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.

Trust In Cultural Organizations Continues To Grow

A recent post from Colleen Dilenschneider and the folks at IMPACTS analyzes survey data that shows trust in cultural organizations has grown since the pandemic.  Trust in cultural entities exceeds that of media sources, state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations. Among the more interesting insights from the data is that from 2010 to 2019, the level of trust for cultural organizations held relatively steady with values indicating mild agreement with the concept of trust associated with these organizations. Since 2020 however, the values increased to the level of agree and strongly agree with being able to trust those types of organizations.

I usually make relatively lengthy posts when writing about research results from Dilenschneider and her colleagues, but today I am going to offer a single excerpt that stood out to me regarding the cause of this shift in sentiment: (my emphasis)

At the same time, many cultural organizations experienced business disruptions. Some were closed for weeks or months at a time and unable to deliver the usual “visit us today” messaging. Instead, many cultural institutions began offering online experiences like virtual curator talks and trips behind the scenes. They put on educational programs and developed materials for families and schools grappling with virtual learning. In short, they proved relevance beyond their walls. They weren’t only talking about being places anymore. They also proved they were community resources.

Last May I posted about research showing that communicating on organization mission resulted in return visitation for cultural organizations.

Readers will probably also note that by shifting from visit us messaging to delivering content to communities, the organizations were focusing externally rather than internally.  The organizations were trying to offer content they felt would entertain, educated, and engage people rather than primarily focus the artistic excellence of the organization and artists.

I saw a lot of organizations develop fun, clever, engaging voices for themselves through digital offerings during the pandemic. Much of the content was new information for me and I didn’t find it dumbed down. If anything, it often made me do some additional research.  I am thinking maybe I need to go back and see if they are  maintaining or expanded  on that voice after restrictions lifted or did they shift back to more internally focused visit us today approach.

Return To In Person Date Searches Presents An Opportunity

Bloomberg had an article on a trend that presents an opportunity for arts and cultural organizations. In some respects it could be considered rather mundane news – Gen Z Is abandoning dating apps in favor of in person singles events. Arts and cultural organizations have the opportunity to create specific experiences for this group either internally or in partnership with nearby businesses (bars, restaurants, etc.)

Though if there is a group in the community already organizing singles events it would probably be best to work with them to discover what sort of experience is most appealing to their participants.

It’s not formally conventional places, like bars or coffee shops, where Gen Zers are looking for potential matches. Think interest-based functions, such as the popular running group Venice Run Club, where new members have to state if they’re single as part of their introduction, or even a late-night chess club.

LA Chess Club, which runs every Thursday night from 8 p.m. to midnight, has become a recent hotspot for singles in Los Angeles in their early to mid-30s….But after the success of a speed dating event Kong hosted on Valentine’s Day in an attempt to get more girls to come, the club morphed into a space singles gravitated toward.


Pitch-A-Friend Philly, a monthly event series in Philadelphia inspired by Pitch-A-Friend Seattle, encourages participants to share a roughly 5-minute PowerPoint presentation about their single friends to help them find a potential partner.

According to some of those interviewed for the article, the appeal of singles events organized around board games, movie screenings, dinners, brunches and other activities, is the opportunity to interact with people with shared interests in an environment that differs from the bar/coffee house/nightclub nightclub scene where you might be bothered by overly insistent people when you might want to be left alone.

Those are among the considerations that arts and cultural organizations might need to factor into any attempt to design singles experiences.

Still Seeking A Quality Experience, But Want Increased Comfort

Here is something of a metaphoric lesson for arts and cultural organizations about changing the nature of the experience you offer to align with the needs and expectations of your customers. Bloomberg CityLab recently had a piece about how the work from home trend and loosening office dress codes are impacting  shoe shine services. Basically, fewer people are going to the office and an increasing number of those who are heading in to work are wearing sneakers.

As a result, many shoe shine businesses are shifting to sneaker cleaning services. People may be going to work in sneakers, but they still want to look neat and put together. It appears that people may be less confident in their ability to clean their sneakers themselves than shining their shoes.

“The industry isn’t the same anymore” said Charlie Colletti, owner of Cobbler Express, a third-generation shoeshine and repair shop in Lower Manhattan. “We’ll do some sneaker work, we clean sneakers, you know, try to keep up with the times.”

Sneaker-cleaning services helped Anthony’s Shoe Repair, near Grand Central Terminal, survive the pandemic. Like shining dress shoes, it’s a specialized service. “Many people do not know how to clean them,” owner Teodoro Morocho said. “You need the right equipment and material to be able to do it well.”

At the end of the article, Charlie Colletti quoted above says in the 1990s he was super busy, had a contract with Merrill Lynch, and about 16 employees. Again this has parallels with arts organizations who remember having packed houses of subscribers. Except in this case, instead of those core audiences getting older and younger audiences not replacing them, the cobblers and shoe shine companies are facing a change in work environment and style choices.

Whether it is arts and culture or shoes, people are seeking a heightened experience, but want to be more comfortable doing it.