Audience Insights: Organizations Overlook the Most Important Clues

Clues for increased satisfaction and visitation are often right under the noses of cultural organizations. I frequently hear executive leaders Read more

Do Expansions Increase Long-Term Attendance? (DATA)

Sometimes it feels like nearly every cultural organization is taking on a major expansion project. But do these projects Read more

Over 60% of Recent Visitors Attended Cultural Organizations As Children (DATA)

You may have guessed it was true – but here’s why this statistic matters. The idea that those who visit Read more

Cultural Organizations: It Is Time To Get Real About Failures

Hey cultural organizations! Do you know what we don’t do often enough? Talk about our failures. It’s a huge, Read more

How Annual Timeframes Hurt Cultural Organizations

Some cultural executives still aim for short-term attendance spikes at the expense of long-term financial solvency – and they Read more

Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA)

Special exhibits don’t do what many cultural organizations think that they do. If fact, they often do the opposite. Read more

visitor serving

Cultural Organizations: People (Not Things) Matter Most

This may be the most important sentence for the evolution of visitor-serving organizations.

This post is a short one, but it’s an important one to me – and for cultural organizations, too, I believe. As many have noticed, I took last Wednesday off of posting KYOB. It was the day after the United States presidential election and, needless to say, there were some other things on peoples’ minds…

This video is a plea for cultural organizations to wake up.

This week’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video is my rallying cry I hope that you’ll take a moment to watch the video and think about the message. Regular Know Your Own Bone readers likely have this sentence engrained into their brains. And if I could contribute one sentence to leave as my cultural organization legacy that has the potential to deeply change cultural organizations for the better, this would be it:

Your organization can determine importance, but the market determines relevance.

 

That sentence is so much more meaningful and important than it may sound when you first hear it…

It is the basis of nearly every myth-bust on Know Your Own Bone. Essentially, it’s quite common that cultural organizations will declare that something (some content or issue, for instance) is important. However, if nobody cares about that “important” thing, then it’s difficult – if not impossible – to educate, inspire, or initiate support. As a well-educated and sometimes erudite sector, we’re used to knowing things and being expert about things. And we are experts. But just because we are fascinated by a topic doesn’t mean that the market cares about it – or knows enough to care about it yet.

 

Relevance reigns

It doesn’t matter how loudly an organization shouts that something – an issue or some content, for instance – is important. If the market doesn’t understand the relevance of that issue or content, then that issue or content may as well not matter at all. Nobody hears it. Or they do, but it has no “so what?” to make it meaningful.

Connectivity is king in today’s world. To fulfill our missions, we need to build a bridge. We need to cultivate relevance, and we need to bring value. After all, our organizations cannot exist without the support of visitors and donors. Our task, then, is to help connect people to things. If we think something is important but we haven’t established its relevance, then it is not likely that the market will listen. We haven’t created a reason for them to listen by establishing a connection to that issue.

 

We think we are about things. We are not. We are about people. At our best, we are hubs of human connection.

Data suggest that who people are with is by far and away more important to our audiences than what they see onsite. With > What.  We are connectors and facilitators of shared experiences. It is one of our superpowers, and yet we often throw this away in favor of esoteric, distancing content. Our industry still most values those who specialize in content over those who specialize in connection.  What good is content without connection? 

The idea that the market determines relevance is NOT a “dumbing down” of cultural organizations. The market expects us to be experts. Instead, it means finally realizing that people matter in executing our missions.

It’s our audiences that matter most in our organization’s survival. After all, they pay admission, become members, spread word-of-mouth endorsements, and make donations. On top of that, our missions to educate and inspire revolve around human beings as well. Why, then, do so many cultural organizations believe themselves to be about things rather than human beings?

There are universities that may more willingly employ those leaders who stubbornly insist upon cherishing their own one-way interest in objects or content. Museums, however, have missions to connect people and things… To show how and why things matter. How have we so lost our way that misunderstanding this seems to be the primary barrier within cultural organizations – and is even the basis of layoffs at times?

And when I encourage organizations to consider “human beings,” I mean “human beings” – not solely erudite, cultural gatekeepers that scoff at content that inspires engagement among the not-as-expertly-erudite. These gatekeepers can be helpful influencers to underscore our topic expertise, but are our missions to “educate and inspire the already topic-educated and inspired?”

We can be as loud as we want about scholarly ideas, but if we don’t cultivate connection among people, then there’s nobody to visit, to donate, to educate, or to inspire at all. Again: Organizations may determine importance, but the market determines relevance. We can pitch that something should matter to people, but we don’t decide. They do.

People matter most for both our missions and our solvency.

Let’s start acting that way.

 

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, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 4 Comments

Four Lessons For Cultural Organizations From The 2016 Presidential Election

what cultural organizations can learn from the 2016 presidential election

This election has provided significant thought-fuel for cultural organizations. Before it comes time to “never look back” on this election, let’s reflect on what we’ve learned that can help organizations evolve.

Is it November 9th yet? While this election is a crazy one and we may all be rather sick of it at this point, we visitor-serving organizations would be remiss not to pause and take inventory of the lessons that we can learn from the 2016 Presidential Election.

I’m with her. That may be polarizing to some readers, but I’m passionate about that and I feel that I need to acknowledge this upfront. That said, there’s a lot that we can learn from him in this election cycle, and both candidates have shined light on important trends. While Trump’s rhetoric and viewpoints may make parents wish that those memory-zapping contraptions from Men in Black really existed for use on their children this election season, Trump has also provided us all with significant, useful thought-fuel. I think it’s important that we don’t let this moment go to waste and that we learn what we can from it. This is just a start.

There are many, many lessons to be learned from this election. Here is some thought-fuel offered from this election that can be utilized to help make cultural organizations better.

 

1) Disruption gets you noticed – but you need substance and credibility to lead

If Donald Trump’s mere existence as the Republican presidential nominee has taught us anything, it may arguably be that there’s value to authenticity and being yourself. Donald Trump seems to be unabashedly Donald Trump, while Hillary gets called out when attempting to appeal to different audiences or speak like a millennial. Trump’s disruption gets him noticed in a big way. He hijacks interviews, live tweets Clinton’s speeches, and even insults folks (Here are the 282 people, places and things that Donald Trump has insulted on Twitter). PixelKitchen says it best: “He disrupts what we have come to expect from a presidential candidate.” It gets him noticed and, for some, it secures his support.

Hillary, on the other hand, has more of the experience and background that we’ve indeed come to expect from a presidential candidate. As boring or frustrating that may be to some (depending on your views), it means that she’s spent her professional years doing very different things than what Donald Trump has been doing, “refreshing” as some may view his background to be.

While it’s not entirely different or maybe not as new or disruptive as what Donald Trump brings to the table, her substance and compared credibility is helping her in the polls. As I type this, Hillary Clinton has a 70.0% chance of winning the election according to Nate Silver’s famous FiveThirtyEight election forecast.

trump and clinton background

Lesson for visitor-serving organizations:

Be true to yourself AND bring value – combine the “good” of Trump with that of Hillary. Being true to your organization helps avoid point of reference sensitivity – a phenomenon that threatens overall satisfaction at cultural organizations. On the other hand, bringing value and a meaningful, public-service- oriented “so what?” helps drive financial solvency. And, obviously, we need to be solvent in order to survive and thrive.

There’s also a more tactical take-away here that mirrors the inclination of some cultural organizations to use social media for social media’s sake. In other words, some organizations use digital engagement in order to get noticed rather than to truly secure visitation or build their reputations in ways that underscore their mission. This “miss” tends to occur when organizations think that digital engagement is more about “digital” (i.e. technology) than it is about “engagement” (i.e. people.)

 

2) Who you are with matters more than your content

Donald Trumps words (or, content) has created a “political climate [that] is rampant with over-blown egos and personal interest, crowding out the kind of leadership that strengthens communities” and, according to TIME Magazine, may be threatening social and emotional health of children who are watching this election play out.  Still, Republicans are still supporting the candidate. In fact, House Speaker Paul Ryan voted early in his home state of Wisconsin, declaring the need to “support our entire ticket.”

More than 160 Republican leaders don’t support Donald Trump, and yet many are voting for him because he is the Republican candidate. It’s been reported that, “for all the attention on the fights between Trump and a faction of Republicans that support him, most GOP elected officials have so far taken the path of least resistance. They’ve supported their party’s nominee, even it they’re note thrilled with him. What seems to matter in getting votes for Trump may simply be that he is the Republican candidate.

Lesson for visitor-serving organizations:

The data is unassailable that who people are with when they visit a cultural organization is more important than what they see. When it comes to cultural center visitation, with > what. I’ve written about this data many times before, but it’s worth mentioning again: A great superpower of visitor-serving organizations is that we are facilitators of shared experiences – even more so than we are expert content providers.

IMPACTS- With over what data

Okay, okay. It may be a stretch connecting it to the election… but “with > what” underscores issues of identity and alignment in terms of what arguably matters most to people in life and in cultural organizations: connection to others. At our best, we are hubs for human connection. 

 

3) Be smart with social media.

Social media has played an important role in this election because social media is important (link). Candidates have been using social media to tell their stories from the beginning of the election. For instance, the Clinton campaign uses Snapchat and she even let Katy Perry take over her Instagram account for a day,

Pew Research reports that, even in January of 2016, “44% of U.S. adults reported having learned about the 2016 presidential election in the past week from social media. Moreover, as of July, 24% say that they have turned to social media posts by Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for news about the election – more than those who turn to either of the candidates’ websites or emails combined.

While election-based social media is often simply used to reinforce confirmation bias (or, help people stengthen their resolve in believing their already-held beliefs), it is used differently by the candidates. Hillary often passes along messages crafted by the campaign itself while Trump reaches out to news media and the public, Pew Research assesses. Trump has created a reputation as a Twitter Cry-Bully and Hillary is tweeting things like this: (Bazinga!)

Hillary Clinton Twitter

The candidates are utilizing each platform in the ways that best match the needs of that platform’s audience. It’s been reported that while Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are still priorities, Snachat and Instagram have emerged as the best way to reach young voters during this election.

 

Lesson for visitor-serving organizations:

Be smart about your use of social media. Social media is NOT only used by millennials. In fact, social media is an incredibly important communication platform for potential visitors and donors to cultural organizations. Moreover, social media plays a critical role in driving visitation decisions. And if you think that, unlike the resources utilized by the market to learn about the election, your organization’s website is your most important online communications asset – think again. Social media is critical for reaching audiences today.

IMPACTS - sources of information for HPVs

4) Know your target audience  

Microtargeting has been a big deal in this year’s election. Microtargeting involves utilizing big data to craft messages that appeal to very specific audiences or bands of supporters. The more data that’s collected, the “smarter” the predictive model becomes. (This is a lot like what we do at IMPACTS when determining optimal admission pricing for visitor-serving organizations.) As an example related to the election from Forbes, “Ted Cruz hired statisticians and behavioral psychologists to analyze voters’ consumer habits and Facebook posts, as well as to tailor messages to specific personality types. To elicit support for gun ownership, people who were deemed “fearful” were sent a picture of a burglar breaking into a home, whereas “traditional” voters received a picture of a family on a hunting trip.”

For the election, microtargeting begins with a voter database and builds on with supplemental information that may include demographics, occupation, memberships, magazine subscriptions, and other types of information that can be accessed and help paint a portrait of a type of person. You can read more about microtargeting during this election here. Moreover, Trump’s will to ignore voter data is thought to hurt the GOP.

 

Lesson for visitor-serving organizations:

We live in an increasingly personalized world. Our Facebook and social media feeds run on algorithms intended to appeal to us specifically. They aim to show us what we have the most interest in seeing. Personalization is critical for visitor-serving organizations and it affects everything from the onsite experience to group tours, to – of course – social media interactions.

Understanding the importance of targeting messages to different audiences is the very basis of a sustainable business plan for cultural organizations. Namely, admission is not an affordable access program and admission and access programs need to work together to both achieve financial sustainability and also achieve our missions. Not adequately targeting audiences is a big reason why most affordable access programs within cultural organizations are unsuccessful. In sum, targeting messages to specific audiences is a required area of growth for our industry, and the presidential election reminds us that this is the new reality of today’s world.

 

While it almost pains me to write an election-oriented post during a time in which many cannot possibly wait for the election to be over, I hope that the lessons that we’ve learned are not lost on us. I fear that if we don’t take a moment to reflect on what is happening and what we can learn, we may miss a critical opportunity to move forward (together?). (Apologies. I couldn’t resist!)

Here’s to whatever outcome you are hoping for on November 8th .(By now, you all know my strong preference.) But here’s also to learning in the meantime. Scratch that. Here’s to always learning so that we can make museums and cultural organizations great (again?) (Once again, I couldn’t resist.) Yes. Here’s to always learning.

 

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.

 

Photo credit: The Hollywood Reporter,

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on Four Lessons For Cultural Organizations From The 2016 Presidential Election

Think Twice Before Saying These Three Things to the Marketing Department

Think Twice Before Saying These Three Things to the Marketing Department

These three sentences may indicate that your organization is having a hard time coming to grips with 21st century realities.

I specialize in market trends affecting the cultural, visitor-serving sector. The topics that I write about range from admission pricing to onsite experiences to fundraising. That said, I am most frequently asked about millennials (that huge generation symbolically forcing sector evolution) and marketing (the department that is seemingly most affected by this evolution). Interestingly, it often seems like the entire concept of sector evolution is inappropriately isolated as relating mostly to matters of millennials and marketing.

First, millennial changes are increasingly market changes. For instance, millennials may be the most connected of the generations, but all high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations are super-connected to the web, and all generations are increasingly social conscious consumers. I often wonder if we put “millennial talk” in a corner because it feels safer to place necessary change into a subset category than to call “millennial talk” what it actually is: Discussion about our urgent need to become more business-savvy, social-good serving, relevant, and agile right now.Millennial talk” may be our way of diminishing urgency and compartmentalizing necessary changes regarding external audiences and supporters.

Second, what we think are primarily changes in how the marketing department operates may actually be hints for changes that need to infiltrate our organizations on the whole. Similarly, “marketing talk” may be our way of diminishing urgency and compartmentalizing necessary changes regarding broader internal strategies and operations. It is astounding how much “marketing talk” these days has less to do with marketing, and more to do with shifting cultures, embracing changes, and developing a deeper need to understand and respond to our constituencies.

Here are three, common phrases that I often hear said to leaders of marketing departments by other executives that may be indicative of a misunderstanding of the changed environment in which visitor-serving organizations operate:

 

Here is what we need you to market

This is the biggest change and the best place to start. In today’s world, marketing is primarily a strategic department – not primarily a service department. Folks within institutions may be used to thinking of this department as the one that simply goes forth and communicates messages to the public. This is no longer true – if it ever was in the first place. The most successful organizations with whom IMPACTS works (particularly in terms of financial solvency) involve the marketing department in top-down strategic decision-making rather than the tail-end of the program or product development process.

The marketing department manages your relationship with your audiences, not the volume of your one-way communications. Because the marketing department spends a good amount of time listening to audiences, it also tends to be more attune to audience wants and needs than less outwardly engaged departments. Initiatives have a much greater chance of success if marketing is involved in their development rather than briefed after their finality. Unfortunately, many organizations are still accustomed to thinking of marketing solely as a service department…and they risk doing so at their own slow descent into lessened relevance.

 

You need to increase our yelp and tripadvisor ratings

Alrighty folks. Yes, peer review sites live in the online world and it makes sense that the “task” of increasing ratings on these social websites may fall to the marketing department. Indeed, your organization should sometimes respond to both negative and positive reviews on these sites! But peer review sites rate your organization’s onsite experience (and combined brand perception, mission execution, programs, initiatives, and the like) – not how well your organization “manages” TripAdvisor.

There’s no amount of typing “Thank you for your review, Jessica. We’re sorry to hear that our admission staff was rude to you…” on a computer keyboard that actually makes the onsite admission staff less rude to visitors. Peer review sites generally shine a light on OPERATIONAL issues and those run much deeper than the marketing department. The problem isn’t that you haven’t written a sufficient number of “We’re sorry to hear about your experience” comments – it’s that people may be having a less-than-awesome experience in the first place. The best way to increase ratings on peer review sites is to collectively perform better at our jobs as an entire organization. (And, even then, you are still bound to get a few strange reviews.)

Folks say things like, “Raise our TripAdvisor ratings” to marketing departments when they think that social media is about technology and web platforms, and they forget that it is actually about the experiences of living, breathing, visiting human beings. Like much online feedback in our world today, it may take place on a social media channel, but the messages are important and they are usually messages for the organization at-large and not simply the marketing department. Would feedback about programs and experiences given onsite be directed solely toward the marketing department? No. (Unless the complaint was truly a branding or marketing issue.) So why do we think that feedback that comes from social can be “fixed” solely through responses on social media?

If you want people to report that they are having better experiences, then listen to their feedback and start creating better experiences! Here’s a much better way to increase visitor satisfaction than getting frustrated with the marketing department.

 

Why isn't social media fixing this problem for us

We’ve all heard it, haven’t we? And yet it still happens in the most important of conversations. It might be said during a conversation with staff, executive leaders, or even among board members. An organization will finally be in the midst of having a serious, “We need to get real about fundraising and look at our strategies” talk and someone (usually someone high up on the ladder and who is generally unfamiliar with social media…which is a problem in and of itself) will totally pull this move in real life and say, “Why isn’t social media fixing this problem for us?”

This is usually code for, “I would like to blame my lack of time strategically thinking about this huge issue until this very moment on something that I totally don’t understand and yet fiercely believe should have magical powers that shall overcome my own inability to handle this topic.”

Social media is absolutely critical for organizations in terms of building an organization’s reputation – which meaningfully contributes to attendance and support. The problem here’s isn’t about using social media for fundraising purposes (or anything else – smart social media can help an organization do great things), but that social media is often used as a scapegoat for thinking critically about more integrated strategies. This sentence can be used to avoid ‘fessing up that board contributions need to increase, that staff need to take a time out and rethink their overall strategy, or that departments need to stop “not my job-ing” connective communications.

It’s like needing to build a house and saying, “Why isn’t the hammer fixing everything for us?!” Perhaps it’s because the hammer is a tool, not a strategy. You can use social media to help your organization do a whole host of things, but only if you have the blueprint for the role it should play. Also, building a house usually requires more than a hammer. You might need a wrench and a screwdriver, too. Like all other tools, social media can stand on its own for specific tasks. If you’re talking big things, though, it’s best to put on your thinking cap and create an integrated game plan and decide the size of the role that you need social media to play and what can realistically be achieved.

 

A lot of big changes are taking place in the world today – and, for better or worse, much of that change management is being tasked to marketing departments. Visitor-serving organizations tend to have hierarchical structures that lend themselves more easily to “tacking on” responsibilities to single departments than integrating deeper cultural changes throughout organizations. Perhaps by holding onto these old ways of doing things, we’re letting the tail wag the dog.

Sometimes, when organizations think they are talking about marketing, they are actually talking about sector evolution that needs to be fully embraced throughout the organization. This may mean that our organizational structures will need to evolve to lend themselves more easily to the real-time, dynamic world in which we now live. Our hierarchical houses are not performing very well anymore, and we don’t always get to decide how we live in this world. Our ability or inability to meet market needs will decide for us, so perhaps it’s best that we pick up our tools and get to work building structures that work better for the 21st century.

 

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

 

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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

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

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

It’s time to get real about why many people aren’t visiting cultural organizations. Generally, price is not the biggest barrier. 

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

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

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

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

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

B) Admission pricing is NOT related to affordable access.

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

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

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

D) Not everyone wants to visit cultural organizations.

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

Certainly, this is not to say that organizations can charge anything they’d like! But it is to say that this price issue that causes anxiety among the sector isn’t quite the issue that we make it out to be. Now that these baseline conversations are out of the way, here are three items to consider that underscore the fact that cost is often hardly the visitation barrier that many organizations believe it to be:

 

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

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

IMPACTS - value for cost of experiences

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

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

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

 

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

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

IMPACTS - Free vs paid admission satisfaction

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

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

 

3) Cost is not a primary barrier to visitation

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

IMPACTS - Barriers to repeat visitation

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on Admission Price is NOT a Primary Barrier for Cultural Center Visitation (DATA)

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

Admission tickets

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Unintentional collusion looks something like this:

IMPACTS unintentional collusion

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

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

 IMPACTS ticket price analysis example

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

IMPACTS intent to revist

 

 

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

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

 

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

Entertainment vs Education: How Your Audience Really Rates The Museum Experience (DATA)

museum experience flickr

When considering the overall satisfaction of visitor-serving organization (VSO) attendees, data indicate that not all aspects of the experience are created equally. In fact, the individual components that collectively comprise a visitor’s onsite experience may run counter to many VSO’s differentiation and engagement strategies. In terms of maximizing visitor satisfaction, VSOs may not truly understand “where their bread is buttered,” and this misunderstanding may result in serious financial repercussions.

IMPACTS gathers data to inform the development of key performance indicators concerning 224 visitor-serving organizations (zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, symphonies, etc.). One of the key performance indicators that we regularly quantify for specific organizations is “overall satisfaction.”  Overall satisfaction is a composite metric (i.e. a metric informed by a multiplicity of data inputs yielding a single output) that contemplates 10 source evaluation criteria (e.g. employee courtesy, admission value, retail, etc.)

In developing the overall satisfaction metric, IMPACTS doesn’t weight each evaluation criteria equally because the market isn’t influenced by each criterion equally. As indicated in the table below, the market determines the “weight” of individual criteria based on each criterion’s relative contribution to the visitor’s perception of overall satisfaction.  (The formula to calculate the respective weight of any individual criteria contemplates such factors as frequency of mention and strength of conviction.  The overall satisfaction metric updates in “near real-time” based on the most contemporarily available data so as to accurately reflect seasonal influences on the visitor experience.)  Perhaps most interestingly, in my observation, the weight of any single evaluation criteria tends to vary very little between organizations.  In other words, please don’t make the mistake of assuming that your organization is somehow indemnified from the implications of this data because you’re a symphony…or an aquarium…or a museum.  The data simply doesn’t support any notion of “exemptions” for certain types of VSOs.

IMPACTS Overall satisfaction by weighted criteria

These weighted values may be used to inform resource allocations to maximize overall satisfaction (which data indicate are critical for securing positive word of mouth, repeat visitation, etc.). The values may also inform marketing strategies for museums so that they may best communicate the educational experiences that they…oh, wait…

Well, this is awkward.

 

1. Museums may overvalue educational assets as a differentiating factor positively contributing to visitor experience.

Unfortunately for many museums’ social missions, visitors indicate that the quality of an organization’s “educational experience” matters relatively little to overall satisfaction. Many of you may have – at some point or another – heard of/been involved with a museum leadership team that is convinced that it cannot fail because of the number of academic minds at the helm that are working to further the museum’s superstar educational opportunities. Regardless of the organization, I’ll bet that they are either strapped for cash and/or rely disproportionately on public funding or grant and contributed income – which means that in the world of “Museum Darwinism” (or heck, according to the plain old rules of economics), these museums may be at financial risk.

Data suggest that museums may not be looking in the mirror clearly when it comes to understanding the value of their educational assets. Will you be a successful organization (in terms of market relevance and long-term solvency) if your greatest experiential asset is your mastery of first-rate, dissertation-worthy, you-get-a-master’s-degree-equivalent-in-a-visit content? Sadly, no. The market is the ultimate arbiter of your organization’s success, and the data suggest that even the most educational VSO risks relevance if the experience isn’t entertaining…

Oy. I said the other “E”-word…

 

2. Deny being an entertaining entity at your own risk.

As nonprofit organizations with valuable social missions, we can get rather feisty when someone compares our entity to Disneyland…and museums aren’t Disneyland for all of the important reasons that drawing that comparison probably makes nonprofit stakeholders squirm. That said, the market attributes a higher value to “entertainment experience” than any other criteria – even the overall satisfaction summary (“sum of its parts”) metric!

Organizations that try too hard to promote education at the expense of providing an entertaining experience are truly missing the mark. Remember: your organization only has the opportunity to communicate what is important after the market dubs you relevant. If nobody wants to visit, then nobody is going to participate in the educational experience that you are trying so hard to perfect.

 

3. Education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Aim to be BOTH but understand how each aspect individually contributes to your reputational and experiential equities and strategize accordingly.

Knowledge is power, right? If you didn’t know it (or at least suspect it) already, you do now: the market at-large cares comparatively little about the super-specialness that is your educational experience. And that’s sad for museum leaders…but the weighted value of “entertainment experience” isn’t necessarily bad for museum leaders. The knowledge of this data may make VSOs more prepared to serve both functions effectively or, better yet, make educational experiences more entertaining.

The trick may be to understand the role that each of these aspects plays within the market – and what that means for your organization. On one hand, many VSOs are nonprofit organizations with a mission to educate and some research has shown that seeking an educational experience may justify a visit for some. However, the market considers “educational experience” a relatively small piece of the overall satisfaction puzzle when visitors actually have their onsite experience.

Considered collectively, I think that it may prove worthy to further parse the differences between motivation and justification.  I observe a compelling abundance of data that suggest that entertainment is the primary motivation for a visitor experience, whereas education is often cited post-visit as a justification for having visited.  In other words, all being equal, the public will often choose an experience with an educational component over “pure entertainment” – provided, of course, that all is actually equal!  Education will not compensate for a deficiency of entertainment.

Henry David Thoreau (a personal favorite who receives a hat tip for my blog title, Know Your Own Bone) advised, “When a dog runs at you, whistle for him.” The power of this data comes in embracing the findings rather than trying harder to deny them.  Let’s strive to be the most entertaining educational entities possible.

After all, who decided that “entertainment” was the enemy of “education” anyway?

 

*Photo (and cute kid) credit belongs to Flickr user Jon van Allen

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution 11 Comments

A Cure For Point of Reference Sensitivity: Why Visitor Satisfaction For Your Nonprofit Is Lower Than It Could Be

opinion_of_our_productIMPACTS data indicate that visitors to zoos, aquariums and museums (and other visitor-serving organizations such as historical sites, theaters, symphonies, etc.) who have never previously visited any other like organization rate their experiences 18.1% higher in terms of overall satisfaction and 14.8% higher in terms of value for cost of admission than visitors who had previously visited any other zoo, aquarium, museum, etc. Further, as the number and frequency of one’s visits increases, a visitor’s level of satisfaction and perceived cost for value of admission tends to decrease.

This is just fine if your art museum (for instance) is the first art museum that your every guest has ever visited, but it has a host of potential repercussions on your organization’s bottom line (like tackling a social mission and achieving long-term financial sustainability) if you’re the second art museum someone visits. Or third, or fourth, or fifth….

This phenomenon is known as “Point of Reference Sensitivity” and suggests that the market’s expectations are being constantly reframed by recent experiences. In short, as the market gains familiarity with an experience, it becomes increasingly harder to “impress” the market.

So, what can be done to minimize the deleterious effects of Point of Reference Sensitivity? [I will henceforth refer to Point of Reference Sensitivity as “PoRS” because a) that’s just the kind of relationship that we’ve developed and b) it sounds a bit like a disease, which may be appropriate.] PoRS is an important consideration for visitor-serving organizations with regard to key performance indicators, and not even the very best visitor-serving organizations in the world are immune to its negative effects. The commonality of PoRS, however, does not mean that it is unimportant to your own organization’s reputational performance. Just because many other organizations suffer from PoRS doesn’t “even the playing field.” The market – not other organizations – are the ultimate arbiters of your organization’s success…and data suggest that despite your best efforts (great exhibits, well-trained staff, thoughtful access programs), you are still likely to experience a decline in satisfaction over time from a sizable portion of your audience simply because folks visited other organizations before they walked in your door.

The good news is that strategic prioritization and effective PR/communications practices may provide both prophylaxis and remedy against even the most stubborn case of PoRS.

What causes PoRS in visitors?

Qualitative research related to these findings suggest that PoRS may be due, in part, to a “been there, done that” mentality that tends to accompany repeat visitation to “like” organizations. The research suggests that this sentiment stems from a perceptual belief that “like” organizations (think of one zoo compared to another zoo, or one art museum compared to another art museum) share an elemental “sameness” that challenges the market’s ability to differentiate the unique attributes of individual organizations. Further exacerbating PoRS is the premium that we tend to psychologically ascribe to “firsts” – first love, first car, first baseball game, first kiss. When someone first visits a zoo, it may be the first time that they have ever seen live animals up close, but upon visiting a second zoo, there is a loss of “newness of experience.” There may be other factors that contribute to PoRS: Perhaps the first zoo visited is in an individual’s hometown and is a point of civic pride. Perhaps the newness of the experience is matched with a memory of sharing the experience with a favorite friend or family member, thus creating a unique, personal remembrance that is difficult to duplicate and impossible to top.

How is PoRS hurting your organization?

Reputation is a leading driver of visitation, and reviews from trusted resources (such as word of mouth recommendations from friends, peer review sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor, and even social media) are the strongest contributing factors to building your reputation (12.85x greater than any paid advertising channel). Aside from the more obvious impacts of lower guest satisfaction metrics and potential declines in the likelihood of repeat visitation, PoRS may also affect your organization’s word of mouth value. This may result in securing fewer visitors, fewer opportunities to cultivate donors with affinity for your organization, and fewer evangelists to amplify and promulgate your organization’s mission.

How can your organization overcome PoRS?

Data based on visitor feedback suggest that the solution may be very simple in theory: Be more unique. One way to do this is to utilize social media and other communication resources to underscore what differentiates your organization as a unique experience. Focusing more on your mission – as opposed to your existence as a “destination” – may help. An emphasis on mission-related content may allow your organization to increase its relevance beyond being a visitor-serving destination on real-time, online platforms by more actively defining the public perception of your museum. If your organization can cultivate a reputation as “more than just a visitor-serving organization” prior to a guest’s arrival, then your organization may also improve its satisfaction-related metrics.

It seems that our mothers were onto something – “You’re judged by the company that you keep.” PoRS is particularly insidious amongst the perceptual middle ranks of visitor-serving organizations – those places that are so “destination-focused” in their communications that they end up positioning themselves as “just another museum” (or zoo, or aquarium, or botanical garden, etc.) The overcome may be in elevating your organization from the sameness of a sector by differentiating not only your experience, but by the means by which you achieve your mission (the impacts that you have and the differences that you make).

As stakeholders for visitor-serving organizations, we tend to believe that the entities that we serve (or support, or visit) are unique and superlative.  Our challenge – and, indeed, our opportunity – is to similarly articulate these differences to our visitors so that they, too, consider us as more than a place. What makes your organization unique is probably not the artifacts that you house, the collections that you keep, or the building within which you keep them. What makes you unique is the outcomes that you achieve by fulfilling your mission… and communicating these outcomes is the best defense against a nasty case of PoRS.

 

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, Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments