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.

WESTAF Celebrates 50 Years Developing Technology For Arts

The Western Arts Federation (WESTAF), the regional arts organization serving the western portion of the US turns 50 this year. They put out a series of videos on the history of the organization. I started watching them out of idle curiosity.

Some of the history is as you might expect with the different social and political influences which lead to their formation. The first headquarters being in Santa Fe, NM but the operational considerations of sending touring artists out resulting in the decision to move to Denver which was a bigger airport hub. Though Salt Lake City was apparently also under consideration based on a newspaper clipping appearing in a video.

What was really interesting was the story about how they decided to focus on technology for the arts. I knew each of the regional arts organizations has a different focus, but I hadn’t known that WESTAF’s focus on technology was based in a desire to diversify the organization’s income stream so that they weren’t entirely dependent on grants and donations. Episodes two and three talk about all the different products they have developed over the last fifty years.

I have been aware of many of their current products like Go Smart, their grant making and administration software, ZAPP which helps art festivals and fairs manage applications, CaFE (Call for Entry) which is built for applying to other types of visual arts projects (i.e. public art, exhibitions, artist-in-residence), and Public Art Archive, which is a place to document all the public art installations around the country.

However, there were a number of services they offered which didn’t quite succeed or were very useful but were phased out as needs of the industry changed. One of their first endeavors as the World Wide Web emerged on the scene was Circuit Riders, the goal of which was to connect arts organizations with consultants who could help them integrate emerging technologies into their operations. There was also a phone line, 900Arts which you could call for advice. In the first year Circuit Riders was in operation, they completed 144 contracts, but after three years it was closed down due to budget and staffing constraints.

In 1998, the Arts Computer program, was created to provide computers and sophisticated software to arts organizations at a low cost. Apparently the approach was to lease the computers and software to arts organizations. That only lasted a year. One interviewee suggested that the program was difficult to administer and the narration suggests that the exploding availability and use of personal computers decreased the need for the service.

WESTAF saw more success with their online job board, Artjob.org which started as a monthly newsletter in 1991, was distributed by email in 1993, and became a website that ran from 1998 to 2015. The video also talks about Artist Register launched in 2001, which pre-Google searches was a place for visual artists to market themselves. Based on the success of that service, WESTAF created WritersRegister and PerformingArts Register to serve artists in those areas.

Current and former staff interviewed for the video series credit former WESTAF Anthony Radich with the vision to offer these services, accompanied by a supportive board who allowed space for some of the initiatives to fail.

There are currently three videos in the series with a short intro video and the promise of more to come. They videos are each only about 10-15 minutes long and are fun to watch. Not every product WESTAF created was an exercise in trying to anticipate an unmet need in the arts industry. ZAPP apparently was a response to Kodak discontinuing the carousel slide projectors that so many arts festivals depended on to jury artist submissions. (I am sure artists are immensely grateful they don’t have to mail off piles of slides any more.)

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.