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Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA)

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Eight Realities To Help You Become A Data-Informed Cultural Organization

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A Quarter of Likely Visitors to Cultural Organizations Are In One Age Bracket (DATA)

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The Top Seven Macro Trends Impacting Cultural Organizations

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science centers

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 dive more fully into 2017, I wanted to take a moment to discuss negative substitution and take a deeper dive into how it is affecting cultural organizations. The bad news is that negative substitution of historic visitors is taking place for mission-driven, visitor-serving organizations (museums, theaters, symphonies and orchestras, science centers, botanic gardens, etc.). The good news is that the first step to evolution may be acknowledging our changing market. On that note, let’s do this…

 

Negative substitution is urgent

Negative substitution is a phenomenon occurring globally wherein the number of people who profile as historic visitors leaving the market outpaces the number of people who profile as historic visitors entering the market. It’s the driving reason for the decline in attendance to museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts entities, and other visitor-serving organizations. Negative substitution is taking place because the market is growing more diverse, while perceptions of cultural organizations as being places for a certain kind of person have remained largely static. Simply, when there are fewer people in the market who profile as historic visitors year-over-year, and also growth in the number people who profile as “nontraditional audiences” year-over-year, the market potential risks fewer-and-fewer visitors over time.

The data below is an aggregate of all museum types that we monitor at IMPACTS (224 of them) crossed with visitation information from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study of (currently) over 108,000 people. It includes museums related to art, history, and science, children’s museums, historic sites, performing art organizations, zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens. The negative substitution rate for museums shows that for every one historic visitor who leaves the US market (by way of death, relocation, or migration), they are being replaced by only 0.948 of a person (by way of birth, relocation, or immigration). This may not sound impressive – but this is actually a huge difference.

Think of it this way: An organization with a stable attendance of 1,000,000 visitors may keep doing everything right by their current audiences (e.g. marketing, developing exhibits, etc.), and then might reasonably expect to engage 948,000 future visitors…and then 899,000 visitors…and then progressively fewer yet visitors over time absent interdiction. And they will be doing everything right by their current audiences!

 

In order to overcome negative substitution, we need to do a better job at attracting two, general audiences that do not visit cultural organizations at representative rates relative to their market size: millennials and not-white people (bluntly). Keep in mind, these are not entirely different audiences as millennials are the largest generation in human history and nearly half of us are of different racial and ethnic backgrounds than traditional historic visitors. Moreover, as sick as we may be of discussing it, data suggest that organizations must do a much better job at attracting and retaining millennial audiences. Negative substitution rates for different types of visitor-serving organizations generally correlate with attitude affinities – or to what degree the public perceives that an organization is “for people like me.” Though I will be referencing them later, you can learn more about different attitude affinities for different organization types in this post.

 

Overcoming negative substitution means changing the profile of the historic visitor to cultural organizations

Or rather, we need to evolve to be perceived as more welcoming to different types of people than our “traditional” visitor. Negative substitution suggests that, if we keep on keeping on attracting people that look and behave like our current audiences, we’ll slowly decline in visitation over time. Sure, we need to evolve to meet the changing expectations of historic audiences by honoring market trends of personalization, connectivity, and transparency. More than that, we need to do a better job at attracting different types of people and making them our regular attendees. (And not simply our “super special one-off-program” attendees.) We need to change up the very profile of the type of person who wants to visit a cultural organization.

Isn’t it funny that many museums are only now realizing the importance of data-informed decision-making…all the while focusing primarily on audience research that risks yielding deleterious long-term consequences by emphasizing the very programs and budget allocations that support negative substitution in the first place? To reach new audiences, we need to get smarter about market research and attracting the people who we want to visit but don’t yet attend. The people who we need to start attracting are not yet on our email lists and, by definition, aren’t onsite to fill out surveys. (Yes, Colleen. It’s… hilarious.)

The change that we need to carry out is a big deal – and we are (however slowly) progressing on the whole! In the history of museums and cultural organizations, this kind of shift has never been so urgent. Today, with evolving demographics and imperiled government funding, engaging emerging audiences matters more to our missions and financial solvency than ever before. And, indeed, many organizations are implementing new strategies to cultivate and attract new audiences. Successful organizations are changing up how we approach change.

 

How negative substitution is affecting organization types

While the overall negative substitution rate for museums is 0.948 people entering for every one person who leaves the market, we are able to further parse the negative substitution rates of specific types of cultural organizations. Here’s a sample of them and some notes that may contribute to the negative substitution rates of each visitor-serving type. Let’s go backward from those with the lowest negative substitution rates to those with the biggest opportunity.

Zoos: Among visitor-serving organizations, zoos are suffering least from negative substitution. This is true even amidst increasing discussions about animal care and welfare. Like aquariums (discussed next), zoos may more easily deliver on the promise of awe and wonder without facing some of the perceived intellectual intimidation that may be attendant to a science or art museum visit. Moreover (and interestingly), lexical analysis of data reveals that being outside may play a role in reducing negative attitude affinities for zoos. Conceptually, it makes sense: Being outside may feel more like a park or public area than being within the walls of an institution. Also, like aquariums, having the added “so what?” of conservation and the protection of animals provides an added level of reputational equity that works in this type of organization’s favor.

Aquariums: Aquariums are also suffering notably less than the museum industry average. That said, negative substitution is never a good thing – and there’s still important work to be done. A reason for these higher (comparatively) values may be that aquariums are among the types of visitor-serving organizations that are most dependent upon the market. Relatively speaking, as a sector, aquariums generally have the lowest levels of government support, the smallest endowments, and many have also emphasized their nonprofit-y conservation mission that engenders additional support. (Generally, this helps aquariums – and any organization that particularly highlights its mission.) Aquariums also may be able to capture awe and wonder without as big a risk of the perceived intimidation factor that may burden other content types.

History museums: History museums are a wee bit above the museum negative substitution average of 0.948:1.000. History organizations tend to rely most heavily on stories (or, talking about history) than other types of organizations that are perceived to revolve around specific, individual artworks or exhibits. While visitor-serving organizations are increasingly understanding the importance of creative storytelling in an effort to create relevance and resonance with visitors, history organizations may have storytelling most definitionally embedded within their reputational DNA. Storytelling and providing relevant, personalized connections are critical today – and this is also an area where history organizations have the ability to shine.

Art museums: Art museums fall just below the industry negative substitution average. Like science museums (discussed next), art museums may have distinct, perceived reputational barriers that may contribute to negative attitude affinities – or, people thinking they simply “aren’t places for people like me.” As the stern forefathers of “don’t touch,” “stay behind the line,” and “quiet, please” cultural engagement, it’s worth noting that art museums may have been starting from a rather uninviting place. With that in mind, this number still isn’t “good,” but it does show hope and acknowledge that there has likely been meaningful progress made by art museums in responding to these new market realities.

Science museums and science centers: Science museums and science centers are put together in this data because the market largely does not distinguish between science centers and science museums. I could (and likely will) write an entire post with more data on why the science museum/center market has higher negative substitution rates than the museum average and some possible superpowers for combating it, but here’s a very brief run-down:

Interestingly, among visitor-serving organizations, science centers/museums tend to be viewed comparatively as places to visit with children. While this was probably a good thing when millennials – the largest generation in US history – were the kids, it’s not great news now that millennial women are reproducing at the slowest rate in US history. Simply put, millennials are having fewer children (or no children), and they are having their children later in their lives – when they are more advanced in their careers and leisure time is particularly precious. If you’re an organization that has the public perception of being a place primarily for children, your market size is likely shrinking.

Moreover, like art museums, “science” content may be viewed as intimidating for nontraditional visitors. There may be a perceived content “language barrier” that contributes to folks thinking that science museums/centers “aren’t for people like me.” Science is a big topic with a lot of specialties! One can see how someone who doesn’t know much about the accessibility of science centers/museums might be intimidated. (Heck, even folks who DO know about the accessibility of science centers/museums may feel this way!) Combine this with the perception that these are places where you take your kids, and potential visitors may fear a “Dad looks dumb” situation.

Orchestras: Exhibit-based cultural organizations are far from the only cultural organization type in the market or included in the mentioned overall “museum” negative substitution number. Performance-based organizations are every bit as critical for a robust and vibrant cultural community. Unfortunately, orchestras (and symphonies, which have similar negative substitution rates) may be facing particular challenges in today’s world where folks can do many things at once. In fact, data suggest that multi-tasking is how many people like to enjoy music as well. But don’t write this high negative substitution rate off immediately on content disinterest or the menace of the modern world! Some performance-based organizations simply have not yet evolved to meet the desires of millennials (a critical audience!), and have instead chosen to “age” alongside their historic visitors.

Some symphonies and orchestras are mixing things up and trying out new programs – and that may be the key to their future. Certainly, among the visitor-serving organizations shown here, orchestras have the greatest need to reach new audiences – and fast. That doesn’t mean that they (or any other organization type) can’t do it. It means that some may have a longer ways to go.

Remember: Though 0.948 is the industry average, it’s still bad news.  There are no “winners” or “losers” here – but rather a look into the reality of the mission-driven, visitor-serving sector and some of the challenges facing both individual organization types, and also our industry as a whole. To change up these perceptions, we need all hands on deck. Our long-term vitality and relevance may be on the line.

 

Negative substitution correlates with attitude affinities

Interestingly – and unsurprisingly – negative substitution rates correlate with negative attitude affinities. Attitude affinities quantify how welcome and comfortable people feel at an organization. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the “ranking” of negative attitude affinities among the organization types mentioned (shown below) is a similar “ranking” as is the severity of negative substitution – with the exception of science centers and science museums. Being perceived as places “for kids” plays a large role in driving negative substitution for science museums and science centers, but it benefits these types of organizations as being perceived as relatively welcoming. There’s simply less perceived incentive to visit a science center/science museum if you don’t have small children – and fewer people do.

The data below comes from IMPACTS and the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study – and it is a summary of this data previously discussed on Know Your Own Bone. In short, it shows what percentage of people in the U.S. market do not feel like an organization type is a place for someone “like them.” How that is interpreted is in the eyes of the respondent. While data suggest that it may correlate with educational attainment (and, relatedly, with household income), it certainly does not correlate with an organization’s admission price.

Nearly four out of 10 people don’t feel like art museums or history museums are “places for people like me.” Just over three out of 10 people feel this way about science museums and science centers. Only about two in 10 people feel that an aquarium or zoo is “not for someone like me,” and almost five out of 10 people feel this way about orchestras. Again, you can read more about this data and attitude affinities here.

 

Within our industry, some tend to think of targeting “historic” audiences as the safe bet and cultivating new audiences as a secondary goal to be pursued “when funding becomes available.” This is short-sighted step on a long, slow march into obsolescence. The market is crawling with potential visitors – and they are ripe for cultivation if and when we decide to think outside of our outdated box.

The need to cultivate new audiences as regular attendees is critical for our long-term survival. The first step to overcoming negative substitution may be acknowledging this. Let’s take this information and welcome new folks through the door – not only because our world needs it right now, but because we do, too.

 

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, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

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 to follow them. And when they don’t, it’s our own loss.

What matters more: The imaginary lines that we draw from within our organizations, or public perception? Recent events got me thinking a little bit harder about some internal industry reasoning that may have made perfect sense in the past, but may not quite fit the world in which we live today.

 

1) Organizations can create a narrative, but the market decides its validity

It’s hard not to feel for the Saint Louis Art Museum right now. For those who haven’t been following along, an American painting has historically served as a backdrop during the inaugural luncheon at which members of Congress host the newly elected president. George Caleb Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People” is the chosen painting for Trump’s inauguration – and the Saint Louis Art Museum has agreed to loan out the painting. The publicity that Saint Louis Art Museum has received has – on the whole – not been particularly awesome. A Change.org petition has been put up in protest of the museum’s decision, and there’s a lot of notable media coverage on the topic.

George Caleb Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People” (1854–55).

What is interesting to me is the museum’s (in my opinion, completely rational) statement on the situation, and the questions that it raises about museums today. The Washington Post describes museum director Brent R. Benjamin’s response as follows:

“’When the U.S. Senate asks the St. Louis Art Museum to be part of the inauguration, we consider that an honor,’ said Benjamin. The decision, he says, wasn’t controversial; the museum was simply honoring its pre-election commitment to a bipartisan congressional committee. ‘We take no position either on candidates for public office or individuals who hold public office,’ he says. The museum will incur no costs for shipping and securing the painting during its Washington sojourn, though critics of the museum point out that the painting is particularly popular with local audiences, and rarely travels, so its absence isn’t without local impact.”

The decision may bear public perception or reputational impacts for the museum – ones that could easily swing from the positive to the negative depending on one’s own point of view. This has me thinking: Can an organization in today’s world (a world that increasingly values transparency, connectivity, and blurs traditional personal/professional lines) claim to not be held accountable for taking a position, while taking an action that supports a position? I believe that this may have been possible in the past (“This is a professional honor!”) Today, though? I’m not so sure…

It strikes me that the museum has taken a very rational intellectual position on a matter that risks irrational perceptions because it is an actual happening. How and to what extent this will affect the museum’s reputational equities will only be seen over a period of time. Maybe it won’t be negative – perhaps status quo is the worst possibility: the museum may risk being seen as an organization denying the emerging role of museums as places for discussion and conversation in a changing world. Though it may make good, intellectual sense that the museum has made such a nonpartisan statement, the statement on the action may matter less to the public than the action itself.

This recent happening got me thinking about the many other ways that some cultural organizations cross their fingers and hope with all their intellectual might that the same lines they say and think exist actually exist in real life for their constituents.

In what other ways is the world changing and we are “making rules” that our potential visitors and supporters simply don’t acknowledge? Where do we create “intellectual lines” that may actually be hurting us? Here are a few others that come to mind…

 

2) Industry definitions and classifications do not necessarily matter to the market

Within the cultural industry, we do a lot of intellectual line-drawing. My first full-time job out of college was working with a totally bomb science center in Seattle and I thank my lucky stars every day for that work-horse, passion-driven, bottom-of-the-totem-pole, deeply nerdy, frustrating, frantic, wonderful job. (I even got to voice a television commercial and felt like a star!) If there’s one thing that was reinforced to me seemingly every day it was that “We are not a museum. We are a SCIENCE CENTER.” (This is not unique to the science center where I worked. Science centers and science museums often attend or prioritize entirely different association conferences!) Imagine my surprise when I got to IMPACTS and came across data that instead suggested: The market does not reliably distinguish between science centers and science museums.

Uh oh.

It’s true. While some folks may be able to distinguish the nuance that differentiates these respective experiences, the data indicate that the overwhelming majority of visitors simply don’t sit around contemplating organization type classifications. We found that when members of the public were asked to identify their favorite science center, many would reference a science museum. Similarly, when we asked the public to name the science museum that they’d most recently attended, many would identify a science center. Though they are based on intellectual distinctions, some lines that we draw are often imaginary to the public – which raises the question: Do these lines even matter? Or worse, do they hold us back?

Moreover, how the industry classifies its own organizations – and how much case studies, data, models and examples apply (or don’t apply) to the groups – can be similarly imaginary. What do data indicate is the most top-of-mind science museum or science center in the US? The National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

“WHAT?! That’s a history museum!” Nope. Not according to the market.

Here’s why this is important: When cultural executives “that doesn’t apply to me” industry trends, it’s usually because they’ve drawn imaginary, defensive lines to protect themselves from facing uncomfortable realities. It doesn’t matter how much a science center, for instance, hopes that The National Air and Space Museum isn’t in its competitive set. According to the market, it is… and the market matters for our survival. (This is but one example of an imaginary line that we draw –it also happens between orchestras vs. symphonies, encyclopedic vs. contemporary art museums, and so many other types of organizations.)

 

3) The hybridization of experiences affects all organizations

The phenomenon of point of reference sensitivity elevates the call to action for organizations to communicate their singular experiences and missions. Some organizations are doing an excellent job, and they come to be known as a kind of “gold standard” for their type of cultural organization. However, organizations shifting their content offerings and being “more than a museum” (for example) are having an affect on the market. The experiences historically attendant to visitor-serving organizations are evolving to include non-traditional content. This happening blurs historic perceptions of what comprises a particular “type” of visitor-serving organization.

For example, some aquariums feature rain forests – once the historical province of conservatories and botanical gardens. Some children’s museums have civil rights exhibits – once the province of history museums and historic sites. Some science museums feature aquatic life – once the province of aquariums. Some orchestras have vocalists – once the province of theaters or operas. These hybridizations, consolidations, and integrations of experiences were initially theorized to broaden appeal and expand the market. Indeed, it certainly helps to increase elements of surprise and perceptions of providing a unique experience when these elements fit cohesively into an organization’s mission.

Increasingly, hybridization is the norm – not the exception. This compounds previously discussed challenges regarding the historic perceptions of what defines and/or distinguishes any specific type of enterprise (e.g. science center v. science museum). More importantly, if the distinction matters less to the public, perhaps it ought not matter so much to us.

 

4) It is not that nothing applies to us, but that most everything does

When we draw imaginary lines within our industry or organizations – from our classifications to our insistence that potentially polarizing actions “don’t count” – perhaps we are purposefully making a choice to be blind to the new world in which we live. Today, it’s the market that is the ultimate arbiter of our successes.

Question: Who wins in the lexicon game of “Museum vs. Center vs. Academy vs. Discovery Hub vs. Other Magic Words That We Think Make Us Special?”

Answer: Whoever provides the most unique, satisfying, connective and meaningful experience.

Don’t get me wrong – the words that we use certainly matter to the market… but our actions matter more. When we focus on imaginary lines and forget that we can determine importance but the market determines relevance, we risk allowing parsed, internal definitions to overrule prevailing public sentiments. We risk creating “exemptions” based on an internal distinction that the market does not recognize.

Today’s truth may be that it’s not that “that doesn’t apply to me” – it’s that everything does. Market trends play an important role in how organizations need to operate in order to achieve success. The key is to ask hard questions and consider that Babe Ruth was onto something when he said that, “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.”

We are playing a new game – but we don’t make the rules.

We offer expert-informed suggestions. The market decides if we’re playing ball.

 

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, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 1 Comment