Potential visitors are even more connected to the web than those who already attend cultural organizations.
“The new audiences who we are trying to attract don’t use social media.”
You may have heard this said before. (Perhaps you’ve said it yourself!) There seems to be an idea among some professionals that perhaps social media and digital engagement are useful in attracting current visitors to cultural organizations, but when it comes to reaching new ones, “traditional” channels are still best.
Data suggest that this is false. And this very misconception may be a reason why cultural organizations are still not representatively engaging new audiences.
Digital engagement is critical for motivating visitation of people who might care to attend cultural entities – both those who already visit and those who might be interested in doing so. At IMPACTS, we call these folks “high-propensity visitors” and they include both the 16% of the US population that has attended a cultural entity in the last two years, and a distinct additional 16% of the US population that haven’t recently visited…but profile as potential visitors. These potential visitors – persons whose demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes suggest an increased likelihood of visiting a cultural organization, but who haven’t recently done so – represent our “new audience” opportunity. These folks are generally younger and more diverse than those who currently visit, and they may hold the key to changing perceptions of cultural organizations as more welcoming entities.
Yes. Only 16% of the US population has visited a cultural organization such as a museum, orchestra, science center, ballet, or historic site in the last two years. If you’re shocked, consider that our industry tends to count the number of times the doors swing open (i.e. number of visits) rather than the number of unique visitors who swing that door open among entities (i.e. number of different people).
The kind of person who goes to one type of cultural organization is often the kind of person who goes to other types of cultural organizations. They may go to more than one type of entity (e.g. art museum, live theater) more often than once, and more often than once every two years. Interestingly, these are some of the same folks who go to rock concerts, films, and sporting events. “People who go out” are a competitive crowd, especially with growing competition to stay at home on the couch.
Let’s start with arguably the most basic difference between current and potential visitors: Potential visitors to cultural organizations rely almost exclusively on the Internet for connection and information.
1) Potential visitors are even more connected to the web than current visitors
High-propensity visitors – both those who have actually attended and those who profile as likely to attend but have not yet done so – qualify as being “super-connected” to the web. “Super-connected” means that these folks have access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device.
As usual, the data in this article comes from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study.
Don’t look at this chart and think simply about comparison! With index values over 100 for all three generations, web use is not a conversation about millennials. Millennials may be the most super-connected of the bunch, but Baby Boomers and members of Generation X are super-connected as well. Period.
Inactive visitors are even more super-connected than the people who already attend cultural organizations! They have even greater access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile devise and they are using them even more often!
2) Potential visitors rely even more on web-based channels as information sources – particularly social media
It doesn’t stop at being super-connected. As I share frequently, high-propensity visitors (both current and likely attendees) use web-based channels as their primary sources of information. Even when cut by generational cohort, the top three sources of information remain the same – and they are all web-based: social media, mobile web, and web.
Heads up: “WOM” below stands for “word of mouth,” and “peer review web” includes review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Digital information sources are even stronger for potential visitors than current visitors! And social media plays the leading role. Data suggest that social media and earned endorsement drive an organization’s reputation. Wait. That deserves it’s own line:
A key to engaging new audiences – including younger audiences and those of more diverse backgrounds – may be rooted in giving social media its fair share of respect in its ability to influence hearts and minds. We’re not examining international investments in social media designed to influence the 2016 US presidential election for nothing! These platforms have impact and they shape our views of the world. Thanks to their real-time, personalized, targeted, and “open for conversation” nature, they may have the most impact.
At least, for current and likely visitors to cultural organizations they do.
3) Potential visitors expect social media prioritization
Because inactive, potential visitors get most of their information from social media, it stands to reason that they may expect that cultural organizations – like other entities – know exactly what they are doing on social media.
Likely visitors expect organizations to be even more responsive and active on social media than current visitors. According to IMPACTS data, 55% of recent visitors expect a response to their questions and/or comments posed on social media within one hour of posting their question or comment. 78% of persons who profile as likely – but inactive – attendees expect a response to a question or comment posed on social media within one hour.
Social media channels demand that an organization “walk its talk” in terms of its day-to-day posts and maintain an active engagement strategy based on its mission and values. Social media also amplifies earned endorsement, and generally calls for “open” communication that allows for commenting by other people. In other words, social media talks with audiences, not at audiences.
Inconveniently for leaders trained exclusively in traditional media channels, potential visitors aren’t using or relying on them much. Inactive visitors are 5.5x more likely than the average American not to subscribe to any print media publication! These folks are cord-cutters without cable television subscriptions (skipping the commercials), and using Netflix and Hulu Plus instead. They are not primarily using traditional communication channels and rely almost exclusively on the web!
This is tough information for many. Traditional communication channels are comfy! We get them! They aren’t changing as rapidly and it can be overwhelming and inconvenient that ever-evolving digital platforms are so critical for attracting and retaining visitors, members, and supporters!…But this doesn’t make these platforms any less critical. Indeed, it’s the fact that they are real-time and “open” that may make them so important.
These data go well beyond encouraging organizations to be active on social media or telling current online community managers to “try harder.” This isn’t a “one-and-done” with the creation of an account and a daily status update. These data suggest that it’s important to make social media a critical part of an organization’s driving strategy – and to prioritize this avenue for engagement and insight.
Cultural organizations may not reasonably change how people today function simply by saying, “Hey, people! We do not prioritize social media, so don’t use it as your primary basis for how you view us!”
Cultural organizations don’t get to pick.
The market determines relevance. To reach audiences, we benefit by meeting them where they are. It doesn’t matter how loudly an organization screams that something is important if they are shouting it into an emptying room.
Despite a plethora of data underscoring the power of utilizing social media strategically, it’s no secret that the cultural industry is lagging in its recognition of the importance of these roles. This ignite talk by W. Ryan Dodge at the most recent Museum Computer Network conference summarizes some of our industry’s struggles to recognize the importance of social media within museums in particular. The talk was informed by input from social media managers from diverse museums. These staff members are trying to communicate the importance of placing a greater – and much more strategic – prioritization on social media. The data is behind them. It’s time to listen.
This article is not about millennials. It’s about engaging audiences. We categorize “all audience talk” as “millennial talk” at our own risk. The data here is cut for high-propensity visitors. Please don’t mentally file this as, “other people,” “something else,” or “save for later.” Reaching likely visitors within any generational cohort is an immediate goal for the sustainability of the cultural industry.
Current and potential visitors generally share similar demographic, psychographic, and behavioral profiles – and there’s a noteworthy difference between those who visit and those who “should”: The visitors that cultural organizations benefit by reaching in order to thrive long-term are even more connected to the web than current attendees.
Is strategic digital engagement the only action item required to maximize visitation? No. But data suggest that it may be near impossible to succeed without it.
The future of cultural organizations may hinge on their prioritization of social media and digital engagement channels.
This article is the first in a four-week series exploring data–informed opportunities for activating those who profile as likely visitors to cultural organizations, but who have not attended in at least the last two years. Subscribe below to be sure not to miss an article.