Fewer and fewer people look, act, and think like “historic” attendees to visitor-serving organizations.
Negative substitution is affecting cultural organizations in a big way. The bad news is that negative substitution of historic visitors is taking place for mission-driven, visitor-serving organizations (museums, theaters, symphonies and orchestras, science centers, botanic gardens, etc.). The good news is that the first step to evolution may be acknowledging our changing market. On that note, let’s do this…
Negative substitution is urgent
Negative substitution is a phenomenon occurring globally wherein the number of people who profile as historic visitors leaving the market outpaces the number of people who profile as historic visitors entering the market. It’s the driving reason for the decline in attendance to museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts entities, and other visitor-serving organizations. Negative substitution is taking place because the market is growing more diverse, while perceptions of cultural organizations as being places for a certain kind of person have remained largely static. Simply, when there are fewer people in the market who profile as historic visitors year-over-year, and also growth in the number people who profile as nontraditional audiences year-over-year, the market potential risks fewer-and-fewer visitors over time.
The data below is an aggregate of all museum types that we monitor at IMPACTS (224 of them) crossed with visitation information from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study of (currently) over 108,000 people. It includes museums related to art, history, and science, childrens museums, historic sites, performing art organizations, zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens. The negative substitution rate for museums shows that for every one historic visitor who leaves the US market (by way of death, relocation, or migration), they are being replaced by only 0.948 of a person (by way of birth, relocation, or immigration). This may not sound impressive – but this is actually a huge difference.
Think of it this way: An organization with a stable attendance of 1,000,000 visitors may keep doing everything right by their current audiences (e.g. marketing, developing exhibits, etc.), and then might reasonably expect to engage 948,000 future visitors… and then 899,000 visitors….and then progressively fewer yet visitors over time absent interdiction. And they will be doing everything right by their current audiences!
In order to overcome negative substitution, we need to do a better job at attracting two, general audiences that do not visit cultural organizations at representative rates relative to their market size: millennials and not-white people (bluntly). Keep in mind, these are not entirely different audiences as millennials are the largest generation in human history and nearly half of us are of different racial and ethnic backgrounds than traditional historic visitors. Moreover, as sick as we may be of discussing it, data suggest that organizations must do a much better job at attracting and retaining millennial audiences. Negative substitution rates for different types of visitor-serving organizations generally correlate with attitude affinities – or to what degree the public perceives that an organization is for people like me. Though I will be referencing them later, you can learn more about different attitude affinities for different organization types in this article.
Overcoming negative substitution means changing the profile of the historic visitor to cultural organizations
Or rather, we need to evolve to be perceived as more welcoming to different types of people than our “traditional” visitor. Negative substitution suggests that, if we keep on keeping on attracting people that look and behave like our current audiences, we’ll slowly decline in visitation over time. Sure, we need to evolve to meet the changing expectations of historic audiences by honoring market trends of personalization, connectivity, and transparency. More than that, we need to do a better job at attracting different types of people and making them our regular attendees. (And not simply our super special one-off-program attendees.) We need to change up the very profile of the type of person who wants to visit a cultural organization.
Isn’t it funny that many museums are only now realizing the importance of data-informed decision-making – all the while focusing primarily on audience research that risks yielding deleterious long-term consequences by emphasizing the very programs and budget allocations that support negative substitution in the first place? To reach new audiences, we need to get smarter about market research and attracting the people who we want to visit but dont yet attend. The people who we need to start attracting are not yet on our email lists and, by definition, aren’t onsite to fill out surveys. (Yes, Colleen. It’s…hilarious.)
The change that we need to carry out is a big deal – and we are (however slowly) progressing on the whole! In the history of museums and cultural organizations, this kind of shift has never been so urgent. Today, with evolving demographics and imperiled government funding, engaging emerging audiences matters more to our missions and financial solvency than ever before. And, indeed, many organizations are implementing new strategies to cultivate and attract new audiences. Successful organizations are changing up how they approach change.
How negative substitution is affecting organization types
While the overall negative substitution rate for museums is 0.948 people entering for every one person who leaves the market, we are able to further parse the negative substitution rates of specific types of cultural organizations. Here’s a sample of them and some notes that may contribute to the negative substitution rates of each visitor-serving type. Let’s go backward from those with the lowest negative substitution rates to those with the biggest opportunity.
Zoos: Among visitor-serving organizations, zoos are suffering least from negative substitution. This is true even amidst increasing discussions about animal care and welfare. Like aquariums (discussed next), zoos may more easily deliver on the promise of awe and wonder without facing some of the perceived intellectual intimidation that may be attendant to a science or art museum visit. Moreover (and interestingly), lexical analysis of data reveals that being outside may play a role in reducing negative attitude affinities for zoos. Conceptually, it makes sense: Being outside may feel more like a park or public area than being within the walls of an institution. Also, like aquariums, having the added ”so what?” of conservation and the protection of animals provides an added level of reputational equity that works in this type of organization’s favor.
Aquariums: Aquariums are also suffering notably less than the museum industry average. That said, negative substitution is never a good thing and there’s still important work to be done. A reason for these higher (comparatively) values may be that aquariums are among the types of visitor-serving organizations that are most dependent upon the market. Relatively speaking, as a sector, aquariums generally have the lowest levels of government support, the smallest endowments, and many have also emphasized their nonprofit-y conservation mission that engenders additional support. (Generally, this helps aquariums – and any organization that particularly highlights its mission.) Aquariums also may be able to capture awe and wonder without as big a risk of the perceived intimidation factor that may burden other content types.
History museums: History museums are a wee bit above the museum negative substitution average of 0.948:1.000. History organizations tend to rely most heavily on stories (or, talking about history) than other types of organizations that are perceived to revolve around specific, individual artworks or exhibits. While visitor-serving organizations are increasingly understanding the importance of creative storytelling in an effort to create relevance and resonance with visitors, history organizations may have storytelling most definitionally embedded within their reputational DNA. Storytelling and providing relevant, personalized connections are critical today – and this is also an area where history organizations have the ability to shine.
Art museums: Art museums fall just below the industry negative substitution average. Like science museums (discussed next), art museums may have distinct, perceived reputational barriers that may contribute to negative attitude affinities or, people thinking they simply ”arent places for people like me.” As the stern forefathers of ”don’t touch, stay behind the line, and quiet, please” cultural engagement, it’s worth noting that art museums may have been starting from a rather uninviting place. With that in mind, this number still isn’t good, but it does show hope and acknowledge that there has likely been meaningful progress made by art museums in responding to these new market realities.
Science museums and science centers: Science museums and science centers are put together in this data because the market largely does not distinguish between science centers and science museums. I could (and likely will) write an entire post with more data on why the science museum/center market has higher negative substitution rates than the museum average and some possible superpowers for combating it, but here’s a very brief run-down:
Interestingly, among visitor-serving organizations, science centers/museums tend to be viewed comparatively as places to visit with children. While this was probably a good thing when millennials – the largest generation in US history – were the kids, it’s not great news now that millennial women are reproducing at the slowest rate in US history. Simply put, millennials are having fewer children (or no children), and they are having their children later in their lives when they are more advanced in their careers and leisure time is particularly precious. If you’re an organization that has the public perception of being a place primarily for children, your market size is likely shrinking.
Moreover, like art museums, “science” content may be viewed as intimidating for nontraditional visitors. There may be a perceived content language barrier that contributes to folks thinking that science museums/centers may be unwelcoming. Science is a big topic with a lot of specialties! One can see how someone who doesn’t know much about the accessibility of science centers/museums might be intimidated. (Heck, even folks who DO know about the accessibility of science centers/museums may feel this way!) Combine this with the perception that these are places where you take your kids, and potential visitors may fear a ”Dad looks dumb” situation.
Orchestras: Exhibit-based cultural organizations are far from the only cultural organization type in the market or included in the mentioned overall “museum” negative substitution number. Performance-based organizations are every bit as critical for a robust and vibrant cultural community. Unfortunately, orchestras (and symphonies, which have similar negative substitution rates) may be facing particular challenges in todays world where folks can do many things at once. In fact, data suggest that multi-tasking is how many people like to enjoy music as well. But don’t write this high negative substitution rate off immediately on content disinterest or the menace of the modern world! Some performance-based organizations simply have not yet evolved to meet the desires of millennials (a critical audience!), and have instead chosen to age alongside their historic visitors.
Some symphonies and orchestras are mixing things up and trying out new programs – and that may be the key to their future. Certainly, among the visitor-serving organizations shown here, orchestras have the greatest need to reach new audiences – and fast. That doesn’t mean that they (or any other organization type) can’t do it. It means that some may have a longer ways to go.
Remember: Though 0.948 is the industry average, it is still bad news. There are no winners or losers here – but rather a look into the reality of the mission-driven, visitor-serving sector and some of the challenges facing both individual organization types, and also our industry as a whole. To change up these perceptions, we need all hands on deck. Our long-term vitality and relevance may be on the line.
Negative substitution correlates with attitude affinities
Interestingly – and unsurprisingly – negative substitution rates correlate with negative attitude affinities. Attitude affinities quantify how welcome and comfortable people feel at an organization. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the ranking of negative attitude affinities among the organization types mentioned (shown below) is a similar ranking as is the severity of negative substitution - with the exception of science centers and science museums. Being perceived as places for kids plays a large role in driving negative substitution for science museums and science centers, but it benefits these types of organizations as being perceived as relatively welcoming. Theres simply less perceived incentive to visit a science center/science museum if you don’t have small children…and fewer people do.
The data below comes from IMPACTS and the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study - and it is a summary of this data previously discussed on Know Your Own Bone. In short, it shows what percentage of people in the U.S. market do not feel like an organization type is a place for someone like them. How that is interpreted is in the eyes of the respondent. While data suggest that it may correlate with educational attainment (and, relatedly, with household income), it certainly does not correlate with an organizations admission price.
Nearly four out of 10 people dont feel like art museums or history museums are ”places for people like me.” Just over three out of 10 people feel this way about science museums and science centers. Only about two in 10 people feel that an aquarium or zoo is ”not for someone like me,” and almost five out of 10 people feel this way about orchestras. Again, you can read more about this data and attitude affinities here.
Within our industry, some tend to think of targeting historic audiences as the safe bet and cultivating new audiences as a secondary goal to be pursued when funding becomes available. This is a short-sighted step on a long, slow march into obsolescence. The market is crawling with potential visitors – and they are ripe for cultivation if and when we decide to think outside of our outdated box.
The need to cultivate new audiences as regular attendees is critical for our long-term survival. The first step to overcoming negative substitution may be acknowledging this. Let’s take this information and welcome new folks through the door – not only because our world needs it right now, but because we do, too.