Data Reveals The Worst Thing About Visiting Cultural Organizations

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People, Planet, Profit: Checks and Balances for Cultural Organizations

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Visitor Confidence Is In Decline For US Cultural Organizations (DATA)

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The Visitor Engagement Cycle for Cultural Organizations

Securing visitation comes down to increasing reputation offsite and satisfaction onsite. Here’s how it works. If your organization aims to Read more

Negative Substitution: Why Cultural Organizations Must Better Engage New Audiences FAST (DATA)

Fewer and fewer people look, act, and think like "historic" attendees to visitor-serving organizations. Here’s how many fewer. As we Read more

How Imaginary Lines Drawn by Cultural Organizations Hold Them Back

We can make “rules” about what applies to our industry - but our potential visitors and supporters don’t have Read more

pricing

Distraction: Blaming Admission Cost for Cultural Center Attendance (DATA)

Yes, it’s nice to get things for free – but it’s not why people aren’t visiting cultural organizations.

This week’s KYOB Fast Facts video is a bit of an experiment for the Fast Facts series. It’s a kind of IMPACTS “data attack” regarding cost as the primary barrier to visitation for cultural organizations. I’ve left out some of the more well-known economics that indicate that admission is not a primary barrier to visitation, and kept this to IMPACTS data.

This post does not say that cost is never a primary barrier, but rather that the true behaviors of the market indicate that our treating cost as the “go to” barrier may be serving as a self-sacrificing distraction. This post also does not suggest that access programs for low-income audiences are not important, but rather that they are a totally different thing than admission price. (Got it? Good.)

Simply put, stable cultural organizations have three, general means of access: 1) A data-based admission price based on what the market can and will pay to visit them; 2) Targeted (key word) access programs to allow for visitation of specific audiences without means to pay admission; and 3) Affinity-based programs (i.e. membership or donor societies) to engage and cultivate key supporters.

Access programs that reach low-income audiences are often central to an organization’s mission (or grant funding opportunities), and they are important. However, admission price is not an affordable access program. 

When cultural organizations convince themselves that cost is the primary barrier to visitation for likely visitors, we miss out on opportunities to remove the actual barriers to visitation that are keeping people from coming through our doors. Barriers to visitation that are generally more significant than cost include items such as schedule, negative attitude affinities (“Not for someone like me”), reputation misses, and simply lack of content interest/preferring another activity (as we’ll discuss below). This data is important for those organizations that avoid tackling true barriers by making sacrificial assumptions that “if we build it (or create this program) and make it free, they will come.”

Can admission price be too high? You bet. But it’s just not the primary barrier to entry that we keep on defensively thinking that it is within the industry. While it’s often easier to blame pricing than to examine more deeply-rooted issues for lack of sky-high engagement, it’s often a shortcut to even less earned revenue and a devalued brand.  I’ve written about this data and more in this post (Admission Price is Not a Primary Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation) and in this post (How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance). There’s enough information on this topic to fill a dozen videos, but let’s power through some basics:

 

1) Time is more valuable than money

First, both high-propensity visitors and the composite market report that their time is more valuable than their money. A bigger barrier to visitation, then, is being considered worthy of someone’s time. If cost were the biggest barrier, these bars might be reversed. This finding is not surprising at all, as cost generally pales in comparison to schedule and reputation when it comes to factors influencing discretionary leisure activities.

When we blame admission price first, we are building this assumption on a simple fallacy: that one’s money is the most valuable thing that cultural organizations are asking for. Cultural organizations are asking for visitors’ time – and that’s often a more important thing to them than money.

 

2) Free admission does not significantly affect intent to visit

(And to the extent that it does, it’s the opposite of the “free is best” assumption.) If free admission were a cure-all for engagement, then folks would have higher intent to visit those organizations. Those would be the organizations that they want to and plan to visit! This is not the case. In fact, in most instances, audiences indicate greater intentions to visit organizations that charge more than $20 rather than those that are free.

I’m certainly not suggesting a specific admission price, but this data does fly in the face of arguments suggesting that people might not want to visit an organization that charges admission simply because it charges admission. It’s often the opposite. The popular tenant of pricing psychology is true: people value what they pay for. Organizations that offer free admission often unwittingly devalue their brands, and without a best-in-class reputation to afford wiggle room, their public perceptions often take a a bit of a pricing psychology hit.

 

 

3) Cultural organizations are generally perceived as worthy of their admission price

Organizations charging admission have similar value for cost perceptions as other activities. This data – like most data that I make accessible here on KYOB – is from IMPACTS and the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. Sometimes it seems that professionals within cultural organizations have an inferiority complex when it comes to comparing their experiences to others. (Although, yes, there are plenty of museum professionals on the other side of the spectrum and that’s a problem, too.) But the idea that cultural organizations might be less worthy of having an admission basis than other activities is make believe. In fact, in many cases, cultural organizations are considered even more worthy of their admission price – when they have one- than a baseball game, football game, basketball game, or a rock concert. We really do, generally, give visitors bang for their buck.

 

4) People value what they pay for

This chart shows the overall satisfaction levels of visitors to paid vs. free admission organizations. It includes classical concerts, live theater, history museums, art museums, zoos, aquariums, and science museums. Notice anything? It’s true. People value what they pay for.

 

5) Admission pricing is not the primary barrier to visitation for those with interest

Finally, for folks interested in visiting cultural organizations but who haven’t in the last two years, cost is the 14th ranked reason why they haven’t visited. The top reasons are preferring another kind of activity, it being hard to travel to the organization, feeling that there’s nothing new to do or see at the organization, a conflict with holiday, work, or school schedules, and parking challenges. When we focus on admission cost as a primary barrier – especially for these audiences who have already reported interest in visiting – we deliver a hit to our own financial solvency. To reach these audiences, there is often a different barrier to be removed.

When it comes to targeting low-income audiences, access programs are often a necessity. That said, low-income audiences are not generally the audience segments that we rely upon to keep our doors open and our “mission execution” game strong. To support access programs for low-income audiences, it’s necessary for many organizations to have an optimal admission price for the people who can and will attend the organization. For those people – the people who keep us alive if we aren’t a government funded entity –  pricing is not the primary barrier to visitation.

On the whole, the kind of people who want to go to cultural organizations are willing to pay to visit them. The argument for free admission is often an emotional one.  It may feel warm a fuzzy to offer free admission, but for many organizations, it comes with financial and perceptual consequences – and much of the science just doesn’t support it. It’s often better to charge your optimal admission price, and then create effective, targeted affordable access programs for specific audiences. When we focus on admission cost as the primary barrier to engagement, we miss out on the opportunity to remove true barriers.

 

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, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

Six Concepts that Visitor-Serving Organizations Confuse at Their Own Risk

6 concepts that cultural organizations confuse at their own risk

For the sake of the future of cultural organizations, let’s stop mixing up these terms. 

There’s a good amount of information here on KYOB that has accumulated through the course of this lil’ corner of the Internet’s existence! I recently wrote a compilation post on some of the more important points regarding engaging millennials within cultural organizations. I also recently found myself in a meeting taking on “the usual clarifications” when it occurred to me that there’s an important opportunity to compile a few of those “usual clarifications” as well!

Here are six sets of terms that often get confused with one another within leadership conversations at museums, theaters, aquariums, zoos, symphonies, and other cultural organizations. When we confuse these terms… well, general confusion tends to ensue and desired outcomes are not as easily achieved. Regular KYOB readers will recognize some of these “usual clarifications” from fast fact videos.

Ready? Let’s dive in! How many of these terms or concepts does your organization regularly interchange or generally misunderstand?

 

Market research vs. audience research

Audience research is the primary type of research upon which most cultural organizations rely. Audience research is any research conducted on visitors and past visitors in order to gather information about their attitudes, knowledge, interests, preferences, or behaviors. This kind of research comes in the form of exit surveys, zip code collecting, and reaching out to members and visitors through mail or email lists or online communities, for example. Audience research is research conducted on people who are already visiting your organization. Audience research is indeed valuable, but it is often confused with market research and an overreliance on audience research may he holding back even the smartest of cultural organizations.

Market research, on the other hand, is any organized effort to gather information about target markets – including the folks who may NOT be visiting an organization. Market research includes folks who are not your audiences (yet) and it is necessary to gather this information in order to reach new audiences. For the sake of long-term solvency, cultural organizations need to become better at reaching new audiences and our overreliance on audience research when we should be using market research results in industry problems like our inability to effectively attract low-income audiences. Market research helps spot trends and helps your organization figure out what to do next – not only to survive, but to thrive.

 

Admission pricing vs. affordable access

Admission pricing is the cost of admission for folks who visit your organization. It is an intelligently determined price point that contemplates what high-propensity visitors (people who are interested in visiting cultural organizations) are willing to pay in order to take part in your experience. “The gate” is often an important source of revenue for cultural organizations and having a considered price point ensures that your organization is neither leaving money on the table, nor jeopardizing attendance potential from those who are interested and able to support your organization. Admission price is an economically-sound business imperative for many organizations and admission pricing is not an affordable access program if your organization relies on paid admission in some capacity.

Affordable access (that is effective) is generally rather expensive for cultural organizations and it takes real investment that is usually made at least partially possible by gate revenues. Affordability is binary. An admission price is either affordable or it’s not. When organizations lower their optimal price point in hopes of “being more affordable” or “reaching underserved audiences” they aren’t truly doing either of those things. In reality, they are purposefully missing out on the very funds needed to make effective affordable access possible at all. Successful affordable access programs are targeted so that they truly reach folks who are unable to attend – not people who would generally pay full price but are just looking for a deal. Admission pricing and affordable access are two completely different means of access that play completely different roles in the sustainability of visitor-serving organizations.

 

High-propensity visitors vs. historic visitors

High-propensity visitors are folks who demonstrate the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization. In other words, these are the people who actually visit cultural organizations. They are those awesome kinds of people who say, “Yeah! That sounds like fun!” of even “Yeah. I could do that!” when someone suggests a visit to a museum or performance.We love these folks. As much as we hate to admit it, not all people have this reaction. High-propensity visitors do not need to have visited a type of cultural organization in order to profile as a likely visitor and they are not necessarily past visitors. Instead, they are people with behaviors and characteristics that indicate the potential to visit. Many members of “new audiences” – including millennials and minority majorities  – profile as high-propensity visitors as well.

Historic visitors are the people with the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics that match traditional visitor profiles. Essentially, they are past visitors. Historic visitors profile as a high-propensity visitors, but not every high-propensity visitor matches the profile of a person who has more traditionally visited cultural organizations. Not everyone with interest in visiting today necessarily matches the profile of the kind of person who visited yesterday. Glibly (but it helps illustrate the difference), not everyone who is likely to visit a cultural organization is a wealthy, older, white person. In fact, it’s increasingly the opposite. We need to reach beyond traditional visitor profiles because we are experiencing a negative substitution of the historic visitor in the United States. The issue of confusing historic visitors with high-propensity visitors that we need to more effectively reach is often confounded by confusion related to audience research vs. market research.

 

Key performance indicators vs. diagnostic metrics

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are used to evaluate the ongoing success of an organization or a particular initiative. Success is often defined in terms of making progress toward achieving the strategic objectives that optimize the solvency of an organization. KPIs have a direct correlation to desired outputs (fundraising, visitation, etc.). For instance, for our nonprofit visitor-serving partners at IMPACTS, we measure items related to market sentiment that include metrics such as reputation (e.g. top-of-mind metrics), educational value, satisfaction, value-for-price perceptions, and other items that correlate directly to the health of an organization and its ability to achieve its bottom line objectives.  Bad metaphor: Let’s say you’re an Olympic runner. Your KPIs are your response times, race times, reflexes, muscle strength, and those things that contribute most directly to your success.

Diagnostic metrics are data points that contribute to KPI performance and aid organizations in pinpointing specific opportunities but they can be a distraction if they are given the same attention as KPIs. These metrics cannot “stand-in” for KPIs because they are a sub-measurement of assessment criteria that lead to desired behaviors. For instance, on the surface, certain social media diagnostic metrics may look positive, but if they aren’t elevating your reputation (a key driver of visitation), then…well, a “like” is just a “like.” Diagnostic metrics are also helpful for listening to audiences and informing organizations of opportunities for improvement. Bad metaphor continued: Let’s say you are an Olympic runner again. Your diagnostic metrics might be your blood pressure, levels of B12, and heart rate. Heart rate contributes to your ability to run a good race time, but focusing on heart rate on its own isn’t the metric to focus on. (It’s your race time.)  You are measuring your heart rate (diagnostic metric), in this case, so that you can increase your race speeds (your KPI). Focusing on diagnostic metrics (like Facebook “likes” and retweets) without focusing on key performance indicators (like changes in reputation attendant to those likes) is a distraction and a waste of time getting a lot of retweets doesn’t necessarily mean that you are increasing your reputation. It is important to know which kinds of metrics are which. 

 

Discounts vs. promotions

Discounts are when an organization offers free or reduced admission to broad, undefined audiences for no clearly identifiable reason. Discounts do a lot of pretty terrible things for visitor-serving organizations. Simply, offering discounts devalues your brand. Offering discounts – especially via public social media channels – cultivates a “market addiction” that often has long-term, negative consequences on the health of organizations. In many ways, offering discounts creates a vicious cycle whereby a visitor-serving organization realizes an ever-diminishing return on the value visitation. When an organization provides discounts, it often results in five not-so-awesome outcomes that you can read about here.

Promotions offer a targeted benefit for certain audiences for an identifiable reason. The biggest difference between promotions and discounts may be how they are perceived by the market. Promotions celebrate your community. Promotions demonstrate why an organization is offering free or reduced pricing in the communication of the promotion. That reason is usually something that celebrates an organization’s mission or an organization’s audience, and it is made clear that it is something special. While some may learn the differentiation between these two approaches and consider it to be a framing of communication, it’s actually a reflection of an organization’s culture. Whether an organization’s go-to strategy includes either promotions or discounts demonstrates a great deal about the organization and the thoughtfulness of its engagement approach, as well as the value that it places on its reputation. In the end, one approach is more about an organization’s flailing attempts to hit specific attendance numbers at the expense of its brand and mission (and long-term ability to hit those numbers), and the other is more about your organization’s relationship with target audiences and communities.

 

Fads vs. trends

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. 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.

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. 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. When organizations write off things like web-based engagement or data-informed management (for instance) as fads instead of trends, evolution stops. However, treating fads like trends can lead organizations to become overwhelmed, give up on following along, and, again, stop evolution. (Here’s a tip on how to tell if something is a fad or a trend.)

 

Think the distinction between these terms and concepts sound obvious? GREAT. Let’s make sure to join the conversation and help organizations keep them straight so that they can survive and thrive. Let’s all help in communicating “the usual clarifications,” because if we don’t, our organizations risk healthy evolution.

 

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, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

Why Discounting Hurts Your Cultural Organization And What To Do Instead (Fast Fact Video)

Discounts don’t do what organizations think that they do…

Check out this week’s KYOB Fast Facts video to get the two-minute low-down on discounts verse promotions (Hint: promotions are a much better idea – and, yes, they are extremely different). 

Discounting Is Bad Business For Cultural Organizations

It’s true: “Getting discounts” is often cited as the top reason why many people engage with an organization’s social media channels. So it seems logical that if you want to bump your number of fans and followers, offering discounts is a surefire way to go. And it works – if your sole measure of success is chasing these types of meaningless metrics. But, before you go crazy with discount offers on social networks just to get your “likes” up, here’s another thing that’s true: Offering discounts – especially via public social media channels – cultivates a “market addiction” that often has long-term, negative consequences on the health of your organization. In many ways, offering discounts creates a vicious cycle whereby a visitor-serving organization realizes and ever-diminishing return on the value visitation.

A discount is when an organization offers free or reduced admission to broad, undefined audiences for no clearly identifiable reason. Offering discounts devalues your brand and often makes it look like your organization’s admission isn’t priced correctly in the first place. This is generally true for discounts delivered via all channels, but discounts breed a special type of pervasive problem when they are offered on the digital platforms. When an organization provides discounts, it often results in five not-so-awesome outcomes:

 

1) You verify that your communication channels are sources for discounts and, thus, encourage your community to expect these discounts

Posting a discount to attract more followers on a social media channel (or to get people to engage with a social media competition, etc.) will very likely result in a bump in likes and engagement. But know that in doing this, you are verifying that your social media channel is a source for discounts.

Discounting attracts low-level engagers who are more likely to be following your channels for a discount than they are for any reason related to your mission. It is far better for your brand and bottom line to have 100 fans who share and interact with your content to create meaningful relationships than it is to have 1,000 fans who simply like you for a discount.

I can hear the rumbling now: Some of you are thinking, “But we’ve used discounts to attract more likes and it worked” (i.e. it generated more likes on social media). That’s not surprising at all. Over time, however, these low-level engagers may stop following you or simply disengage if you do not continue to offer discounts. That is, after all, the reason why they followed you in the first place…and you have shown them that, yes, indeed, you will post discounts on social media.

Generally, these people are not actual evangelists – and cultivating real evangelists to build a strong online community is the whole point of social media. You want folks who actually care about what you’re doing.

 

2) Your community will wait for discounts before deciding to visit, thereby altering visitation cycles

Data indicate that offering coupons on social media channels – even once – causes people to postpone their visits or wait until you offer another discount before visiting you again. Worse yet, the new discount generally needs to be perceived as a “better” offer (i.e. an even greater discount) to motivate a new visit. This observation is consistent with many aspects of discount pricing psychology, whereby a stable discount is perceptually worth “less” over time. In other words, the same 20% discount that motivated your market to visit last month will likely have a diminishing impact when re-deployed. Next time, to achieve the same outcome, your organization may have to offer a 35% discount…and then a 50% discount, etc. You see where I’m going with this…

 

3) You are not necessarily capturing new visitation with discounts

In fact, data from IMPACTS suggests that many of the folks using your discount were likely to visit anyway…and pay full price! This is a classic example of an ill-advised discounting strategy “leaving money on the table.”

“But visitation increased when we offered a discount!” you say. But did it really? The average person in the United States visits a cultural center once every 19 months. When an organization offers a discount, it is rarely actually attracting larger volume of visitation to the organization. Instead, the organization is often simply accelerating its audience’s re-visitation cycle on a one-time basis. This sounds great…until the organization realizes the significant downside to this happening: Your audience just visited your organization without paying the full price that they were actually willing to pay and  likely won’t visit your organization again for (on average) another 19 months. 

Think of it this way: A visitor coming to your organization in May may be (on average) likely visit to again the following December (i.e. in 19 months). Let’s say that you offer them a discount that motivates them to visit in October instead of December. Now, you’ve linked their intentions to visit to a discount offer and decoupled it from what should be their primary motivation – your content and mission! And, by doing so, you’ve created an environment where content as a motivator has become secondary to “the deal.” In other words, you will have moved your market from their regular visitation cycle to a visitation cycle dependent on an ever-increasing discount. Can your organization afford to keep motivating visitation in this way?

A note: Different organizations generally have different visitation cycles. 19 months is a US average. Regardless of how many months make up your organization’s visitation cycle, discounting disrupts that cycle and partners it with a perceived “deal.”

 

4) Discounts actually decrease the likelihood of re-vistation

What of the idea that discounts get people to try your organization and become regular attendees? It’s largely a myth. In fact, the steeper discount, the less likely folks are to re-visit within one year. This is classic pricing psychology at play: People value what they pay for. If your organization’s admission price is set at an optimal point, then your organization has largely removed price as a barrier to engagement, and discounting actually does the exact opposite of what many organizations think that it’s doing. That “discounted trial” that some organizations believe that they are offering falls flat because the folks who profile as being likely attendees are able and willing to pay the full price. Your organization is demonstrating that it devalues its brand and, in turn, audiences devalue your brand.

Hey. You started it.

IMPACTS-Revisitation and discounts

 

5) Your organization becomes addicted to discounting

Organizations sometimes confuse the response (i.e. a visit) to the stimuli (i.e. a discount) with efficacy. Once a discount has been offered to motivate a visit, we regularly witness the market “holding out” for another discount before visiting again. And what are organizations doing while the market waits for this new discount? Often times the answer is that they are panicking.

If you run an organization that offers discounts, you’ve probably spent some time in this uncomfortable space – we observe the market’s behavior (or, in this case, their lack of behavior), and begin to get anxious because attendance numbers are down. What’s a quick fix to ease the pain of low visitation? Another discount! So we offer this discount…and, in the process, reward the market for holding out for the discount to begin with. That is the insidious thing about many discounting strategies: They actually train your audience to withhold their regular engagement, and then reward them for their constraint. We feed their addiction and, in turn, we become addicted ourselves to the short-term remedy that is “an offer they can’t refuse.”

Like most addictive – but ultimately deleterious – activities, there is no denying that discounts “work” – provided that your sole measure of the effectiveness of a discount is its ability to generate a short-term spike in visitation or increase low-level social media “likes.” But, once the intoxicating high of a crowded gallery or filled theater has passed, very often all that we’re left with is a nasty hangover.

 

Promotions are a better strategy

“But aren’t promotions pretty much the same thing as discounts?” No. They aren’t. Many organizations fail to stop and consider the differences between discounts and promotions and, specifically, the different effects that each has on the perceptions of the cultural organization offering the opportunity. If your organization confuses the two, then you’ll likely end up paying the price. Literally.

Promotions offer a targeted benefit for certain audiences for an identifiable reason. The biggest difference between promotions and discounts may be how they are each perceived. As previously mentioned, discounts offer free or reduced admission to a broad, undefined audience for no apparent reason. Promotions celebrate your community. Examples of promotions may include reduced admission for mothers on Mother’s Day, a pricing special to celebrate a new program, or a reduced admission day for local audiences. Promotions demonstrate why an organization is offering free or reduced pricing in the communication of the promotion. That reason is usually something that celebrates an organization’s mission or an organization’s audience, and it is made clear that it is something special.

While some may learn the differentiation between these two approaches and consider it to be a framing of communication, it’s actually a reflection of an organization’s culture. Whether an organization’s go-to strategy includes either promotions or discounts demonstrates a great deal about the organization and the thoughtfulness of its engagement approach, as well as the value that it places on its reputation. In the end, one approach is more about your organization’s flailing attempts to hit specific attendance numbers at the expense of its brand and mission, and the other is more about your organization’s relationship with target audiences and communities.

Promotions make people say, “Wow, I feel valued by this organization!” Discounts make people say, “Hey, I got in cheap.” The approach that respects both the organization and its community beats out the short-sighted discount strategy when it comes to increasing long-term visitation.

 

Want to see more Fast Fact videos? Subscribe to my YouTube channel, or check them out here:

 

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

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

Admission tickets

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Unintentional collusion looks something like this:

IMPACTS unintentional collusion

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

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

 IMPACTS ticket price analysis example

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

IMPACTS intent to revist

 

 

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

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

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 4 Comments

There Is No Mission Without Money: Why Cultural Organizations Need To Get Smart About Pricing Practices

museum admission line

This article concludes a four-part series intended to help visitor-serving organizations understand and respond to emerging trends that will impact their financial and mission-related goals. Learn more about the series here. 

Austerity measures and the loss of heretofore “reliable” funding mechanisms pitched many European cultural organizations into a tenuous financial state and catalyzed a conversation concerning the sustained solvency of visitor-serving enterprise worldwide. In an increasingly competitive market where volume-based strategies (such as an ever-increasing attendance) are less likely remedies to the new economic reality that emphasizes earned revenues, 2014 will mark the year when organizations will need to “get smart” about leveraging data to develop intelligent, efficient price indices. In turn, analysis of an organization’s pricing structure will likely – and necessarily – foster additional discussion concerning the creation of more effective affordable access programming.

Nonprofits are increasingly competing with for-profit organizations as private companies capitalize on shifts in market behavior toward supporting social causes. The market – and especially millennials – are also increasingly sector-agnostic, meaning that simply being a nonprofit doesn’t necessarily indicate to audiences that your organization is providing more social value than a private company.   This is one of the reasons why visitor-serving organizations that highlight their mission outperform museums that market themselves primarily as attractions. 

It’s time to pause and think about your organization’s relevance – and relevance is determined by the market and the support that your organization is able to summon. In short order, museums that cannot survive a “natural selection” and appeal to audiences will sink due to lack of support (relevance), while those that remain solvent and vital (while also pursuing their mission), will enjoy sustained success.

 

1) Here’s why your organization needs to think about revenue and pricing right now (and more than ever before):

 

A) In general, fewer people may be attending your organization because of negative substitution of traditional visitors so increasing attendance may prove challenging in the near-term.

Visitor-serving organizations’ (VSOs) “historic” visitors are leaving the market at a faster rate than new high-propensity visitors are entering the market, creating a negative substitution phenomenon that does not paint a bright future (or present, for that matter) for VSOs. In fact, for every one historic HPV that leaves the market, they are being replaced by 0.989 “new” high-propensity visitors. That may sound like a small difference, but these people add up! Keep up your hard work reaching your traditional audiences and – for no fault of your own – negative substitution factors would suggest that an organization currently serving one million annual visitors will attract 946,000 visitors five years from now (that is 54,000 fewer people, and a likely corresponding decline in membership and program participation). This troubling “glide path” also considers that you’ll be doing everything that you can do to meet your current audience’s needs, and continue to market to them like exceptional rockstars! This data suggests that the key to long-term organizational solvency is to evolve our engagement strategies to include your emerging high-propensity visitors.

The good news: If museums begin to target and cultivate new audiences now, we should start to observe a broad attendance turnaround in year 2019 as emerging audiences (such as English as Second Language households) continue to acculturate into the “mainstream” market and if millennials (who will dominate the market in terms of number and purchasing power) have been engaged by VSOs. But the attendance trend still stands: In spite of overall population growth and even if your organization does its very best and starts evolving right now (as you should in order to get things back up when the market is ripe around 2019), there’s a good chance that your attendance numbers may flatten out these next few years.

 

B) Expensive special exhibits are often financial drains when compared to the potential alternative uses of these same funds.

Despite clear data that utilizing special exhibits to cultivate visitation is an ineffective long-term strategy and has particularly costly and detrimental consequences for organizations, many VSOs (and museums, in particular), get wrapped up in this bad, bad practice when times get tight.

In my world, we refer to organizations that prioritize special exhibits over building affinity for permanent collections as committing “blockbuster suicide.” And – though I won’t throw any organizations under the bus by mentioning their names – I’ll bet that you can think of an organization or two that has “committed suicide” in this way and is now in quite a financial pickle.  These museums train even their closest constituents to wait for expensive exhibits in order to motivate a return visit. Not only is this plan ineffective and ridiculously short-sighted, but it’s also very expensive.

In an economy that increasingly relies on maximizing earned revenues from a finite audience, the margin of financial success is very small. Many organizations cannot afford expensive vanity projects that do little to improve net revenues but add significant costs to their financial model.  Alternative uses of funds that focus on improving the visitor experience frequently realize better returns than the costs to actualize a “special” exhibit.  While many organizations have become very astute at calculating per capita revenues, it may also be wise to similarly calculate the per capita operating costs attendant to serving your visitors.  We reliably observe that exhibits increase per capita operating costs at a level that exceeds any short-term increase in per capita revenues.  In other words, there is little evidence to recommend the viability of special exhibits as a sustainable revenue maximization strategy.

 

C) Visitor-serving organizations that discount to increase word of mouth and drive attendance experience the backlash of negative reputational equities.

What about social media? Can’t we use that to drive attendance? Yes, data suggest that utilizing social media to increase reputation in order to drive attendance is effective and indeed you should! However, when times get tight financially, we see many organizations resort to offering discounts via social media…and offering discounts via social media is a big mistake. This practice cultivates a “market addiction” that has long-term, negative consequences on the health of your organization.

Moreover, the more steeply you discount, the less likely visitors are to return. (Here’s the data again). People also tend to value what they pay for. Those who visit your organization at a discount are also statistically less satisfied with their experience and report more negative reviews than those who come in at full price (Hey, you devalued your brand first!). So much for crossing your fingers for better word of mouth as the result of a discount…

 

 

2) Now look at how most organizations decide how to price for admission:

Many organizations price their admissions based on what we at IMPACTS have termed “unintentional collusion.” Take a look back in time to your most recent conversation about pricing. The origin of your pricing framework probably went something like this:

IMPACTS unintentional collusion pricing

This happens because organizations misunderstand a fundamental principle of pricing.

Museums actually have different reputational equities and thus differing values that the market is willing to pay for a unique experience. If you’re a zoo that is charging the same admission as a nearby children’s museum (or vice versa), then your organization may be ignorantly “leaving money on the table” by relying on the comparative price of a neighboring or “like” organization. Each museum actually has an optimal price index (often best derived as the result of data-based price analyses) wherein the optimal price to visit an organization maximizes revenues without demeaning attendance potential. Along these same lines (and for the reasons stated above), I’d like to offer up a concept that is increasingly critical for the long-term health and vitality of many VSOs:

The amount of revenue that your organization secures is more important than the amount of attendees that walk through your door.

Many executive leaders and board members have a shockingly hard time understanding this necessary – and completely pragmatic – evolution in visitor-serving “business” practices. Many have been hardwired over time to think of success as the number of people that walk through the door. (Why do we even think this way anyway?! It’s an outdated preoccupation with a relatively meaningless nonprofit output.)

The most direct and savvy way to reap the benefits of your labors cultivating evangelists and working to increase your reputation?  Utilizing it to increase your revenue. And when attendance plateaus at the time that your brand is at its most premium, the most efficient way to do this is to adjust your admission price accordingly.

 

3) Optimized pricing will necessitate conversations about affordable access programming that serves lower-income and other underserved constituencies (in other words, programming that actually works)

If your organization has been value-advantaged (“leaving money on the table”) when it comes to your admission price, then raising the price of tickets may, indeed, increase the barrier for low-income households to attend your organization. Because affordable access is often a key part of many organizations’ missions – or even required in order to be eligible for certain grants and government funding opportunities –  getting smarter about pricing will mean getting smarter about affordable access programs as well.

Experience at IMPACTS has shown time and time again that many affordable access programs are extremely inefficient. Specifically, many affordable access programs achieve startlingly little in terms of providing targeted benefit to low-income households and, instead, allow discounted access to those who would otherwise be able and willing to pay full price. These programs are neither capturing low-income households, nor are they increasing revenues so that museums may more effectively and efficiently fulfill their missions. They are glorified discount programs that organizations offer so that they may check off a symbolic box of “affordable access.”

As visitor-serving organizations realize the need to pay attention to pricing and maximize their investments, there will be incentive to re-evaluate affordable access programs so that they actually work. Namely, that they provide an opportunity for low-income households and other targeted underserved audiences to visit the organization without concurrently discounting admission for those who would be willing to pay full price for your unique experience.

All of this is a long way of saying that nonprofit organizations are finally going to have to think about money and stop defending outdated nonprofit dogmas that tend to demonize revenue as a “necessary evil.”  Museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts and other cultural organizations are big business – accounting for $135 billion in annual economic activity and more than 4.1 million jobs.  Instead of considering volume of visitation as a key performance indicator, we ought to instead focus on meaningful outcomes and recognize that our collective ambitions to achieve social good require revenues.  In other words, there is no mission without money. 

 

*Photo credit: Telegraph, AP (The photo choice has nothing to do with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s pricing!)

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