Safety concerns related to COVID-19 pose new barriers to visiting cultural organizations for those with interest. But what about people who don’t care to attend in the first place?
Why do some people call themselves unlikely visitors?
At IMPACTS, we gather a great deal of research about audience subsets for cultural enterprises such as museums, zoos, historic sites, and performing arts organizations. We tend to focus on active visitors (current visitors), and inactive visitors (people with interest who have not attended). Together, these audience subsets are called “high-propensity visitors” in IMPACTS data lingo. They represent the 32% of people in the United States with any interest at all in visiting cultural entities. They are the people who actually do attend, and the people who actually might attend. Our goal is to broaden these groups over time.
How well organizations understand high-propensity visitors determines if cultural entities will sink or swim. Knowing the perceptions and behaviors of these groups helps organizations understand how to effectively educate, inspire, motivate attendance, garner philanthropic support, increase membership, and cultivate new and more diverse audiences. Inactive visitors (i.e. those folks with interest but who aren’t currently attending) are key to changing up and broadening the “type of person” who actively visits cultural organizations to be more inclusive. Wins all around, right?
But what about the people who don’t care to visit?
Unlikely visitors to cultural organizations are defined by their lack of interest in visiting cultural organizations at all. In contrast to active and inactive visitors, unlikely visitors are generally not efficient targets for cultural organizations. When they do come, it is usually by force or social pressure, and they are more likely to provide negative word-of-mouth endorsements and reviews to their social circles. (Hey, visiting wasn’t their thing in the first place). Unsurprisingly, it costs a lot more money to try to entice them to attend at all. Engagement by force is not a sustainable strategy, nor one with high potential for success.
But watch your stereotypes here! While it’s true that the propensity to visit cultural organizations tends to correlate with household income and educational attainment, not everybody who doesn’t want to visit is of a certain household income, level of educational attainment, physical ability, or racial background. …And good thing, too, or it would be particularly difficult to change up the type of person who visits cultural organizations. Unlikely visitors are not ideal target audiences, but understanding why they identify as unlikely visitors can help us ensure that this subset is as small as possible and shrinks over time.
“Why do you describe yourself as unlikely to visit a cultural organization in the next two years?”
What are the top three reasons people call themselves unlikely visitors to cultural organizations?
We have the answers, and that’s the subject of our newest Fast Facts Video. Check it out below for an overview of the findings.
We consulted the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study to uncover the top three reasons why people describe themselves as unlikely to visit a cultural organization. The data is cut for the end of 2019/start of 2020 (before COVID-19 was a factor for most people). The response range has been populated by open-ended queries and thereafter weighted based on responses. Instead of asking people to choose from a list, we asked them the question and simply recorded their own answers. We then asked follow-up questions to help determine the weight – or relative value – of each factor expressed as an index value. Several more barriers were identified by unlikely visitors. This article focuses on the top three most cited and influential factors.
An index value is a way of assigning proportionality around a mean. In this case, the mean value is 100. We’re only covering the top three barriers here. With index values between 160 and 253, these three top barriers are the biggest and most important ones.
1) Preferring an alternative leisure activity
The top reason why unlikely visitors say that they are unlikely to visit is because – drum roll – they’d rather do something else instead. This isn’t altogether surprising. After all, we know that time is a valuable and nonrenewable resource, and these people are actively disinterested in attending in the first place.
This is also the top reason why those who do have interest don’t attend as well. The difference is that likely visitors simply prefer to do something else more (which is a marketing and programming opportunity), while unlikely visitors generally don’t have any interest to begin with.
2) Negative past experience
Perhaps they went on a field trip as a child and they were bored, or they encountered a rude staff member during a visit just a few years ago. Remember that rude staff and volunteers are often cited as the worst thing about a visit to a cultural organization, and, inversely, positive experiences with representatives are among the best things about a visit. As mentioned, this could also be that they attended what turned out to be a boring program, exhibit, or performance, in their opinion. This reason can be a common response when someone feels an organization has pulled a “bait and switch” to get them in the door, promising in marketing messages a kind of experience they felt would be of interest but didn’t turn out to be what they expected.
This barrier is a reality check that yesterday’s programs impact attendance today. It’s also a good reminder that today’s programs will impact attendance tomorrow.
3) Negative attitude affinities
This means people believe that some cultural organizations are “not for people like me.” They might think that these institutions are not for people of their race or ethnicity, or their age group, or their physical ability or disability, or anything else. (An instinct for some cultural industry staff members is to associate negative attitude affinities with the cost of admission, but that is not often correct. Being free or low cost is not the same as being welcoming.) This is about how people feel onsite and if they feel like it is a place for them and others like them – however they might interpret that sentiment.
Whether they don’t feel welcome overall or simply feel like they don’t fit in, the charge here is for cultural organizations to steadily evolve the perception of who an organization endeavors to serve by being maximally inclusive. We can do that over time by activating inactive visitors who are often more diverse on several fronts than current visitors.
Do these barriers change by self-identified race?
This is a particularly timely question given the recent uprisings against racial injustice. The most-shared attribute of a person in the US who has visited any kind of cultural organization in the last two years is that they self-identify as a White, non-Hispanic individual. With this being the most-shared characteristic, it stands to reason that some people who feel that a cultural organization is “not for people like me” may mean “not for people of my racial identity.”
And, indeed, a deeper dive into the data suggests this is a critical factor.
To get a sense of how big a role racial identity may play, we segmented unlikely visitors by their self-reported racial identity (as per categories defined by the US Census Bureau), and have focused on those that make up the largest percentage of individuals in the United States and also the largest percentage of current US cultural organization attendance: White non-Hispanic (60.4% of the US population and 74.6% of US cultural attendance), Hispanic or Latinx (17.4% of the US population and 10.6% of cultural attendance), Black or African American (12.9% of the US population and 5.9% of cultural attendance), and Asian (5.5% of the US population and 5.4% of cultural attendance).
Is much of this approach problematic? It sure is. Few would argue that the US Census Bureau’s approach is perfect. It’s far from ideal for several reasons – the least of which is that it bunches unique and independent racial identities together. However, for analysis of broad demographics, the use of the US Census Bureau’s categorizations of race is the prevailing practice. There are also far more racial categories than these four that we’re highlighting today – far more than we can fit on this chart. To that end, this chart focuses on the four most common self-identified racial identities represented within the US population according to the census.
Here are some items that are particularly worth noting when the data is segmented by the four most common racial self-identities:
A ) All three of the barriers have lower index values for White, non-Hispanic unlikely visitors.
Notice that all three of these barriers have greater weight for self-identified Black, Latinx, and Asian audiences than they do for White unlikely visitors. Notably, Black and Latinx unlikely visitors place all three barriers at index values over 200! This in and of itself is an important finding as it places an exclamation point on all three of these barriers in the quest to diversify audiences in the long term.
B) Negative attitude affinities surpass negative past experiences as the second biggest barrier.
For unlikely visitors who self-identify as Black and Latinx, negative attitude affinities are the second biggest barrier – and the values are high. Feeling like cultural organizations are not places “for people like me” is a notably bigger issue for these audience subsets.
Remember that this data focuses on people who are unlikely to visit and are not efficient target audiences yet. However, it’s worth noting that negative attitude affinities are a barrier for some Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals who fall into the “inactive visitor” category, too: This is a barrier for some BIPOC individuals who have an interest in visiting cultural organizations!
C ) Black and Latinx unlikely visitors cite a negative past experience as a notable barrier.
This may indicate that the negative onsite experience could possibly have had to do with their race. Perhaps they didn’t see themselves in the collections or couldn’t identify with the performance. Perhaps they didn’t encounter staff members and volunteers with whom they identified. Maybe they encountered signage that was not in their preferred language. Perhaps they were treated differently because of their race by representatives or other visitors. There could be a whole host of factors at play within this metric. It’s one to keep at the forefront of our minds and work to overcome.
D ) Negative attitude affinities apply to White, non-Hispanic audiences as well – illustrating that not feeling welcome is not about race alone.
While it can be tempting to assume that negative attitude affinities are all about race alone, they’re not! Given that identifying as White, non-Hispanic is the single most-shared characteristic of a recent visitor in the US, it seems surprising that some White individuals may consider cultural organizations “not for people like me.” And yet, this barrier has an index value over 100, signifying that it is an important factor for these unlikely visitors too.
People are more than their demographics. They are their psychographics and behavioral characteristics, too. Perhaps these people (regardless of self-identified race) felt too young, or too old, or too tattooed, or too loud, or too uninformed. Perhaps they may have a mental or physical disability that makes the experience less welcoming or difficult to navigate. Perhaps they think that they are not educated enough, or wealthy enough, or attentive enough, or anything else that may be an associated perception surrounding the kind of person who does or doesn’t attend a type of cultural organization.
While there are dramatic differences in these values when segmented by self-identified race, that singular self-categorization does not tell a person’s whole story. In some cases, more than one negative attitude affinity factor may be at play.
The quest to becoming ever more welcoming institutions is a noble and important one – from both a mission and a business standpoint. Thankfully, there’s a cost-effective pathway to broadening the US cultural organization visitor profile by activating those who have interest but have not yet attended.
But understanding why some people don’t have an interest in visiting at all is helpful, too.
It helps to shine a light on our biggest weaknesses from an audience engagement perspective so that we may create effective strategies to shrink this disinterested audience over time.
As we plan for reopening and alleviating safety barriers created by the coronavirus pandemic for people considering a visit in the first place, it’s helpful to remember that not everyone wants – or wanted – to attend. To help motivate them to do so, there’s still much work to be done in terms of embracing them and making them feel interested and welcomed.
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