Some people are not interested in visiting cultural organizations. Here’s why.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve covered a bit of data about people who actually go to cultural organizations such as museums and performing arts organizations, and people who have interest in visiting, but don’t. Together, these current and inactive visitors make up 32% of the United States adult population.
What about the other 68%?
They are unlikely and non-visitors to cultural organizations. In other words, they are characterized as being disinterested in attending these institutions.
Before you get too down about this percentage, remember that having likely and unlikely users is an economic reality for any non-essential product, service, or experience. It’s not a failing that not everybody wants to visit a museum or performing arts entity! But knowing a thing or two about these folks can help us understand visitor motivation and how we might change their minds… eventually.
The 68% of folks who do not have interest in visiting cultural organizations fall into two categories: unlikely visitors and non-visitors. Unlikely visitors don’t want to visit cultural organizations, but they will if they have to. Non-visitors, on the other hand, do not have interest in attending and do not generally have obligations or social connections that might otherwise motivate them.
Unlikely Visitors make up 38% of the US population
Why don’t they attend? Well, they don’t want to. But they will if they “have to.”
Don’t get me wrong – unlikely visitors are not coming into the door kicking and screaming. These adults simply aren’t likely to choose to visit a cultural organization without significant motivation. These are people who will go to the ballet if grandma is in town, or attend the company holiday party at the science center, or who commit to serving as a field trip chaperone for their child’s class trip to the art museum.
Notice anything about those examples? In each case, our unlikely visitor is motivated not by interest in the cultural organization itself but by the people with whom they’ll attend, or a professional obligation. In other words, these visitors more often than not come due to perceived obligations. Though there are exceptions, programmatic motivations – i.e., an exhibit or event – usually won’t be enough to get these people through the doors on their own.
As it turns out, 38% of adults in the US fall into this unlikely visitor category. We consulted the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study to better understand why people who self-classify as unlikely visitors aren’t interested in attending. The top three reasons shown here were determined by a process called lexical analysis. We did not ask people to choose from a list of reasons why they are unlikely visitors. Instead, we asked them open-ended questions and categorized their answers based on their weighted values. Take a look at the top three reasons:
1) Prefer an alternative leisure activity
Simply, these folks would rather do something else. Time is precious, and aside from generally being disinterested, there are other activities that are of interest to them. Preferring an alternative leisure activity is the top reason why inactive visitors (people with interest but who have not attended in two years) have not visited as well. For inactive visitors, however, attending a cultural organization is at least a competitive prospect. Unlikely visitors don’t already have interest, and would simply rather do something else.
2) Negative attitude affinities
Here’s where things get interesting. Negative attitude affinities mean people feel that an organization just “isn’t for people like me,” or “people like me don’t go there or do that.” This often relates to issues regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. Current visitors to cultural organizations are largely educated, wealthy, and white – and, indeed, cultural organizations are often regarded as places for “a certain kind of person.” Consider these findings: Four out of ten people in the US don’t feel that art or history museums/sites are for “people like me.” Three out of ten feel this way toward science centers and science museums. More than four out of ten express negative attitude affinities toward orchestras.
Negative attitude affinities are a big deal, and there’s work to be done. But remember: like unlikely visitors, inactive visitors are also more diverse than current visitors – and they are likely attendees! It is by activating them that we are able to change up the “type of person” who visits cultural organizations. Better engaging diverse inactive visitors may change perceptions enough to alter these unlikely visitors’ perceptions over time.
3) Negative precedent experience
You may be wondering, “If these folks aren’t visitors, how is having a negative past experience a significant barrier?” Remember: These folks may have attended during a childhood field trip or due to a perceived obligation at some point. Either way, something about their past experience(s) makes them think, “no thanks” today.
In a nutshell, this barrier means, “I went and I didn’t like it.” These folks have an idea of what a certain cultural experience entails, and they don’t love that idea. This could apply to the adult who went to the art museum because it was the site of the holiday party three years ago, or the adult who went with their class on a field trip there thirty years ago as a child.
Critically, 60% of recent visitors to cultural organizations attended them as children. Childhood experiences help cultivate active adult cultural organization visitors. But it’s not just getting kids in the door that counts! A boring field trip to a cultural organization as a child can prove a lifetime barrier to engagement. Being entertaining is a critical element of visitor satisfaction, and it does not necessarily mean that an experience is vapid or meaningless. It can mean the opposite. An organization may have engaging programs and experiences now, but may be paying the price today – literally – for overlooking the importance of relevant, engaging experiences decades ago.
“They will come out of obligation and love us!”
Striving to provide positive experiences for every attendee is a critical goal for engaging audiences. Do that! But remember that in the case of unlikely visitors, it’s a particularly inefficient strategy.
Unlikely visitors are disinterested in attending and tend to visit due to obligation. “Affinity building by force” generally isn’t a reliable or efficient long-term engagement strategy for a cultural organization. A more reliable strategy is to activate the more diverse audiences who already have interest in attending but aren’t doing so yet.
What about cost?
For unlikely visitors, cost has a barrier index value of 55.9. In other words, preferring an alternative leisure activity is a 4.4x bigger barrier than cost. Not feeling welcome is a 3.2x bigger barrier than cost. Finally, having a negative precedent experience is a 3x bigger barrier than cost. Being free is not the same as being welcoming.
It stands to reason that if a person doesn’t want to do something, then cost becomes less relevant. (I personally don’t want to eat squid, for example, no matter how much it costs at a restaurant.)
Non-Visitors make up 30% of the US population
Listen: These adults aren’t going to go to cultural organizations.
They don’t want to, won’t choose to, and often don’t even have contacts in their social circles to create a social obligation to attend. These are not your affordable access audiences, or your “mission work” audiences. These are full-fledged adults with little to no interest in attending cultural organizations at all. It’s just not something they are going to do. Their friends and social circles aren’t likely to be attendees, so cultural organizations may not even come up on their radar.
We can increase attendance over time. We can welcome new audiences. We can create strategies to scale our impact. But to do this, we must have a solid grasp on where our resources are most impactful.
We are too removed from these folks to encourage visitation, and their interests do not align with the experiences that we provide. Investing in reaching non-visitors is a waste of resources. A better strategy is to target inactive visitors, and eventually decrease the percentage of the population who fall into the non-visitor category by increasing the percentage of those who are in the others.
A key to understanding audiences is better understanding the people who are not our audiences. For cultural organizations with missions to educate and inspire the masses, this can be a difficult concept to grasp.
We welcome all, but we aren’t welcomed by all (yet).