Free Admission Isn’t An Audience Building Strategy

Thinking that free or discounted tickets will increase accessibility and loyalty is something of a pet peeve of mine. Yesterday I commented on a post Sean Kelly of Vatic made on LinkedIn where he noted that people who didn’t want to use dynamic pricing for their events that were selling well would willingly discount or comp tickets to a show that was selling poorly. The connection I saw in that statement is that any pricing change you implement in response to perceived level of demand was essentially dynamic pricing.

In that context, I wanted to point to a recent post Colleen Dilenschneider and colleagues made about the connection between price and perception of value for different types of arts and cultural organizations.  The post has 35 charts and goes into a lot of detail which I am not going to even try to reflect.

There were a couple of statements made in their data analysis about pricing, satisfaction, access, and free admission to which I wanted to call attention. First of all, in general, they found that just because someone perceives something to be expensive, it doesn’t mean they feel the experience wasn’t worth the cost. People understand that a quality experience costs money.

In fact, lower cost experiences often receive lower satisfaction scores for various reasons, including the obvious fact that not charging a lot means you have less capacity to offer a quality experience:

Free and low-cost cultural entities generally have lower guest satisfaction rates, intentions to revisit, and willingness to return. Again, this is because people generally “pay for what they value and value what they pay for,” and it is consistent with ongoing research we continue to collect regarding perceptions of free vs. paid-admission organizations.

Also, it’s likely that at least some free and low-cost museums really do have lesser guest experiences! After all, they are likely reliant on another source of revenue than the gate and they may be more cash-strapped than other cultural entities that have alternative funding sources.

What really caught my attention was their admonition against equating diverse audiences and affordable access audiences:

However, diverse audiences and affordable access audiences are not the same. Indeed, it can be very problematic to assume that diverse audiences and affordable access audiences comprise the same groups of people. (More directly: It is dangerous and incorrect to associate the idea of diversity with the idea of affordable access.)

I suspect part of what they consider problematic is equating being low-income with being a person of color. One of the data points presented from the research was that the belief that an organization is “for people like me” was lowest among those perceived to be least expensive which already starts to cast some doubts on using free admission to diversify attendance. In part this may be related to low revenue meaning you may lack the funds to support efforts to make a broader segment of the community feel welcome.

But from the analysis provided by Dilenschneider and the folks at IMPACTS it may also be that many of these entities aren’t really making any efforts beyond just offering free admission:

Being free is not the same as being welcoming. Some free and low-admission organizations treat their admission strategy as the near-entirety of their audience expansion efforts. However, free admission organizations do not have notably different audiences than paid-admission organizations. Just because something is free doesn’t mean people who don’t have interest (perhaps because they feel unwelcome) will do it. We see time and time again that free admission is not a foolproof audience expansion strategy with reliably positive impacts on welcoming perceptions. Being perceived as welcoming requires strategy, effort, thoughtful programing, prioritization and – often – investment. It’s not as simple as putting a “free” sign on the door.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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