If your cultural organization is closed to the public due to COVID-19, don’t disregard marketing efforts. Here’s data to inform what to do instead.
Not even a scant two weeks ago, organizations and major conferences began to postpone and cancel their events to slow the spread of the coronavirus within the United States. Last week, museums began to temporarily shutter their doors across the nation. This week, we’re seeing bars, restaurants, gyms, and other gathering places similarly close as people in the US are increasingly encouraged to isolate and social distance themselves at home.
Things are moving quickly.
On a personal note, we may be concerned about the health and safety of our family members, friends, and neighbors. On a professional note, cultural leaders may also be concerned about how to sustain their long-term financial objectives and minimize operating losses during these periods of temporary business interruption.
Research shows that people generally do not intend to visit cultural organizations for at least the next month. Intentions to visit cultural organizations within the next three months – assuming that organizations reopen within this duration – have also declined. We are monitoring this key metric and providing weekly updates.
Some cultural entities panic and cut their marketing investments at the first sign of a potentially difficult financial horizon. This shortsighted instinct often digs them into deeper long-term financial holes at would-be comical rates…if we weren’t talking about our community pillars for educating and inspiring audiences. The stubborn belief that an entity may save its way to prosperity by cutting a department bringing in the money to be saved in the first place is a problem even when the nation is not facing a global pandemic.
…But the “visit now” message cannot work at this moment. Our institutions are closed. Things are different. The goal right now isn’t just to save money. It is to make sure investments are optimized and best positioned to ensure maximum attendance when it is safe for our doors to reopen.
What should entities do about marketing during this time in order to maximize investments and ensure opportunities for success (and recovering lost revenue) upon reopening?
Here are some key factors to inform your marketing and communications strategy during this uncertain time, based upon some things we know about audiences and their behaviors that are more certain.
Three factors to aid in understanding the current conditions relative to audience engagement
1) The time between the decision to attend and a visit is an important factor
As entities consider what to do in this time period, it’s important to understand the average timeframe from when a person decides to attend a cultural organization to when they actually visit.
At IMPACTS, we call this metric “lead days to visit.” We quantify this metric by first asking folks who intend to visit a certain cultural entity about the timeframe in which they plan to do so. (That’s the “intent to visit” metric that we are monitoring weekly in light of COVID-19 to understand when people think they’ll be leaving their homes and plan to visit cultural organizations again.) Then we follow up with these individuals again shortly after the timeframe they articulated in order to obtain the date on which they attended. “Lead days to visit” represents the average number of days between when they expressed their initial intention to visit and when they actually walked through the door.
The data below contemplated the intentions and behaviors of 6,487 US adults concerning their visits to 21 organizations. It is segmented by the number of miles the person resides from the cultural institution. We have cut the data this way because the distance that one lives from an organization is often a key factor in determining the duration of their planning cycle. This makes intuitive sense: Somebody who can simply hop in their car and drive across town can more readily make last-minute plans to visit an organization than someone who lives further away and needs to arrange for a day off of work, a hotel stay, or airfare.
Depending on the organization, out of state visitors may represent a more modest component of an entity’s audience construct. These individuals have longer planning lead times and are likely less susceptible to the immediacy of a perceived crisis.
To be clear: These data do not say that an organization’s most local audiences always plan their visits four days in advance. Instead, they indicate, on average, the duration of time between when a local resident decides to visit and when they actually attend. For some folks, this may be a same-day decision. For others, it may be a plan they make two weeks in advance.
“Lead time to visit” is a critical consideration because it helps us understand how far in advance we benefit by cultivating intentions to visit with communications and marketing messages.
On that note…
2) Intentions to visit still fall within the “lead time to visit” timeframe for some audiences
The more unknown and rapidly evolving factor during this national emergency is a metric we call “intent to visit.” This metric quantifies when people intend to visit cultural organizations in near real-time. As of Friday (which already feels like years ago), people in the United States anticipated returning to their more usual attendance patterns within the next three to six months.
While times are strange, we know that even if the world was operating under more typical conditions, many potential visitors still would not have yet realized their visit. The implication is that engaging regional and national audiences will require due lead times. The necessary lead times to engage these visitors will have to begin before the national emergency is over in order for organizations to welcome non-local audiences shortly upon reopening.
At some point, our audiences will resume their near-term intentions to visit within the next month. We don’t know exactly when that will occur, but visitor-serving organizations stand to greatly benefit by not going dark on platforms when people are beginning to make these plans. We aren’t going to open our doors to a rush of people on Re-Opening Day 1 who hadn’t considered attending until that day. That’s not how human behavior works.
Intending to visit needs to happen before people actually do visit, and there’s a lead time associated with visitation behaviors. Making sure there are people at our doors when they reopen (or shortly afterward) means remaining top-of-mind during the time in which we are closed.
Remember, there are a lot of things for people to choose to do with their precious time. When they are out and about again, there will be competition. It stands to reason that the entities that remain top of mind and cultivate intent to visit beforehand will be the same organizations that retain (and grow) their engagement with the market.
3) It costs significantly more to re-engage lost audiences than to retain them
Simply scaling back marketing investments during this time is likely to cost organizations much more in the long run than any near-term savings that they’ll achieve right now. A lot more.
As a rule of thumb, it costs 5x more to acquire customers than it does to retain existing customers. In the visitor-serving world, our attendees are our customers. Following this guideline, a hypothetical reduction in marketing spend of $200,000 (for the sake of easy math) would require a $1 million investment to simply gain back the expected lost market opportunity. The calculus may actually be much worse than this for cultural organizations. Presumably, your organization benefits financially from its marketing investment. You’re not investing $1 in marketing to earn back $1 of revenue. You’re more likely investing $1 to earn back $2…or $3…or $4. So, a reduction in marketing investment is actually a double whammy. You have to spend 5x more to reacquire the same audience, and you lose the revenues that these audiences would have contributed to your organization in the meantime.
If your organization cannot afford efforts to maintain audience awareness right now, then your organization certainly cannot afford to buy it back later.
We have several case studies to shine a light on what really happens when organizations dramatically reduce marketing budgets. Here is an overview of trends related to cultural entities who cut their marketing budgets, and the attendant realities of “buying back” audiences afterward. Spoiler alert: Cutting marketing budgets is costly.
It will be challenging to recoup market potential lost during this national emergency. However, in an environment where many organizations are already struggling to representatively engage emerging audiences – coupled with further challenges posed by the ever-increasing competition for our audience’s leisure time and resources – significantly scaling back on audience engagement efforts may be a particularly short-sighted strategy. If you do this, please be fully aware of the cost to reacquire lost engagement and/or the loss of resulting attendance when doors do reopen.
In the longer view, maintaining top-of-mind status and high awareness will position organizations to optimize their audience acquisition efforts when the market returns to its more typical leisure behaviors.
What should organizations do?
The leaders who look to this website represent diverse experiences, audiences, and geographic regions. We hope that whatever you decide to do will be contemplative of the fact-based findings above, with careful consideration as to what is best for your organization and its unique situation. What you should do is consider what is known about visitation behaviors and the information being gathered at this time alongside your organization’s capabilities and priorities. How entities use all of this information – and what they deem right for them – may be different.
That said, here are four recommendations for consideration that we will give to any cultural entity right now – urban or rural, exhibit or performance-based, with tens of millions of dollars in operating revenue or of more modest means.
A) Strategic deferral in paid media to local audiences
In response to the observed decline in immediate-term intentions to visit among local market members, it makes sense to selectively defer campaign spending for paid media that targets audiences with relatively short lead times. People don’t intend to visit cultural entities right now, and local audiences will make the visitation decision in a shorter period of time once entities reopen than regional audiences.
To be clear, this does not at all mean ceasing all marketing and not communicating with local audiences. It means strategically deferring select paid media efforts for this market, and holding these funds in abeyance for deployment at a more opportune moment.
B) Replace investments aimed at immediate activation (“visit now!”) and focus instead on maintaining top-of-mind status and broad awareness
Typically, audience acquisition campaigns would increase spending as the spring break period approaches. However, the current environment suggests more of a “maintenance” approach that intends to preserve awareness of what your organization does and stands for in order to keep your cultural institution at the forefront of people’s minds.
Unaided awareness and top-of-mind metrics are measurable – but you don’t need to be in market measuring them for your own institution to understand why they matter. They serve as historic harbingers of actual onsite engagement because (1) knowing your entity exists in the first place and (2) being considered a leisure activity at the top of one’s mind are often prerequisites to (3) activating a visit (which is now on hold). Organizations want to be ready to immediately reactivate audiences when they reopen, and that means maintaining high levels of awareness and being top of mind in the meantime.
Deferred marketing investments should impact spending specifically intended to drive short-term activation. Think of this as messaging related to immediate, defined duration events such as festivals, temporary exhibits, concerts, etc. or “buy it now” messaging related to same-day, “skip the line” tickets. This spending reduction would not immediately impact targeted audiences with more elongated planning cycles. As the situation develops, if the data suggest that leisure behaviors will be significantly impacted in the longer term, then an organization can – and should – revisit this approach.
C) Meet people where they are right now: Online
Research shows that current and potential visitors to cultural organizations are generally super-connected to the web. This means that they have access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device. Social media, web, and mobile web are their go-to channels for information. Thankfully, these are also channels in which cultural entities are able to be relatively agile in their messaging, continually promulgate content, and maintain connections with their audiences.
Current and potential visitors are active on digital platforms even when the nation is not wrestling with a pandemic. But in this time of social distancing, people may be using digital platforms to remain connected more than usual.
Not only that, but over 90% of people who prefer to stay home over the weekend also reported that the last time they did so, they spent time on the web. Then again, that was when staying at home was a choice… The point still stands that our audiences are online, and when people are home, they also choose to be online. The good news is that right now we can be especially online, too.
There is a terrific opportunity for creative connection right now that proves relevance far beyond your walls – from providing resources for parents aiming to home school or keep children busy, to conducting events with staff experts on social media, to sharing penguins exploring their empty aquarium to give a sense of what’s still happening behind the scenes. The opportunities for creative and engaging ways to execute our missions and connect with our communities are seemingly endless. They are a good idea right now.
Finding ways to execute missions, support communities, and stay top of mind are strategic initiatives that position organizations to better succeed when their doors reopen.
D) Be responsive – not reactive
A lot is happening – and it seems to be happening quickly. This new territory and the uncertainty can feel overwhelming for even the most experienced cultural executive.
This is not the time for knee-jerk reactions and short-sighted “gut instinct.” This is the time to think through opportunities and the current condition so that cultural entities are in a position to succeed when their doors reopen. This may be especially difficult as executives field calls from fear-driven board members demanding speedy, unfounded, and feelings-based actions.
Things are hard right now. Things are uncertain.
Our most important recommendation of all is to be agile and thoughtful. Being responsive to changing conditions will be important during this time, but that is different than being reactive. Being reactive removes the care, concern, and thought necessarily required to make strategic decisions that are truly in the best, long-term interests of your organization.
In regard to marketing investments during this time, an immediate instinct may be to achieve significant short-term savings. Some may even consider going dark. Be careful. Data suggest that doing this without considering how these cuts are likely to increase costs and reduce attendance revenue upon reopening may be a financial problem rather than a solution.
Your organization has likely worked hard to show how you elevate the community. You’ve cultivated a level of awareness. You’ve worked hard to achieve top-of-mind status for certain audiences.
Now is not the time to let people forget that your organization exists.
Now is the time to show people how effectively you stand for your mission and your community – both when your physical doors are open and when they are closed.
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