“Let me just test our sound,” reporter Ray Hardman said, preparing to record our interview to air the next day on WNPR’s All Things Considered about engaging millennials within cultural organizations (and, in particular, performing arts entities). “Okay…what did you have for breakfast?”
I laughed. “Avocado toast, of all things!” Could I be any more stereotypically millennial? The interview hadn’t even started yet!
Then, he asked me one of the most common questions that I receive: How can these organizations better attract and retain millennials?
I was glad to be asked this question by an “outsider” not bogged down by this question on a daily basis, because the answer is about being strategic. In my experience, an answer about being strategic is the most accurate kind of answer to a question such as his, and it also seems to be the most frustrating kind of answer for someone who works within the industry. The answers folks hope for invariably seem to be entirely tactical and based on one-off events. It’s almost as if people are hoping I’ll pull up the data, lean in close, and say…
“The secret? It’s an after-hours Stranger Things-themed cocktail event in the gallery…” And then maybe I’ll lower my voice to signify that this next part is most important: “But use whiskey in the ‘Moscow Ghoul’ instead of vodka. All millennials love whiskey. Do this, and you’ll have millennial engagement…forever.”
Unfortunately, “What alcohol single-handedly results in folks under 40 returning to a cultural organization during regular operating hours for the rest of their lives?” is not a question included in the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study.
That said, there may be something to using organic ginger beer in those Moscow Ghouls…
A quick note on “millennial talk”…
I’ve framed this article to be about engaging millennials – because cultural organizations must better engage millennials. This said, the trends impacting ongoing engagement of this generation are not unique to millennials. Talking about millennials does not mean ignoring other generations. In fact, “millennial talk” is often “everyone talk.”
Now that we’ve established that we’re actually talking about everyone here, let’s move forward:
How can cultural organizations better attract and retain millennials?
While all macro-trends are generally important, the data that we have on millennials – and the market as a whole – largely come back to these three: unique experience, social mission, and personal relevance.
In this case, relevance refers to having some sort of personal meaning to someone, or having something to do with their life or area of interest. It’s the quality or state of being closely connected to something. Sound like ambiguous jargon? It sure is. But there’s also no way around it when talking strategy. It’s a fool’s errand at this level to define “relevance” in terms of recorded eye movements, social media likes, or time spent in front of a 18th century shawl in an exhibit display. These items can be important indicators of relevance (or indicators of a successful process of creating relevance), but what we’re talking about here is connection to the content or subject matter, or the way in which an initiative is carried out.
This macro-trend has arguably always been important. After all, connectivity is king. However, we may also be more connected than ever before and thus trying to operate in a very noisy world. The critical macro-trend of personalization feeds into relevance. Think about it: Everywhere you go, things are increasingly designed to intelligently target your personal interests. Your newsfeed is constantly updated as Facebook fiddles with achieving greater relevance/personalization. Ad placements everywhere are increasingly targeted for us. “One-size-fits-all” group tours remain on the decline. Personal interactions onsite are even the most reliable way to increase visitor satisfaction at a cultural organization.
Within museums and performing arts organizations, there’s a relevance-based imperative to switch mindsets from “welcoming all” to “welcoming each.” Relevance and personalization are not the same concept, but they feed one another in today’s connected, targeted world. Relevance may be prerequisite for engagement of any kind.
If your eyes don’t yet glazing over when talk of our living in an experience economy comes up, then allow me to help: The term “experience economy” was first used in an article by B. Joseph Pine III and James H. Gilmore in 1998. It is said to be the next (fourth) economy – and the one in which we now live – after agrarian, industrial, and service economies. The concept is that entities benefit by creating memorable experiences for their customers, and the experience is the product. Millennials are reported to be driving the experience economy.
Millennials prioritize experiences over “stuff.” When you combine this with the super-connected nature of millennials and their desire to share, it in part clarifies the popularity of experiences like the Museum of Ice Cream.
Cultural organizations provide experiences within what is now an experience economy. This is good news, but the concept of selling experiences is spreading far beyond visitor-serving organizations.
This is different than always having blockbuster exhibits or pouring even more resources into highlighting special exhibits than permanent collections (which often backfires). Instead, it’s an opportunity to become a location that reliably provides unique experiences from those offered elsewhere. A goal isn’t to position oneself as having bits that are unique from yourself, but rather highlighting an ability to be unique from the outside environment.
Cultural organizations that highlight their mission consistently outperform those marketing primarily as attractions. Today, it’s cool to be kind. This isn’t only true for nonprofits! Corporate social responsibility is touted as a for-profit company necessity. Not only that, the market is increasingly sector agnostic: How much impact an organization has is often more important than its tax status.
Millennials are reported to be particularly driven by social missions. To an extent, it influences their purchasing and decision-making behavior. This trend even manifests itself directly for cultural organizations with regard to membership opportunities!
A cultural organization’s mission is its reason for existence. Thus, the trend toward social good may work in the favor of cultural entities and other organizations wherein “making the world a better place” is embedded in the entity’s driving culture. Highlighting an organization’s mission may strengthen its relevance among potential attendees and supporters.
Consider how these elements work together
Equally important to balancing all three of these items is realizing the risk of leaving one of them out of the mix. It may help to understand why the recipe no longer works if efforts are inadequate in one of the key areas.
Unique experiences and underscoring mission (without relevance) may lack the ability to cultivate visitation interest in the first place.
As much as we may hate to admit it at times, not everybody wants to visit a cultural organization. The top reason why unlikely visitors do not attend is because they feel that these organizations are “not places for people like me.” In other words, the space and place does not feel relevant to them. Even for those who have interest in visiting a cultural organization but who have not done so in the last two years, establishing greater relevance and personalization is critical for successful engagement. An experience could be unique and have a social mission, but if it isn’t of interest to you, then it’s less likely to motivate your behavior.
An example: I don’t love golfing. Charity events around golfing may provide lovely, unique experiences for a great cause. They are not generally of interest to me. For you, it may be running a marathon for heart disease or taking part in a bake-off for underfunded schools. Great causes. Cool experiences. Maybe not your thing.
Relevance and mission (without unique experience) may lack the ability to cultivate intent to visit.
Over 30% of people who report interest in visiting a cultural organization have not do so within the past two years. The top reason why those who profile as likely visitors do not attend is because they simply prefer to do something else with their precious time. These folks have indicated that there may be some form of relevance to them in the experience, but their free time is limited. Interest in visiting and intent to actually visit are different things. A unique experience helps provide motivation to prioritize the visit over something else.
Relevance and unique experiences (without mission) may lack integrity in terms of an organization walking its talk.
Mission work may serve as a unique differentiator for visiting cultural organizations when other considerations (e.g. entertainment value, schedule, access barriers, etc.) are equal. Entertainment value motivates visitation, but education value justifies a visit afterwards. It’s certainly possible to motivate behavior without a social cause – think of theme parks, rock concerts, or sporting events, for instance! However, as visitor-serving enterprise, underscoring that an entity walks its talk in terms of its reason for existence helps elevate the public’s trust in cultural organizations.
Make these a part of your brand – not just your special one-off program.
This is the part that many organizations are missing. The goal is to integrate these trends into the organization’s brand so that the museum, aquarium, zoo, theater, symphony, historic site, or musical performance entity may be relied upon to be consistently relevant, unique, and inspiring.
Working to be consistently relevant, unique, and inspiring…
When organizations simply “add on” these initiatives without a pathway for reliable, continuing engagement that underscores them on a consistent, sustained basis, the signal is clear: It is special when the cultural organization is relevant, unique, and inspiring. Or worse, that a demographic only “belongs” and will only enjoy specific, designated events.
It’s not the recipe for a special after-hours Stranger Things love tonic for cultural organizations one evening a month. (Sorry, folks!) Thankfully, it’s not rocket science, either.
It takes work, prioritization, and consideration – every day.
Are you an organized professional with excellent writing skills and a passion for helping cultural organizations better understand their audiences? We are currently seeking a KYOB Project Coordinator to join our team.