Six Concepts that Visitor-Serving 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 Read more

Combating Case Study Envy Within Museums And Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Bad things happen to good organizations when conference attendees leave their thinking caps at home. Industry conferences can provide Read more

Point of Reference Sensitivity in Visitors: How It Affects Your Cultural Organization And What To Do About It

Data suggest that it's good to to be the first organization that someone visits... but what if yours is Read more

Millennial Data Round Up: What Your Cultural Organization Needs To Know

This is what you need to know in one, single post. Millennials are a hot topic. While I consider "millennials" Read more

Experiencing Millennial Discussion Overload? Here Are Four Things to Remember

Cultural organizations need to reach millennials and that means talking about it – but that talk doesn’t make other Read more

Audience Access: The Reality For Cultural Organizations To Embrace for Solvency

The first step in the evolution toward more sustainable cultural organizations is embracing the reality of "access" and reviewing Read more


Point of Reference Sensitivity in Visitors: How It Affects Your Cultural Organization And What To Do About It

Data suggest that it’s good to to be the first organization that someone visits… but what if yours is the second?

If you’re the best art museum, for instance, then a visitor to art museums should be able to tell, right? Wrong. As it turns out, it’s a bit more complicated. This week’s Know Your Own Bone – Fast Facts video is about firsts… and seconds. And what to do if your organization is second.

You probably remember your first kiss – and your first car, your first love, and a whole host of other firsts. As human beings, we tend to ascribe a premium to firsts – and visits to cultural organizations are no different. Data suggest that first-time visitors to a type of cultural organization – such as a science center – rate their visitor satisfaction higher than those who have visited any other science center before – 18.1% higher, to be exact.

That’s a huge bump! It’s great news for the first cultural organization of its kind that a visitor experiences. Woohoo! We’ll take it! While this value varies slightly based on cultural organization type (history museum vs. aquarium vs. symphony), they tend to hover around this average.

However, the sad side of this coin is that, for no fault of their own, the second (and third, forth…) like-organization that an attendee visits is likely to suffer from significantly lower satisfaction levels than the first. This is a big deal for many obvious reasons, but one of which is the fact that overall satisfaction is a major contributor to overall value perceptions of organizations. Lower satisfaction levels lead to less word of mouth and thus less support and visitation. Yikes!

First time visitors also rate their experiences 14.8% higher in terms of value for cost of admission. That’s another huge bump that’s great for organizations able to benefit from that “first time” magic. 

We call this phenomenon Point of Reference Sensitivity


We noticed this trend at IMPACTS and we gave it a name. Point of Reference Sensitivity suggests that the market’s expectations are being constantly reframed by recent experiences. Essentially, as a person gains familiarity with an experience, it becomes increasingly harder to impress them. While Point of Reference Sensitivity may make logical sense, it’s still a bit of a bummer for the second cultural organization that hosts that visitor.

What is the solution? Be more unique.

Differentiate yourself as an individual organization rather than priding yourself on being like all other such organizations. That may sound overwhelming, but the good news is that we live in a connected world where differentiation may be easier – and more expected – than ever before. It’s a call to organizations to undertake smart experiments and creative programs, and to incorporate avenues for personalization and shared experiences. It’s a call to action to know who your organization is and what it stands for as well as why it is uniquely important. Achieving that “first time” satisfaction bump with every visit means smart integration of trends and awareness of market perceptions. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it all comes back to doing well what you do well – and letting folks know about it!

Those organizations that are most susceptible to Point of Reference Sensitivity are those that believe themselves to be mostly a type of attraction rather than a unique organization. The key to overcoming Point of reference sensitivity is to be yourself. That is how the market determines which organization is “best.”


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, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution 1 Comment

Experiencing Millennial Discussion Overload? Here Are Four Things to Remember

Cultural organizations need to reach millennials and that means talking about it – but that talk doesn’t make other generations less important. 

Cultural organizations desperately need to get better at reaching millennials in order to thrive in the future – but in order to have these conversations, we need to clear up some craziness. The aim of this week’s fast facts video is to set the record straight: Talking about the need to reach millennials is responsible and necessary – and adding millennial engagement to important discussion sessions is in no way a dig on older generations because they are extremely important audiences! Talking about millennials does not mean ignoring other generations – and it never has. It seems that all of this millennial talk may be leaving other generations working within the industry feeling confused, frustrated, and maybe a little bit ignored. To feel this way may be based upon a misunderstanding.

Here are four things to remember when your feeling overwhelmed by millennial talk – or maybe even left out by the lack of similar discussion about your own generation.



We discuss millennial mindsets so much because they represent a kind of evolution that affects everyone in today’s digital world. “Millennial talk” is often used a bit like an umbrella topic in the discussion about creating twenty-first century cultural organizations – so talk about transparency, social consciousness, personalization, and connectivity often get attributed to millennials. Really, though, these are growing expectations among all audiences.

Sometimes it seems as though organizations label market trends as “millennial talk” in order to somehow dilute conversations about necessary evolution. Calling large-scale trends that affect all generations (like digital connectivity) “millennial talk” may make them seem less looming and perhaps less urgent. But they aren’t. We millennials could easily look back at other generations and say, “Wait! You increasingly care about connectivity and impact, too! Why are organizations pinning all of their inconvenient calls to evolve on our generation alone?!” Part of getting over the “millennial talk” is realizing that it’s not “millennial talk” at all. It’s “market reality” talk.


2) Millennials are the only generation that cultural organizations are NOT reaching at representative rates

We talk about millennials so much because cultural organizations (museums, zoos, aquariums, theaters, symphonies, botanic gardens, etc.) need to reach them. Pause. Real talk: We really need to reach millennials. Millennials represent the largest generation in human history, and we’re also the only generation not visiting these organizations at representative rates. On top of that, millennials are also our most frequent generational visitors. This is a unique situation! Millennials are our most prevalent current audiences, but they are also the audiences we need to better engage. (In other words, they are visiting the most, but when we look at the US population, they should be coming much more.) This unique situation is one that must be addressed in order for organizations to thrive in the future. When we look at the size of this population and their make-up, preferences, and lack of representative engagement, it’s very clear to see that if we don’t start reaching millennials at representative rates, cultural organizations will have a very rough and unsustainable future.


3) Millennial engagement has nothing to do with ignoring other generations (We NEED them!)

Adding “millennial talk” to generational discussions sometimes seems to make other generations defensive.  The discussion about the need to attract millennials has NOTHING to do with ignoring other generations. (Has it ever?) Baby boomers still make up a good portion of our audiences and they have noteworthy giving capabilities. Generation X engagement remains stable and consistent (and this generation, in particular, deserves a bit more love). When we talk about attracting millennials, we are NOT encouraging organizations to forget about everyone else. Organizations have been talking about and focusing on reaching Baby Boomers for fifty years and that conversation isn’t stopping. It shouldn’t! But adding another generation to the discussion at some point – especially a generation even larger than the Baby Boomers – seems reasonable and inevitable. Certainly, there has to be a way to talk about new generations without other generations feeling personally offended. We need all of our audience members! We need to add generations to the discussion. To replace discussions about other generations – and especially to ignore them – would be irresponsible.


4) Strategies for engaging millennials do not generally alienate other demographics

See point one. We at IMPACTS collect a lot of data, but we cannot find any that directly suggests that an organization having programs aimed at attracting millennials particularly alienates other generations on the whole. Again, trends that we are seeing in regard to millennials increasingly appeal to older generations as well. We simply aren’t seeing signs that a majority of Baby Boomers really hate transparency, personalization, social consciousness, or digital connection. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily prioritize or make decisions based upon them as much as millennials do. But, as it turns out, this whole “Internet thing” has affected all of us and has changed up what we expect from organizations.


When we in the industry underscore the need to reach millennials, we’re not digging on Baby Boomers or Generation X (or Traditionalists or Generation Z)! We need these visitors and supporters! But NOT discussing millennials – this new, large, underserved generation that holds the key to our future – would be irresponsible. In fact, ignoring millennials would be just as irresponsible as ignoring those generations that are already engaging with us.


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 Fast Facts Video, Millennials, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

Three Data-Informed Reasons to Love Gen X Visitors to Cultural Organizations

Thank you, Gen X. Just… Thank you.

Let’s be honest: Generation X is squeezed in between two large, noisy, and rather needy generations – and we spend a lot of time talking about these millennial and baby boomer visitors to cultural organizations. But what about Generation X? 

That’s what this week’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts Video is all about!

Generation X visitation behaviors often get the short end of the stick when it comes to getting attention in staff meetings and board rooms within cultural organizations. It doesn’t help that Generation X is a comparatively small generation that is just over half the size of Generation Y – the largest living generation that now makes up the majority of the US labor force. When we discuss millennials and baby boomers, we’re simply talking about much larger generational cohorts than Generation Y. It’s not a good excuse to overlook this generation by any means, but it’s a reality. It’s an especially bad excuse when we take a moment to pause and consider the great qualities that this generation brings to the table in terms of visitation.

It’s time that we give this generation some of the love that it deserves! Generation X has three, particularly helpful characteristics for cultural organizations – and they deserve a big THANK YOU for bringing them to the table.


1) Generation X visits cultural organizations

Aside from the comparatively small size of this generation, another reason why organizations tend not to discuss Generation X nearly as much is precisely why we should be thanking them: Generation Y is a comparatively drama-free generation when it comes to visiting cultural organizations. We millennials aren’t attending organizations at representative rates even though we make up a majority of visitation and Baby Boomers are also a rather large and difficult bunch when it comes to cultural engagement. Generation X, though, is visiting cultural organizations without a fuss!

The chart below considers the percentage of the US adult population (informed by the US census) made up by Millennials, Generation X, Baby Boomers, and Traditionalists in green. Alongside that bar, it shows the percentages of these generations visiting cultural organizations in orange, informed by the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. Generation X visits cultural organizations at the most over-representative rates among the three generations. It should be noted that Traditionalists also visit cultural organizations at noteworthy rates. Among the largest three generations, however, Generation X shows that drama-free is the way to be.


IMPACTS representative visitation by age demographic

While this generation’s awesomeness in the “representative visitation” department may be a reason why tend not to fret about them, it’s also a darn good reason to give them a shout-out. Thank you, members of Generation X, for visiting cultural organizations – fuss-free.


2) Generation X is decisive when it comes to online advertising for cultural organizations

The comparative decisiveness of Generation X means that this generation gives organizations the most bang for their online advertising buck. This saves cultural organizations money, and we like that. We like that very much.

The chart below comes from IMPACTS Research. It indicates the average number of ads delivered to online users from the retargeting campaigns of six cultural organizations before the user clicked on the advertisement. Generally speaking, the more frequently an organization has to deliver an ad, the more expensive things get. If you work in online advertising then you know that these numbers add up!

IMPACTS Frequency of impression before click on cultural online ad

Compared to millennials, targeted members of Generation X require nearly 42% fewer impressions in order to click on an ad. Our nonprofit budgets thank you, Generation X, for not dilly-dallying around.


3) Generation X is most likely to purchase or renew a membership to a cultural organization

Could Generation X visitors to cultural organizations get any better? You bet. Members of Generation X are more likely to purchase or renew memberships to cultural organizations than millennials and baby boomers – and traditionalists, too. In fact, members of Generation X are 11% more likely to purchase or renew a membership than are millennials, and they are 26% more likely to purchase or renew a membership than baby boomers. Those are noteworthy numbers!

IMPACTS Intent to purchase or renew membership by age demographic

As a heads-up to regular KYOB readers, it’s worth noting that “intent to purchase” is a different metric than “strongly considering membership.” When it comes to unrealized potential to secure a greater number of memberships, millennials take the lead (perhaps making us appreciate Generation X all the more in this respect)!  Data suggest that interest remains unrealized to its optimal potential largely because the types of membership programs that millennials want from cultural organizations largely don’t exist/aren’t particularly mainstream in the industry yet. That said, with index values over 100, millennials are currently noteworthy members to cultural organizations as well. This Generation X number is critical because the number IS so high, comparatively. The take-away isn’t that membership structures don’t need to evolve like everything else, but rather than Generation X is a terrific audience that is undervalued, perhaps, in their intent to purchase or renew the types of memberships that organizations generally offer.


Millennials and baby boomers are demanding a lot of industry discussion right now and perhaps that’s why we’re not discussing Generation X as much: They are stable and reliable audiences. It’s time that we take a moment and thank Generation X for being awesome.

Thank you, Generation X, for being awesome.


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, IMPACTS Data, Millennials, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 5 Comments

The Two Most Important Mindset Shifts For Engaging Millennials

These two, simple mental shifts are the foundation for engaging millennials (…and everyone else, too).

This week’s Know Your Own Bone fast facts video is the result of a simple question that I was asked during a workshop with a client organization: “Overall, what are the most important “big-picture” things to keep in mind in regard to engaging millennials?”

Darn. Good question! There’s so much information going around about how to engage millennials within cultural organizations right now – and for a dang good reason. Millennials are both the most underserved age demographic visiting (or rather, not visiting) museums – and millennials ALSO manage to be our most frequent visitors. (Here’s the data.) It’s a unique and urgent situation and it’s one that all visitor-serving organizations need to be aware of right now. Our behavioral attributes also make us very smart audiences to engage and the things that we want from organizations are a wee bit different than what other generations are looking for. In a nutshell, there’s a lot of critical information to know. But at the end of the day, what information is most critical?

Successfully engaging millennials is about strategy – not tactics. No, the answer is not simply, “use social media” or “serve cocktails after hours.” Those tactics are meaningless without understanding guiding strategy. If those things worked on their own, we wouldn’t have the huge “millennial problem” that we have. And remember folks, Pokemon Go is a fad – not a trend.

If you’re getting overwhelmed, here are two, big picture takeaways that will improve your organization’s ability to effectively reach millennials. There are a lot of great things to know from here, but these two take-aways encompass most of the others. Keep these two mental updates in mind:


Text - talk with audiences - Know Your Own Bone

Cultivating a deep-rooted mentality of talking WITH audiences instead of AT audiences can make a world of difference. Millennials – and increasingly, everyone else – are an extremely connected bunch and the web has changed how people interact with organizations. Today, institutions have real-time feedback mechanisms and they can listen and directly speak with their members and potential visitors. This shift means approaching everything – exhibits, communications, and programs, for instance- as conversations, not as announcements.

It may sound like a subtle difference or maybe even a matter of wording, but it’s actually a big cultural shift for organizations. After all, in the past, talking AT audiences – through TV or radio spots or even exhibits, for instance – was our primary means of reaching audiences. The channels that millennials and everyone else are using talk WITH audiences. Unfortunately, just because some leaders may have more experience with “talk at” channels doesn’t make them more relevant to our audiences. Third party endorsements drive your organization’s reputation – and organizations can speak WITH these endorsers on our newer communication channels.

This quick tip umbrellas the important personalization trends that we are seeing with the market. And this tip does not only apply to marketing! Programs, exhibits, and performances benefit by adopting this mindset as well. This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be unnecessarily interactive, but it does mean that we need to consider that while our organization may be able to declare importance, it is the market that determines relevance. It’s not a matter of “dumbing” anything down, but of finally acknowledging that people matter to our organizations and our missions. And not only uppity cultural gatekeeper people! The totally curious and awesome and not-necessarily PhDed people that we are trying to serve and “spark” in order to fulfill our missions (and remain financially solvent) matter, too! (Matter more? I’ll let you decide for your own organization…)


Text - Ask so what - Know Your Own Bone

We live in a world with a lot of noise. So before creating something new, rolling out a new initiative, or even posting to social media, it helps to ask, “So what?” or “Why does this matter to other people?” Helpful hint: the answer probably has something to do with your organization’s mission.

Millennials – and again, increasingly everyone else – are socially conscious consumers. To these folks, your organization’s mission matters. Approaching exhibits, programs, and messaging while asking ourselves “So what?” can help us create connections that are meaningful and impactful. Making this thought process a part of our organization’s culture can help cut through the noise. The things that we post, share, create, display, and perform cannot just have meaning to us – they need to have meaning for our audiences in order to inspire action.

Asking, “so what?” forces your organization to think strategically – and it’s when organization’s don’t first answer this question that they end up with “one-off” tactics for reaching millennials like a social media competition. Incorporating fads can be a smart idea- but it’s a matter of tactics. Long term engagement of this new and huge audience is a matter of strategy – and that runs deeper than using emojis in a new exhibit (for instance). Incorporating these tactics is only valuable insofar as they are relevant to audiences and spark a connection that is aligned with your mission (to educate, to inspire, to get them coming back, etc.)


Millennials are a critical audience for cultural organizations to engage and there is a LOT of work to do. I say this despite the very desperate want by some to believe that Pokemon Go will stay this popular until the end of time and that the last survivors on earth will be cockroaches and Pokemon Go. (Millennial cockroaches playing Pokemon Go and visiting museums? That seems to be the hope.) Certainly, there are lessons to be learned and built from fads but my point is this one: We need to reach millennials and things are sounding complicated. At the end of the day, remembering that we need to keep our audiences in mind and we need to consider how we connect with them is most important. In today’s world, organizations will benefit by incorporating a culture of talking WITH audiences and asking themselves, “How is this meaningful to these audiences?”

Sounds simple, right? That’s because “reaching millennials” is often used as industry code for “adapting to the new realities of our connected world.” Doing THAT is what engages this huge audience – and everyone else. Let’s hop to it.


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, Millennials, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

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

The Value of Shared Experiences Within Cultural Organizations (DATA)

The value of shared experiences at cultural organizations - KNOW YOUR OWN BONE

Exhibit and program content is important, but visitors who have the best experience aren’t the ones that come for the content.

At cultural organizations (museums, performing arts organizations, aquariums, botanic gardens, historic sites, zoos, etc.), we tend to really value our content experts – and for good reason! Without great content, what stories could we tell? How could we educate and inspire visitors? Certainly, the “what” of visiting a cultural organization is important (the program, the exhibit, the performance), but organizations often overlook the fact that who people are “with” is often more important.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the nuance of our content that we forget why people visit us and why they most value us: Cultural organizations are facilitators of shared experiences.

I have previously documented the best attributes of a visit to a cultural organization, and sharing time with family and friends massively trumps anything exhibit or content related. Here’s a look at this important data. As you can see, spending time with friends and family is more than twice as important as the content of the exhibit, program, or performance. This data comes from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study of over 98,000 US adults.

IMPACTS - The best thing about a visit to a cultural organization

WITH > WHAT – and it’s not even close. This finding is a big deal and it turns the way that internal experts think on its head. According to our visitors, the best thing that we do is connect them to one another. At cultural organizations, interacting with people matters. Take a look at “interacting with staff/volunteers/performers.” It’s (comparatively) trailing “seeing/interacting with exhibits/performance.” Connecting with people onsite is important – and deploying engaging frontline staff may be the most straightforward and reliable way to increase visitor satisfaction.

This finding brings up an interesting question: Do people feel differently about the visitor experience based upon what they believe to be the best part of the experience?  And, what – if anything – does this portend in terms of optimizing the visitor experience?

Below, we’ve organized the data based upon folks’ “best” visit attribute. For instance, all of the people who think that time with friends and family is the best part of the experience are in one column, everyone who said it was the exhibits or performance are in another, etc. Below are the findings for overall satisfaction, value for cost of admission, and intent to re-visit. For the sake of easy reading and summarization, I’ll call the folks who report “time with friends and family” and/or “interacting with staff/volunteers/performers” as WITH visitors – because to them, WITH>WHAT.  Here’s the value of shared experiences to cultural organizations. 


1) WITH visitors report the most visitor satisfaction

IMPACTS - overall satisfaction by best thing

In fact, both types of WITH visitors (“Time with family and friends” and “interacting with staff/volunteers/performers”) are most satisfied with their experiences.

As a conceptual tip (that helps for the sake of comparison): Consider “Day off work/school.” For these folks, the best thing about a visit to a cultural organization isn’t unique to a cultural organization. Rather, it’s simply that they have the day off. This group is still obviously a very important group to watch. After all, schedule is the top motivator for visitation to a cultural organization.



2) WITH visitors report the greatest bang for their buck when it comes to paying admission

IMPACTS - Value for cost by best attribute of visit

Visitors who find time with family and friends to be the best thing about a visit report the highest value for cost perceptions. This means that they think that paying admission to get in your door was most worth the money. One reason why value for cost perceptions are important because they help inform optimal admission prices.

This finding is important because it tackles a potential, negative internal reaction from some in the industry: the concern that “time with friends and family” could happen anywhere. Certainly, it could. But what this data suggests is that there may be something particularly special about sharing experiences with family and friends within visitor-serving organizations – and it makes our admission prices all the more worth it to have those experiences in these environments.


3) WITH visitors are more likely to visit again within one year

 IMPACTS - intent to revisit based on best attribute of visit

Check this out! Not only are WITH visitors most likely to re-visit within one year, but they are significantly more likely to do so!

Visitors who identified sharing time with family and friends as the best attribute of a visit to a cultural organization reported both significantly higher levels of satisfaction and value for cost perceptions than did those reporting content (e.g. exhibits, performances) as the best attribute of a visit to a cultural organization.  Moreover, persons who reported sharing time with family and friends as the best attribute of a visit also indicated a 25.5% greater likelihood of re-visiting the organization within one year when compared to persons who cited exhibits as the best attribute of their visit!

(Don’t be too discouraged about the low values of “learning something new” folks. We know that our education missions don’t play the hugest role in motivating visitation and they play only a small role in visitor satisfaction, but they play an important role in justifying visitation after the visit is over. Here’s that data.)


These data reaffirm the role of cultural organizations as facilitators of social interaction. More than connecting people to content, cultural organizations connect people to people.  Given this information, it may seem odd that so many resources are focused on the content aspect of an experience (think exhibits and galleries and theaters) and seemingly less energy on the aspects of an experience that support social interchange. (What if we valued our floor staff as much as we value our exhibits teams?!) We need our content. Our content allows us to tell the stories that make people want to come through our doors to be inspired. We know that content is important. I don’t know that all cultural organizations are aware that being facilitators of shared experiences is even more important to visitors. At cultural organizations, our content becomes the bridge that connects people to one another.

I’ve seen this news (the fact that WITH is so much more important than WHAT) create anger within cultural organizations. In the face of this information, I’ve seen leaders say that one phrase that effective, successful leaders never say: That this doesn’t apply to them and there’s nothing for them to learn from this overwhelmingly unassailable data.  This reaction is a mistake.   In our digital age, we want folks to be engaged and make real connections – to our stories and to one another! In that sense, this data is incredibly uplifting. This data does challenge our ivory towers. Indeed, we are educators and inspirers…. but we are also facilitators of connection and community – and THAT is what our audiences love about us most. 


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, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

Attracting Diverse Visitors: Cultural Organizations Overlook The Most Important Factor (DATA)

Attracting Diverse Visitors to Cultural Organizations- Know Your Own Bone

Organizations mistakenly identify underserved audiences based more on ethnicity and race than what these audiences consider their most distinctive attribute – age. 

Cultural organizations (i.e. museums, performing arts organizations, aquariums, historic sites, etc.) are experiencing a phenomenon known as negative substitution of their historic visitors. Simply put, more people who share qualities with historic visitors are leaving the market than are being replaced. In essence, the US market is running lower and lower on older, white people. This means that organizations need to update and broaden the profiles of our typical visitors now in order to thrive in the future.

We need to engage new audiences and make them our regular audiences. Specifically, we need to get better at reaching two broad “types” of people: millennials and “minority-majorities.” Really, though, we need to reach millennials – because the “minority-majorities” that aren’t representatively visiting cultural organizations are overwhelmingly millennials.

There has been an increasing amount of talk about so-called “minority-majority” populations in the US. In general, the phrase “minority-majority” describes a population cohort that has traditionally comprised a minority of the US population, but has recently grown to represent an emerging majority of the US population. An example on a national level are children under the age five – of whom 50.2% (i.e. the majority) represent historic ethnic and racial minorities (e.g. Hispanic, African American, Asian, etc.)

Today, four states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas) and the District of Columbia are minority-majority. Additionally, 13 of the 40 largest US metropolitan areas are minority-majority.

Even the connotation of the phrase “minority-majority” risks further confusing the matter.  In the past, minority populations were defined primarily by race. As the US grows ever more ethnically and racially diverse, emerging minority-majority populations are increasingly defined by age.  

Let’s dive into some data that can help us better reach young people, and in doing so, engage people of more diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds:


1) Minority-majority audiences are young

According to July 2014 US Census Bureau data, there were 148.6 million people in the US under the age of 35 – or, 46.6% of the total US population! If you further organize these data and exclude more elderly populations, there were 299 million persons in the US under the age of 75…and half of them were aged 34 or younger.

Millennials and minority-majorities are a huge part of the same audience. Data indicate that nearly 22% of adult millennials have visited a cultural organization in the US within the past year. However, as millennials comprise approximately 30% of the US adult population, the data suggest that millennials are representatively underserved as a cultural audience.

Millennials are clearly an emerging audience, yet, all too often, conversations concerning emerging audiences seem to focus less on age and more on race as an indicator of underserved populations. When we talk about millennials, we are also talking about the 47.35% of millennials that are NOT White non-Hispanic.

Why do organizations seem to think of white millennials as millennials, and distinguish millennials of other ethnic or racial backgrounds primarily as minority-majorities? 

Kind of weird, right?

US adult millennial population

The Hispanic population of the United States as of July 2014 totaled 55.4 million, making people of Hispanic origin the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority. In addition, Census Bureau data indicate that Hispanics, with a median age of 29 years, are younger than most other racial or ethnic groups. By comparison, the median age for non-Hispanic Whites in 43. (The median age for non-Hispanic Blacks is 34, and the median age for Asians is 36.)

Because Generation X is such a relatively small generational cohort, youth has only recently started to demographically prevail.  One could argue that young people are the emerging minority-majority population in the US.


2) Millennial audiences are generally underserved by cultural organizations regardless of race

Representative visitation is an issue for nearly all millennial audiences, not only minority-majorities. These data suggest that perhaps the notion of “underserved audiences” has less to do with historic definitions based on ethnicity and race, and much more to do with a generational disengagement.

 IMPACTS - millennial cultural attendance by ethnicity

The above chart indicates that most US adult millennials are underserved in terms of representative cultural participation…regardless of race or ethnicity.  Excepting the relatively modest number of adult millennial Pacific Islanders, Native Alaskans, and American Indians, only adult millennial Asians representatively participate in US cultural organizations.  The three largest racial cohorts (i.e. White non-Hispanic, Black or African American, and Hispanic) – comprising nearly 90% of the US adult millennial population – are all massively underserved. 

Why is this the case?  I posit that it is because organizations observe that they’re not representatively engaging these audiences and think of it as a matter of race and not a generational disconnect.  If it were solely a matter of race, then White non-Hispanics would be representatively participating…but they’re not.


3) Millennials generally do not consider race to be a primary defining attribute 

Perhaps one of the reasons that cultural organizations are not representatively engaging minority-majority audiences is because we are developing engagement strategies and programming based on assumptions concerning culture and heritage. We miss the mark when we decide that ethnicity matters most to this audience. We would be better served to understand that we need strategies based on the psychographic and behavioral attributes of a generation that does not consider ethnicity as a primary differentiator. After all, this generation is nearly 50% not “white!”

Take a look at this data from the National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study of more than 98,000 persons (including more than 24,000 millennials):

IMPACTS US adult millennial indentifiers by ethnic background

When asked to describe themselves, millennials generally did not self-describe based on ethnic or racial criteria. (The sole exception were Black or African American millennials, and even in this example, racial identity was not their most frequent self-descriptor. Black or African American millennials identify with being young more frequently than they self-describe based on race.)

To more representatively engage young Hispanics as an emerging audience, for instance, significantly more attention should be focused on the “young” part of the equation and less attention on the “Hispanic” descriptor (which doesn’t show up as a frequent self-description by Hispanic millennials). In order to better connect with emerging audiences, organizations need to see these audiences as these audiences see themselves. Otherwise, organizations risk a massive disconnect with the very audiences with whom they are trying to engage.

Interestingly, most every other word that these groups use to describe themselves could apply to other generations.  Youth is their self-described unique attribute.

Also, adult millennial audiences self-identify as “young” before they generally identify by their gender!  (Perhaps this also helps to explain the rise of the transgender rights movement at this moment in US history.  Transgender persons have always existed…why is it that now the movement finds increasing acceptance and salience?  It may be because millennials – the largest generation in US history – identify as “tolerant” and “friendly” and “kind” and “hopeful” ahead of their own gender!)

Millennial cohorts identifying themselves as “friendly” and “kind” is great for cultural organizations! It underscores much of what we know: To millennials (and, increasingly, to all audiences), your organization’s mission matters! This finding also aligns with millennial wants for membership programs.


4) There is no meaningful difference in visitor satisfaction based upon race

The data below indicate overall satisfaction for adult millennials segmented by race – and shows that there is no meaningful distinction in overall satisfaction based on race. These data, too, come from the National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study.

US millennial overall satisfaction by race

Regardless of race, millennials visiting cultural organizations are generally satisfied.  So our engagement challenge is not one of content – millennials of all races enjoy the experience once they have been engaged.  This finding suggests that the improvement opportunity lies more at the top of the engagement funnel.

In other words, having special Cinco de Mayo programming (i.e. content) may not necessarily better engage Hispanic millennial audiences.  Having programming that appeals to millennials – regardless of race – is perhaps a better means of engaging with Hispanic millennial audiences.  Basically, from an engagement perspective, the operative word in the “Hispanic Millennial” descriptor is “Millennial” and not necessarily “Hispanic.”


I have been party to many conversations with cultural leaders asking, “How do we more representatively engage the African American population of Washington DC?” and “How do we better connect with the Hispanic population in Los Angeles?”  These conversations belie the sense that many organizations believe race to be the key differentiator in terms of representative engagement.  Instead, these same leaders should be asking themselves, “How do we engage young people in Washington DC?” and “How do we engage young people in Los Angeles?”

If organizations representatively engage young people – members of the most diverse generation in US history – then organizations will also do a much better job of representatively engaging more racially diverse audiences.  Again, the median age for Hispanics in the US is 29.  The median age for non-Hispanic Whites in the US is 43.  Developing strategies to representatively engage young people is a “two birds, one stone” move: Representatively engaging young people concurrently means representatively engaging more racially diverse audiences. 

All of this is NOT to say that ethnicity and racial background are unimportant. Cultural and heritage awareness and sensitivity are important considerations for all organizations.  And, from an engagement and programming perspective, emerging personalization trends recognize the uniqueness of more diverse audiences.  However, the data does suggest that the way we think of our audiences isn’t necessarily the way that they think of themselves. The data suggest that America has never been more of a melting pot…yet too many organizations seem to silo audiences based on increasingly less relevant segmentation criteria such as ethnicity and race. Cultural organizations need to get better at attracting millennials of all races and ethnicities.

In the end, this is good news. It suggests that efforts to representatively engage millennial audiences should reach all millennial audiences. It’s another drop in the bucket for forward-facing organizations prioritizing transparency, social good, connectivity, communication, personalization, and digital engagement.

Audience diversity for cultural organizations is increasingly a function of representatively engaging young people – not necessarily trying to target specific racial or ethnic groups with one-off, race-based programming.  If organizations representatively engage young people, in turn, they will engage more racially diverse audiences.



Like this post? Please check out Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel for more insights. 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 1 Comment

Local Audiences Have Skewed Perceptions of Cultural Organizations (DATA)

Regardless of region or cultural organization type, local audiences are the hardest to please.

As cultural organizations, we tend to love our local audiences. We provide them with all sorts of benefits, believing that local audiences are our best audiences. But, interestingly, data suggest that some of that love may be unrequited.

This week’s Fast Facts video features data that may be tough for organizations to swallow, but may prove important in improving their respective understanding of their audiences. Knowing how local audiences perceive organizations will help them develop more effective strategies for successfully engaging these visitors. As it turns out, local audiences have a skewed perception of the organizations that are closest to them – and it’s not good.

IMPACTS tracked perceptions among 118 visitor-serving organizations in the United States that charge admission. This study comprised multiple types of cultural organizations, including museums (e.g. art, history, science, children’s), zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, theaters, and symphonies. All organizations were located within the United States, but from different cities and states throughout the country – including both major metro markets and less populated regions. The data ALSO includes both large organizations that are recognized nationally AND more community-based museums that singularly pride themselves on serving locals. In other words, you “This doesn’t apply to me” this data at your organization’s own risk.

For this particular data set, we wanted to know the value for cost perceptions of people attending cultural organizations – or, how good of a value these audiences thought that they received with regard to their visitation experience. (Know Your Own Bone readers have seen this type of perception metric used before.) Take a look at what we found when we cut the data by travel distance.

 IMPACTS value for cost by distance

Local audiences believe that the value of the visitor experience is less worthy of the organization’s admission cost than non-local visitors to the same institution. On average, people living within 25 miles of the organization (or, locals) indicate value for cost perceptions that are 14% lower than those of regional visitors!

But so many organizations offer discounts for locals. Are these folks even paying full admission? No. On average, the locals in this data reported paying 20% less than regional visitors – and they still report that the value wasn’t as worthy of the cost as non-local audiences paying full admission!

Okay. But local audiences are probably more satisfied with their experience, right? After all, the organization is right there strengthening the reputation of their own city, and, again, many are getting in at a reduced cost.

Nope again. Take a look at the data cut for overall satisfaction in regard to distance traveled. Locals report satisfaction levels that are 11% lower than regional visitors who had the same visitor experience.

IMPACTS local satisfaction

This probably seems nuts to many people. What is going on?! Three important things are happening here, and recognizing them may help us create programs for locals that provide a more satisfying and valuable experience.


1) People value what they pay for.

These findings support the well-known tenet of pricing psychology that people value what they pay for. Personally disagree in a statement of defense? I didn’t make up this fact – it’s well known by economists and takes place in many situations. And this reality is obvious in the data here. The locals reporting the lowest levels of satisfaction were generally the ones visiting at the most deeply discounted cost basis.


2) Folks believe that good things are far away.

We reliably uncover the misconception among locals that if something is that great, it probably isn’t in their backyard. That’s a false premise, but it tends to permeate local perception. Amazingly (to me), this is even true in New York City. But the finding makes sense. Ask someone about the greatest cultural experiences and they are more likely to cite famous entities overseas or across the country than an organization nationally perceived as equally satisfying and successful that is located in the respondent’s community.


3) Cultural organizations have created local entitlement

This point is by far the most important: Many organizations have trained locals to feel entitled to free or reduced admission, perpetuating this whole cycle of low satisfaction and low value for cost perceptions. In essence, we created and keep on promulgating this very problem…and we have spread it around like a plague. And it’s a nasty one, lowering our perceived value, devaluing our missions, reducing satisfaction in our experiences, and promulgating not-so-great reviews and word of mouth endorsement.

Locals are obviously incredibly important to our organizations, but there’s an opportunity to design better access programming opportunities for local audiences that are not unintentionally perceived as entitlements. This may mean focusing more on promotional strategies and unique events than everyday discounts.


This is the kind of data that I get a chance to share that is likely to make organizations angry. And I can write about it and we can elevate ourselves as a sector and get smarter about our engagement strategies, or this powerful finding could remain private for IMPACTS clients. Keeping it private doesn’t help anyone. The data that makes leaders angry is often the most valuable data. It makes us angry because it challenges something that we thought was “safe.” It makes us think harder. And I believe that thinking harder is always good.

Knowing the true challenges attendant to engaging local audiences means that we are one step closer to overcoming them. Locals may not always be the best audiences for cultural organizations – and it’s largely because of organizations overlooking basic economics and training our audiences into self-sabotaging practices.


Like this post? Please check out my YouTube channel for more fast facts! Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:


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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Fast Facts Video, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting 1 Comment

Schedule Drives Visitation to Cultural Organizations And Nobody Is Talking About It (DATA)

Examining Schedule- the top influencer for visitation

 Organizations often overlook the single biggest factor influencing attendance. Here’s the data that nobody’s talking about. 

The schedule of a potential visitor plays a leading role in a visitor’s decision to attend a cultural organization, but many organizations don’t think twice about schedule (focusing instead on items such as cost of admission, special events, or the content of a program or exhibit). These items are not unimportant, but the data on the importance of considering audience schedule is unassailable. Want more people to visit? It’s time to understand the leading roles that schedule and hours of operation play in the decision-making process.  

Let’s use data to bust some popular myths about visitor motivations, and take a look at four misunderstood bits of information regarding the role of “schedule” in the visitation decision-making process:


1) Schedule is the single biggest factor contributing to visitation (not cost or specific content)

It makes perfect sense: If a visitor-serving organization is not operating when people can or want to visit, then those people aren’t going to visit. In Western Europe, folks are more willing to schedule their work and personal lives around visiting a cultural organization that has a good reputation. (Of course, a shorter work week and more generous vacation time allowances in Western Europe help create more schedule flexibility!) In the United States, that’s just not happening.

IMPACTS- Discretionary decision making utility model A high-propensity visitor is a person who demonstrates the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization. These are the people who are most likely to visit our organizations, and they are “where our bread is buttered” in terms of visitation. People in the United States – including high-propensity visitors – do not generally reorganize their lives in significant ways in order to visit cultural organizations if their operating hours are inconvenient or conflict with work (or school) commitments.

Notice also that schedule is a significantly more important factor in the decision-making process than is cost for high-propensity visitors. Keep in mind that many “minority majorities” and (especially) millennials qualify as high-propensity visitors – and that high-propensity visitors are not necessarily the same as historic visitors. (There seems to be this weird idea that millennials and “minority majorities” are the same as affordable access audiences and are unwilling or unable to support cultural organizations…but there’s abundant data demonstrating that this is not the case – though we do desperately need to get better at attracting these emerging audiences.) The key to meaningful engagement for people who are interested in your content may not be cutting admission by $5 (which data suggest doesn’t work), but, instead, may be establishing hours of operation that better conform to our audience’s preferences.


2) Take a close look at when you are open and when audiences are easily available to visit (because they often are not the same)

Take a look at this data from the National Attitudes, Awareness and Usage Study of 98,000 adults and counting. You’ll notice from the last four bars that folks generally do want to visit cultural organizations! You’ll also notice from the first two bars that although folks indicate an interest in visiting, fewer actually do visit. What gives?

IMPACTS - Visitor Attitudes

We dug in a little bit deeper as to why people who report interest in visiting cultural organizations may not actually visit: For people who would like to visit a cultural organization but haven’t visited, schedule conflicts (including ill-suited hours of operation) are the primary barrier. Take a look at how these schedule conflicts stack up:

 IMPACTS - Visitation Barriers

Work schedule conflicts make perfect sense as the leading barrier to visitation for folks who may be otherwise interested in attending an organization. Think about it: Most of the time, cultural organizations with operating hours are generally only operating when people are at work! And some potential visitors have professions that keep them busy working during the weekends as well.

Weekend activities are precious. For potential visitors who do not work on the weekends, there’s steep leisure activity competition – including simply staying home and binge watching Netflix. And when folks can take a holiday (as seen in the data above), there are often other commitments to tend to that take precedent – such as visiting family. Moreover, students tend to be in classes during traditional weekday hours of operation.

When we add all of these things up, it begs the question: How do cultural organizations determine their hours of operation? Do we have these hours because that’s how we’ve always done it? And, knowing what we know about today’s connected, real-time world, would we still choose to be the most inaccessible in the early mornings before folks head to work and in the evening when they have their most discretionary leisure time?

Of course, this issue may require an industry evolution (revolution?) to resolve. We’ve spent years training audiences to visit us during holidays and weekends (a tacit acknowledgment that 9a-6p schedules may suit no one but our staff). Retraining audiences is hard to do…but changing the public perceptions of cultural organizations and better serving our missions may necessitate a good, hard look at how we approach our hours of operation.


3) Organizations are unlikely to move visitation to a shoulder season without risking overall attendance

Perhaps the biggest industry misconception about schedule as a motivator for visitation may be that many organizations think that they can change it. This is a difficult – if not impossible task – and more often than not, results in a very poor reallocation of resources.

Take a look at this 10-year analysis of attendance by month to 78 US visitor-serving cultural organizations. The analysis indicates clear “peak” and “off-peak” seasons. This data indicates the time periods when people want to visit cultural organizations (given the current schedules that cultural organizations keep) – clearly illustrated by the fact that these are the times when people are, in fact, actually visiting.

IMPACTS -Monthly attendance to VSOs

The chart below organizes the monthly attendance data by season. The summer season accounts for nearly 37% of total attendance. Also, the spring season, driven by the traditional spring break holiday from school, accounts for approximately 27% of an organization’s total annual attendance.

IMPACTS Seasonal attendance to VSOs

Now that we’ve established that the market obviously has clear seasonal visitation preferences, let’s bust some backward thinking. It is a myth to believe that efforts during off-peak seasons can easily “make up” for poor performance during the peak spring and summer months. Think of it this way: If your organization welcomes 200,000 visitors per year, and 14% of them are visiting in July, an emphasis on increasing attendance during the month of October (when only 6% of visitors historically attend) is not going to produce the total visitation impact as would maximizing peak season attendance. This is especially true in our world of finite resources. Increasing an investment in an off-peak season often means reallocating investments from peak seasons. This alternative use of funds is very unlikely to produce a net benefit for the organization.

Q: What if an organization reallocates some of its resources from peak season to off-peak season? A: It’s not usually a wise financial move. Here’s a case study from my work at IMPACTS that clearly demonstrates the point. Consider the recent example of a large visitor-serving organization (annual attendance >1,000,000) that developed a strategy to increase year-end visitation during the holiday season by reallocating some audience acquisition investments that had been traditionally deployed during the peak season. As a heads-up, this was a relatively modest reallocation of investments and the organization was still investing at a considerable level during the peak season…just not as much as it had in the past. Let’s call this reallocation of resources in an attempt to alter visitation the organization’s “shoulder strategy.”

IMPACTS Shoulder season investment case study

Attendance during the holiday season did improve by 1.17% – but at the expense of attendance during the peak season (which declined by 4.00%). More importantly, a 1.17% increase in attendance during the holiday season only equated to an additional 3,306 visitors…while the 4.00% decrease in peak season performance cost the organization 108,840 visitors. In other words, it proved impossible for the organization to “make up” peak season attendance during an off-peak period by reallocating peak-season resources to the off-peak period. Here’s a look at this information another way.

IMPACTS Shoulder season strategy outcome chart 

There are few meaningful ways to fully compensate for underperformance during a peak season by emphasizing the off-peak season, nor is it likely that a significant investment in the off-peak season will return significant attendance benefits to the organization when compared to the potential of that same investment deployed during a peak season. Schedule is simply too important of a factor to our audiences for them to alter their behaviors to suit our preferences – after all, we don’t define our peak seasons, our audiences do!

Certainly, there are things that an organization can do to try and encourage attendance during less popular months – but don’t rob from peak seasons to pay for an off-peak opportunity. Your organization needs to make its hay when the sun is shining.

When trying to encourage greater visitation during off-peak seasons (hopefully through additional investment rather than taking from peak season resources), remember that discounts artificially increase visitation and change visitation cycles. In fact, discounts do a whole host of not-awesome things for your long-term bottom line. When you discount, you are simply displacing visitation from another season, decreasing visitor satisfaction, devaluing your brand and – perhaps most importantly – decreasing the likelihood of any return visitation at all.


4) Attendance loss from unexpected closures is greater than most organizations realize (and it is not generally replaced)

We are often wrong about the impacts of an unforeseen closure for two, big reasons that are important to understand beyond the framework of attendance and revenue projections. When an organization is closed at a time that it might otherwise be open, visitation generally is NOT displaced to other times of the year. And, to top it off, we lose more people than simply those who had planned to attend the organization that day. I wrote a separate post about this earlier this year when snow was hitting the East coast, and it’s worth revisiting here.

Take a look at the math and see just how much we underestimate the lost annual attendance due to unplanned, short-term facility closings. The chart below illustrates data from 13 organizations over a three-year analysis and includes a range of cultural, visitor-serving organizations (each represented by letter). The “Expected Decline” value indicates the number of visitors as a percentage of annual market potential that were expected to be lost by an unforeseen facility closure. If an organization’s market potential analysis suggested attendance of 1,000 visitors on a given Tuesday, and the organization was instead closed that day, then the expected decline in annual market potential would be 1,000. Pretty logical, right? The “Actual Decline” value indicates the actual, observed percentage decline relative to an organization’s annual market potential.

IMPACTS- Immitative value applied analysis


 Every organization quantified in the study indicated an actual decline greater than the expected decline. There are two, important reasons why expected and actual decline do not align in commensurate measure.

First, organizations underestimate attendance loss during these days because they do not understand the role that schedule plays in visitation. When people plan to visit an organization, but those plans fall through, visitors are not likely to simply “come back next month.” Those visits are generally lost.

Second, when we close for any reason, we don’t merely lose the people who were going to visit. We lose the recommendations, social media posts, and shared stories of all of the people who were going to visit that day – and the impact of the loss of earned media can be huge. In fact, for every one visit lost due to an unplanned closure, the net annual impact on market potential averages a decline of 1.25 visitors. Thus, if a sustained interruption to your operation results in 20,000 fewer visits, then the annual impact of this business disruption is likely to be lost attendance of 25,000 when compared to your organization’s market potential. Again, you can read more about this here.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that organizations never have unexpected closures! Things happen for which we cannot always plan – and sometimes situations arise which simply make it unsafe for staff or visitors to make it to our institutions. What I am saying is that we consistently underestimate the “now or not-anytime-soon” nature of schedule as a primary influencer of visitation decisions.


Considering the critical role that schedule plays in audience motivations, one would think that we’d talk about our hours of operation at least as often as we discuss our reputations, our special exhibits/programs, and our admission cost. But we don’t. As cultural organizations, we talk a lot about accessibility. However, many of us seem to overlook the most basic foundations of this concept – our schedule and open hours. It’s time to take a hard look at the primary barrier to visitation so that we may more effectively carry out our collective missions of making the world a more educated and inspired place.


Like this post? Please check out my YouTube channel for some video fast facts! Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:


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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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


1) Entertainment drives visitor satisfaction and re-visitation

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

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

IMPACTS Overall satisfaction weight

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

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

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


2) Education justifies visitation

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

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

IMPACTS Primary visit purpose

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


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

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


Like this post? Please check out my YouTube channel for more fast facts! Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:


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

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