The key to reaching new audiences is motivating inactive visitors to come through our doors. Here’s what we know about them and how to do it.
I query data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study based off of trends that become apparent over time and key questions submitted by executive leaders. When several articles have been written on a topic such that they may together inform cohesive solutions, it’s time for a round-up. And it’s time for a data round-up on attracting new visitors, folks! Specifically, it’s time for a data round-up on a certain type of new visitor: An inactive visitor.
Over 30% of people who report interest in visiting a cultural organization – such as a museum, zoo, aquarium, botanic garden, historic site, or performing arts organization – do not visit within two years. Inactive visitors are those who have a likelihood of attending a cultural organization, but who have not done so. They are our gateway to attracting new audiences – including more diverse attendees.
The links in this article have a great deal of data and information on these potential visitors – including what they expect, how they behave, and how to attract them. This article serves as a gateway for deeper dives into the topic, and I suggest following the links to learn more.
Who are inactive visitors?
Inactive visitors are people who have the demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes indicating that they would attend a cultural organization, but who have not done so in the last two years. When cultural executives say, “we need to get more people through our doors,” they are talking about these people – whether they know it or not.
Inactive visitors make up 16% of the US market. These people are different than historic visitors. Historic visitors (or, “traditional visitors” as this term can become confusing among leaders of historic sites) make up another 16% of the US market, and they are the people who have attended a cultural organization of any kind within the last two years.
Interestingly, data shows that the kind of people who visit cultural organizations are…well, the kind of people who visit cultural organizations. The same person who has been to a symphony in the last two years is likely the kind of person to have been to an art museum or botanic garden in the last two years. The kind of person who has been to a science museum is likely to be the same kind of person who has been to the theater in the last two years. If that 16% seems low to you, this is why. Our industry tends to count the number of times that doors swing, not specific sets of feet that come through it. (This makes sense. Audience research is much easier to obtain than the large-scale market research that gets to the bottom of this situation.)
What about the other two categories: Unlikely and non-visitors?
Inactive visitors differ from unlikely visitors in that inactive visitors would choose to attend a cultural organization. Unlikely visitors often need the direct motivation to come from another force. For instance, an unlikely visitor is the person who will go to the science museum… if it’s where the staff holiday party is taking place. It’s the person who will go to the botanic garden…if grandma is in town. These are people who would not choose to attend on their own. They need significant motivation, sometimes bordering on perceived necessity.
From a market research/attitudes and usage perspective, activating non-visitors is not a thing, and activating unlikely visitors is generally not an efficient goal. (“Engagement by force” may not be the most reliable strategy!) These people are defined by their unwillingness to attend. If they had an inclination to attend, they would be in a different category. Non-visitors wouldn’t choose to visit a cultural organization any more than I would choose to eat a cockroach.
I am not going to eat a cockroach.
The High Museum of Art and the National Museum of African American History and Culture are particularly good at activating diverse, inactive visitors. For people to come to a cultural organization and become part of our audiences, they need to want to attend in the first place.
Explore the data on inactive visitors: Here’s data about who these people are and their shared attributes compared to historic visitors. Digging further, here’s data on how millennial and non-millennial active and historic visitors differ from one another.
Why do we need to reach inactive visitors?
We need to reach inactive visitors for two, critical reasons:
First, we need to reach inactive visitors because the United States is growing in folks who do not profile as likely visitors to cultural organizations. Thus, diversity and inclusion is not a “feel good” initiative – it’s a business imperative. Within cultural organizations, we are experiencing a phenomenon that we at IMPACTS have termed the negative substitution of the historic visitor. For every one likely visitor to an exhibit-based cultural organization in the US who leaves the market (via death, relocation, or migration), they are replaced by only 0.94 of a person (via birth, relocation, or migration). For performance-based cultural organizations, they are replaced by 0.92 of a person! This means that our current visitor base is shrinking. The way to combat this is to change up the likely visitor profile so that more diverse audiences choose to visit cultural organizations.
Second, we need to reach inactive visitors because we not succeeding in reaching them. Data shows that we are still not reaching new audiences, but are instead getting traditional visitors to attend more often. This point – that we are particularly good at keeping our core audiences happy – isn’t a bad thing on its own. In fact, it’s a nod to the increasing efficacy of audience research within the industry. (We are getting better at uncovering what our current audiences like and underscoring those programs and initiatives!) The problem is that we’re not getting better at reaching current audiences and new audiences at the same time.
We benefit by paying attention to market research, which extends beyond current visitors, in order to understand why inactive visitors do not attend.
To make matters more difficult, we aren’t adequately reaching racially diverse audiences in particular, and cultural organizations often unintentionally inflate the percentage of diverse visitors that attend – particularly when the data is collected by on-staff folks who do not have a formal background in statistics, behavioral science, or data management.
Why don’t inactive visitors attend?
Good question – and we have answers.
Here are the top barriers to visitation for inactive visitors to cultural organizations in the United States. The top reason why those who have interest in visiting any kind of cultural organization have not done so in the last two years is that they prefer another leisure activity. While they are interested in, say, going to the natural history museum, their time is precious and there are many other activities competing for that time. Perhaps they prefer to have a picnic in the park.
Data reveal that cultural organizations have a growing competitor: The couch. You’re not imagining things. More and more people prefer to spend their free time at home watching Netflix. I’ll provide updated data on the “couch competitor” for cultural organizations next week, so stay tuned. (You can subscribe to this site via email so that you don’t miss it.)
Other, top barriers to visitation switch around a bit based upon organization type and location in terms of their ranking. That said, some key barriers reliably make an appearance: Access challenges (“hard to get there”), schedule conflicts, and perceptions of “nothing new to do or see” make the list. The solutions to these barriers are not, “Remind people that it’s easy to get here,” “Oh well,” and “Time for a new special exhibit or renovation,” respectively. Those simplified “solutions” aren’t working. Removing barriers to attendance means paying close attention to each of these barriers and thinking critically about what they truly mean for people in regard to your organization.
Generally, cost isn’t a primary barrier to visitation for inactive visitors and focusing too much on this is a distraction from the real work of making cultural organizations relevant and effective. Targeted, affordable access programs may engage income-qualified audiences, but this is a different category of visitor that requires a different engagement strategy.
(As a relevant, shameless plug: We have a great deal of market research on why people who would visit museums or performing arts organizations do not choose to attend, cut by region and organization type. We love sharing it with communities and organizations!)
How do we reach inactive visitors?
First and foremost, cultural organizations benefit by consistently striving to remove primary barriers to visitation. Knocking out the reasons why folks choose not to attend can help facilitate the visitation decision.
In addition to the ongoing work of removing barriers to attendance, there are other, data-informed strategies to keep in mind. Here are four articles with data-informed thought-fuel on how to effectively activate inactive visitors:
“Yeah, yeah… More about social media.” It can be tempting to roll our eyes on this topic, but social media keeps coming up for a reason: Inactive visitors are even more connected to the web than inactive visitors – not less! Cultural organizations do not “earn points” for consistently carrying out social media engagement effectively – inactive visitors expect social media prioritization! This article covers the data on how inactive visitors differ from active visitors in terms of their connection to the web.
Access challenges are the second biggest barrier to attendance for those who have interest, but don’t visit. It can be tempting to pour resources into onsite technology like virtual reality. But consider this: Data shows that offsite technology – such as lack of user-friendly/functional online ticketing, missing social media responses, and less-than informative websites – are barriers to visitation that actively keep people away! (“They don’t have virtual reality” has yet to surface as a specific reason why folks do not attend certain cultural organizations, but “It’s too hard to plan my visit” sure does!) While it may be easy to feel bored with these, common barriers, they are the ones that matter most. After all, if folks don’t attend, they won’t experience that cool-sounding onsite technology at all.
Understandably, a top indicator of a likely visitor is an interest in leaving the house to pursue activities in the first place. Data shows that inactive visitors are even more active than historic visitors, and these are the same folks targeted by sports teams, film production companies, and other leisure activities. Diversifying the visitor experience in accordance with an organization’s mission is becoming increasingly important in order to help cultural organizations secure attendance by way of offering unique experiences. This article shares data on what inactive visitors are doing.
While it can be tempting to consider an organization’s own efforts as single-handedly inspiring attendance, what is happening outside of an organization’s walls is a major factor. To visit the Cleveland Museum of Art, for example, a person needs to first decide to visit Cleveland and head into the University Circle neighborhood. This article covers the leisure activity motivations of active and inactive visitors to cultural organizations and how the offerings around an entity impact the decision to attend.
Activating inactive visitors is a critical and ongoing task – and it always will be! By activating more inactive visitors, cultural organizations can shake up realities, and change up the their reputations as entities for a “certain type of” person. A goal is to increase the percentages of recent visitors to cultural organizations. Raising that percentage from 16% will indicate that new audiences are attending these organizations, and profile attributes will shift as these organizations actually do welcome new visitors. It will indicate progress in diversity and inclusion over time. Achieving diversity and inclusion is a marathon, not a sprint.
We aren’t likely to “program” ourselves to the ongoing achievement of reaching new audiences. It is a strategy imperative, and activating inactive visitors – who are more diverse than historic visitors – is key to it. This is important not only for our missions, but for our long-term financial survival.
To our awesome subscribers: Several of you have requested downloadable reports with these kinds of round-ups so that you may take them into executive gatherings and board meetings instead of hauling stacks of individual articles. I hear you, and they are in the works! We look forward to rolling out this new medium soon. If you’re interested in updates but are not already a subscriber, please sign up here.