On the whole, mobile apps are still unlikely to be worth it for cultural organizations.
It’s time for a data update, folks! In 2017, we published data in an article titled, “Are Mobile Applications Worth It For Cultural Organizations?” We noticed that there wasn’t much high-confidence, unbiased market research on how museum and performing arts-goers use mobile applications and what impact – if any – they really had on guest satisfaction. The article gained industry attention (and some hate mail from mobile application developers angered at our drawing back the curtain).
The data showed that more people used mobile applications offsite than onsite if they used them at all – an interesting finding as most cultural organization applications were built to be used to enhance the onsite experience. Not only that, mobile applications were shown not to increase visitor satisfaction – the golden metric tied to re-visitation and endorsement of an organization.
That was 2017. It’s 2019 now. Has anything changed?
A little, but not much.
Whether you are interested in developing an app or just considering visitor engagement in general, the story of mobile applications and the cultural industry is an important one with meaningful lessons.
Mobile application usage onsite and offsite
Like the original data query, this update comes from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. In 2017, 5.5% of cultural organization visitors in the US used a mobile application in order to acquire information prior to their visit. By the end of the first quarter of 2019, that number had increased to 6.1%. With an increase of not even one percent, this is not a particularly meaningful difference. In comparison, mobile web usage (people using the web on their mobile devices) increased by 3.7% to 77.5% of visitors using it as a pre-visit source of information. Social media usage increased by a notable 6.2% to 74.2% of visitors.
(As a note: “WOM” stands for “word of mouth,” and “peer review web” encompasses websites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor. Mobile web and web may encompass the same websites, but the “mobile web” category indicates that the information was gathered on a mobile device.)
What about onsite usage of these information sources? After all, many – if not most – mobile applications still aim to be used onsite in order to help facilitate the experience.
The percentage of people using mobile applications onsite has increased from 4.1% in 2017 to 6.9% in 2019. Now slightly less than 1% more people open mobile applications onsite than offsite. It’s worth noting that these close numbers don’t necessarily mean that people would rather use a cultural organization mobile application at home rather than onsite. It’s possible that some folks may simply be downloading an application at home, deciding they aren’t worth using onsite, and leaving it at that. Remember: The number of total application downloads represents potential usage (the ceiling), and may not correlate with actual usage.
This increase may be a small step in the right direction, but it’s hardly indicative of a major shift in how people use or perceive mobile applications from the last two years. Consider this: In the same duration, onsite social media usage in relation to a visit increased 7.6% to 59.9%, and onsite usage of mobile web in relation to the experience increased a whopping 18.3% to 49.8%! Nearly half of visitors to cultural organizations are accessing the web via a mobile device in relation to their visit while onsite. It’s clear that people prefer to use their own devices in their own ways. At least, they prefer this to the current mobile application alternative.
Mobile applications still do not generally impact visitor satisfaction
Visitor satisfaction is a meaningful metric. The more satisfied a guest is with their experience, the more likely they are to come back, endorse the organization, and believe they received a better value for paying admission. Guest satisfaction is a critical element of the visitor engagement cycle, and without high marks, a cultural organization isn’t likely to thrive long-term.
In the data below, we considered the average onsite satisfaction rates of people who reported using each information source onsite (orange bar) compared to people who reported not using that source onsite (blue bar).
In 2017, onsite mobile application usage was associated with a 0.3% increase in visitor satisfaction. This is not a statistically significant increase in satisfaction. But neither is 0.7%, which is the percent increase associated with using a mobile application onsite in 2019.
This is alarming. Increasing visitor satisfaction is the very point of many organizations’ mobile applications!
The research doesn’t mean that every mobile application is ineffective in increasing visitor satisfaction. It means that on the whole, most are not. A specific mobile application may be an exception to the rule, but it’s up to the organization to find out (from an entity that is not associated with creating or promoting mobile applications).
What happened? The Bandwagon Effect
The Bandwagon Effect is a cognitive bias wherein people do something primarily because other people are doing it. The more people adopt an idea or behavior around us, the more likely we are to take it up ourselves. This is true in life, and it’s true within cultural organizations.
The bandwagon effect – accelerated by case study envy at conferences and among leadership – led cultural organizations to believe for a period of time that mobile applications were a magic bullet to visitor engagement. The belief seemed to be that a mobile application was a strategy in and of itself, and the mere creation of one would lead to increased visitor satisfaction. As a result, several cultural organizations developed mobile applications without contemplating the actual needs of their visitors. Without considering how these applications might actually alleviate a problem or make guests’ lives easier, these mobile applications became an example of technology for technology’s sake.
To be fair, the crush on mobile apps extended far beyond cultural organizations. Remember Apple’s 2009 slogan, “There’s an app for that?” Indeed, for a time, there seemed to be a belief that mobile applications may be a cure for all troubles… cultural organization troubles included.
Because mobile apps can be expensive and because many organizations believed they could be magic bullets for engagement, organizations were not shy in marketing their mobile applications. People began to download them… and they began to see that some would not solve any real onsite issues or enhance the in-person experience. These apps would not, in fact, make their visits better in a way that mattered to them.
If a person downloads a mobile application and decides that it won’t be helpful to them, then they may be less likely to download the mobile application for the next organization they visit. After all, “been there, done that.” They know what a cultural mobile application is like – and it may not have been worth the download time or the space on their phone. To them, there may not be reason to do it again.
Blinded by a theoretical “cool” factor, cultural organizations created hundreds of barely-used mobile applications that seemed not to take into account what visitors actually wanted or needed from a visit to a cultural organization. Audiences took note. Now even thoughtful, engaging mobile applications for cultural entities face an uphill battle simply because they are mobile applications.
Are mobile applications always a bad idea? No. Some are genuinely engaging. However, data shows that the medium itself can now be a barrier to usage for people. In addition to investing in more engaging applications today, entities may need to invest even more in marketing to show that their application is actually worth the download in the first place. They may be faced with overcoming a past, mediocre mobile app experience with another institution.
Technology for technology’s sake is at risk again when it comes to augmented reality and virtual reality. Remember: You are the gatekeepers for your audience. It’s up to cultural organizations to keep tabs on visitor hold ups, hang ups, needs, and expectations. You are the experts in your missions and managing how to tell your stories. If you’re interested in utilizing a new technology, first consider how it helps your organization strategically achieve its goals.
The consequence of the Bandwagon Effect trend is unfortunate for organizations that do have helpful mobile applications (and indeed, there are many)! The trick is to remember that technology is a tool, not a strategy. When we use these tools to help make our audience’s lives easier or more meaningful, they can be impactful. When we fail to consider where they fit in an engagement strategy, we risk the “mobile application phenomenon” repeating itself over and over again with any new technology we take up.
The growing importance of mobile web and social media
While thinking up new engagement methods, don’t forget to “meet audiences where they are.” They are on the web and social media. Mobile application usage and associated satisfaction has not grown significantly, but mobile web and social media have increased in onsite influence when it comes to satisfaction. Not only that, three-quarters of visitors to cultural organizations use web, mobile web, and social media in order to inform their visit.
Using social media onsite in relation to a visit correlates with a 7% higher visitor satisfaction rate than someone who does not use social media onsite in relation to their visit – and nearly 60% of people who visit a cultural organization use social media onsite in a way that relates to their visit! This is meaningful news, and it contributes to the important role that social media plays in elevating the onsite experience.
In addition to social media followers being more likely to actually visit than non-followers, people who follow an organization on social media at the time of their visit report higher satisfaction rates than non-followers. Following an organization on social media even influences parking perceptions!
Onsite mobile web use in relation to a visit is correlated with a 6% increase in onsite satisfaction – and onsite use of this platform has grown 18.3% in the last two years! Today, nearly half of all visitors to cultural organizations use mobile web to amp up their visit. They may be looking up more information on an item in a collection, Googling a cast member, or looking up the hours of your café across the building, for instance. Mobile web allows guests to “choose their own adventure” and look up more information on their own, possibly contributing to a more personalized experience.
It may be easy to get wrapped up in new technologies, but don’t forget the unassailable importance of these other, digital channels. Easy-to-access Wi-Fi matters, and allowing for mobile usage onsite – when possible – is generally a smart move.
Mobile applications are not experiencing a sudden surge in usage, and they are still not influencing satisfaction much. This doesn’t necessarily mean they cannot! If your organization is considering a mobile application or any kind of technology, first consider how it helps fulfill audience needs and makes their lives easier or more meaningful.
Technology – no matter how sexy – is a tool, not a strategy.
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