It’s no secret: Cultural organizations need to engage new audiences – but there’s an opportunity to celebrate.
Cultural organizations such as zoos, aquariums, museums, and performing arts entities are still struggling to successfully engage more diverse audiences. Although the US population has grown by 7% in the last ten years, the percentage of people in the US who have visited a cultural organization has decreased 2.7%. Simply put, cultural organizations are not keeping pace with population growth. To make matters worse, expenses are outpacing revenues within the cultural industry. These trends aren’t good. In fact, they’re rather dire.
Despite difficulty engaging new audiences, there is a critical area in which cultural organizations are thriving right now:
Cultural organizations are growing better and better at getting people to come back.
IMPACTS monitors visitation, perception, and behaviors surrounding 224 visitor-serving organizations in the US. The data below is the combined average of percent repeat visitation for all 224 of those organizations. In 2011, only 27.5% of people visiting a cultural organization had ever visited that entity before, on average. But in 2018, 38.8% were repeat visitors.
Some organizations boast stable or even increasing attendance compared to ten years ago. This is great news…but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the organization is succeeding in reaching new audiences. Given industry engagement trend lines, it’s likely that the organization is increasing re-visitation by some amount. In other words, attendance numbers often aren’t increasing (for the organizations in which they are increasing) because they are reaching new people. They’re more often increasing because visitors are coming back at higher levels.
Increasing attendance by way of repeat visitation is a different – but equally important – win compared to increasing attendance by way of engaging new audiences. It’s a big deal with positive implications and ripe opportunities.
Here’s what’s happening and why it matters.
1) Audience research matters – and it’s working.
For many organizations, this exciting trend is the hard-earned result of active efforts to understand current audiences and integrate those findings into programs and experiences.
Audience research includes surveys and evaluations carried out on current and past visitors. This type of research has received increasing attention over the last decade within the cultural industry. Leaders are increasingly understanding the importance of knowing what current visitors think and expect from a visit. Consequently, organizations are making an active effort to understand what current visitors enjoy so that they will have more satisfying experiences – which data shows makes them more likely to return.
While we have a way to go in terms of broader market research and understanding the folks who are not already visiting, it’s clear that audience research on current visitors is paying off for the industry.
To audience evaluation, survey, and data teams within cultural organizations: This pat on the back is for you.
2) Effective membership programs are more important than ever before.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record championing the importance of membership programs right now: Houston (and all other cities with cultural organizations), we have an opportunity.
More people coming back means greater opportunities to cultivate member support. This good for getting folks hooked on our missions, but it’s also an important opportunity to help organizations find more stable financial footing. IMPACTS found that the average annual revenue benefit of a member is 4x more than the annual revenue benefit of a visitor. Over ten years, a member is worth 4.5x because of the retention rates associated with members!
Moreover, expenses outpacing revenues could become a major issue facing cultural organizations over time – if your organization isn’t feeling this already. Taking advantage of repeat visitation by emphasizing the benefits of membership can help organizations secure support to fund their missions and causes… and keep the lights on.
3) Repeat visitation sets the scene for “going deep” on mission and experiences.
Sure, we’re working hard to “go broad” with the relevance of our programs and experiences – and we need to keep working toward this, without a doubt. But repeat visitation affords an opportunity to “go deep” and cultivate more meaningful relationships with the people who love us.
Data shows that mission-motivated members are more likely to buy higher-level memberships and renew those memberships. They are also more likely to believe that their memberships are a better value. Not only that, supporting an organization’s mission is an important membership benefit even for people whose primary motivation is transaction-motivated (by events, discounts, or free admission)!
Current visitors to cultural organizations generally share certain demographic, psychographic, and behavioral characteristics. They tend to be educated and wealthy, as a group. Repeat visitation may afford opportunities to leverage these audiences by creating paid-participation programs that match their interests and strengthen their relationship with the institution. The revenues from these programs can help fund access programs that effectively reach low-income audiences, or initiatives that welcome more diverse demographics.
Repeat visitation among the same audiences could also create opportunities for more personalized tours and back-of-house experiences that build deeper relationships with the organization. This may be an additional avenue for engagement among members and non-members alike. After all, cultural organizations often seek philanthropic donations, and strengthening the relationship by “going deep” can help on this front.
Engaging new audiences can be costly, and effectively leveraging current audiences can be part of an integrated strategy to overcome those costs.
Let’s be clear on this: Engaging new and diverse audiences is critical.
Let’s be clear on this, too: Further engagement among current audiences is also critical.
Both items are important, and both are related. Strengthening relationships with current audiences need not come at the expense of reaching new folks, or vice versa. While we must acknowledge the need to engage new audiences, let’s take a moment to celebrate the hard work that’s cultivated repeat visitation, too.
This news is good news!
Let’s leverage it to better engage all visitors, whether it’s their first visit or one of many.
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