More people are engaging with both exhibit and performance-based organizations online now than they were before or even at the height of the pandemic.
Can museums and performing arts organizations finally “go back to normal” with digital engagement efforts now that organizations have largely reopened and attendance may be inching closer to more typical seasonal levels in select cases?
Well, there may not be a “going back to normal” in terms of digital engagement for cultural organizations. Like several other key trends likely to stick around as a result of the pandemic, increased expectations surrounding digital engagement have taken root. Simply put, how cultural entities engage with people may have fundamentally shifted during the pandemic as many worked hard to prove their relevance beyond their walls.
And that’s good news for cultural entities! Hard work on the digital engagement front – combined with the circumstance of people spending more time at home with their devices – has resulted in more people engaging digitally with cultural organizations. We published research on this finding earlier this year, but it’s time for an update for any who may wonder if there’s an opportunity to scale back now that the country is adjusting to life alongside the pandemic.
A higher percentage of people are engaging with cultural entities online now than before or during the height of the pandemic
We monitor the percentage of adults in the United States who recall taking part in certain behaviors related to cultural organizations within the last year. We’ve been monitoring these behaviors since long before the pandemic and are continuing to track changes over time.
Exhibit-based cultural organizations (museums, zoos, aquariums, gardens, historic sites, science centers, etc.) share several likely visitor characteristics on the whole with performance-based organizations (theaters, symphonies, operas, dance entities, etc.), as they are generally location-based entities that often have missions to educate and inspire audiences. And in many cases, it makes sense to collapse the national research for all cultural institutions. In fact, it would have made sense to do the same here. However, we wanted to see if there were particularly notable differences in terms of engagement with exhibit and performance-based organizations. The first chart below cumulatively contemplates visitor behavior and recall among 3,812 US adults regarding their experiences with exhibit-based organizations such as museums, gardens, zoos, aquariums, historic sites, and science centers, etc. The second chart contemplates visitor behavior and recall among 2,604 US adults regarding their experiences to performance-based organizations such as theaters, symphonies, operas, and dance entities, etc.
More people are engaging with cultural organizations online now than they were earlier in the pandemic – or even in 2019 when organizations were actively welcoming guests as usual before this all began.
Consider, since end-of-year 2019:
- There was a 31%% increase in the percentage of people who visited an exhibit-based organization’s website, and a 25% increase for performance-based.
- There was a 43% increase in people following an exhibit-based organization on social media and a 35% increase in the percentage of people following a performance-based entity.
- There was a 38% increase in people liking an exhibit-based organization’s social media post and a 33% increase for performance-based entities.
- There was a 15% increase in the percentage of people opening an email from an exhibit-based organization and a 35% increase in opening an email from a performance-based entity.
What’s going on here? It’s a good question, and while the basics may be rather straightforward, the reality of the condition is worthy of pause and contemplation.
1) People started spending more time online during the pandemic
Let’s start with the obvious. We spent a lot more time at home and more time online during the height of the pandemic. Digital engagement – and expectations surrounding it – have notably increased as a result. In lieu of going out, many of us had to instead stream events or take part in virtual happy hours. Naturally, people spending more time in front of their computers represents more opportunities for cultural entities to engage people.
2) And many entities met their audiences where they are – online
It’s hardly rocket science to consider that people spending more time online might result in people spending more time online engaging with cultural organizations, but it’s not necessarily a given. After all, many of these organizations were closed for a period of time or operating at reduced capacity. Intentions to visit cultural organizations were lower than in pre-pandemic years and many entities may have considered their websites and social media platforms mainly as a means of motivating attendance. However, the pandemic saw an increase in cultural entities promulgating educational resources, conducting curator (or animal care or horticulturist or musician) talks, streaming performances, and getting creative with their messaging to keep people engaged. The belief that museums are credible sources of information also increased during the pandemic and these efforts to underscore their expertise in their missions online likely contributed to this increase in perception.
3) Now, entities have reopened, and expectations surrounding digital engagement have remained
It’s not just cultural entities that “meet people where they are.” QR-coded menus became a way of life (for the time being?), subscription streaming services boomed, and technology-met-real-life as GrubHub and InstaCart made many of our lives easier. We observed elevated expectations surrounding several facets of digital engagement and technology for cultural entities as well. For instance, elevated expectations surrounding the ease of use of technology are a big reason why difficulty purchasing tickets digitally is a rising barrier to attendance. Lack of response or content on social media also increased as an access barrier to attendance during the pandemic. Simply put, we live in a more digitally connected world with more advanced technologies – and expectations have increased accordingly.
While before the pandemic, people may have been visited an organization’s website primarily to inform a visit, many people were visiting an organization’s website to learn more about its mission, engage in stimulating content, or obtain educational resources during closures. Now, entities are largely reopened, and people may be visiting an organization’s website for both of these reasons: to engage offsite (online) and to help engage onsite (inform a visit).
Before the pandemic, many organizations may have posted about reasons to visit. During the pandemic, many organizations may have posted engaging content to underscore their missions. Now, it seems that many organizations may benefit by continuing to do both.
The benefits of being viewed as “more than an attraction” may have been hard-earned for many organizations, and those who neglect the new normal of our increased connectivity risk losing perceptual advantages gained during the pandemic.
In “the new normal,” cultural organizations have both onsite visitors and online visitors. More than ever, successful strategies may involve meaningful multi-faceted engagement.
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