g. donation, visitation, participating in a beach clean-up, etc.).

 

Basically, when people in organizations stubbornly section out “digital” as something associated simply with technological skillsets, they are admitting to being out of touch with the very people that they are trying to serve. (P.S. Museum visitors and most bigger nonprofit donors for other kinds of organizations profile as “super-connected” with broadband access at home, work, and/or on mobile). When it comes to the inevitable pace of innovation, there is no comfort in yesterday.

If you don’t care to “get” digital, then get out of the way. Your organization is trying to effectively serve a social mission and it has important work to do.

 

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, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 8 Comments

Employee Drive and Monetary Rewards– Could Nonprofits Outperform For-Profits?

I am captivated by this great video on Dan Pink’s research on what drives people. It’s absolutely worth a watch! Want to learn more? Check out his TED Talk on motivation.

If Dan Pink is right and purposemastery, and autonomy are the three keys to motivation, then I imagine that nonprofit employees should be rather happy and motivated folks because purpose and mastery seem to be built into the sector to an extent. However, this video provides a helpful hint to organizations to keep employee autonomy in mind when preparing for the future. Given Dan Pink’s outline, are nonprofits more primed to be motivation-filled workplaces than private organizations?

I think they certainly could be. Here’s how nonprofits stack up:

Purpose: Nonprofit and museum environments supply this without question. In fact, overall organizational purpose is neatly summarized and an employee’s purpose is to help realize a nonprofit organization’s (hopefully) noble mission in some form. The purpose of the employee may be specialized within the mission, but generally nonprofit work provides a feeling of “doing good” in the greater context of the world. Want a job position with a purpose? A nonprofit is a great place to be.

Mastery: Because nonprofits are sometimes understaffed and employees must take on wide variety of roles, one might assume that employee mastery would be an issue for nonprofit organizations.  For instance, I work for a great but small organization in which I take on significant duties related to marketing, communications, fundraising and development, event planning, and web design— and I’m not even a full-time employee!

In nonprofit organizations, I think mastery still functions because these environments provide several areas of mastery (which may tie into autonomy below), and smaller nonprofit organizations offer employees the opportunity to gain and refine skills. Not to mention, if there’s a talent that you can contribute to the organization, it’s likely that the organization will allow you to summon your skills in that arena.

But autonomy? This doesn’t seem as innate to the sector as purpose and mastery might be. For that very reason, maybe it should be on the forefront of nonprofit leadership literature. Not only does there seem to be a lack of discussion regarding nonprofit-specific employee autonomy, but individual nonprofits do not have the benefit of autonomy afforded by private corporations due to nonprofits’ multiple stakeholders. Aside from being a key motivator for employees, Why is employee autonomy of particular importance in nonprofit organizations? Here are some points that came to my mind when contemplating the importance of the third element in Dan Pink’s motivation trifecta:

  • Autonomy allows the organization to discover hidden talents and foster innovation. Google is famous for having what they call “20 Percent Time” in which they encourage employees to spend 20% of their work week on a project that is of interest to them, and not necessarily tied to their day-to-day job function. Nonprofits doing this may be able to loop back to mastery here by allowing employees to summon their talents and ideas to contribute to the organization in any way that they desire. This kind of autonomy could help relieve employee burnout while at the same time motivating employees to utilize their mastery in the workplace.
  • Autonomy builds internal trust and commitment. High commitment management— which emphasizes high trust, responsible autonomy, and employee involvement– has been shown to increase overall performance and reduce employee turnover. This is important in all sectors. In nonprofit environments in particular, donor relationships are very important. Reducing turnover could mean reducing a loss of donor relationships when development staff members leave the organization because fewer development employees would be leaving this kind of environment.
  • Autonomy increases productivity. If the purpose of the workplace is to provide an environment where people can do their best work in the best way that they know how, then a successful workplace will be productive. When Jeff Gunther developed a results-only work environment, he found that his employees were actually more productive. It also seems obvious that employees that are more motivated and committed will be more productive.

Autonomy may not deserve more time in the “to-do” spotlight than purpose or mastery, but it seems less innate to the sector and therefore may deserve some brainpower. If anything, autonomy is a powerful tool to be kept in nonprofit leaders’ minds as we move forward and make decisions in regard to organizational culture.

Do you think autonomy is an area where nonprofits may move forward and compete with for-profit companies? Do you think that the nonprofit culture, with some focus on Pink’s main elements, has the ability to provide a more motivating workplace than for-profit companies depending primarily upon monetary rewards?

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