These seven macro trends are driving the market for visitor-serving organizations.
Big data helps spot market trends. The data that we collect at IMPACTS is no different. (After all, it is big data!) There are certain trends that come up again and again, and they provide clues as to how cultural organizations may best evolve to remain relevant.
Unsurprisingly, visitor-serving organizations are not immune to the forces affecting the rest of the world. In other words, it’s rather common to see market trends that affect for-profit and government entities affect visitor-serving organizations as well. Makes sense, right? As much as we may sometimes wish we lived in an alternate reality with regard to things like adequate marketing investments, we, too, are members of this Planet Earth in all it’s economically-driven glory.
But that’s not all bad news. Just because “but we’re a nonprofit” increasingly isn’t a thing, that doesn’t mean that the reality is all that sobering. Some of the key trends affecting the market at large right now are areas wherein nonprofits traditionally shine! These seven macro trends manifest themselves in not only IMPACTS data tracing public perceptions and expectations of cultural organizations, but in much of the data that you’ll find coming from any reliable source right now for nearly any economically-concerned entity. Yes, cultural organizations are economically concerned entities. That may sound gross to my friends on the mission-execution end, but it’s important for cultural organizations to stay afloat so that they can…well, execute missions.
These macro trends are largely informed by the realities of our living in a more connected world than ever before – but they seem to affect nearly everything that organizations do onsite and offsite. They seem to affect the way that the market views the world right now, and its expectations for brands and experiences. These are the seven words and concepts that my clients and coworkers are probably the most sick of hearing every time we review a new set of data. (A possible exception may be the term “symbolic capital,” because I personally love it and thus I try to sneak it into most conversations – and not always seamlessly.)
Because these trends are apparent in much of the market data, there are lots of links to Know Your Own Bone in this article –so feel free to dig in and deep dive a bit!
Just as the world that we live risks increased noisiness with all of the information that we have at our fingertips, it’s similarly becoming increasingly personalized. Ads, status updates, and online experiences are increasingly targeted and personalized for us. As such, personalization is becoming the expectation for folks. Obviously, this has implications for cultural organizations in the online realm. There’s an expectation that organizations will respond to people on social media on a personal level, that ads and posts will be relevant to them (this is why smarter targeting is important), and that we’ll interact with our most important supporters equally well offsite as we do onsite.
Positive, personalized interactions between staff members and visitors is the single most reliable way to increase visitor satisfaction onsite. Simply put, personalized experiences – be they online or onsite – have a greater likelihood of being relevant. Personalization can be a smart relevance hack.
Similarly, alongside personalization is the decreased interest in standardized experiences. This can be seen in the decrease in interest in group sales and the growing popularity of personalized tours and experiences (à la Museum Hack). Disney World has added a feature to its famous Haunted Mansion ride wherein the hitchhiking ghosts hold up a sign that mentions your home city as your doombuggy ride draws to an end. In It’s a Small World, the riders’ names appear on those multi-lingual goodbye flowers. The Disney experience is increasingly self-curated and can be personalized. Immersion and interaction are driving concepts behind the new Star Wars Land set to open in 2019. While the high-propensity visitor profile is not the same to Disney World as it is to cultural organizations (e.g. they don’t necessarily have the same demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that indicate likely visitation), I mention Disney World because it’s an entity with significant visitation that is capitalizing on the personalization trend.
Connectivity is king – and, like the other macro-trends on this list – this is true both onsite and offsite. Offsite may seem rather obvious: Social media plays an important role in driving visitation to cultural organizations, and it’s a critical element of the visitor engagement cycle. High-propensity visitors to cultural organizations qualify as being “super-connected” to the web in that they have access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device. This is true of the folks who are most likely to visit cultural organizations regardless of age. (So, nope, not just millennials).
Onsite, social connectivity makes perhaps its biggest splash: Data suggest that who people are with is often more important than what they see when they visit a cultural organization. Not only that, folks who value “with > what” also have the most satisfying experiences and a greater intent to revisit. Social connectivity is another reason why personalized interactions between staff members and visitors matter. While interactions with staff can lead to the greatest increases in visitor satisfaction, rude staff are the single biggest onsite dissatisfier for cultural organizations by a large measure. For performance-based organizations (e.g. ballets, theaters, symphonies) rude guests is the second biggest dissatisfier. Interactions with humans matter big time, folks.
Sure, we’re mighty connected online in today’s world – but being connected to humans onsite is just as critical as ever before. In fact, onsite digital connectivity does not increase visitor satisfaction as much as good ol’ face-to-face communication. (But onsite digital does increase visitor satisfaction so I propose that you aim to rock both.)
Corporate social responsibility has been called mandatory for for-profit companies today. Simply put, it’s increasingly an expectation that organizations will give something back. That’s part of the reason why the market is increasingly sector agnostic – it doesn’t matter much if your organization is nonprofit or for-profit. What matters is that you do the social good that you say that you do. Organizations that highlight their missions outperform those marketing primarily as attractions. It’s cool to be kind. While social missions may sound like a unique differentiator for nonprofits, they’re not. For-profit companies increasingly have well publicized “so whats?” too.
Not only that, members that like your organization for its mission generally invest more by purchasing more expensive memberships and find greater satisfaction in their memberships than transaction-based members who primarily seek event access and discounts. Here’s the data. Simply, what folks want from memberships is changing. With all the talk about armchair activism, we find that people really do want to actively take part in and contribute to something meaningful.
Entertainment vs. education
Boy-oh-boy is this a big topic right now in the cultural sector. IMPACTS has tons of data about the importance of being educational vs. being entertaining, and the results are both obvious and frustrating: We need to be both – but not necessarily equally or in the same way. We need to understand the collaborating role that these two visitor experience aspects play in driving behaviors and, specifically, getting folks to act in our organizations’ interest by paying us a visit, becoming a member, or making a donation.
This is a bigger discussion than I intend to tackle in this article, but here’s a very basic overview of how they work together. Simply, entertainment value drives visitor satisfaction and visitor satisfaction is critical for attendance and solvency. Period. Entertainment value is fiercely important. When we act like “entertainment” is an enemy to “education” instead of its often times greatest partner, we do our organizations a grave disservice. That said, education value serves as an important, unique differentiator that may play a role in the decision to visit a cultural organization instead of taking part in a different leisure activity. (“Interest in an alternative activity” is the biggest reason why folks with reported interest don’t make it through the door.)
Why is this on a list of market trends? Because though the words may be different, this issue isn’t unique to cultural organizations. Folks want to have a pleasurable experience and having a “so what?” or “it’s good for me/my loved ones” can serve as a competitive advantage when compared to other services/experiences when perceived entertainment value is relatively equal to the alternative. It’s the root of much corporate social responsibility and it requires a tough conversation about reputational equities.
Real-time and authentic
This trend is roped to personalization and social connectivity. Social media and digital engagement are real-time, and audiences expect responses in real-time. The real-time trend mirrors the rise of certain social media channels and features, including Snapchat (now, Snap), Instagram and Facebook stories – not to mention live video. These platforms allow for limited professional editing by brands and organizations, forcing – in a way – a kind of authenticity that heretofore organizations could more carefully manage. These trends force behind-the-scenes culture to the front lines. Is your organization really doing interesting things? Show it.
Trends toward real-time and more (seemingly) authentic engagement underscore the need for organizations to walk their talk. It’s time to show and not simply tell. We “show” by what we post online each day and through onsite experiences. Because of the increased want for self-curation and consumer power (discussed next), these trends affect visitation and also philanthropic giving.
Everyone is a curator today, but this trend isn’t about literally allowing audiences to curate collections in cultural organizations. It’s about consumer power and control borne of folks having a whole heck of a lot of information at their fingertips nowadays. People want to decide things for themselves because they can. It’s why walking our talk matters. It’s why social media increasingly empowers giving decisions. All this being said, the market views cultural organizations as expert and trustworthy, and that’s a valuable reputational equity that we possess. (I have the data on this ready to go up next week, so stay tuned.) We need to walk a fine line to be successful…an “open and yet expert” line.
On social media, we’re seeing this trend take place a bit in SMS messaging, Snap, and Instagram. We can post publically to our “friends,” and we can send private messages to our maybe-more-real friends. We have more and more power to decide who sees our posts.
This trend plays nicely with personalization. As mentioned above, we increasingly expect personalized experiences and interactions, but once the personalized message hits us, folks want to decide on their own if visiting an organization is worth the time and energy investment. This is the reason why more visitation decisions are informed by an organization’s social media channels than an organization’s website.
This one is big right now, and it’s showing up rather dramatically in market data. We have fake news on the mind! Like trends toward authenticity, desired integrity necessitates that an organization walk its talk.
Not only is the US divided politically, we are divided in terms of how people view the economy as well. Unfortunately for cultural organizations, high-propensity visitors aren’t super happy with things right now. (High-propensity visitors are people with the demographic, psychographic and behavioral attributes that indicate likely attendance to nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations.) Visitor confidence in cultural organizations remains at a dramatic low because, simply, it’s difficult to tell what we stand for during this highly politicized time. Organizations that have stood behind their social missions during this time have reaped important reputational rewards. Why? Integrity, folks. It’s a big deal right now for the people who actually go to museums, aquariums, gardens, and performing arts organizations.
But this trend isn’t necessarily a “political” one. It’s infiltrated operations. A demonstrated lack of integrity is the biggest dissatisfier for high-level members to cultural organizations. We know their names and cell phone numbers perhaps too well when carrying out solicitations, but we suddenly forget who they are when they’re onsite. That’s a disconnect. Some organizations even have (sometimes completely ridiculous, over-the-top) member-ID-checking-police guarding their entrances as if they were border checkpoints. Unsurprisingly, questioning the integrity of our own members is also high on their list of membership dissatisfiers.
These seven macro-trends are strongly connected to one another. The organizations that will succeed in reaching new audiences (which data suggests needs to be a primary goal for cultural organizations) and cultivating engagement are those that don’t simply aim to “one-off program” their way to success. Organizations may be best served to integrate these trends into the new reality of how they operate and do business.
Do these trends sound familiar? Do they ring a bell? Excellent! We can declare importance, but the market determines our relevance. These trends provide a peek into how audiences are doing that. Let’s keep these macro-trends in mind and keep moving forward.