Sometimes organizations uncover audience feedback that contradicts their own realities. Here’s what may be going on, and why cultural executives should not ignore it.
Consider the following scenarios:
An art museum has multiple benches throughout the galleries, but potential visitors say a barrier to visiting is inadequate opportunities to sit and rest.
A symphony sends an automatic reply to thank online donors, but audience research shows donors stop giving because they are not thanked for their gifts.
A science center has exhibits designed to appeal to all ages, but a barrier to visiting is that people think it’s “only for kids.”
People say a barrier to visiting a botanic garden is construction on the highway, but the construction ended two weeks ago.
A suburb is only 20 minutes away from a historic site by car, but residents say the travel distance is too far.
It can be frustrating when research uncovers these findings. Specifically, it can be tempting to see the information and proclaim, “That’s not reality! Those potential visitors are wrong!” Some organizations blame it on “bad data.” Others throw up their hands and secretly curse “dumb visitors.”
But writing off these findings is a critical mistake.
These findings shine a light on the ongoing tension between audience perceptions and the efforts of internal experts – a tension that often gets in the way of successfully engaging guests. Remember: Staff members and leaders who work for an organization and know the ins and outs of its operations are not target audiences. Current and potential visitors do not know as much about operations as we do. Try as we might to overcome them, internal experts have unintentionally skewed perspectives.
Cultural organizations benefit by understanding barriers to attendance or ongoing support, and then working to remove those barriers. The first step in doing this is identifying the barriers and thinking critically about them. “Thinking critically” about them means asking why these barriers do not line up with our own realities – not disregarding them as untrue.
Here are two data-backed examples of how “reality” tensions manifest themselves and why ignoring them is a cultural organization’s loss.
1) Are cultural organizations thanking donors?
Cultural executives say that they are. Data says that many are not.
If I were to ask you if your organization thanks its donors, I’ll bet many of you would nod your head enthusiastically. “We sure do,” you may boast! If this is your reaction, then it aligns with my experience working with cultural organization clients and partners. To date, I haven’t had a client or done a trend workshop or boot camp with an organization that wasn’t entirely confident that it was thanking donors. That’s “Philanthropy 101,” isn’t it?!
That said, data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study shows that the top reason why people making $250 – $2,500 gifts to cultural organizations stop giving is that they are not thanked for those gifts. The data is cut for performance-based visitor-serving organizations such as symphonies and theaters, as well as exhibit-based cultural organizations such as museums and historic sites. Zoos and aquariums fit into this category as well.
Who is lying here? Are cultural organizations lying, or are donors lying?
It’s likely that neither party is lying. Here’s why: Reality is perception.
Diving more deeply into the research reveals the disconnection: These donors do not feel like they were thanked, and because they didn’t perceive that they were thanked, they stopped giving. They may not feel like they were thanked for a few reasons. It could be the medium (i.e. the thank you took place over snail mail instead of a preferred, digital channel), or it could be lack of personalization (i.e. an automated response or form letter rather than a more thoughtful note), for instance. If we use the wrong medium, the note may be missed entirely! Sending a thank you may be a “check mark” action item for a busy development or membership team, but the whole point is lost when the purpose of the action item (thanking someone) is not perceptually achieved.
A big culprit here is often automatic email replies to online donations. We find that these do not often function as more than verifications that the donation went through, and risk not being perceived as an adequate “thank you” at all. Alarmingly, my experience is that some cultural organizations have tried to “automate” the feeling of thanks, and it’s not working. Remember, there are humans behind computer screens making those online donations!
Similarly, the wrong medium or message may be the culprit behind the perception that folks are not asked to donate again, or that there is inadequate information about the use of the gift, if an organization feels that it is doing these things. “Just doing” or “just saying” these things is not the same as doing or saying them adequately in our busy, connected world. We benefit by meeting audiences where they are.
2) “The hassle” is the second biggest barrier to attendance among likely visitors
As I’ve shared before, access challenges are the second biggest barrier to attendance among likely visitors to cultural organizations, after preferring an alternative leisure activity.
“Access challenges” are, essentially, “the hassles” attendant to a visit. They include items related to getting to the organization and planning a visit. They include travel distance; trip planning difficulties; getting too frustrated by convoluted systems to carry out online transactions; an organization not responding to questions over the phone or social media, and non-compliant buildings for physical or health limitations.
We have found that each of these barriers has a component that relates directly to audience perception. In other words, it isn’t always the number of miles from someone’s home to a cultural organization that creates a barrier, but the perceived hassle of “going into the city,” for instance.
The data in the list above numbers the most frequently stated access challenges from most to least cited, among people who have an interest in visiting a cultural organization but who have not done so in the last two years. “Non-compliant building or experience” has its roots in perception. After all, these folks haven’t been to a cultural organization in over two years! An issue may not be – factually – that there aren’t enough benches, for instance. The barrier could be concern that there won’t be enough benches, and worry that physical or health limitations may cause a problem onsite, based upon previous experiences in similar settings. If people believe that a “non-compliant experience” is a barrier, then the belief functions as an actual barrier.
How can cultural organizations create a culture that better navigates the tensions between internal expert “realities” and visitor “realities?”
I think adapting a mindset that embraces these two concepts may be particularly helpful:
A) Visitor perception is reality.
It doesn’t matter if construction on I-90 was completed last week and traffic is back to normal, if the reality is that people still aren’t attending and reporting this factor as a reason why they aren’t visiting. If an audience “reality” is impacting our ability to accomplish our missions or achieve financial sustainability, then that “reality” is real. It should be treated as such. To disregard it can make the problem worse.
For instance, in the case of construction on I-90, a solution may be to remind folks that the construction is completed! Ignoring the reality does not aim to correct potential confusion among visitors, and indirectly allows them to promulgate the idea that the construction is still taking place.
These mismatching “realities” do not discredit data, internal experts, or potential supporters. Instead, they underscore an opportunity to build a shared understanding.
B) The mismatch of realities is not an audience members’ problem. It’s ours.
Given that the top reason why annual donors stop giving is that they aren’t thanked for their gift, and that cultural organizations generally feel that they are thanking donors for their gifts, there may be two options: We could continue to insist on our own “reality” that we are delivering adequate thanks, or we can adjust how we say thanks to match perceived reality and keep donors engaged.
In one scenario, the barrier may be removed. In the other, it may get worse. Refusing to adapt only hurts the cultural organization. A donor can give that money elsewhere! In other words, making this issue of “reality” into a philosophical hill to die on (or lose funds on) is a costly point… for nobody but the cultural organization.
To succeed, we yield.
Yielding means understanding barriers and adapting to motivate desired behavior that helps us fulfill our missions to educate and inspire people. It means understanding that potential visitors are not likely to change their perceptions without reason. We need to work to change those perceptions, if they are getting in the way.
What people believe impacts how they behave. It’s tempting to see information on why people make decisions and think, “That operating premise is just not true!” However, this line of thought overlooks the fact that we are all human, with access to different information and understandings (…like how many benches are actually in the galleries to rest one’s feet).
An aim for cultural organizations is to understand barriers to desired behavior, and then work to remove them with solutions that inform marketing, programs, operations, guest experiences, membership, and development.
For as long as we are humans (with insider knowledge) working to educate and inspire other humans (who do not already have that knowledge), then we are likely to encounter tensions between perceived realities.
Visitor perception impacts our real ability to acheive our goals.