Being interested in doing something doesn’t mean that a person has a realistic intention of actually doing it.
“We know there’s a great deal of interest in visiting our organization,” I’ve heard cultural leaders say as they point toward previous studies they’ve carried out. “It’s incorrect. That many people aren’t attending!”
This is a common situation – and it doesn’t necessarily mean that an organization received or collected inaccurate data! On average, more than thirty percent of people who report interest in visiting any kind of cultural organization haven’t attended one in the last two years.
At IMPACTS, we measure both intent and interest metrics in our market research. However, some companies and entities monitor only interest and then conflate its meaning with actual behavior because “interest” is generally easier to measure with reliability than true intentions.
So how can an organization make sense of things if it is only measuring interest? What if it measures both interest and intent?
Let’s use real data to clear up the confusion surrounding these metrics and their meanings so that organizations may better understand their meanings and implications.
“Interest” and “intent” to visit measure different things
The fact that not everyone with reported interest in something actually does that something makes sense. After all, “interest” in visiting doesn’t mean one has “intent” to visit!
I am personally interested in visiting Iceland. That said, I do not intend to visit Iceland in the near future. And, if given a week off for non-work travel, I might choose to visit Thailand, South Africa, Japan, or Brazil (for instance) ahead of Iceland. Still, I am interested in visiting Iceland.
Both metrics are valuable, but they are not the same.
Take a look at these data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, which includes over 108,000 respondents representative of the US adult population:
As you can see, reported “interest” in visiting an organization outpaces intent to visit an organization within the next year by 48.9%. Maybe the issue is the relatively near-term nature of the question? After all, we know that the audience visitation cycle to cultural organizations often extends beyond a single year. What if we run the intended visitation timeframe out further, say to a two-year horizon?
As you can see, extending the intended visitation timeframe doesn’t dramatically alter the outcome of the analysis – interest continues to outpace intent by 46.8%. (The interest metrics stay the same because they are not time bound. We’ll dive deeper into this below.)
“Where are the performing arts organizations here?” The differences in “intent” and “interest” hold true for performing arts organizations as well. Live theater and other performance-based categories do not represent an apples-to-apples comparison in this data set. This is because intent and interest often depend upon the performance, and this can be a bigger driver of intent and interest than the organization hosting the performance. (Many performance-based entities are experiencing this phenomenon through audience migration away from season subscriptions to individual performance tickets.)
“Interest” measures theoretical willingness to visit an organization
Interest means exciting the attention or curiosity of someone. Interest is arguably the first step to inspiring visitation – or any other desired behavior. It is critical to understand what interests potential audiences and, more specifically, how interested these audiences may be in an organization and its programs.
“Interest” may be prerequisite to visitation, but it also tends to minimize functional barriers to attendance. When asked why those with interest in visiting a cultural organization haven’t made it through the door within the last two years, people report their true barriers to visitation – including items such as access challenges and schedule conflicts.
The top reason why those with interest do not attend is because they simply prefer an alternative leisure activity. On top of that, more and more people are spending quality time on the couch with a remote control.
Time is precious and it’s often limited. There are only so many weekends, vacation days, and days off of work – and likely visitors to cultural organizations are an active bunch with many alternative activities competing for their precious time.
“Interest” metrics remove the immediacy of these functional barriers. But that doesn’t mean that this metric is unimportant. Far from it! Only 32% of the US population profiles as a likely visitor to cultural organizations, and “interest” metrics help entities uncover who these people are and what they want.
“Interest” information can underscore how big of an issue attitude affinity (i.e. feeling welcome) and relevance may be for an organization. If there’s no interest, then it stands to reason that there will be no visit.
Interest-related metrics are generally easier to collect than “intent to visit” metrics. Thus, these data are more common within the visitor-serving industry, and often show up in data summaries without their intent-related counterparts.
Many of the most common questions in traditional surveys relate to “interest.” Interest related questions include those along the lines of:
- Are you interested in visiting X organization?
- Would you attend a themed, after-hours event program?
- What exhibit concept is most interesting to you?
- Which type of performance would you be most likely to attend?
- How interested are you in attending X event?
There’s critical knowledge to be gained in uncovering the answers to these questions, and the strength of conviction attached to them! It is by getting to the bottom of these questions that organizations may create programs, performances, exhibits, events, and stories that play a role in inspiring potential visitors to get to the next step in engagement: Intent to visit.
“Intent” correlates with true visitation
Intent means resolve to do something. Thus, for our purposes of measuring intent to visit, this is a metric outlining the extent to which people are planning to actually attend an organization.
Unlike interest, intent to visit correlates with actual visitation to organizations. We have found in our client work with several visitor-serving organizations and in watching metrics related to 224 of them in the US that, generally, intent to visit metrics can be a reliable indicator of attendance. When we spot an increase in intent to visit during a certain timeframe, organizations tend to see actual increases in visitation during that same timeframe. Here’s an example of the metric in action.
Consider the below tracking analysis of actual visitation by month to nine client organizations compared to the measured intent to visit within the same month values during the five-year duration spanning years 2013-2017:
As you can see, there is a strong relationship between reported intentions to visit within the defined chronology (i.e. one month) and actual visitation. When intent increases, so, too, does actual visitation. Conversely, when intent declines, attendance tends to drop.
To be most accurately assessed, intent to visit (or do anything) is often most effectively quantified against a specific chronology as an indicator of actual plans. In other words, one’s intentions to behave in a certain manner typically relate to a timeframe – whereas interest-related measures have no relationship to time. This is a primary reason why “intent” is not measured as often as is interest: This metric may be most helpful when it is measured on an ongoing basis. While select organizations collect volumes of pertinent data on an ongoing basis, many carry out more episodic or occasional research.
As a note: Intent to re-visit can be as interesting and important of a metric as intent to visit – especially with consideration to an organization’s visitor satisfaction metrics.
Questions measuring “intent” are generally straightforward:
- When do you plan to visit X organization?
- Which, if any, performance will you be attending?
- When do you intend to return to the organization?
What we learn from the delta between interest and intent to visit cultural organizations
These metrics are different and they are both important. When considering their differences, it becomes almost silly that some so quickly confuse the two.
Interest in visiting explores, “Would you?”
Intent to visit explores, “Will you?”
Though they are different, the delta between “will” and “would” may shine a light on potential visitation barriers. If an organization has low interest, it may indicate an opportunity to work on being perceived as more welcoming or more relevant – or both. If there is a large delta between interest and intent to visit, it may mean focusing on practical barriers to visitation such as adjusting performance or open hour schedules, evolving marketing practices, or getting better mobile ticketing.
Of course, both of these are complex considerations. An organization does not simply become perceived as welcoming overnight. Inclusion is a marathon, not a sprint. Similarly, it’s an organization’s responsibility to understand its market-informed barriers to visitation. (Someone saying, “I think people aren’t coming because of X” doesn’t make that the most pressing barrier in reality – even if it is uttered by the CEO or Board Chair. These leaders are not likely to be representative audience members and they have skewed perspectives. All of us insiders do.)
Let’s make sure that when we talk about “interest,” we don’t think we’re speaking about “intent.”
When we understand the differences, we can better understand our audiences.