You may have guessed it was true – but here’s why this statistic matters.
The idea that those who visit cultural organizations as children are more likely to come back as adults may be a “statistic” that cultural executives loosely reference as fact without supporting evidence. After all, it seems to make sense – especially for those of us toiling in the cultural realm who were sparked into history, science, or the arts as children at these very types of organizations.
*Raising my hand enthusiastically*
But is it really true that those who visit as children are more likely to be visitors to cultural organizations as adults? And how much more likely are they to return as adults to similar organizations? It’s worth looking into – especially because there are some baseline cultural best practices that don’t quite align with behavioral economics or how people make visitation decisions.
Fact or fiction:
Adults who visit cultural organizations are more likely to have visited similar organizations as children.
Let’s take a look at the data to get to the answer.
The data is from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study and shows data organized and segmented by two queries: (1) Did the adult respondent visit the respective type of organization within the past two years; and (2) Had the same adult respondent previously visited the same type of organization as a child under the age of thirteen? These data contemplate six different cultural organization types – aquariums, zoos, history museums, art museums, orchestras/symphonies, and theatrical performances.
It’s a fact.
On average, those who visited a cultural organization as a child are 1.73x more likely to have also visited a similar organization type within the last two years than someone who did not or doesn’t recall visiting as a child. Moreover, over 60% of recent visitors to cultural organizations attended these organizations as children. Turns out, visiting as a child may be a strong indicator of future visitation!
To write these data off by saying, “Well, I already knew that (in my gut). Time to move on,” is a lost opportunity to harness what this good news data means and leverage it to empower both opportunities for mission execution and financial solvency. Market research seeks to inform strategic decisions rather than affirm them, but this data – I believe in my own gut – is likely affirmative for cultural executives. It’s great news! While this data is likely affirmative, it is informative as well.
Here are three, critical points to keep in mind about why this information is important and worth much more thought than a passing “TL;DR” or “Well, DUH.”
1) Engaging children now is important for future visitation
This is the most obvious place to start. The data strongly suggest the importance of engaging children under the age of 13. Many organizations have programs for children codified within their engagement strategies for mission-related reasons. Simply, engaging children and providing informal learning experiences onsite and more formal learning experiences in classrooms is a part of what some organizations do. Consider field trips as well. Programs for children already exist for many organizations with reasoning that often seems to be more mission-related than solvency-related.
These data suggest a solvency-related opportunity to engage children under the age of thirteen – that’s a big reason why these data matter. Data suggest that these youngsters may help carry our organizations into the future by maturing into regular visitors, members, and donors. We knew that engaging kiddos with meaningful experiences was important, didn’t we? It may be even more important to both mission execution and long-term solvency than some anticipated.
2) Engaging children is not a magic bullet for visitation
Yes! These data are good news! However, it’s important not to “hear” that children are the most important audience to engage for organizations. That’s not what these data say. (It also doesn’t say that they aren’t the most important audiences – simply that childhood engagement seems to play a role in adult visitation.) Being perceived as a place primarily for children is a big barrier to adult engagement. There’s no point in cultivating future adult visitors if you’re not perceived as an entity that adults want to visit.
In other words, please don’t “OR” this data and blindly prioritize children over all other audiences (unless perhaps you are a children’s museum). This is “AND” information – “AND it is important to engage children.” Consider your organization type and mission, and allow that to determine just how important these data are for your organization.
Other age-related audiences are equally critical for long-term solvency. For instance, data suggest that marketing to adults rather than families can increase adult visitation – without jeopardizing family visitation! Moreover, nearly 25% of potential visitors to cultural organizations are millennials between the ages of 25-34. (We millennials reward evolution, and there are just so dang many of us that we tip the scales.)
From a not-age-related perspective, cultural organizations also need to get better at attracting people of more diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds than the historic visitor to a cultural organization. We need to become (and be perceived as) more welcoming in order to thrive long-term as a sector. Working to engage children of more inclusive backgrounds is important work, but if they grow up and don’t think/maintain that cultural organizations are welcoming, then they aren’t likely to attend.
3) This information may be more important for the future of cultural organizations than ever before
Whoa. Bold statement, right? I’ll explain: Cultural organizations are experiencing a phenomenon called negative substitution of the historic visitor. Essentially, people who profile as historic visitors are leaving the US market faster than they are being replaced. The US is growing more and more diverse with people who don’t necessarily feel welcome at cultural organizations.
These data may shine a light on a gateway to changing public perceptions of cultural organizations for the future: engage the children. Welcome them. Embrace them. Perhaps a key is to create a welcoming environment and working hard to solidify the notion amongst youngsters that organizations are welcoming of all people.
A challenge, again, may be that these kiddos have a positive, welcoming experience onsite, but age into the public opinion that cultural organizations are “not for people like me.” It’s an important time to engage children, but especially to engage children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as regular, welcome attendees to cultural institutions. To do this, I suspect that it’s not only critical to understand the important role that childhood visitation may play, but also to simultaneously welcome the parents, family members, and communities of people who are of different backgrounds than our historic visitors.
We must do a better job of engaging new audiences. Period.
4) This is not about childhood visitation. It is about creating memories that begin in childhood.
It’s that time in a Know Your Own Bone article to bring up the important “R” word. Rainbows? Rollercoasters? Red wine? All excellent things, but no. I’m talking about relevance.
Though it may be a small portion of visitors, notice that there’s an entire column of folks who don’t know or don’t recall if they visited organizations as children. They don’t remember. Maybe they don’t remember if they visited at all, and maybe they don’t remember if they were under thirteen years old if/when they did. Either way, those folks are about as likely to have visited an organization as those who report that they did not visit that type of organization.
In order to know if you’ve visited an organization type, you have to remember visiting that organization type. It’s not simply welcoming youngsters in the door that matters – but actively engaging them and creating a memorable experience. I am using the word relevant as meaningful and connective rather than simply current.
Remember: creating relevance isn’t all about content interest. At our best, cultural organizations are facilitators of shared experiences. We connect people to other people and to the world around them. We make things make sense – or we surprise someone with something that doesn’t immediately make sense. We educate and we inspire.
In order to gain the benefit of adult visitation stemming from childhood engagement, children need to be…well, engaged. It may not be beneficial to welcome children in the door and say, “DONE!” It may be more beneficial to consider how we are engaging children and creating meaningful, relevant experiences for them once they are inside those doors.
Folks who visited cultural organizations as children are more likely to return as adults. But you knew that already, didn’t you? It feels great to share “good news data” that I believe will be reaffirming of the efforts of many cultural organizations. More importantly, perhaps, it feels great to share the specific numbers and hopefully encourage some thinking about what they mean and how organizations may best use them to keep on doing their important work.