Data suggest that cultural organizations are still not representatively engaging new audiences – and our inability to meet this challenge may be exacerbating an already percolating problem.
Often within the cultural industry, an opportunity isn’t necessarily collecting or having data – it’s correctly analyzing and interpreting it in ways that successfully inform an organization’s strategies. In other words, our challenge frequently concerns collecting signals rather than noise – and putting those signals together to understand what is actually happening in terms of potential attendees’ thoughts, behaviors, expectations, and perceptions.
Attendance numbers are important – no doubt about it! And it may be fair to state that the goal of many organizations is to educate and inspire as many folks as possible. The more the better!
…But are cultural organizations succeeding in engaging more people? Despite thoughtless shortcuts, that’s not a question that a single attendance number can answer. It involves a more sophisticated and nuanced dive into the numbers…
(And also, perhaps, a willingness to embrace some tough findings.)
But if I know Know Your Own Bone readers, I know that this is exactly what makes passionate cultural nerds strap on their thinking caps and say, “Bring it!”
So, let’s bring it.
The problem: Negative substitution of the historic visitor
Aside, of course, from wanting to engage the masses, why does engaging new audiences matter so much?
Cultural organizations – such as zoos, aquariums, museums, performing arts organizations, historic sites, botanic gardens, and other mission-based, visitor-serving organizations – have been confronting a significant challenge for a while now: Negative substitution of their historic visitors.
There are demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes that visitors to cultural organizations commonly share. We call the people who both possess these attributes and visit cultural organizations “historic visitors.”
Considered in terms of the overall exhibit-based organization landscape, for every one historic visitor who leaves the market in the Unites States (by way of death, relocation or immigration), they are replaced with only 0.948 people (by way of birth, relocation or migration). Incidentally, the situation for performance-based cultural organizations is even more dire with 0.922 people entering the market to replace every historic visitor exiting the market. We refer to this phenomenon of more people exiting the market than there are entering the market “negative substitution” – and it is a major reason why cultural organizations risk engaging fewer visitors over time.
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.
One of our problems is a thing called negative attitude affinities. People don’t necessarily feel welcome or that they “fit in” at cultural organizations. IMPACTS data shows that, on average, approximately 4 out of 10 people in the US don’t feel comfortable at an art, science, or history museum – including science museums and historic sites. About 2 out of 10 people don’t feel comfortable at a zoo or aquarium. And, when it comes to performing arts organizations (including symphonies, orchestras, dance companies, and live theater organizations), nearly half of the market possesses a worrisome perception that the performing arts aren’t “for people like me.”
Some silver lining? In my experience, cultural executives increasingly understand that engaging new audiences is an urgent action item. Inclusion, hospitality initiatives designed to make emerging audiences feel more welcome within their walls, and bringing more diverse communities together are key themes of several recent industry conferences and programs.
Cultural leaders recognize the problem. It seems that many are working to fix it!
Are cultural organizations reaching more people?
Leaders may be generally aware of the need to reach new audiences and many organizations have created ongoing programs and even shifted their strategic mentalities in beneficial ways. Have we made a difference? As a sector, have we moved the needle yet? Are we succeeding at anything meaningful?
Well, yes…but also, no. I have good news and bad news.
The data below come from an 11-year tracking analysis of attendance spanning years 2006-2016 of 48 visitor-serving cultural organizations in the United States. 34 of the contemplated organizations were exhibit-based; the remaining 14 organizations were performance-based.
The 48 organizations contemplated in this 11-year tracking analysis are geographically diverse, and specifically includes many organizations that are broadly regarded as among the leading in the US. Many of these organizations are industry leaders to whom we look to help identify trends among the 224 that we currently track at IMPACTS today. And, well, that’s the very reason why we started tracking this specific bunch 11 years ago and checking in each year. For an exhibit-based organization, the average annual attendance contemplated in this analysis in year 2016 approximated 623,000 visitors. For performance-based organizations, these same organizations welcomed an average of 163,000 onsite visitors per year.
The good news.
Let’s start with somewhat encouraging (but potentially misleading) news: If we look at ostensibly straightforward annual attendance numbers, overall attendance to the contemplated cultural organizations was up 5.04% during the assessed duration. A further parsing of the attendance numbers reveals that exhibit-based organizations drove the overall increase. Exhibit-based organizations saw an overall 5.97% increase during the assessed duration compared to a -2.82% decline for performance-based organizations.
Still, overall, these numbers seem encouraging to exhibit-based organizations. For performing arts organizations, there is room for improvement. Though it would be ideal for performance-based organizations to be tracking in accordance with their exhibit-based brethren, these numbers would seem to indicate a generally healthy state of the visitor-serving cultural industry at large (particularly when cast against the specter of negative substitution).
The bad news.
The above numbers are misleading.
“Our attendance is flat or modestly increasing. We’re doing just fine!”
I hear this a lot…and, true enough, given the increasing competition from the couch and other demands on a person’s precious leisure time, maintaining a steady attendance level is commendable. At minimum, it is better than confronting a steep attendance decline.
However, some of the seemingly positive metrics potentially mask a troubling reality. These total attendance numbers are somewhat misleading, because they do not account for two critical factors:
1) Adjusting for population growth.
I’m going to say it…those two words that our industry seems to avoid at all cost. Those words that haunt our dreams to the point that we dare not utter word of the phenomenon’s existence. That concept that we keep as far from board members as possible, lest we have to admit that it is real: Population growth.
There’s no way around it. If we’re looking to measure success in achieving true market potential, it’s important to adjust for population growth. An organization may be engaging more people, but this doesn’t mean that it is reaching a representative percentage of its audiences. It’s possible to reach more and more people each year, while still dramatically underperforming the opportunity.
Consider this: While annual attendance to cultural organizations on the whole increased by 5.04% from year 2006 to year 2016, during the same 11-year duration the US population increased by 8.28%. Simply put, while annual attendance generally increased, this increase failed to keep pace with population growth. Suddenly, those pats on the back celebrating our attendance increases start to feel a little bit contrived.
When we consider overall attendance to cultural organizations adjusted for population growth, we can get a better sense of how we are truly performing in terms of our ability to representatively engage our audiences.
Because population growth exists, attendance numbers are expected to go up each year if an organization simply continues to representatively engage its audiences. Once adjusted for population growth, flat attendance is declining attendance.
2) Unique vs. repeat visitation
Counting the number of times the door swings open is not an adequate measure of audience engagement. Obviously, some folks swing that door open twice, or three times, or ten times or more each year! It’s by looking at unique visitation that we can assess if we are truly reaching more people rather than the same people, more often.
Contemplated during the same 11-year duration, “unique attendance” (i.e. the percentage of total attendance comprised of unique visitors – not repeat visitors) declined by -8.32%. If we were reaching new audiences, this number would not be in decline! And, of course, cultural organization attendance would keep pace with population growth. The observed decline in unique visitation suggests that cultural organizations, on the whole, are not necessarily reaching more people. We’re reaching the same people more often. Reaching the same people more often can maximize revenue from the same audience members over time, but it also risks exacerbating the challenges posed by negative substitution.
In other words, it’s great that we’re getting current audiences to come back more often, but if we’re not concurrently engaging new (unique) audiences, we may be perceived as even less welcoming to these hopeful new audiences.
Moreover, it means that a historic visitor leaving our market (again, via death, relocation, or migration) has an even greater negative impact on the overall attendance picture because the historic visitor has even more power – they constitute a greater percentage of visitation!
Using this information to inform a solution.
Are cultural organizations still perceived as snob central? Well, maybe. But fear not, for cultural executives can make real progress in light of these findings. Now it may be dependent on an organization’s access strategies to maximize the opportunity.
First, let’s give cultural organization marketers and operations folks a shout out. It’s not that attendance is simply fated to decline due to negative substitution. Far from it! Cultural organizations are better than ever at motivating the actions of traditional visitors – and that’s a big win! It means that best practices have evolved in terms of intelligent, targeted marketing as well as increasing visitor satisfaction to effectively secure repeat visitation. This is a sign of progress! Cultural organizations are reaching their most likely visitors! That’s important for solvency – particularly for organizations that depend on revenues from admission fees and membership sales.
To succeed long term, organizations may benefit by both maximizing revenue from target audiences and securing visitation from new audiences. Cultural organizations currently seem to be finding more success on one end of this equation and, arguably, it’s the most important end.
Because our OR can fund our AND.
It takes major marketing and programming investments to reach new audiences, and that’s a reason why some organizations have access programs that do not actually work. Marketing departments often aren’t even allocated the proper level of funding to succeed in reaching target audiences, let alone new audiences. A reality may be that many cultural organizations are barely funded to adequately reach an “OR” audience (i.e. historic audiences OR new audiences.)
There is potential for the revenues derived from maximizing repeat visitation to financially support an expanded effort to engage new audiences.
Historic visitors generally yield greater per capita revenues, are easier for entities to reach, and are more naturally attracted to cultural organizations. They are low-hanging fruit with deeper pockets. After all, a historic visitor may return to an organization and pay admission several times, or join a higher rung on the membership ladder! Getting good at engaging these folks is a win.
Just as effective revenue strategies fund access programs that actually work within our industry’s most financially sustainable organizations, organizations can use revenues gained from targeting its historic visitors to fund initiatives to engage new audiences.
Being better than ever at reaching low-hanging fruit (“OR” audiences) could help organizations reach new attendees as well (“AND” audiences). In fact, without effectively targeting current visitors, sustainably engaging new audiences may be functionally impossible…our budgets simply may not allow for these additional audience acquisition investments.
Engaging new audiences will involve an “AND” mindset, and the industry’s increasing success in cultivating repeat visitation from historic visitors may be the tool that funds these new initiatives.
How can organizations reach millennials and minority majority audiences and cultivate them as regular attendees (thereby increasing rates of unique visitation)? Good question. I’ve got new data on that, and I’ll share it with you next Wednesday, November 15th.
A cliffhanger, I’ll admit, but by now your eyes are probably tired.
Let’s wrap-up: Data indicate that cultural organizations are not engaging attendance at rates representative of population growth, and they have become increasingly reliant on a shrinking population to sustain their overall attendance numbers. These happenings conspire to create an imperative to engage more diverse audiences and cultivate them as regular attendees to ensure our long-term sustainability.
On the plus side, the data suggest that our industry has evolved to better maximize the repeat engagement of its current constituencies. Cultural organizations are better at re-marketing to visitors than ever before, and repeat visitation (and, likely, attendant revenues) are on the rise.
Our industry will keep evolving. As we find and explore opportunities to maximize revenue and achieve solvency long-term, we may be able to finally make the AND-based mental shifts that allow organizations to succeed in their missions:
To educate and inspire as many (different) people as possible…while keeping the lights on.