The first step in the evolution toward more sustainable cultural organizations is embracing the reality of “access” and reviewing the basics.
We talk a lot about “access” within cultural organizations. For the sake of discussion on this topic, let’s strip this to its bare bones: Access is a means of approaching or entering a place. When cultural organizations talk about access, they often refer simply to something like affordable access. This narrow concept of “access” sets these types of organizations back, and prevents us from having more informed discussions about visitation, engagement, and financial solvency.
Every single person that makes their way through our doors has an access point and is part of “access” strategy discussions. “Access” in cultural organizations is not a conversation about minority majorities, or millennials, or folks making less than $25,000/year, or people with purple hair, or folks in wheelchairs, or people who like French fries, or pet owners with a dog named Rufus. Even high-propensity visitors must be considered in access discussions because access is a thing for every single person who sets foot in our institution. Access is not a topic about “underserved audiences” and it’s strange that we immediately assume this is so. Visitors, non-visitors, members, and donors all achieve access somehow. Why don’t we consider the entire, baseline topic of access for a change? And, if we do, can we learn something to strengthen BOTH mission execution and financial sustainability for cultural organizations? You bet.
This overview is oversimplified – and there are countless avenues for discussion embedded within this topic, but for the sake of improving the future of visitor-serving organizations, I’d like to provide a data-informed concept for a BETTER discussion about the hot topic of “access.” It’s only by considering how all avenues of access work together that we can optimize any part of the system – and cultivate healthier institutions.
The points below may seem very simple when you read them, but I haven’t encountered many organizations that regularly consider how these points of access work together and feed off of one another. Often, organizations tinker around with these different access points. When we meld these access audiences together – which we so often do – we get all of those bad business practices that hold us back. For instance, when we meld admission and affordable access programs, we get devalued brands, local visitor dissatisfaction, and we “leave money on the table” that we need in order to both survive and also to carry out our missions. When we meld admission with membership, we get transaction-based members that don’t much care about our missions and are less likely to renew, and we risk losing our most important supporters when we treat them like simple visitors. Again, this framework is simplified, but my hope is that it brings about food for thought. If I’m lucky, it might even make you uncomfortable – and the best (good) data makes leaders uncomfortable enough to create change.
For a broad overview, let’s dive into these three, primary access audiences one-by-one. (You know that I mean back-to-basics business when I add a doodle.) While you may skim these access audiences thinking that they are painfully obvious (they are), consider all the ways that we confuse them, conflate them, and ultimately threaten our own organizations. It’s simple (hence the doodle), but perhaps that’s why it is all the more important that we return to the basics and get this right.
1) LIKELY VISITORS:
Pay your data-informed optimal admission price
Likely visitors are called high-propensity visitors in my data world, and they are the people who have 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 respond, “Sure!” when someone asks “Do you want to visit a cultural organization today?” They are, essentially, where our bread is buttered. They are the people who choose to pay to visit cultural organizations – and they are also the people who go to free organizations and understand their value. At IMPACTS, we have a lot of data about these folks, and they are critical audiences to engage in order to stay alive. In short, they are your visitors. (Keep in mind: High-propensity visitors are not exactly the same as historic visitors. High-propensity visitors are LIKELY visitors and not necessarily past visitors. They are our potential!) Bottom line: a very vast majority of the people who go to museums, zoos, aquariums, symphonies, theaters, botanic gardens (and the like…) are obviously LIKELY VISITORS… because they are visiting… and thus actively choosing to visit.
Admission pricing is a science, not an art. When an organization’s admission price is too low, it “leaves money on the table” and is not securing optimal funds to aid in sustaining itself. When it’s too high, it means that your organization will need to invest even more in access programing to fill the gap (which is much more costly than we think because most organizations are doing “access programming” wrong – more on that in a moment).
Admission pricing is NOT to be confused with affordable access programming. Interestingly, bad things happen to good organizations when they deny their optimal admission price in favor of “being more affordable.” Likely visitors should be admitted based upon an optimal, data-driven price point. This money is required in order to fulfill our missions of being open and of reaching unlikely visitors (see below).
2) UNLIKELY VISITORS:
Visit through targeted programs that actually reach them
IMPACTS has a lot of depressing data about the cultural organization industry. (BUT we have great leaders with the will to evolve, and we’ve totally got this! Cultural leading people are the best people. That’s why I write and that’s why you’re here.) Large-scale data about how much we stink at creating access programs for unlikely visitors that actually work is among the hardest to swallow. In reality, free days attract visitors with higher household incomes and education levels than paid-admission days (Here’s that data). Generally, our entire industry’s affordable access programming is not reaching low-income audiences (And there’s that data).
We mess things up when we conflate affordable access programming with admission pricing, thinking that we’re doing everyone a favor (Here’s the data on that). Another problem that we willfully ignore is the reality that we don’t actually know who our underserved audiences are or what they want. And we sabotage the success of our access programs because we inadvertently market the programs to rich people. (This is a huge, overlooked problem.) In many cases, we simply aren’t investing enough (or intelligently enough) for access programs to be effective.
It doesn’t help that many organizations mistakenly believe that price is a primary barrier to engagement. It’s not. Admission cost is not a key barrier to engagement and it’s certainly NOT a cure-all. This is mostly true for high-propensity visitors, but it’s also naive to believe that all folks will flock to something simply because it is free. In order to create effective access programs for any underserved audience (low-income or otherwise), organizations need to get a better grip on why that audience truly isn’t coming.
Unless we have a data-informed, optimal price point, it’s difficult to get the funds to create access programs in the first place. And if we don’t have those funds, we cannot create access programs that effectively reach new audiences OR low-income audiences. (Both fall under “unlikely visitors,” but they aren’t the same. For instance, minority majority audiences are underserved, but they aren’t necessarily low-income. Both need types of access/engagement programs in order to become regular visitors – but sometimes for different reasons.) When we charge our optimal price-point, it makes effective programming for underserved audiences more important – and also possible in the first place.
Become your members and donors
Your supporters become your members and donors – and they are an important part of the “access” conversation as well. In fact, they may be the most important. These are the folks who care about why you exist. They promulgate your “so what?” They provide ongoing support by being your next level of likely visitors. That said, this is another area of “access” that confuses many visitor-serving organizations. Membership programs need to evolve, and many organizations –in reality – have at least two types of members: mission-based members and transaction-based members. Transaction-based members are often the result of organizations conflating “likely visitor” and “evangelist” audiences, but mission-based members are where it’s at. Transaction-based members think of membership more like an annual pass and less like being a part of a mission-driven community. Mission-based members are more satisfied with their memberships and they are more likely to pay more for their memberships in order to support the organization. (Here’s the data on this.)
Another way in which organizations regularly fail this important audience- thanks to a broader misunderstanding of different avenues of access and institutional priorities – is by simply failing to manage the relationship or treating these awesome supporters in not-great ways. Lack of relationship management is a key reason why many donors discontinue their support. Arguably, a reason why organizations may be not-the-best at membership communication may be because we treat all of our audiences the same way. Namely, we confuse them with regular visitors.
Organizations have at least three types of audiences and these three audiences have different access points. When we confuse these three audiences and their avenues of access, we threaten the sustainability of our organizations. They must be managed in different ways in order to be activated to choose behaviors that are in the best interests of our organizations and our missions. It’s arguably because we misunderstand this that we commit several crimes against our own futures.
We live in an increasingly personalized world. In order to thrive, organizations may benefit by realizing that these three spheres are distinct and separate, but that it’s important to have a plan to carry constituents from an unlikely/likely visitor into the evangelist category. We need to change our business model. This is very, very different than conflating these categories. Thinking harder about access in regard to our business strategies may be the first step in creating more sustainable futures.