Research regarding public perceptions of zoos and aquariums may show the importance of being more than an attraction for other types of cultural entities.
I had the honor of keynoting the Association of Zoos & Aquariums annual conference in New Orleans in September. My charge? Underscore key research on the role that mission plays in motivating attendance.
We have a good deal of information on the topic – the hard part was choosing which data sets to bring that would resonate with everyone from CEOs to marketing executives to animal caretakers to conservation researchers… while also respecting my forty minute time limit! In pulling data for the keynote, we were reminded of an exciting correlation that may be of interest to those beyond the zoo and aquarium world. How well an organization performs financially is related to how well they are perceived to be executing their mission.
We track 224 visitor-serving organizations in the US on an ongoing basis, and have long noted that entities highlighting their missions outperform those marketing solely as attractions.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into this finding by looking at key trends surrounding the most impactful – and financially healthy – zoos and aquariums.
Why do perceptions of zoos and aquariums matter for other cultural entities?
At IMPACTS, we’ve found zoos and aquariums to be the most reliable canaries in the coalmine for spotting trends. Compared to other organization types (such as art museums or theaters or science centers, for instance), zoos and particularly aquariums face unique funding challenges. They have the smallest endowments, receive the least government support, and are least often recognized as nonprofit organizations. In short, they are the most reliant on “the gate” and earned revenues. Here’s the data. This contributes to two unique conditions for zoos and aquariums:
First, they have a greater financial imperative to pay close attention to visitor perceptions and motivations compared to other organization types. They actually do sink or swim depending on how well they engage folks. If they make a silly investment that doesn’t drive attendance, they often actually feel it.
Second, because aquariums feel the pain of making uninformed decisions, they comparatively tend to make better ones, faster. The importance of reaching millennials and the most impactful clues on how to do it, for instance? We saw it at zoos and aquariums first. The urgency of diversity, equity, and inclusion? We have been watching a variety of organization types for over a decade and alarm was raised on changing demographics at zoos and aquariums first, even though changing demographics are much more urgent for other organization types.
I get to see data roll in from a host of organization types for a living, and from this vantage point, it’s clear that aquariums are a hot spot for visitation behavior nerdery. My colleague, Jim Hekkers, was the managing director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium for 15 years and he often speaks about how certain, critical issues that we’re aiding other organization types in effectively resolving now were put on the Aquarium’s radar much earlier due to the need to keep up attendance. And I personally serve on the board of directors at the National Aquarium. It’s not that we’re “aquarium people,” specifically. It’s more that we’re cultural organization-loving behavioral economics people – and aquariums may have a special place at the heart of that scene.
If you’re not from a zoo or aquarium, keep reading and don’t remove your thinking cap. We already know that the trends ahead are and have been impacting other kinds of entities as well.
A perceptual trend differentiating successful organizations
Cultural organizations share some superpowers, overall. We are trusted, for one. We are seen to provide an intellectual advantage for children who come through our doors. Generally, cultural organizations aim to educate and inspire. This goal is one that all leaders reading this article may share, whether they run a historic site, art festival, botanic garden, science center, theater, symphony, or any other location-based entity that aims to make a difference.
If simply having a social mission were enough to fuel perceptions and motivate attendance in themselves, museums would not have a shrinking visitor base. But they do.
So what gives?
Take a look at this. This first chart shows the trust levels for fourteen anonymized zoos and aquariums in the United States with an admission basis. There are no tricks here. You’d recognize these major entities if they weren’t anonymized. We’ve chosen this group to show the metrics of some market leaders, but also to show that there is some variance in these metrics among zoos and aquariums.
Like other cultural organization types, not all zoos and aquariums individually share the same levels of trust and admiration. While zoos and aquariums are generally trusted, Organizations C, I, and J are very trusted. This metric is in scalar variables and the higher the value, the “rarer the air.” For context, one of the most agreed-upon metrics in the US is the sentence “kittens are cute” with a scalar variable of 83. People in the US trust entities I and J more than they agree that kittens are cute. This is a big deal because – and I think we can mostly agree – kittens are cute!
Levels above 64 begin to express active agreement with the sentiment, and levels below 62 start to express active disagreement. As you can see, Organizations D, E, F, and L are also notably trusted! However, Organizations B, M, and especially G are not actively trusted. In fact, Organization G is decidedly distrusted as a zoo or aquarium actor.
Here’s the point: While museums are trusted, on the whole, they are not all trusted at the same levels. Different organizations may have different reputational equities depending on their experiences, visitor satisfaction, and perceived integrity.
Unsurprisingly, trust metrics correlate with other important metrics. Let’s look at how much people admire these same organizations. No surprise here, right? The most trusted are the most admired! And, similarly, it’s the least trusted organizations in the bunch that are least admired.
Now let’s look at another metric that correlates with trust and admiration for zoos and aquariums that you may not see coming…
In addition to being trusted and admired, these entities are considered to be conservation organizations! (How interesting is that?!) They may also be perceived as other things that do have to do with to being an attraction – such as being satisfying and entertaining. (They’re related). But the most trusted and admired organizations are considered more than attractions. They are considered to be entities that tie directly to their missions.
And they also experience the greatest financial health…
While we continue to find that cultural organizations that highlight their missions generally outperform those marketing primarily as attractions, let’s look at how this plays out for the specific zoos and aquariums we’ve been discussing.
The data below shows two composite metrics. A composite metric is a single metric composed of other related metrics. Revenue efficiency (in green) contemplates revenue streams (including admission, membership contributions, and program revenues) relative to operating expenses and the number of people that an organization serves. Essentially, it’s a measure of financial health informed by 990s, annual reports, and financial records. A more revenue efficient organization is generally more financially stable.
Reputational equities (in gray) contemplate visitor perceptions, including the three you’ve seen for these entities – trust, admiration, and perception of being a conservation organization – as well as metrics such as perceived reputation, authority, credibility, and guest satisfaction. Basically, it’s the market’s opinion of how well an organization delivers its mission and experiences.
The organizations perceived as best delivering on their missions and experiences financially outperform those not seen as delivering in mission-based areas. The entities that are more than an attraction have better revenue efficiencies, and better financial health.
Your reputation is more than your TripAdvisor score. It’s more than how clean your bathrooms are or how easy it is to find parking. (Though, yes, those things are important, too. They are smaller parts of a larger equation – literally.) Your reputation is also how well you are perceived as walking your talk and carrying out your mission.
Your reputation isn’t just how much people like the themed cocktail that you serve at your special event after-hours. It’s also your perceived integrity. It’s how well people believe you fulfill your objective of making the world a better place.
It’s cool to be kind today. How you matter, matters.
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