I have written a more recent article on the phenomenon of negative substitution of the historic visitor since the publication of this one. Please check it out here.
There are many reasons why your visitor-serving organization should be marketing to Millennials and other emerging audiences in order to ensure its long-term relevance and solvency. However, the single most urgent reason to target these audiences is that the “historic” museum visitor market is slowly dwindling, and organizations that do not evolve their marketing strategies risk long-term survival.
At IMPACTS, we collect ongoing, nationwide (and crazy-massive) data sets of the US market, and have uncovered the demographic, psychographic and behavioral attributes that tend to suggest one’s likelihood to go to or otherwise support a visitor-serving organization (zoo, aquarium, museum, botanic garden, performing arts organization, etc.). We call folks possessing these indicators high-propensity visitors (HPVs). While individual organizations may have slightly varying HPVs, we’ve found that there are several characteristics that a vast majority of organizations’ audiences share. And we’ve found something alarming: visitor-serving organizations’ (VSOs) “historic” visitors are leaving the market at a faster rate than new HPVs are entering the market, creating a negative substitution phenomenon that does not paint a bright future (or present, for that matter) for VSOs.
In fact, for every one historic HPV that leaves the market, they are being replaced by 0.989 “new” HPVs. Sound like a small difference? These people add up! Keep up your hard work reaching your traditional audiences and – for no fault of your own – negative substitution factors would suggest that an organization currently serving one million annual visitors will attract 946,000 visitors five years from now (that is 54,000 fewer people, and a likely corresponding decline in membership and program participation). This troubling “glide path” also considers that you’ll be doing everything that you can to meet your current audience’s needs, and continue to market to them like exceptional rockstars! This data suggests that the key to long-term organizational solvency is to evolve our engagement strategies to include our emerging HPVs. This means – as an industry – evolving our target audiences.
Though we observe broad negative substitution indicators for VSOs nationwide, the specific data referenced above contemplates VSOs residing within the top 50 metro markets as determined by Nielsen (a cohort representing nearly 70% of the US population).
Why is this happening? Our data points to three primary reasons:
1) Rich, white people are having fewer children.
(Too blunt or refreshingly direct?) For the vast majority of U.S. visitor-serving organizations, this demographic represents their historic visitor. These folks are statistically more likely to have the household income, leisure interests, educational attainment levels, and psychographic profiles that tend to suggest an increased propensity to visit a museum, zoo, aquarium, botanic garden, performing arts venue, etc.
2) The United States population is growing increasingly diverse with folks that aren’t currently planning a visit to your organization.
(I’m going for “charming directness” again!) Museums and other cultural visitor-serving organizations have not yet succeeded in breaking the conceptual barrier of being top of mind destinations for non-HPVs. At IMPACTS, we see disappointingly low perceptions of zoos, aquariums, museums, and performing entities as “a place for people like me” in the minds of emerging audience members. (We call these perceptions “attitude affinities.”) Though select organizations are successfully executing strategies to engage these emerging audiences, the large-scale wave of change that we are seeking may only occur when we can alter the overall perception of VSOs as a sector.
3) Millennials are taking over the market, but VSOs are reluctant and/or slow in figuring out how to attract them.
Millennials can be a gosh-darn confusing bunch for older generations to understand. As digital natives, we simply think differently. If you feel like your organization is always trying to play catch-up to capture this audience, it’s because most VSOs are!
Millennials (born roughly 1980 to 1995) represent the single largest generation in human history (nearly 20 million kiddos larger than the Baby Boomers) and too few organizations are currently cultivating them as donors or even potential visitors. Some aren’t targeting Millennials because older generations just don’t see how they could be that important in driving business (“My kids can’t dictate how I do things!”) Well, most Millennials aren’t kids anymore, and the sheer volume of this generation means that they are already starting the lead the market. Some believe that Millennials just won’t be significant donors so they aren’t cultivating this group (despite evidence that – despite debt and student loans – this generation is incredibly confident about its financial future and may be more financially responsible than older generations). Other VSOs aren’t targeting Millennials because they simply don’t know how or don’t have the proper skillset on staff. (If that’s your thing, here are some baseline pointers for marketing to Millennials). Regardless, this is a demographic that nonprofit organizations simply cannot afford to ignore. As “historic” HPVs – who think and behave in a way that executive leaders understand – leave the market, there will be a void. In fact, this largely contributes to the negative substitution at hand.
In sum, visitor-serving organizations need to evolve their target audience in a big way. And they need to work together to do it soon. Data suggests that many visitor-serving organizations are already observing the challenging effects of negative substitution (e.g. declining attendance levels). Of course, this doesn’t mean altogether ignoring the “historic” visitor that is currently many an organizations “bread and butter”…because, indeed, these people will continue to visit (albeit in increasingly smaller numbers).
Negative substitution quantifies the urgent need to evolve, and moreover, compellingly indicates the risk of “standing still.” In order to foster a change in market perception of VSOs as welcoming and relevant, organizations will need to start adapting their engagement strategies and outreach initiatives. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Really? Another thing that I need to worry about in the midst of so much market change?” The answer is, “Yes.” Let’s start worrying. Let’s evolve.