Reputation drives attendance. Here are the weighted considerations that contribute to an organization’s reputation.

The research is clear: A cultural organization’s reputation plays a major role in motivating attendance. After all, who wants to spend a precious day off going somewhere or having an experience deemed to be not so great?

But what factors influence reputation for museums and performing arts entities, and what is the weighted value of those factors? The answer is the subject of this week’s Fast Facts video, and it’s particularly important now as entities aim to reengage visitors and secure attendance.

(Hint: It’s so much more than your TripAdvisor ratings.)

IMPACTS Experience leveraged the expansive reach of the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study (NAAU) to deliver open-ended questions concerning the US public’s perception of an organization’s reputation, such as: What elements comprise reputation, how one would describe the attributes that contribute to reputation, etc. Next, these responses were organized by broad categorization and frequency of mention. Then, additional respondents were asked to “rank” the resulting factors to quantify a sense of relativity and proportionality for each one. These inputs were informed by 11,138 adults.

This specific data was developed at the end of 2019, but we’ve been monitoring these weighted values for some time prior to and throughout the pandemic as well. Though the exact values indeed vary slightly by quarter (that’s usual), the proportionality and relativity of these factors continue to remain stable over time – even now.

Of course, the factors that arise in the data are interconnected. Good leadership often leads to greater organizational stability. Entities that highlight their missions tend to consistently be the most revenue efficient. Mission execution contributes to social impact.

That said, this research aims to isolate and weight the factors that – according to actual, potential visitors – influence how they feel about an organization. This research helps entities understand how their reputations are formed.

It’s also a good reminder that institutions do not get to decide how much certain factors should matter to people based upon what is most convenient for the institution. People get to decide how they feel about institutions and why.


A brief overview of the identified factors influencing reputation

Favorability: This broad metric contemplates how well-liked an organization is perceived to be on the whole. It makes up the largest portion of reputation at nearly 23%. Another way to think of this is like an “overall reputation” metric. Entities with high marks on most of the other factors on this list tend to have high marks here as well – and vice versa. For context, metrics related to favorability led to the major reputational bump MoMA experienced back in 2017 when it highlighted work by artists from countries impacted by the first US travel ban. This is also the area where measures of trust and credibility come to light.

Mission execution: Yes, this is the second most important factor influencing the reputation of individual cultural institutions – even more than the onsite experience. This is a measurement of how well your institution walks its talk in terms of its mission-based promises. Audiences do not necessarily need to know an organization’s mission verbatim to be positively influenced. (No need for pop quizzes as people exit!) But this measurement and its rank suggest that knowing what you stand for matters – and knowing that you take action surrounding what you stand for matters, too. The fact that this is so high on the list is powerful.

Onsite experience: We all know that visitor satisfaction matters. This is a measurement that considers the onsite experience and visitor satisfaction, specifically. It attempts to isolate the onsite experience as a contributing factor. Despite closures, this number has remained stable over time. This is presumably because people assume that at some point cultural entities will fully reopen and people may return to their more usual visitation behaviors. Moreover, your safety protocols surrounding the pandemic influence attendance, and that tends to show up in the onsite experience numbers, as well as favorability. It may be tempting to think, “Ah, here’s where the TripAdvisor review comes into play.” That is partially correct. However, while TripAdvisor reviews may be ideally based upon the onsite experience, other factors on this list may – knowingly or not – impact those reviews and how people think about an organization overall.

Stability: People also care about stability, and this will punch some entities in the gut right now considering the conditions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and related closures. But this factor goes beyond financial stability, which emerged as a separate, related category explained below. Executive turnover, layoffs, controversies, board members in the news for not-so-great reasons – these things all impact an organization’s reputation.

Social impact: Mission execution measures how well you carry out your mission, but social impact shows how much that mission actually matters to people. In other words, it is a measure of the perceived relevance of your mission. A fictional organization may get good marks for executing its mission of throwing birthday parties for backyard squirrels. They may be the best in the land at executing squirrel birthday celebrations, in fact! But this doesn’t mean that people believe that throwing birthday parties for squirrels results in any meaningful social impact. (Apologies to any squirrel birthday throwers who may be reading…) It’s not just that you’re carrying out your mission that matters. How much your mission matters to people matters, too.

Leadership: Are your leaders seen as charismatic, visionary, and trusted? Not only do these folks already have a big job, but how they are perceived can impact an organization’s reputation. Do I geek out for Smithsonian museums because I also geek out for Lonnie Bunch, or do I geek out for Lonnie Bunch because I geek out for Smithsonian museums? It’s hard to say. I joined the Board of Directors of the National Aquarium because the CEO is a charismatic leader. These are my own examples, but the data suggests that the individuals who run museums can strongly influence an organization’s reputation.

Testimonials: These are reputational factors based upon recommendations and referrals. This is when someone reads or hears that your organization is “the best museum in the city for kids,” for instance. While this particular measurement tends to encompass overall superlatives, word-of-mouth endorsement (what people say about an organization) plays a leading role in elevating all specific areas of reputation shown here. In other words, broad testimonials emerged as their own category during data collection, but more specific testimonials or word-of-mouth endorsements on one topic can influence any of these factors. Your friend telling you that she admires decisions made by a cultural organization CEO is an endorsement that would influence leadership perceptions, for instance.

Business results: This is a measure of how financially stable and successful an organization is perceived to be.  While leaders within most entities are far from experiencing a cakewalk right now (to say the least), those entities that were more financially stable prior to the pandemic may have been able to retain past surpluses and cultivate a bigger reserve fund. During this time, relative stability and instability surrounding business results may be especially confirmed, and this has an impact on reputation. Well-respected entities are often solvent and stable.  (Similarly, solvent and stable entities are often the most well-respected.) These organizations may be perceived to be better able to weather this storm.

Contribution to education: Are you surprised that this emerged from audiences as its own category influencing reputation? We were, too. Interestingly, educational value is often perceived as separate from mission. Cultural entities are expected to be educational, in addition to their missions. Despite pandemic closures, we haven’t seen much change in this number in terms of how contribution to education influences reputation. That may be impressive in itself. Prior to the pandemic, contribution to education may have been best achieved onsite. Now, it may be that contribution to education may be achieved in part through digital engagement.


Three things to keep in mind

Individual cultural organizations may be either thrilled or disappointed by the weight of specific factors influencing reputation. Our hope is that this research shines a light on not only what goes into informing reputations, but that it’s not simple! It’s easy to see a social media post go viral and think only half-jokingly, “People love us now. Our job is done here.” And we don’t blame you. That may indeed provide a reputational bump for a time, depending on what went viral. An organization’s reputation is not one thing. It is a multiplicity of interconnected things. And some things have greater weight than others.

1) The factors are closely connected. These factors are connected and often influence one another. For instance, we know members and subscribers tend to have better onsite satisfaction than non-members and non-subscribers, and so do the people who follow you on social media. This is often due to members being more closely affiliated with the mission, or social media followers having seen more educational messages, for instance. The result may be a better perception of the onsite experience, but other reputational factors contributed to those perceptions, too.

While sometimes stories in one area may be bigger than stories in another, it’s worth emphasizing that the entities with the best reputations will more often than not have reliably high metrics on all of these fronts.


2) The entities with better reputational equities prior to the pandemic seem to be faring better during it. This is an observation, but it stands to reason. IMPACTS Experience tracks 224 cultural entities in the US, and it seems those that had better reputation-related metrics prior to the pandemic are doing a better job keeping them for now. This may be because those institutions had already made investments in social media, for instance, and had established a reputation for engaging audiences digitally before they had to. This may have resulted in their being more top of mind for engagement during closures. Entities with better reputations may have similarly already been promulgating educational resources, also resulting in their coming to mind compared to entities that may be only really starting this effort now.

Certainly, the bigger institutions with more resources tend to have greater name recognition and thus higher reputational equities. However, welcoming over a million visitors a year is hardly a prerequisite to cultivating and maintaining a great reputation.


3) The web may now play an even bigger role in maintaining a positive reputation that inspires attendance. It’s no surprise that people are spending more time on the web now. It’s also no surprise that the pandemic has more people staying home and feeling anxious about taking part in certain experiences. The web – and social media, in particular – played a critical role in motivating attendance and shaping reputation prior to that pandemic. With more time spent online and fewer folks out and about, digital engagement and seeing stories from others may influence the perceptions of all of these factors influencing reputation to an even greater extent.


So what goes into reputation?

It’s more than a number of stars.

It’s what you do, how you do it, and the difference that you make.


IMPACTS Experience provides data specific to organizations or markets through workshops, keynote presentations, webinars, and data services such as pricing recommendations, market potential analysis, concept testing, and Awareness, Attitude, and Usage studies. Learn more. 

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