Here is a round-up of the primary reasons why people with an interest in visiting cultural organizations do not actually end up visiting – and what your organization needs to know to overcome these barriers.
I frequently dig into data about barriers to visitation among likely attendees to cultural organizations – and a round-up article is calling my name. Data suggest that over 30% of folks who report interest in visiting a cultural organization (such as a museum, zoo, aquarium, symphony, ballet, theater, or other visitor-serving organization) still haven’t visited one of these entities within the past two years. Many of the folks who report interest in visiting cultural organizations are high-propensity visitors. These are the people who possess the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate an increased likelihood of attending a visitor-serving organization. Simply put, they are the people most likely to attend our organizations.
While data suggest that the specific barriers to visitation vary slightly among different visitor-serving organization types (e.g. a history museum vs. a symphony), we generally do not observe massive differences – a barrier to visitation is a barrier to visitation. In other words, regardless of organization type or relative rank of the barrier, visitation barriers have the same outcome: They stop people from coming. A person who did not attend a cultural organization within the last two years because they had a schedule conflict and a person who did not visit because they had a negative experience with that organization both still did not visit.
IMPACTS consulted the trusty National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, and we dug into why those 30% of folks with reported interest in visiting cultural organizations had not actually visited one within the past two years. These data below are indicated as index values. Index values are a means of quantifying proportionality and relativity between assessed conditions, and they are a helpful way to benchmark and measure differences. Typically, a base measure (e.g. an average) is expressed as a value of 100, and all other data points are quantified in relation to the base measure.
I have conducted entire workshops on data related to overcoming these visitation barriers – and there is quite a bit to dig into and discuss here. I encourage you and your organization to take a look and challenge yourselves to ask hard questions about your audiences. When leaders “That does not apply to me” data, nobody wins (least of all, the organization). Instead, I encourage organizations to consider these barriers and ask themselves, “To what extent is this a barrier to visitation for my organization, and what can I learn from this?”
Let’s jump in!
A) Preferred alternative leisure activity
With an index value of 147.3, this barrier to visitation is the strongest among cultural organizations. While it may sound obvious, despite having a general interest, those who do not visit may prefer to do something else. Of those folks who reported interest in visiting a cultural organization but hadn’t done so within the past two years, the top reason is because they prefer an alternative activity. This may include an activity such as seeing a movie or sporting event, going jogging, bowling, or even enjoying trivia at a bar with friends. Simply put, for a good number of people interested in visiting a cultural organization, there are many other things that compete for their precious time. And, it seems, some of these other things take precedence. Yes, they are interested in visiting – but they would still rather do something else.
Compounding matters is the growing competition with the couch. In fact, the number of people who have expressed a preference to stay home during a week off from school or work has increased by 17.3% in the past five years. The amount of people who express a preference to stay home over the weekend has increased by 19.4%. Here is a deeper dive into data on the couch contingent, and what your organization needs to know. Need a quick hit to communicate this trend with others? Here is a Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video on the topic:
B) Access challenges
This barrier is perhaps as obvious as it is overlooked. When organizations consider why folks do not attend, we often forget to consider some of the technicalities associated with getting to our front door. This barrier metric includes traffic, travel time and distance, construction along the way, etc.
These data are collected by way of lexical analysis, meaning that respondents identified barriers in their own words and they are quantified here as index values based on frequency of mention and strength of conviction. We did not ask folks to choose from a list of barriers and, as such, this category includes the perception of access as well. (Because humans.) For instance, if someone lives in the suburbs and the cultural organization is in the city, there may be a perceptual barrier associated with that trip (e.g. “It’s a hassle.”)
This barrier is a bit of a frustrating one, because until we can sponsor potential visitor teleportation, most organizations are stuck without control over traffic or travel time. The way to overcome this barrier often depends upon demonstrating that your organization’s unique experience is worthy of facing down access challenges. In this way, aiming to overcome the primary barrier to visitation of preferring another activity also may serve to aid in overcoming access challenges. There are also things that an organization can do to ease perceptions such as providing tips for traveling to your destination. Highlighting ease of access from popular destinations in the city may also play a small role in easing perceptions because data suggest that high-propensity visitors do not generally head into the city, for instance, only to visit a cultural organization.
Parking challenges are their own, separately identified barrier that were cited on their own (index value 88.8). Transportation issues – such as not having a car or easy means to get to the organization in the first place – also came up as uniquely differentiated from access challenges.
C) They have already visited
This barrier is our own dang fault, and if we want to overcome it, we’re going to have to do it together as a sector by developing smarter, more sustainable business practices. Not visiting because there’s “nothing new to see or do” is the outcome of decades of bigger organizations practicing the phenomenon of death by curation. Death by curation (also known as “blockbuster suicide”) is the unfortunate practice of sabotaging long-term solvency by dedicating a disproportionate level of resources in the pursuit of blockbuster, special exhibits at the expense of the everyday awesomeness of your permanent collections. Here is data on the terrible cycle of death by curation and what it is doing to the cultural organizations that rely upon it as a business practice.
This is a barrier because, as a sector, we have trained audiences to come only when we’re doing something “special” (as opposed to underscoring our kick-butt permanent collections). As a rule, I do not call out bad practices of individual organizations with IMPACTS’s data (that is not my place), but if you take a moment to think about many of the organizations that have fallen on hard times, chances are blockbuster suicide played a role. This is especially true for the kinds of organizations that have hosted our industry’s most well-known blockbusters (Body Worlds, Titanic, etc.), though it doesn’t affect these types of organizations exclusively by any means. A fun fact that’s too strange for me to make up: There’s even a Jurassic World blockbuster exhibit making the rounds right now and I use the movie Jurassic World to illustrate the very deleterious cycle of death by curation.
You have likely heard an exchange that goes something like this:
Person 1: Let’s go to [X awesome organization]!
Person 2: What is their special exhibit right now?
When a temporary exhibit becomes the decision-making qualifier to visitation, your organization suffers severely from the industry-driven phenomenon of death by curation. Unless your organization is solely an empty space for the passing through of exhibits, what is coolest about your organization should be your organization. Special exhibits can motivate visitation, but when the allure of the exhibit trumps the allure of your brand, there is a problem.
Is it a bad idea to have special exhibits? Not at all! Is it a bad idea to make them the primary reason to visit you? Yes. Very much so.
D) Schedule conflicts
Schedule is the leading motivator for visitation to cultural organizations, so it makes sense that work, school, and holiday conflicts are separate, leading barriers to visitation. The chart below is from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, and schedule is – quite simply – being open during the dates and times that people want to attend your organization.
One of the biggest lies that we cultural organization folks tell ourselves is that we can lucratively impact and influence a visitor’s schedule. Frustratingly, the importance of schedule as a leading decision-making utility is the reason why cultural organizations generally cannot cost-effectively move visitation to shoulder seasons to distribute annual attendance.
Schedule is the leading barrier to visitation that we do not seem to talk about. To overcome this barrier, we will have to start talking about it.
E) Negative precedent experience
Satisfaction and reputation drive visitor engagement, and having a negative precedent experience negatively influences both aspects of the engagement cycle. In short, those who have had a bad experience risk providing negative reviews (via word of mouth, social media, etc.) of the organization. This stinks because likely visitors to cultural organizations qualify as “super-connected” in that they have access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device.
These are the biggest onsite dissatisfiers for visitor-serving experiences, broken out by exhibit-based and performance-based organizations. (Spoiler alert: The worst thing about a visit to a cultural organization is the same for both organization types. According to visitors, negative interactions with staff members or volunteers is the worst thing about a visit to a cultural organization. Interestingly, positive interactions with staff and volunteers can have the most significant positive impact on visitor satisfaction as well.)
F) Not for adults
As you can see, being perceived as “not for adults” and also “not suitable for children” both make the barrier list. However, an important distinction is that organizations perceived as not suitable for children generally do not aim to primarily attract children (i.e. orchestras), while some organizations that aim to regularly attract adults and children alike (i.e. science museums) are perceived as not for adults. That’s a big problem. In fact, for science museums and science centers, being perceived as “not for adults” is the second strongest barrier to visitation. This is also a particularly big problem for aquariums and zoos.
I have previously shared a data-informed hack for overcoming this barrier, informed by data from IMPACTS clients. Here’s how to overcome the barrier of being viewed as “not for adults” if your organization does, in fact, aim to attract audiences beyond children and families.
G) Cost (is not a primary barrier to visitation for likely visitors)
Cost is simply not a primary barrier to visitation for likely visitors. This is not to say that it is not a barrier at all, but it is not anywhere near the barrier that cultural organizations pretend that it is.
In order to discuss cost at all, we need to underscore that admission pricing is not an affordable access program. They are not the same thing. Likely visitors are people who want to visit you, and data suggest that they will pay to do that. Axiomatically, unlikely visitors generally do not want to visit you at all, and, thus, are not likely to pay to do so. Affordable access programs should be targeted for those who truly do want to visit but cannot afford to do so. (This is different than not being willing to do so.) Effective affordable access programming is an investment, and understanding the basics of audience access makes these types of programs possible. A misunderstanding of what truly fuels audience access motivations is the reason why many organizations do not have effective access programming.
Data suggest that cost is simply not a primary barrier to visitation for people who want to visit and free admission is not a cure-all for engagement. When it comes to measuring free admission as a barrier to visitation, things often get difficult because free admission is both a lazy person’s response to why they aren’t attending, and a lazy organization’s excuse for not reaching more audiences. Namely, when asked why people did not do something, cost generally comes up first for anything. Why didn’t I buy the daisies from the flower store? They were too expensive! The key to understanding the reality of cost as a barrier to visitation is to get to the end of this sentence, Admission cost is too expensive for….
….For missing an afternoon that I could spend doing something else with my friends? For taking the financial hit of taking off a day of work? For missing quality time with my kids? For spending an hour on the bus? For navigating through traffic to get there? For something that I am not interested in seeing or doing? When it comes to removing barriers to visitation for folks who are not affordable access audiences, getting to the end of that sentence is important.
But lack of free admission is also the lazy cultural organization’s excuse for lack of engagement. It’s a thing that we can blame on the world, or on the board, or on the government, or on higher-ups. Of all of the primary barriers to visitation, it is the one that causes us to question our own organizational practices the least. It is the safest excuse for lack of evolution and time spent donning our thinking caps. But it does not have a strong basis in reality.
Embedded below is a data-slam video about some of the reasons why we need to stop distracting ourselves with the idea of cost being a primary barrier to visitation for likely visitors. The economics don’t support it. (Want to read about the data and explore more links on this topic? Click here.)
Understanding barriers to visitation plays a big role in the solvency and long-term sustainability of cultural organizations. Let’s aim to increase engagement by focusing on the things that are actually keeping interested visitors from coming in our doors.