Are most people likely to revisit your cultural organization every year? No. But they may be far from lost audiences.
We at IMPACTS often encounter a myth among cultural executives: That audience retention means that people come back every year… and if they’re not coming annually, then you aren’t retaining them as visitors.
As it turns out, this is a high bar – and one that does not line up with actual visitor behavior.
Museums have members and performing arts organizations have subscribers who may visit specific organizations more than once per year. In reality, most people who visit cultural organizations do not visit another organization of that type in two or more years.
Let’s talk about real-life human behavior, and annual visitation cycles for cultural organization types in the United States.
How often do people really revisit different organization types?
As usual, the data below comes from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study, which has sampled more than 124,000 individuals residing in the United States. It shows the average revisitation chronology for people who visit these organization types. In other words, it shows how many months are between visits to each type of cultural organization.
These data show the mean among different organization types, but you can uncover your organization’s own visitation cycle through thoughtful audience research. Your organization may be the exception to these national findings, but it’s up to you to find out the extent. In most cases, the visitation cycle is longer than a year. For “bigger” organizations that attract a large percentage of tourists, it is not uncommon for visitation cycles to be over three years.
These data contemplate the duration between visits for people who report actually attending and revisiting cultural organization types. This is important, because not everyone wants to or does visit a cultural organization in the first place.
This information does not quantify how often people visit Art Museum X (for instance), but rather how often they visit art museums. The average art-museum goer may visit Art Museum X, and then visit Art Museum Y 28 months later.
No organization type shown here averages an annual revisitation cycle. It’s just not how people generally behave in regard to attending cultural organizations. The average visitation cycle among all cultural organizations combined – including those not in this chart such as children’s museums and other performance organizations – is 27 months as of 2019.
Though they are not included on this chart, festivals – including music, theater, art, or other types of festivals – have a revisitation cycle of 15 months. There are a few reasons why the cycle is shorter for these entities. First off, festivals are more likely to become traditions or destinations due to their time-sensitive nature and because they are only available for a discrete duration of time. We also observe that festivals function a bit differently than other, more traditional cultural organization types in terms of their public perceptions. They are often seen as less educational and more entertaining than the entities on this chart. (This doesn’t mean that cultural organizations should play down their education quotient. That’s a superpower! It means festivals are a bit different in terms of how they are perceived, and “entertainment” is not a dirty word.)
At the other end of the spectrum, other performance organizations – such as ballets, operas, and spoken poetry entities, for instance – have a combined average visitation cycle of 33 months. This is because these types of entities tend to be more “niche,” comparatively.
This valuable information may inform decisions and set proper expectations.
Annual revisitation expectations are not based on actual visitor behavior
Instead, these expectations are based on assumptions and convenience. This makes sense to a degree: Our internal operations are on an annual timeframe. We need to set annual budgets, and a year is a common form of time measurement!
The problem? When we forget that human behavior does not always operate on annual timeframes, we make mistakes. In this case, we risk missing important trends in guest engagement. A year is often too short a period to assess the long-term outcomes of programs and initiatives.
Measuring year-over-year attendance as a driving indicator of success (instead of also contemplating a longer view) can lead to misunderstanding trends and performance over time. Annual attendance measurement favors the short-term over the long term… and trends happen in the long term. Annual timeframes make it hard to spot how discounting negatively impacts long-term attendance, how blockbuster exhibits can lead to big problems after the attendance spike wears off, and how quickly attendance returns to baseline after a new renovation opens.
Short-term attendance spikes can be intoxicating, but annual timeframes can enable organizations to overlook devastating hangovers. They can make trends that were a very long-time coming (like diversity, equity, and inclusion) seem like they are sudden – or worse, like they are just “hot” fads.
In order to accurately assess performance, cultural organizations’ budget and planning processes should reconcile with the market’s behaviors. While we are not likely to give up annual timeframes internally, it’s time to realize that these timeframes do not always (or often) align with behavior when it comes to attending cultural entities.
You may be better at retaining audiences than you think!
While the news that people do not generally visit a history museum every year (for instance), may be inconvenient – it may also be enlightening… in a good way.
We’ve heard performing arts organizations, in particular, lament their inability to retain audiences, reporting statistics like, “Only 15% of our guests come back within 12 months!” This research shows that these entities may indeed be retaining audiences – but are using a measure of success that does not align with visitation decisions.
And here’s more good news: While attendance to cultural organizations is not keeping pace with population growth, these entities are getting better and better at getting people to return. This may be due to organizations collecting data to better understand their audiences, and then creating programs to match their expectations and desires! Go, go audience research!
If somebody has not visited in the last 12 months, they are not necessarily gone! They may come back on an average visitation cycle. We remove them from our networks and customer-relationship management tools (CRM) at our own risk. They haven’t turned their back on you by not adhering to your internal annual timeframe “rule,” so don’t turn your back on them.
Leisure time is precious and competition is fierce
It’s easy to wonder, “If we’re so great, wouldn’t people come back every year?”
Indeed, a goal is to get people to come back more often! But don’t take long visitation cycles as proof that your organization is necessarily subpar. Instead, consider it an opportunity to better understand the fiercely competitive, personalized, and noisy environment in which we increasingly live. Use it as a catalyst to adapt to a changing world.
People who go to cultural organizations are an active and connected bunch. They enjoy traveling, low-intensity outdoor activities, and tend to report healthy lifestyles. People with interest in visiting cultural organizations who haven’t done so yet are even more active and connected!
The top reason why people who have interest in visiting don’t attend is because they prefer an alternative leisure activity. Sure, they want to attend! They’d simply rather do something else with their precious leisure time.
Time is more valuable than money, and cultural organizations have growing couch competition. Leisure time is precious, so it may be critical for cultural leaders to understand that getting someone to choose your organization over and over in a short timeframe is a big ask. It’s an important one! But it’s also one that demands growing strategy and consideration compared to the past.
What does this mean for mean for memberships to museums and subscriptions to performing arts organizations?
You’ve caught onto an issue: Cultural organizations aim to engage folks with annual membership and subscription opportunities, but the average guest visits closer to every two years – not one. We have additional data to inform the membership aspect of the revisitation conversation. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll tackle this important discussion with membership-specific data and a new video.
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll share research on how often members and subscribers visit. We’ll share data about members and subscribers who do not visit cultural organizations annually, but continue to renew nonetheless. (Spoiler: These folks are important – and they may be our key to understanding the evolution of memberships in a more competitive world!)
While the news that most people who return to cultural organizations do not do so on annual timeframes may seem discouraging, I think it’s the opposite.
Knowing true, national visitation cycles allows us to create more realistic expectations. It also allows us to create programs, CRM systems, and initiatives that are contemplative of this reality.
Knowledge is power. It is not wishful thinking. Now that you know, you may you have the power to create even better engagement strategies.
I look forward to sharing more in the next couple weeks! Please don’t forget to subscribe to get updates delivered to your email address so you will not miss the continued conversation.