While attendance to cultural organizations has been down across the US when compared to pre-pandemic times, the percentage of first-time and non-recent visitors (including those who self-identify as non-white) has increased.
We shared some good news in our last publication: Exhibit-based cultural organizations are generally perceived as more welcoming than they were prior to the pandemic. There’s a long way to go before these organizations are truly perceived as “welcoming to everyone,” but the trend is moving in the right direction. Progress is progress, and any success in elevating welcoming perceptions has not happened on accident for many organizations. These efforts have increasingly ascended as strategic priorities during the course of the last two years and counting.
If organizations are moving the needle in terms of welcoming perceptions, does that mean that a higher percentage of attendees have been made up of first-time and non-recent visitors in 2020 and 2021?
IMPACTS Experience monitors perceptions and behaviors surrounding 224 cultural entities (exhibit and performance-based) in the United States. The research below contemplates the percentage of new and non-recent visitors as a percentage of total attendance for 141 exhibit-based organizations in the United States from 2016 through 2021, and represents a sample of 9,334 adult visitors. In the research, a “non-recent” visitor is someone who hasn’t visited that organization in at least three years – including first-time visitors.
This research contemplates exhibit-based, visitor-serving organizations only. It includes entities such as various museums, zoos, aquariums, historic sites, science centers, and botanic gardens. Exhibit-based organizations have generally been operating at somewhat normalized levels for a sufficient, sustained duration during the past two years to meaningfully identify and quantify visitation trends. Performance-based organizations, on the other hand, have experienced much more dramatic disruptions during this same duration. This means that our research continues as performance-based organizations begin to gradually resume more typical operations.
Take a look at how the percentage of new and non-recent visitors to these organizations changed in 2020 – a year marked by closures, re-openings, and ongoing public safety concerns. You’ll also note that in 2021 – a year in which most exhibit-based entities were able to remain open – the overall percentage of new and non-recent visitors remained elevated when compared to 2019, but declined when compared to 2020.
The average percentage of new and non-recent visitors increased a staggering 59% from 2019 through 2020 – from 9.2% of attendance to 14.6% of attendance! That’s a big change. While you can see that the percentage of these visitors was decreasing prior to the pandemic (more on the reasoning for that later), it was doing so rather slowly. This makes the jump in 2020 even more dramatic. In 2021, the percentage of new and non-recent visitors dropped 20% from 2020, but remained an impressive 27% above 2019 levels.
Given the emphasis on diversifying audiences over the last several years, it’s of interest to consider what percentage of these new and non-recent visitors self-identify as non-white. Race and ethnicity may be a particularly relevant aspect of audience diversity given that self-identifying as a white non-Hispanic individual still remains the single most-shared characteristic of a person who has visited any kind of cultural institution in the last three years. Critically, as we shared in our last publication, welcoming perceptions amongst non-white audiences have improved during the pandemic. The scene may be setting for potential positive change on the horizon.
The chart below shows the percentages of newly activated visitors who self-identify as non-White individuals:
Check out this good news: The percentage of new and non-recent visitors who self-identify as non-White increased 52% from 2019 to 2020! It rose from 10.0% to 15.2%. This percentage fell to 13.9% of new and non-recent attendance in 2021, but is still a dramatic 39% increase compared to 2019 levels!
Let’s be clear: There’s still a great deal of work to do for cultural organization attendance to be racially representative of our nation. We have a long way to go, but it’s good to see conditions related to the pandemic – and potentially a dedication to DEIJ work – activating more diverse audiences.
In sum, you’ll notice that (1) the overall percentage of first time and non-recent visitors was declining through end of year 2019; (2) it increased dramatically in 2020; and (3) decreased in 2021 but remained notably above pre-pandemic levels.
Why was new and non-recent visitation declining prior to 2020?
You’ll notice in the first chart that the percentage of first-time and newly activated visitors was in decline from 2016 through 2019. This is in large part due to an increased emphasis on audience research in the sector. Many cultural organizations had prioritized surveying and listening to their current audiences in recent years – and delivering even better programs and experiences based on the feedback of people who already attend. Indeed, the cultural sector had actually gotten better at generally reaching the same people over and over prior to 2020.
If you are collecting the information onsite or through a survey of people who have visited, then it’s audience or visitor research. While not as useful for reaching new audiences, this information can be invaluable for cultivating a community of members and supporters. Membership programs are arguably more important than ever before during the pandemic. This kind of visitor research can help entities better understand what’s needed to engage current visitors and cultivate superfans. And these superfans are proving important for recovery in our pandemic-impacted world!
It’s through market research – which includes the perceptions and behaviors of people who do not already visit as well as current visitors – that entities are best able to expand their audiences. Market research is a larger circle than audience research and evaluation, and it’s our specialization at IMPACTS Experience. Market research considers both the people who visit as well as the people who do not.
You’ll also notice that the percentage of new and non-recent self-identified non-white audiences, specifically, was slowly increasing in this same duration! This is largely thanks to active efforts to expand welcoming perceptions prior to the pandemic.
Why did new and non-recent visitation increase in 2020?
Please resist the urge to see these numbers and think “Score! We got people who were disinterested in attending to visit us during the pandemic.” Behavioral economics and audience motivation studies suggest that entities should instead say, “Score! We got people who were already interested in visiting us to finally move us up on their to-do list and trial/re-trial our experience!”
This bump indicates that exhibit-based entities were successful in activating a greater number of inactive visitors during the pandemic. Inactive visitors are more diverse on several fronts than the historic visitors who traditionally visit cultural entities – chief among them being that they self-identify as being more racially diverse. Interest in attending is generally prerequisite to making the decision to come in the door. These first-time and non-recent visitors who have decided to visit an organization overwhelmingly profile as theretofore inactive visitors (in terms of demographic, psychographic, and behavioral profiles) rather than unlikely or non-visitors to cultural organizations. This is still a big win, and activating inactive visitors remains our best shot at expanding audiences over time. We’ll write more about this in our next publication on March 2nd. You can subscribe here so that you don’t miss it.
There are a few factors that likely contributed to this jump in 2020.
A) There’s been an increased emphasis on work related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in the sector. The uprising against racial injustice took hold in 2020, demanding accountability for several systemic and systematic practices within the museum sector. In some cases, the increased accountability was met with increased action. These ongoing efforts may account for the fact that the percentage of new and non-recent visitors remained elevated when compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2021 as well.
B) Operational closures allowed for more messaging around these DEIJ efforts rather than “visit now” calls to action. There was also more space to talk about this messaging and relevant programs. Most organizations were closed for at least some part of 2020, and exhibit-based organizations secured only 79.7% of 2019 attendance, on the whole. Due to the pandemic, people were (and still are) spending more time at home and more time online. Because “visit now” messages may have been less relevant or actionable than previous years, organizations aiming to remain top-of-mind had more space for mission messaging, as well as efforts to expand welcoming perceptions.
C) Travel behaviors changed, activating more local audiences. The pandemic changed both the way that people travel as well as the length of their travels in 2020, with many people preferring to stay close to home. Specifically, people in 2020 and 2021 preferred to take day trips and travel by car rather than fly across the nation for the longer vacations that were more common prior to the pandemic. Thus, conditions surrounding the pandemic gave some people who are interested in visiting (i.e., inactive visitors) a good excuse to finally go to the art museum in the next county or visit the aquarium on a day trip from the suburbs. Travel was down and so was attendance in 2020, and the new folks most likely to come through cultural organizations’ doors were often local audiences seeking a nearby activity of interest to them.
Why didn’t the percentage of new and non-recent visitors keep growing?
Ongoing efforts – particularly in reaching non-recent visitors – may still see a positive trendline over time after 2021. That’s a reasonable goal, particularly as it relates to self-identified non-white audience activation.
The decrease in 2021 is not altogether unsurprising from an audience behavior standpoint. Despite lower attendance, the sector engendered more trial and reactivation of audiences in 2020. When thinking about 2021, consider that a person can only be a first-time visitor once, or a non-recent visitor once every three years. It’s the most interested of the non-recent and first-time visitors that likely came in the door in 2020, making smaller the pool of potential first-time and non-recent visitors. In other words, 2020 stood to most readily activate those who were already thinking, “Hey, we’re not going on our cross-country vacation anymore but I’ve been interested in attending the history museum in the next county over for a while!” Once these folks come in the door, the available first-time and non-recent visitor pool shrinks. Thus, conditions unique to 2020 may have scooped up some of our most readily activated audiences.
Some of you may be wondering why we aren’t separating first-time and non-recent visitors. This is because neither one independently is a reliable indicator of audience engagement trends across the sector. Let’s consider first-time visitors as an example. A person can only ever be a first-time visitor once. Organizations with the most successful market penetration (and especially those that have been around for decades) can have low percentages of first-time visitors and still succeed in engaging diverse attendees who potentially visited on a school field trip as a child, for instance, but now make the decision to attend on their own volition as an adult. Also consider that every single attendee is a first-time visitor to a brand new museum. When considering engagement across the sector, first-time visitor metrics alone fuzzy the findings. However, adding non-recent visitors to the metric is much more helpful in spotting trends and understanding audience motivations and behaviors.
In our last publication, we shared the evolution of welcoming perceptions for the visitor-serving cultural industry. In this one, we shared how those elevated welcoming perceptions may be contributing to activating a higher percentage of first-time and non-recent visitors. On March 2nd, we’ll explore early indicators of how these factors may be impacting the long-term expansion of audience profiles. Specifically, we’ll be sharing how negative substitution ratios have changed over the last five years and what this will mean as we continue to move forward.
“Negative substitution? What’s that?” We look forward to sharing more in two weeks. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe here so that you don’t miss the article.
In the meantime, the cultural industry deserves a pat on the back for engendering increased trial during the pandemic and for improvements in welcoming perceptions. Audience expansion is a marathon effort rather than a sprint, and it’s reassuring to know that most beloved institutions are on the track running in the right direction.
IMPACTS Experience provides data specific to organizations or markets through workshops, keynote presentations, webinars, and data services such as pricing recommendations, market potential analyses, concept testing, and Awareness, Attitude, and Usage studies. Learn more.
We publish new national data and analysis every other Wednesday. Don’t want to miss an update? Subscribe here to get the most recent data and analysis in your inbox.