Cultural entities are perceived as more welcoming and have a higher percentage of first-time visitors than they did 2019, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve successfully expanded audiences (yet).
Over the last six weeks, we’ve been publishing research on current conditions surrounding the urgent need for cultural organizations to expand audiences while also charting related progress made during the last two years. The desire for research to support initiatives and inform the allocation of appropriate resources can be overwhelming – and it can lead to a desire for quick and straightforward answers to complex questions.
“Just tell us: Have museums and performing arts organizations expanded the visitor profile?! It’s a yes or no question!”
This is not a single question, and it doesn’t have one answer.
Yes, cultural entities are generally perceived as more welcoming! Yes, this contributed to the increase in non-recent and first-time visitors in 2020, but no, it’s not the only factor contributing to this increase. And, no, first-time visitation rates did not keep progressing at the same rate through 2021 (though they remain promising). Most critically, it won’t be possible to know if the increased trial that has recently been observed will truly expand the visitor profile until a few years from now in accordance with visitor engagement cycles. Only then will we be able to see if these recent first-time experiences inspired the person to attend the same or another like organization in the future.
From the standpoint of visitor behaviors and motivations, it’s critical to understand that expanding audiences is a long and important process that requires ongoing effort and attention. To think that it’s but one finish line risks missing important milestones on the path to successfully welcoming more and new visitors.
As of 2022, cultural organizations are in a make-or-break spot in the process of expanding audience profiles to change up the “type of person” who visits them in the long term. While understanding that all of these are relentlessly ongoing endeavors without a defined endpoint, here’s the rundown in a nutshell:
Elevating welcoming perceptions? Check.
Engendering trial from more first-time visitors? Check.
Making sure those trials provide positive experiences so that these new visitors convert into cultural organization attendees long term? We are here.
Here’s a recap of the research that IMPACTS Experience has shared over the last six weeks on the topic. We’re sharing this aggregation to provide data-informed insight into where things currently stand. The cultural industry has been “talking its talk” on efforts to be more welcoming. The next few years are an ongoing test of how well we walk that talk.
First stop: Cultural organizations are generally perceived as more welcoming
Your hard work is moving the needle, industry leaders! Elevating welcoming perceptions is often prerequisite to engaging new and different visitors. Understandably, people are less likely to choose to do something in their limited leisure time that makes them uncomfortable. Time is limited and valuable, and many cultural organizations are located in competitive markets. It’s hard enough for any behavior or destination to rise to the top of someone’s list of things they’d like to do. There is competition from other activities (including the couch), traffic and travel factors, and cumbersome online ticketing systems to contend with, for instance. But if someone doesn’t feel welcome somewhere in the first place, most other access-related challenges become less important as barriers to their onsite engagement.
For this reason, we published some of the data on welcoming perceptions first. Things are improving. Still, welcoming perceptions amongst self-identified non-white audiences do not match up with the balance of US composite market perceptions. While there is movement, there is still a great deal of work to be done!
In this kind of analysis, an increase of even one point is significant. An increase of two points in a relatively modest duration generally suggests that something notable is taking place. You can read our full article on these findings here.
The good news is that initiatives and inclusion efforts may be creating perceptual changes that can move us onto our next ongoing challenge: Leveraging those elevated welcoming perceptions to encourage trial of cultural institutions.
Second stop: The percentage of first-time and non-recent visitors is up
Elevated welcoming perceptions can be an indicator of potential behavior change on the horizon, but they don’t mean that because people think entities are more welcoming that they are going to immediately modify their long-established visitation patterns. We need to look at a measure of trial to see if new audiences are acting on these new welcoming perceptions to actually visit an organization.
Despite lower attendance in 2020 and 2021, the percentage of new and non-recent visitors to cultural entities was higher than it was in 2019. It stands to reason that elevated welcoming perceptions may play a role in these heightened numbers.
Remember, however, that 2020 was our first pandemic year. Changes in travel behaviors also aided in activating inactive visitors in 2020 and beyond. Generally, people were foregoing cross-country flights for shorter daytrips within driving distances from their primary residences. This more readily activated many people who had “visit the nearby museum for the first time” on their to-do lists. But we cannot divorce these numbers from elevated welcoming perceptions. We don’t know if these percentages would have been reached without the additional effort made by organizations to increase those perceptions. Combined, these factors and others help spur the dramatic bump in first-time and non-recent visitors in 2020. It’s exciting that these elevated percentages remained higher in 2021 than they were in 2019 when travel started to pick up again.
You can read more about these findings in our recent article. Of course, this percentage will not go up indefinitely – one can only be a first-time visitor once! That said, it’s a helpful metric for understanding increased trial as experienced by an entire sector. Indeed, cultural entities have experienced increased trial over the last two years.
Current stop: Proving a positive, relevant, and welcoming onsite experience to convert trial audiences into sustained cultural participation
The first two trends show promise. However, it’s going to take some time to see if those trials are sustaining or changing up audiences, or even shrinking audiences.
Inspiring one-time attendance is not inherently a sustainable win for cultural organizations. Just because someone attends a museum for the first time doesn’t mean they had a good time or will do it again. Having a negative past experience is a top reason why people say that they are disinterested in visiting cultural organizations.
Cultural organizations have an opportunity to prove that they are welcoming, relevant, and engaging when new audiences attend. Missing this opportunity doesn’t necessarily risk a neutral outcome for the industry. It could result in a negative one in which word of mouth endorsement goes in a negative rather than positive direction.
In sum, this is the moment for organizations to “walk their talk” within their walls when they are lucky enough to engage a first-time or non-recent visitor. IMPACTS Experience can help by tracking overall satisfaction metrics and onsite welcoming perceptions for first-time and non-recent visitors on the whole. We’re also watching the percentage of people who self-describe themselves as unlikely visitors based upon having had a negative past experience.
But cultural organizations should not wait on proving the best possible and most welcoming experience possible for visitors. By the time negative perceptions are picked up through market research or your own evaluation, it’s too late. Negative endorsements risk jeopardizing progress and market potential alike.
If your organization has invested in initiatives or messaging to expand audiences, please do not overlook how you are putting those messages into play during the onsite experience. While negative endorsements can jeopardize attendance in a big way, positive endorsements can be a significant boon to audience expansion efforts.
Final stop on the loop: Successfully expanding audience profiles and sustaining attendance
How will we know if the increase in trial has resulted in conversion of new audiences into cultural-organization goers? By watching our industry’s negative substitution ratio over time.
Cultural organizations are not expanding audiences fast enough to sustain attendance. At IMPACTS Experience, we call this phenomenon the negative substitution of the historic visitor. Of course, the goal is that for every one person in the US who leaves the market (i.e., by way of death, relocation, or migration), they are being replaced by at least one other person (i.e., by way of birth, relocation, or immigration) who enjoys participating in that kind of experience. That would provide stable, sustainable attendance over time. It takes ongoing engagement and evolving practices just to keep pace. An even better goal would be a positive substitution rate that would allow for an increase in audiences over time. You can read the full update on negative substitution here.
Negative substitution is never a good thing. However, the negative substitution ratio for exhibit-based organizations has gotten slightly better in the last five years! We are especially seeing this for zoos, aquariums, history organizations, and art museums/centers. Alternatively, when cultural organizations get very good at reaching the same kind of people in an increasingly diverse society, their audience shrinks. We are alarmingly seeing this take place for science centers and science museums, and it’s especially urgent for orchestras. (Science museums/centers are still perceived as being primarily for people with children to visit, and people are having fewer children.)
It takes years to change up audience profiles and meaningfully expand the “type of person” who visits cultural organizations to being more diverse in terms of demographics, psychographics, or behavioral characteristics. It’s a long game – but it’s one we’re watching.
As we often remind our readers and partners: Expanding audiences isn’t simply “the right thing to do” or “an important part of a goal to welcome everyone.” Expanding audiences is also a business imperative.
IMPACTS Experience regularly conducts workshops that share contemporary research on expanding audiences for specific cities, regions, states, and organization types. We’re monitoring best practices and shifting sentiments throughout North America and Western Europe, and we’d be pleased to work with you to drill down on the research to identify potential opportunities and inform your strategic direction.
It’s still a critical time of change.
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.
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