The articles that receive the most trolling tend to be those with data that challenge “I think” industry assumptions.
Who doesn’t love an Internet troll?!
*quietly raises hand*
I’ll be honest: I don’t get much hate mail or trolling from this website, and I am grateful to consistently open my message box to many wonderful notes of thanks and stories from professionals sharing their successes. (Thank goodness!) That said, I’m a person who is generally accessible online, and I also share data that is occasionally inconvenient.
As a result, from time-to-time, I become the target of trollers and the recipient of the occasional hate mail gem. I’m not talking about messages of clarification or disagreement. No, folks. I’m talking about the good old name-calling, body-shaming, mean-spirited, hurtful stuff of legend.
I tend to receive some of these types of messages after I post data that I have reason to believe may be particularly difficult (read: controversial) for some organizations. While mean messages stink (and, again, I don’t get many), it makes sense that these communications pop up during high-volume times. I know that many cultural executives consult this website, and I can see how some folks may become angry when it is publicly revealed that one of their past decisions did not align with data. I wonder if perhaps they are feeling the heat for the outcomes (or lack of outcomes) from these past decisions? Or perhaps they are simply being reflexively defensive?
Market research related to cultural organizations can yield inconvenient findings that challenge subjective industry beliefs. And sometimes when it does, I receive colorful messages. These are an important reminder that change – although necessary – can be hard.
Data is data. Here are three times when data may have hit professionals the hardest.
What do these three topics have in common? The data challenges subjective industry beliefs.
Admission cost is not a primary barrier to visitation.
How much does free admission increase visitation to cultural organizations? It sometimes does bump things up a bit, but not nearly to the sustained extent that organizations believe (hope?) that it will. These three articles dive into the topic:
- How Free Admission Really Affects Visitation. This article kicked things off! It not only cites IMPACTS data, but it also references some famous economists and studies.
- Admission Price is NOT a Primary Barrier to Visitation. This article includes new information related to the idea that admission cost may not be the barrier to engagement that some cultural executives believe it to be.
- Distraction: Blaming Admission Cost For Lack of Cultural Center Attendance. This article is a mix of the previous two articles in Fast Facts Video form.
This topic also gets the most attention from the press among the articles I’ve written. As a rule, I don’t call out organizations that aren’t making the wisest financial investments. I don’t write this website for the press. I write it for cultural organizations. Shaming these organizations or calling out those that have switched to free admission and are suffering serves no purpose to me – and that tends to be where reporters want this conversation to go.
Why this data may be difficult:
Cultural organizations are in a weird place. They serve social missions to educate and inspire audiences, but some also charge admission to help keep their doors open. Moreover, people in the United States are generally unaware that most cultural organizations are nonprofits in need of financial support.
Cultural organizations are increasingly faced with issues related to long-term solvency, and smart organizations that get significant government funding may be asking themselves how they might best continue to exist, should funding structures change. Cultural organizations need support in order to remain vibrant and vital. Considering how admission revenue can contribute to their financial health makes sense.
And, yet, there’s a strong belief among some constituencies that these organizations should offer free admission. This belief makes emotional sense, but if the goal is to keep cultural entities (i.e. museums, zoos, aquariums, gardens, performing arts organizations, etc.) alive and thriving long into the future, isn’t it wise to consider the totality of revenue sources when contemplating long-term funding strategies? More to the point: Shouldn’t we value our intellectual and experiential beliefs as much as we do our emotional ones?
In reality, experiences offered at cultural organizations with admission prices have similar (or better) value for cost perceptions as trips to rock concerts, sporting events, and movies.
I don’t know what makes cultural professionals believe that their hard work is worth less than a burger from the dollar menu at McDonalds, but both data and foundational economics show that it is untrue. People who are likely to visit cultural organizations are willing to pay to do so. And those funds can then be used to welcome those who cannot pay admission.
These data may also be scary for organizations because if “cost” is not the barrier that cultural professionals believe it to be, then professionals need to tackle a much more difficult reality: That barriers to visitation are other things, and maybe our programs aren’t able to summon the masses by their very existence.
Admission cost is often a distraction from focusing on removing true, harder-to-tackle barriers to visitation.
Mobile applications are not a slam dunk.
That is the implication of the data shared in the article, “Are Mobile Applications Worth It For Cultural Organizations?” Spoiler alert: The answer is generally no.
Do you remember a few years ago when cultural organizations developing mobile applications was all the rage? It seems that countless institutions rushed to invest in technology for technology’s sake. It almost didn’t matter what the mobile application actually did, but that it existed so that cultural organizations could boast them as “proof” of being cutting edge to board members and among one another at industry conferences.
Well, you reap what you sow. And we sowed a whole lot of mobile applications that didn’t engage audiences or offer much additional benefit from a visitors’ point of view. Through data, we observe that we may have trained the market to believe that mobile applications for cultural organizations don’t provide significant added value.
Data suggest that a sizable portion of the market have indeed tried out mobile apps for cultural organizations – and, largely, their experiences were “meh.”
This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to have a great mobile application! But it means that the very attempt to engage audiences by way of mobile applications is now an uphill battle. Organizations with mobile applications that are different, creative, and engaging will need to work harder to cultivate users because so many people have “been there, done that” and thought applications for visitor-serving organizations weren’t helpful. Organizations with more thoughtful applications will/do need to invest appropriate resources to essentially retrain audiences regarding their perceptions of mobile apps for cultural organizations.
I received plenty of feedback that this was common sense, and that cultural professionals had an idea that mobile apps are not the “magic bullet” that they once hoped they might be. Mobile app developers, however, had a different response to the data.
My trolling from this article came from mobile app developers – and that should make cultural organizations nervous. It also came from some consultants who make a living pushing mobile apps for cultural organizations. This is not surprising in theory, but it was a bit surprising to me as the recipient of these messages!
Why this data may be difficult:
I’ve heard it said that, “You don’t mess with another man’s paycheck.” As it turns out, sharing data about the lack of engagement at cultural organizations related to mobile applications made the people who make money off of cultural organizations pretty upset.
I even received messages from mobile application developers and companies frantically asking for what I’ll call “doctor’s notes.” They explained that the executives at their client organization read this website and they wanted me to write a personalized note “excusing” their app from public perception data and saying that it is clearly an exception to all findings about how the public feels about and uses mobile applications. (I received several of these!)
Demonstrating that a specific application is truly engaging is not my job – it’s the job of the organization and the developer to honestly assess its efficacy. Regardless, knowing how visitors to cultural organizations truly consider and use mobile applications on the whole is important. A single mobile application that may be more creative and engaging than others still needs to overcome the existing public perceptions of cultural institution mobile apps. It may still require additional marketing effort to motivate use, and it still fights an uphill battle. This may be the case until there are enough apps that are truly considered useful and engaging out there and public perceptions shift.
Remember: Cultural organizations are the gatekeepers to their own audiences – and that’s an important responsibility. Mobile app developers are not experts on your mission, your vision, your goals, your objectives, or your audiences. You are.
Special exhibits aren’t so special
This one is specifically for exhibit-based organizations. While I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were similar data related to performance-based organizations, I haven’t yet requested that data query. Symphonies, theaters, and ballets: You can eat popcorn on the sidelines here and enjoy the read.
Good news: Permanent exhibits have more power to increase perceived value, satisfaction, and intent to revisit than organizations may realize.
Weird news: This information makes some museum people angry.
Data suggest that a blockbuster exhibit engagement strategy may cause big problems over time for cultural organizations that rely on it. In fact, they’ve arguably caused so much perceptual damage to the cultural industry that having “nothing new to do or see” at an organization is a top-five barrier to visitation among cultural organizations in general!
It’s not uncommon for organizations that have special exhibits (blockbuster or otherwise) to devote a great deal of attention and marketing resources to those exhibits. After all, they tend to be expensive – and we want them to pay off in visitation and support! What we fail to realize is that over-emphasizing special exhibits all too often comes at the perceptual expense of our own permanent collections.
There are plenty of important reasons to host a special exhibit, but your permanent collections are not chopped liver, and it may hurt our organizations when we imply that they are by constantly focusing our engagement efforts on the bright, shiny new-new thing.
The idea that permanent collections are just as special (if not more special) to an organization than its special exhibits resulted in some angry messages from museum professionals.
As it turns out, certain cultural professionals have come to put a lot of credibility, hope, and power in special exhibits compared to permanent collections. It almost feels like special exhibits may be symbolic, internal ceremonies of forward movement. While this perhaps makes sense, we may be better served to let go of this idea and focus on what represents forward movement to our audiences.
Why this data may be difficult:
I think these data may be difficult because embracing them means rethinking how we engage audiences with regard to special exhibits. An implication of these data may be that investing very large sums in special exhibits when permanent collections are right under our noses is a potential misuse of funds. This isn’t necessarily always true. (Though perhaps it’s more true than we’ve come to believe.)
Yes – there are numerous examples of special exhibits that boosted temporary attendance. We speak often (disproportionately?) of these successes. There are also countless examples of special exhibits that floundered, did not achieve an organization’s goals, imperiled an organization’s finances for the long-term after a short-term visitation bump that simply artificially altered visitation cycles, strengthened internal reliance on manipulated timeframes, or proved unsustainable as an engagement strategy. We (very politely) speak less of these misses and consequences.
The fundamental question that these data beg is not, “Do special exhibits increase attendance?” The question that we should be asking of ourselves is, “Given the resources required to develop and actualize a special exhibit, is there an alternative use of these same resources that will create a more sustainable benefit for our organization?” Maybe the answer is “yes.” Maybe the answer is “no” for your organization. The data suggest that too often we fail to ask ourselves this question…or ask ourselves the wrong question.
Of course, these data risk making people defensive. “Are you saying that I’ve been doing my job wrong?!”
I say no such thing. I share big data from our industry that provides hints to increase visitation and elevate visitor-serving entities for the long-term. I provide thought-fuel – and though it’s uncomfortable and heavy at times, I’m handing you a thinking cap.
Data makes us smarter. I think that using data to dub past decisions as “bad decisions” (or anything of the sort) is silly. I don’t personally know any cultural executives that knowingly make sub-optimal decisions for fun. Do you? I believe that professionals are working their darn hardest to make their own organizations the best that they possibly can.
My goal here is to make data accessible in an effort to help.
Data is data, and like everything brutally honest in this world, data can be extremely inconvenient. This is especially the case when acknowledging it means rethinking business practices that don’t work.
But good things come to those organizations that fight the popular “that doesn’t apply to me” defense and say, “I see what’s happening at large. I’d like to actively and unbiasedly uncover the extent to which this finding does or does not apply to my specific organization.”
I have long since accepted that having an online presence in an evolving industry can result in mean-spirited messages and some trolling. I accept the challenge and I am grateful to receive so many wonderful, inspiring, and energizing messages through this site and on social media! Keep them coming, please – along with challenging feedback that makes me think harder and smarter. Hate mail and trolling aren’t helpful, and they may simply represent an individual’s own difficulty with industry evolution.
To my trolls:
Haters gonna hate.
Cultural organizations gonna evolve.