Data indicate that the length of time before people intend to visit a cultural organization is long, and the time between buying a ticket and actually visiting is short. Here’s why this matters.
I recently asked my email subscribers about the most pressing question facing them in their roles as leaders within cultural organizations. I received hundreds of thoughtful responses and head-scratchers ripe for diving into the data. This article is the result of one of those questions:
When is the decision to visit a cultural organization made relative to the intended visitation date? How might this impact the length and timing of marketing campaigns?
This one got me down a rabbit hole this week. I’m back up from it now, and I brought the dirt with me.
I reached out to colleagues at IMPACTS to help navigate this topic, as the data shared here goes beyond the trusty National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study (the ongoing study of 108,000+ representative individuals in the US from which most of the nonproprietary data shared on this site is pulled). It additionally includes client data from work with our friends from The Ocean Project and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As usual, these data include visitor-serving entities including various types of museums, botanic gardens, zoos, aquariums, and performing arts organizations.
To tackle this question, let’s look at the relative durations in the market’s intended timeframe to visit an organization and the time between a ticket’s purchase and its redemption. This way, we can get a better picture of the market’s lead time when contemplating a visit, if there’s anything interesting happening on ticket purchasing platforms that might inform our understanding of ticket-buying and the visitation decision-making processes, and if there are any implications from these data that may inform our marketing strategies.
Spoiler alert: There are.
1) There is a long lead time in peoples’ intent to visit cultural organizations – even for locals
For a vast majority of people in the US with interest in visiting any type of cultural entity, they don’t actually intend to visit very quickly.
This chart indicates the intention timeframe of US adults to visit a cultural organization organized by both the intended chronology of their next visit (i.e. how long until they plan to visit) and their proximity to the cultural organization (i.e. how close they live to the organization). The findings suggest that – regardless of one’s geographic proximity to an organization – there is a relatively long lead time until an actual visit is realized.
As the findings indicate, most people do not intend to visit an organization within the next year. It’s an inconvenient reality that the re-visitation cycle for cultural visitors is not annualized. Annual timeframes relate to precious few actual market behaviors when it comes to cultural organizations. In other words, visitors generally do not reliably return to an organization year-after-year. Interestingly, the average re-visitation chronology currently approximates 19 months – down from the 23-month average re-visitation cycle that was observed in year 2011. This change underscores the efficacy with which organizations have been able to effectively engage traditional audiences.
The shortened visitation cycle is great news, but please don’t be confused. This does not mean that attendance to cultural organizations is keeping pace with population growth. It’s not. It means that we’re doing a better job of getting the same visitors to come back again, and, indeed. The goal, of course, is to keep doing this while also engaging non-traditional audiences to expand the profile of the type of person who visits cultural organizations.
As the data indicate, there’s a long lead time in intent to visit cultural organizations, even for those folks who live close by. Unfortunately, amongst the panoply of options competing for the market’s finite leisure time, people aren’t generally planning a cultural visit in the relative immediate near-term.
As a note: This chart shows people who have first reported interest in visiting a cultural organization (either specific or general) and asks about their intentions to attend. Interest is often prerequisite for intent regarding leisure activities. It’s helpful to understand that, in this data set, the question isn’t “When do you want to visit?” It’s “When do you plan to visit?” Intent is different than interest because a person may be interested in doing something, but not yet have plans to actually do it. Measuring interest can be meaningful, but it removes the tactical barriers to visitation – which we want to consider here. For instance, I have interest in visiting Thailand next week, but I do not intend to visit Thailand next week. (Yes, people report interest in doing things that they never intend to do. Having interest in doing something doesn’t mean that a person is planning to do it or willing to prioritize doing it. These are the folks who report in the “never” category.)
A “plan” to visit a history museum or go to the opera in two years, may not be a well defined plan at all (“I’ll be there on July 12, 2020!”), but it gives us an understanding of when people are generally planning to visit or to return.
2) There is a very short duration between ticket purchase and redemption
While lead time to visit may be slow, the time between a ticket purchase and redemption is very quick. Interestingly, this timeline suggests that it may be beneficial for some organizations to shift the way they think about online ticketing.
The chart below indicates the elapsed duration between the time that a consumer purchases a ticket online and the time that the consumer actually redeems the ticket (i.e. visits). These data were acquired by comparing the online ticket sales and ticket redemption data of four US visitor-serving organizations. (Note: Online sales includes those tickets purchased on mobile devices.)
These data focus on online ticket purchase and redemption because, presumably, the vast majority of tickets purchased onsite are immediately redeemed. In other words, people purchase tickets onsite and then generally walk through the door to redeem them. An exception to these findings relate to performing arts organizations. In terms of market behaviors, certain performances tend to lend themselves to a bit more planning. An extreme example simply to illustrate the point: Want to take a date to see Dear Evan Hansen on Saturday night at the Music Box Theatre? Good luck walking up to the box office at 7:30pm.
The vast majority of tickets (80.4%) were purchased and redeemed on the same day as the visit!
Lest someone see this data and sneer, “See? Online ticketing isn’t that important! People are doing it immediately before a visit when they could just wait in line at the door!” Consider this: Difficulty in purchasing tickets online is a primary barrier to visitation.
Also, that may be exactly the point. Buying tickets onsite can require waiting, and time is more valuable to people than money. People want the ease of buying online, and many are doing it on the day of their visit. This is about behavior. It’s about the ability to skip a line, ensure access, and potentially keep schedules open when leisure activity competition is fierce. Within the cultural industry, we talk a lot about onsite use of technology. Data suggest that offsite use of technology relating to a visit is one of our biggest opportunities to maximize engagement.
Online ticketing is more about ease of access than advance planning. Convenience and “meeting audiences where they are” are expectations today, and that is where mobile/web ticketing shines.
Here’s a fun fact that may further indicate the importance of enabling easy and smooth online transactions: In this analysis, only 95.2% of tickets that were sold online were actually redeemed. Nearly 5% of folks who bought a ticket didn’t use it. “Free money” to support informal learning and further transformative experiences? Not the worst.
What are the implications of these data for marketing campaigns, and organizations overall?
Here’s a fact that’s likely to play a role in both the long lead time in intent to visit and the short period of time between ticket purchase and redemption: Preferring an alternative leisure activity is the top reason why those with interest do not attend cultural organizations.
It may play a role in the long lead time, because, for example, there are only so many Sundays without family obligations, and “Now that we’ve gone to the art museum, maybe next time we’ll go to the beach.”
It may play a role in the short ticket redemption time if people want to keep their options open, assess same-day traffic, and figure out if Becky’s going to make it and if they should grab a ticket for her, too, etc….and, make sure that on top of all that, online ticket purchasing makes entry a breeze.
These findings provide thought-fuel and insight into the audience visitation timeframe. (Which is obviously as fascinating to others as it is to this culture nerd, right?) But a potential implication of these data is a reconsideration of media planning strategies.
The importance of “evergreen” messaging to support peak period advertising
Despite the header here, one need not be fluent in marketing jargon to read on and better understand what this means for organizations.
Data indicate a compelling link between paid media flight (i.e. advertising) and an increase in an organization’s “Top-of-Mind” awareness within a market. The Hierarchy of Effects Theory holds that consumers proceed through sequential stages when contemplating a transaction, and that “awareness” (the first step in the progression) is the most critical phase of the process. Basically, if the market is unaware of your organization, then there is essentially no chance that your organization will engage their visit. (Makes sense, right?)
Many organizations deploy advertising within discrete flight schedules – which are often linked to peak visitation periods – as a primary component of their media plans. Being in-market during peak visitation periods is a very good idea, because that’s when people are making visitation decisions and marketers are generally unable to efficiently alter peak periods and shift that visitation.
Top-of-mind awareness is critical for visitation, and it’s a key function of advertising. However, when paid media flights end, top-of-mind awareness declines.
The following data indicate top-of-mind awareness and consequent recall for a large consumer awareness campaign deployed by IMPACTS on behalf of The Ocean Project and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The data indicate “lift” borne of the paid media campaign…and the ensuing decline in top-of-mind awareness at the conclusion of the campaign. Indeed, top-of-mind awareness decreased by nearly 45% in a few short weeks after the advertisements stopped running (from 26.2% of market members indicating top-of-mind awareness during the campaign to only 14.5% of market members indicating top-of-mind awareness two weeks after the campaign’s conclusion).
It’s common practice that many organizations allocate their advertising investment in discrete, targeted durations that usually correspond to a peak visitation period. The long lead times relating to intentions to visit indicated in the findings may suggest a need for more “evergreen” messaging to support those peak periods of intense advertising. Today, with ever-increasing advertiser competition and shortened consumer attention spans, gaining and retaining consumer awareness is critical for an organization to thrive.
It is vital that an organization be at the forefront of a consumer’s awareness (i.e. top-of-mind) at the moment in time when that consumer is contemplating a transaction. The data show that awareness quickly wanes when advertising ceases. This suggests that in a highly-competitive market, a potential consumer may be more responsive to a competitor’s message if they contemplate a purchase decision when an organization is silent.
This does not intend to suggest that a flighting strategy is a bad or outdated media planning practice; instead, it suggests that an evergreen component should be integrated to support the plan. Remember that social media also plays a critical role in the visitor-decision-making process, and is an integral part of an ongoing engagement strategy.
Though some folks may be planning to actively visit during peak visitation seasons, intent to visit may be formed at any time. The reality is that many organizations are open for business most days per year. However, they may only be in market with a paid message a fraction of the time that they are open. Media flights during peak periods are important. So, too, are sustained messaging efforts – including social media – during the balance of an organization’s operating days.
There is fierce competition for the time and attention of those willing to leave their homes to pursue leisure activities. Intentions to visit cultural organizations have a long lead time, which means that staying top-of-mind is critical for these entities. There’s also a short purchase-to-redemption timeline, which may force cultural entities to be even more on their toes regarding top-of-mind awareness.
Is there a possibility to entice those who intend to visit in two years to visit sooner? The answer is more complex than one might think. There are “quick hit” ways to do this that result lower visitor satisfaction and decreased attendance in the long-term – such as offering discounts.
The smart way to do this?
Understand and value the power of marketing in today’s noisy, connected world.