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How to Reengage Audiences in New Ways
Episode 110
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How to Reengage Audiences in New Ways

CI to Eye on Competing with the Couch

This episode is hosted by Priya Iyer.

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In This Episode

As we near the end of 2022, arts organizations are still in recovery mode. Audiences are slow to return to cultural activities, and without proper benchmarks for attendance and revenue planning, arts leaders are without a compass. In this episode, we consider how audiences have evolved, propose fresh ways to engage and retain attendees, and share predictions for the new year.
1:40
Media Moment

Priya talks with CI’s VP/Managing Director, Christopher Williams, about a recent Washington Post article highlighting the pandemic’s influence on human behavior.

8:44
CI's Stance

Principal Consultant Sam Kindler connects with Sara Villagio, CMO of Carnegie Hall, who led a panel at Boot Camp 2022 no the future of subscriptions/memberships. They discuss crucial learnings to help you meet your audience’s evolving needs.

23:22
CI to Eye Interview

Priya sits down with Colleen Dilenschneider, Founder & Managing Director of IMPACTS Experience, to discuss the driving factors for audience behavior today and the power of mission and storytelling. Colleen also dives into pressing visitor engagement trends for 2023 as we continue on the road to recovery.

Priya Iyer: Hello everyone, and welcome to CI to Eye. I’m Priya Iyer, President of Capacity Interactive, and today we have a jam-packed episode ahead for you. As we near the end of 2022, arts organizations are still very much in recovery mode. Audiences are slow to return to cultural activities and without proper benchmarks for attendance and revenue planning, arts leaders are left without a compass. Organizations must work harder than ever to re-engage lapsed attendees and retain new visitors. Today’s episode is all about engaging audiences in new ways. First, I’ll chat with CI’s VP/Managing Director Christopher Williams about a Washington Post article from a couple of months ago that declared the pandemic “over” (in quotations) and how that translates to our own experiences at Capacity Interactive and in conversations with our clients. We’ll touch on how the past few years have influenced human behavior holistically, and the idea that our competition now, more than ever, is the couch. Then Principal Consultant Sam Kindler will sit down with Carnegie Hall’s CMO, Sara Villagio, to share what they learned from the subscriptions and memberships panel at our annual conference, and help you reimagine your own offerings. And finally, I’ll have a conversation with Colleen Dilenschneider, founder of IMPACTS Experience. Colleen will talk about what’s driving audiences and the power of storytelling to bring people back through your doors. She’ll also offer a sneak peek into some early trends her team is noticing as they look forward to 2023.

Christopher Williams: Hey, Priya.

Priya Iyer: Hey, Christopher. It’s so good to have you back here. How’s it going?

Christopher Williams: Thanks for having me. Good, good.

Priya Iyer: Today on our podcast episode, we are gonna talk about re-engaging audiences. And I’m really excited to talk to you about a Washington Post article that we read a couple of months ago. It came out in September. It’s called “Is the Pandemic Over” and discusses pre-Covid activities that Americans are resuming and are not resuming. They bring up this idea of contradictory decisions in the article. So for example, [people] are comfortable flying on an airplane, but they’re not comfortable going on public transit. Or they’re comfortable going to concerts, but they’re not comfortable going to theater. And a lot of what the article talks about is the theme of safety. But I think there’s another big theme here. And the other theme is just the way that we as humans are moving through the world differently now as a result of what we’ve been through over the past three years. Right? Our behavior is different, what we’re accustomed to is different, what we crave in comfort looks different. And I just wanna start by hearing your general thoughts around that. How do you feel like safety is playing in and how do you feel like the patterns of human behavior and comfort that we’re seeing are playing in?

Christopher Williams: Yeah. Well, I thought the article contained some interesting statistics, a couple of them that I think are worth repeating: that two-thirds of Americans believe that there is little to no risk in returning to their pre-pandemic lives, and 46% of them say they have already done so. And I think there’s an interesting thing — you know, those of us who have been marketing the arts for a while certainly understand some basic demographic assumptions we can make about certain kinds of genres. And I think if you are possibly a venue that attracts — and specifically an arts and culture venue or organization — that attracts a younger audience, perhaps you are benefiting from some of that data. And then those of us who are attracting more of a traditional older audience are certainly having the other experience, which I feel like is more of what we’re hearing certainly as a consulting firm right now. We’re hearing and experiencing demand being lower and missing the expectations of attendance goals and revenue goals. It does make you sort of ask some questions. Certainly there’s a safety component, which is very straightforward, and I think we all understand that, and people are being pretty binary about that. You either feel safe or you don’t. But I think there’s some interesting things in the middle that, you know, some of it is just what being on lockdown did to our behavior. We were joking yesterday saying, “an eight o’clock curtain sure does feel late now.”

Priya Iyer: That’s rough now.

Christopher Williams: And, you know, an eight o’clock curtain for possibly a show that lasts for two and a half hours, and then possibly I’m taking mass transit — or maybe I don’t wanna take mass transit. But I’ve got, you know, 20 to 30 minutes of a commute home after that. I think we’ve shifted a lot in these years. It’s been almost three of them. And so the next version of iterating upon understanding our audiences is really understanding how we compete with the couch, or we compete with the creature comforts of people who work all day from home and then trying to get them out of their homes and into our spaces. I think those are some of the questions that we have to start asking and then hopefully answering as arts marketers.

Priya Iyer: Yeah. You know, sometimes I feel like we are… It’s not just competing with the couch, it’s competing with having access to the couch. I don’t know if that’s a weird thing to say, but like, I’m not sitting on my couch all day, but when I’m taken out of my — when I go to a conference for eight hours in the day, I realize that I underestimate on a normal day when I’m sitting at my desk inside of my home, that I can take a five minute break, lay on the couch, cuddle with my dog, and then go back to work feeling refreshed and ready for the next thing. And the experience of going and sitting in one place for a handful of hours to experience something just feels different now.

Christopher Williams: A hundred percent. And I think we both had really wonderful returns to sitting inside of a theater or being in a museum and remembering how wonderful that is. You know, I just think about how I spent my time at the ballet, like in January and February, and, you know, basically I was weeping in the car on the way home after all of them because I just, I forgot how wonderful that was gonna feel. And it’s not that I don’t wanna do that. I love doing that, but I just have such an interesting — this is me as one consumer — I just have such a different relationship to, like, comforts than I did before. And there’s more competition to get me out of the house. I’ll tell you what: I wanna know I’m gonna have a home run often when I’m doing this. And I know that’s not… I know that some consumers, they thrive on taking cultural risk. And so when I say something like that, they’re like, yeah, that’s a “you problem.” Of course it is. But when we consider all of the different kinds of constituents that come visit us, there’s so much for us to learn still. And I think we just have to start asking some questions. Like, how would you want us to optimize the experience?

Priya Iyer: And you know, I like the frame of that question as opposed to some of the more common questions I’ve seen. Like, what are the barriers to getting you in the door? Because what you’re asking is, what can we do for you as opposed to what are we doing that’s stopping you. And I love that framing of the question. And you’re totally right. On the days that I do get out the door for my 8:00 PM show — which still happens quite a bit, I do still love this industry after all — you know, it’s 10:30 PM and I’m like, now I wanna go and have a glass of champagne and celebrate this incredible experience that I just had. It always pays off, but getting people there just looks a little different. And so it’s exciting to think about new ways to get people to join us.

Christopher Williams: And I think as arts marketers, boy, is this a service to our society. ‘Cause we all need to be connecting. We’re recording this the day after the midterm election. That’s certainly on my mind. I’m sure it’s on yours too. And certainly, humans being in a shared artistic experience is still a very powerful thing. And so as arts marketers, it’s so important for us to be thinking about ways to iterate on how to get people out of the house. Because once we get them in that experience, we know how powerful that can be for society.

Priya Iyer: So beautifully said.

Sam Kindler: Welcome to CI’s Stance. I’m Sam Kindler, a principal consultant at CI. Today we’re gonna talk about a topic that I know is on top of the minds of many arts marketers: the decline in subscriptions and memberships. According to JCA Arts Marketing, subscriptions have declined 27% compared to pre-pandemic levels, and that’s leaving many of us wondering what is in store for the future of these models. Today I’m joined by the amazing Chief Marketing Officer of Carnegie Hall, Sara Villagio, to dive into this topic. Hi Sara.

Sara Villagio: Hi, Sam. Great to connect over this.

Sam Kindler: So you recently led a very transparent conversation at bootcamp 2022 with arts marketers who are trying to adapt to this new landscape. I’d love to dive into some of those learnings from the panel because they were absolutely excellent and made us all really feel like we weren’t alone in tackling this challenge.

Sara Villagio: Yeah. Obviously I’ve been working in this space as well as the colleagues that were part of the panel, which were, University Musical Society, the Phoenix Symphony, and Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. And, that said, I think all of us learned something new, which was great. The first thing being that we’re all experiencing the same thing. And I think the JCA data reinforces that. We’ve all been seeing this. I think anyone who’s working in arts marketing right now is experiencing the impact of this trend, which, you know, wasn’t new from pre-pandemic, but has totally been hastened by the pandemic and sped along. But I think some of the other things that I learned about were, um, I think the levels of excellent customer service happening at the Phoenix Symphony were such an incredible example of how to steward subscribers and loyal ticket buyers through significant change.

I think that the student outreach program at UMS is an amazing example of how audiences can be shifted and are a way of considering growth for the future, as well as showing longtime subscribers and ticket buyers that new audiences are coming and enjoying the art form alongside them. And I think from Steppenwolf, just to hear that they’re completely re-envisioning their membership models in a way that responds to new needs at the organization, emerging out of not being able to sell preview performances in the same way and specific issues around that. So I think that those are just a few of the things off the top of my head. But it was such a great — I mean, despite really depressing numbers — an actually fun conversation to be having because it’s like, okay, if we’re, you know, as marketers, one of our primary functions is to be problem solvers, right? Like, if you think about what our role is in organizations, sometimes we have big problems to solve, sometimes smaller problems, but really, at the end of the day, we’re looking at how we can be solutions-oriented. So it was a lot of fun to talk to them about that.

Sam Kindler: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, on the one hand it’s kind of jarring to see those kinds of numbers come up at Boot Camp on the big screen, but at the same time, you know, when we were programming this panel, and from all of the conversations I’ve been having with our clients, we know that this is not a unique problem. Right? This is an industry-wide issue. And being able to have five amazing, powerhouse arts marketers up on the stage being really open and vulnerable about what they’re experiencing, the challenges, the pushback, the depressing numbers, but also the hope, I think was really validating to be able to share that. And, you know, a big theme at Boot Camp this year was community and building community with our audiences. And I felt like the panel did an amazing job of building community with our industry, with our fellow arts marketers, and realizing that, you know, the key to the success of our industry is all of us working together to problem-solve this issue that is becoming even bigger post-pandemic.

Sara Villagio: And I think, if anything, all of us learned during the pandemic that the power of our collective brains was so much more significant and meaningful than any one brain alone. And we actually, as an industry, I think, across different roles at organizations, but especially in marketing for sure, had to lean on each other to better understand what was happening, to share assets, to share communication approaches, to really think through that. And so this is just — to me, this is the next phase of that. You know, we had this polarizing crazy moment as a field that we went through with the pandemic. And I hate to use the term silver lining when I think about this, but actually, this is a benefit that our field is sharing information in a way that can be meaningful.

Sam Kindler: Yeah. Again, it goes back to being really hopeful and to me, it’s all about finding the gifts in this, right? We can’t change human behavior. We can’t change if people are not coming back because they’re nervous about Covid or because they don’t wanna get off their couch or because they don’t wanna spend their disposable income. But finding those different gifts in the situation we now find ourselves in.

Sara Villagio: Yeah. I think that all of the panelists hit on this in some way, which is that we have an opportunity to engage new audiences in different ways with different offerings. And I think that’s what I was getting at when I was thinking about, you know, we have a a long-standing group of people who’ve been loyal to our organizations, so how does that shift in this new time? How do we continue to meet their needs? But at the same time, is there something different that we can be sharing with a new group of constituents? Can we learn from what they’ve already done so far in the last, you know — now we have two seasons of, or one and a half seasons of pandemic data. I’m like, what season is it? What year is it? I don’t know where I am. I’m working in three seasons right now, so it’s a little bit intense. But that said, you know, I think that we’re starting to have enough information to inform future decision-making again, which is a really critical moment for us to be aware of. And what data points, what questions do we need to ask to learn about people and audiences to better inform the next cycle of opportunity?

Sam Kindler: I think that brings up a, a great point. And a lot of people asked this following up the panel the other week, which is, you know, we have these three organizations that are trying out new things, testing things out, and seeing what they can do to get people to either come back or to subscribe for the first time. And I think there are a lot of arts marketers who are not necessarily holding the reins of decision-making, but who see that there are changes that need to be made. That the subscription models they currently have are not necessarily working right now, nor will they continue to work in the future. And so I’m curious what kind of advice you would give to somebody who works in an arts organization who knows that something needs to change, but perhaps they want to try something bold, something new, but they need to get their executive leadership on board with that.

Sara Villagio: Yeah, I think one thing I’ve learned about change management is that, as much as I think I know all the answers, I don’t. So even if you’re the only marketer in your organization, or the only, you know, communications, development, whatever hat you’re wearing, I assume you’re not the only person. Whether it’s board members or other stakeholders, whatever the makeup is. And I think that there is an opportunity — I hate to use the word bond, but I’m gonna say it — but actually to bridge a gap with your colleagues when you’re talking about, we have a challenge ahead of us. This is the challenge. This is where we’ve been, now we know this is what’s happening, but here are the questions that I have. What questions do you have? And before you start to try and answer all of them with the way forward, just even be on the same page about what they are. I think [that] is a really helpful starting point.
And then I think within that you can actually clarify what are the priorities, what are the ideas that emerge out of this? And I think that there’s a greater possibility of engendering real partnership to solve problems as opposed to feeling like you have to do it alone. And I think that will always be a more successful path forward. For those who are at smaller organizations, I’ll just say that I think the field is rising to meet you right now. And I think that, you know, I’m at a bigger organization, I understand that I may have resources, I know I have resources available that a smaller organization may not have, but I’m a peer, right? So I think that more and more we’re seeing ways in which the field can work together to kind of at least have the conversations that are transparent, that are empathetic, that are solutions-oriented and all about sharing, as you noted before.

Sam Kindler: It’s so interesting to me that a step forward with this is breaking down silos in departments. It always is. I feel like that’s always, it’s like the age old problem, but clearly we still need it. We still need to talk about it. We still need to fix it. Because the marketing department alone cannot fix this. You have to get everyone on the same page to be talking about what the issues are and what the path forward is, just like you said.

Sara Villagio: And to me, at the end of the day, it’s still always about people, right? And marketing is about people and how we connect with people and communicate on behalf of our organizations and our artists with people. So also like, you can’t build out if you don’t start from within. So I think that that is just such an important reminder that I hold close to me as I think about all the fun challenges ahead that we have to solve.

Sam Kindler: Fun. That’s a great way of putting it.

Sara Villagio: Fun. Always fun. Stimulating! Super stimulating

Sam Kindler: Sarah Villagio, finding the gifts. Finding the gifts. Um, I hear from a lot of my clients that they are having trouble managing expectations in their organization. I think a lot of organizations have, you know, goals that are handed down to them into their department, or expectations that renewal rates or new subscription rates are gonna be right back up to pre-pandemic levels or beyond that. And I’m curious how you work to manage your own expectations and how you deal with that within your organization.

Sara Villagio: I guess the reminder that I have for myself is that we remain in an unpredictable environment coming out of the pandemic. And I think that we have to remember that we are rebounding, our audiences are rebounding. I mean, there’s just still so much unsettled… You know, the nature of things is still unsettled from the pandemic. That said, that doesn’t always like trickle into reality. Like, I have a goal to hit, and why didn’t you hit this target, and whatever. I err on the side of overcommunicating when it comes to these things. And I think the other things we saw at Boot Camp that people were talking about is how, you know, if you need to tell a story about what’s happening with your audience, how can you do that? Is there some kind of a survey you can do? I mean, I think there’s ways to try and dig into that a little bit. I guess the data points to it, though, right? We have national studies that are telling us, here’s the bigger picture that’s happening all over the U.S. It’s not unique to our organization. So I’d hope there’s some reasonable things there.

Sam Kindler: Yeah, absolutely. I do feel like there has certainly been a shift in what I’m hearing from clients from a year ago compared to now, where about a year ago I was hearing a lot of, you know, here are expectations for selling subscriptions in the first seasons coming out of the pandemic. And now it seems that people are recognizing more and more what you pointed out, and what a lot of our panelists pointed out, which is that this is a long game that we have to realize that people are not gonna come flooding back in the way that we maybe hoped they would. I think it would be amazing if the minute we opened our doors, everybody wanted to buy a ticket to every single show, and it was great. But we’re fighting against the fact that habits have changed, that people’s economic situation has changed, that people’s mental health has changed and certain programming might not be what they’re up for. And of course, we still have a pandemic and people may not want to just come back to the theater in the same way that they did before. And I think coming to that realization that it is a long game is really valuable for arts organizations.

Sara Villagio: I think that’s like one of the most powerful things you can extract from this is that, I think sometimes I felt like we were moving really slowly throughout this chapter, and then I had to kind of force myself to take a step back because it’s all about the long game, for sure.

Sam Kindler: I think all three experiments — or all three organizations — really hit on something that PennyMaria Jackson from Steppenwolf Theatre Company said, which is that what we are experiencing right now is an opportunity for world building, and creating a more inclusive view, not just on stage, but in the audience as well. So subscriptions declining in the way that they are now is an opportunity to rethink things, build back audiences, in new ways.

Sara Villagio: I thought she said that so well. It was a really great moment in the panel. I had a great time with my fellow panelists at the conference. It was actually great to prepare. It felt like group therapy leading up to it, you know, to just share all this stuff and put it out on the table. So I’m really grateful to each of them for their time as well.

Priya Iyer: Hi, Colleen. It’s so wonderful to have you back here.

Colleen Dilenschneider: Hi, Priya. It’s so good to be here. I love CI to Eye, and I’m just so honored to have the opportunity to talk with you today and all of your great listeners. It is just such a joy.

Priya Iyer: Oh, it’s such a joy for us too. We are just such fans of your work. You’ve been on the CI to Eye podcast before, we’ve had you on our Boot Camp stage which is truly incredible… I wanna start by just giving our listeners a peek behind the curtain. I’d love if you can just talk a little bit about the need that you saw in our industry when you founded IMPACTS Experience and how you see the work that you’re doing now really fulfilling that need and what that growth has looked like.

Colleen Dilenschneider: Yeah, absolutely. I am with a company called IMPACTS Experience, and we provide high-confidence market research and predictive technologies for cultural institutions, both exhibit-based and performance-based, throughout the world. And we monitor a survey that is believed to be the largest in-market survey regarding perceptions and behaviors surrounding cultural institutions in the United States. Right now it’s over 117,000 individuals strong. And that is the meat of what we are able to provide for the great institutions with which we are able to partner. I came to working with IMPACTS Experience and founding IMPACTS Experience through actually starting a blog. Way back in the day, I started a blog called Know Your Own Bone that to this day, puts out data every other Wednesday that’s high-confidence research that’s aggregated for the industry from this national awareness attitudes and usage study. And I started it in the heyday, if we all remember the heyday of blogging. And from there, I got really lucky, got picked up by the right people, had incredible opportunities to speak with big brains and just wonderful, amazing humans who help make cultural institutions survive and thrive. And from there have been able to create a lot of partnerships and try to find ways and opportunities to continue to help museums and performing art organizations continue to keep going up and to the right.

Priya Iyer: That’s amazing. One thing I love about talking to you and every opportunity that we’ve had to do that is you just have such an engaging intellectual curiosity. And I love that all of this came from your own curiosity and your own desire to sort of serve the industry with that curiosity that you have. So thank you for being here. I’m very excited for a fun conversation ahead with you. So I wanna start with, you mentioned a trend. I know that this is a big, big data time for you all over there at IMPACTS Experience and really looking ahead to 2023 and what 2023 has in store. And you shared this overarching, driving trend that you are seeing that I really latched onto, and [it] really sort of warmed me, that I’d love to open our conversation with. And so can you talk a little bit about that trend that you’re seeing as we look forward to 2023?

Colleen Dilenschneider: Yes, absolutely. If I had to pick just one trend, just one single trend that is emerging in the data and growing in how important it is, it would be the trend toward: being good at your mission is being good for your business. In other words, one of the biggest changes that we’ve seen during the pandemic is that museums and performing arts organizations were forced to prove that they were relevant beyond their walls during the times that they closed down and they couldn’t welcome people through their doors. We found that, of course, museums and performing arts organizations were putting out different messages. It was less “come see us today” — because we couldn’t — and more and more, “hey, here’s a resource to help teach your kids about science.” Or “hey, here’s a great performance that you can watch from home while you miss us, and you can’t come and sit in the seat and enjoy a performance.”
And what we’ve seen is that during that time, it seems that many people have noticed this relevance beyond our walls. Right now, we’ve seen some critical trends and positive reputational equities emerging from this redistribution of priorities, from “come visit us now” to “here’s why we matter.” We’re closed. You can’t visit us, and here’s why we’re still important. Here’s how we can help you — from home — engage and teach your kids. And we can prove that… we’re starting to see that institutions are increasingly more than attractions as opposed to more of attractions as we emerge from the pandemic. And that is increasingly and excitingly an expectation of the United States public, which is I think incredibly exciting. But it’s also very much fuel for a lot of the other trends that we’re seeing.

Priya Iyer: Yeah. And you know what’s interesting about that? There are so many conversations that we have with our clients about what it means to stay on top of creating a volume of digital content. You know, especially when doors were closed and when people could not come into venues. There was a pressure to continue the conversation. And honestly, there is an importance behind that pressure, but it’s easy to feel the surface of that, right? To feel the surface of simply the pressure. And I love the way that you phrased this, the importance of relevance beyond our walls. This is why we are still here, this is why we are important, and this is allowing that importance to drive that sort of digital content. The digital messaging, I think, is just really special. And I think sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in multiple priorities when you think about what you’re offering digitally.

But I love that as sort of like a north star or a grounding rock beneath all of it, right? Like, this is why we are here, this is why this is important. And that really being at the core of messaging, of storytelling. And I, you know, I’m curious to hear, of course, doors are reopening — have been reopening. And, we’re seeing people come back perhaps not in the same volumes as we’ve seen in pre-pandemic times. But of course there’s a volume of priorities that gets added to the list when the doors are open, right? When we’re in a world of competing priorities and when we’re thinking about messaging inside of just digital, the digital content that we’re putting out there and the messages that we’re putting out there, um, what can you say or what would you recommend that marketers really think about in terms of that messaging? You know, like, is it something where continuing to keep at the forefront, digital messaging, digital content, even as doors are opening is a thing that needs to be prioritized? Is there a type of messaging that we need to be prioritizing? Is there like just the minimum viable option that we can focus on? Just what are your thoughts there? Just knowing that there’s so many priorities?

Colleen Dilenschneider: Ooh, great question. Yes, great question. And I’ll actually start by answering it with a data output. There are four key trends or four key numbers that we’ve noticed an increase in, in relation to how people view museums and performing arts organizations, that are the outcome of some of our digital engagement efforts and meeting audiences where they are online. So I’ll start by sharing some of those numbers because I think that they’re particularly exciting. And also, I think, of course I’m nerdily biased, but I think that they’re incredibly inspiring and a big pat on the back to everybody listening. And the first is that we are seeing that cultural institutions — we have aggregated both exhibit-based and performance-based institutions — are, on the whole, notably more trusted as of the end of the third quarter of 2022. So as of October 1st, 2022, they’re significantly more trusted than they were at end of year 2019 before the pandemic.

In fact, we know that today, 71.5% of Americans agree or strongly agree that cultural institutions are trusted sources. And that’s a huge — I think that’s something incredible to celebrate, that even when we weren’t aiming to increase that by way of our messaging and meeting audiences where they are, that is the outcome. That’s where we stand and that’s what we wanna protect. And what’s even more exciting than that is that we’re at that 71.5%, but only 51% of Americans strongly agree that they trust the daily newspaper. So we are an important source of information for our communities across the United States. And as we think about our messages and as marketers think about meeting audiences where they are, I think that’s a critical change that we wanna make sure that we utilize so we can use it and not lose it.

And that’s particularly important. Another one that we’re seeing that’s related to this is that we see that 68.3% of Americans admire cultural institutions, which is an 8% increase. So that’s in a metric that’s largely been durable before the pandemic, that kind of increase is significantly notable. We also see an increase in the perception that cultural institutions are credible sources of information. And then finally, and most excitingly to me is, as we all know, as we all know very well, there’s a lot happening politically right now. We just had election, we have a lot of announcements that are happening right now, we live in a very divided world, right? And what we are seeing is the most notable increase of all is the belief that cultural institutions should recommend behaviors surrounding their missions. And it’s hard to get Americans to believe that they’re gonna listen to any source of information.

Right now, we know that Americans like to be able to make up their own minds. And certainly that’s still the case for cultural institutions. But the fact that we are one of those few sources in the United States where people are saying, “hey, there’s a lot going on. I’m gonna think for myself, but I’m gonna look at what the museum is saying.” That’s a huge benefit to us to know where we stand and our value as assets to our communities. And then aside from that, we’ve also been very closely monitoring the perception of how political cultural institutions are believed to be. And we see that on the whole, museums and performing arts institutions are not seen as statistically significant in their change of how politically they’re viewed. Which is a big thing to think about if you consider that so many institutions took stands in regard to uprising against racial injustice and climate change, and are really diving into some really important conversations about communities and representing our audiences. So if you combine all of this — this is a very long way to say, Priya — if you combine all of these things together, we are in a place where when we promulgate our messaging, or we consider how we’re going to continue to welcome audiences back in our doors, I think a fundamental place to start is, hey, you know, times were really hard and they still continue to be hard, and yet some positive change has taken place. And how do we use that to further underscore that, you know, we’re different than a picnic in the park. A picnic in the park sounds lovely. I’m looking outside in Chicago and there’s snow. But we are different. We have a very, very different reason for visiting us and choosing us among something else. And the exciting news is that during the pandemic, we may have increased those perceptions.

Priya Iyer: That’s all so heartening. I wanna pull out a couple of nuggets. There’s so much good stuff that you shared there. It’s amazing. I love it. The first thing that really stands out to me is the trust piece. And just this idea that our world is full of distrust right now. No one knows what information is real or fake news. And to me, everything that you’re saying reinforces something that we’ve been saying for a while about the social sweet spot where organizations are able to share in their social content, content that kind of falls between what’s happening in the world and what’s happening inside of the organization. And I think it’s really easy to want to fall more into what’s happening in my organization’s world right now, as opposed to where does that overlap with the happenings of the world around us.
But I think if anything, the data that you just shared reinforces the importance of really falling into that sweet spot.

Because it sounds to me like arts organizations, cultural organizations, have almost a power of trust, I suppose you can say, that not a lot of other organizations do right now. And again, I think it’s hard to really focus in and clarify what you should be saying across your channels, how that should relate to audiences or not relate to audiences, relate to what’s happening inside of your doors, relate to what’s happening in the world. But this, to me, clarifies it really beautifully because there’s a power there that can influence what’s happening in the world, and people are looking to arts organizations as trusted organizations. And there’s almost a duty — not to put pressure, of course — but perhaps a duty to be able to speak to that and to use that power for good.

There’s a lot of power going around around right now that is not be using use used for good. And this seems to me like an opportunity to use power for good and power that’s been earned for good, which is really lovely. So lots to think about there. That’s really incredible. And I think too, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about how do you keep up your digital presence at the same volume as the past two years when doors are opening again with all of the competing priorities. And I think if anything, this reinforces the importance of that because continuing to build that trust only does good things for organizations. So that is really, really interesting to hear. Do you have any data that speaks to how different digital channels might contribute to that, more or less? Is there a certain channel that’s more influential than another in building trust?

Colleen Dilenschneider: I’ll start at the beginning by saying that one of the biggest questions we got in 2021 from executives of the organizations with which we work was, alright, we’re emerging from the pandemic. There’s a vaccination. We’ve been putting all of this work on social media. Can we go back to “normal”? People can’t see me right now, but I’m doing scare quotes with my hands. Can we go back to normal? Normal, of course, being that end of year 2019, like, you know, maybe the intern does social media, it’s an afterthought. It’s an add-on strategy as opposed to being integrated into an important part of our engagement strategy. And that’s another one of the biggest shifts and the biggest changes that we’re seeing, is this meld between perceptions of the onsite and offsite experience. And that is impacting so many things. There was this idea, I think even five years ago, that there’s the onsite experience and there’s the offsite experience.

And the offsite experience — marketing is an add-on. Advertising is an add-on. Getting people to take selfies or pictures with their programs, that’s an add-on, that’s an added bonus. But what we’re seeing right now is that couldn’t be further from the truth. Those institutions that we’re monitoring that are recovering the most successfully are those that have integrated the digital experience with the onsite experience so that somebody, when they think of, say, museum X, as an example, they’re not just thinking of what happens or what exhibits are on site, or separately what that institution just recently post on social media. They’re thinking of an overall idea of that institution. What does it stand for? And that is painted by both what we’re doing online and also what we’re doing onsite. And that is playing a very big role in what’s happening in digital engagement.

But to go back to your very, very good point about these trends in regard to digital engagement, one of the biggest reasons why we’re telling folks, well, you know, there’s this… I hate to use the phrase “new normal,” right? ‘Cause we’re all using that phrase, but it’s not wrong. It’s not wrong. We are in a world where there’s this new normal, and the new normal is that people are spending even more time online than they did before the pandemic. We know that before the pandemic, the average American spent 5.6 hours online. That’s excluding things like digital streams. So like watching Hulu and Netflix, and now, Americans are online seven hours a day. And at the peak of the pandemic at the end of year 2021, it was 6.9 hours.

So people got on the internet even more than they already were at the height of the pandemic. Of course, we were all home and we stayed on it. And what’s interesting is that we, even before the pandemic, to your point about channels, we already were seeing a dramatic rise in people using their phones and using these guys. You all, I’m pointing to my phone right now. We just saw this dramatic increase in people that started using their phones. And now mobile web has displaced the other sources of information in the big three as the top sources of information that people use to obtain general information when they wanna know something. And those big three are of course, mobile web is number one right now. And then also web. So that’s your computer, your laptop, and then social media. You find that people are going to social media to learn the news.

And to be honest, that’s where I — at the risk of — you all, feel free to judge me. I deserve it. That’s where I go in the morning and I get my New York Times alerts, but then I go straight to Instagram and my friends are talking about what’s happening all over the world, things that are happening in the election. And that’s a big source of information, even for me. And of course that’s just a sample size of one — not a thing in my world — but it’s a thing that we’re seeing in the data is that people are going to social media, talking to their friends, they’re looking on the internet, and that’s where they’re learning a lot of critical information. But even more than that, as it relates to us, it’s where they’re finding out, hey, when I went to the symphony, I had a good time. Or, when my aunt Nancy went to the symphony, she had a good time.

Maybe I should go to the symphony. You know? Or, I brought my niece Hannah to the children’s museum. She had a great time. Maybe when I go back in town, I’ll take her again. Those kinds of word-of-mouth endorsements. And to throw out another fun fact that I’ve shared with Capacity Interactive many times, but it’s a favorite, is that… what we know is that what people say about an organization is 12.85 times more important than the things that we say about ourselves. 12.85 times more important. So the best marketing that we can do is making sure that people are having a great time and telling other people about the great time that they’re having. And since we know that people are so digitally connected right now, it’s arguably even more important than it’s ever been.

Priya Iyer: Yeah. That’s one of our favorite nuggets here, for sure. And we do repeat that time and time again. So I’m glad that you said it in this episode. I was hoping that you would. Absolutely. And I kind of wanna take that and take our conversation in a sort of offshoot here. So digital presence, digital messaging, how that contributes to an organization’s identity, how that helps break down distrust or build trust, build relationships… all of that feels really important and really meaningful. And I now want to talk a little bit about how those efforts support the difference in interest and intention. So a lot of what you’re talking about here is how individuals can connect to an organization, how they are seeing other people in their worlds connect to an organization, and perhaps that’s piquing their interest.

But I know that over the summer, in Know Your Own Bone, you had released some thoughts around interest versus intention and how sort of digital messaging and identity and connection can play into that. And so I’m hoping you can touch on that a little bit. It seems to me that the importance of keeping this digital presence and messaging at the levels that we saw during the pandemic as much as possible, even as venues are reopening their doors and people are coming back through the doors, is important, no doubt. But I’m curious to hear how much of that is about piquing interest, and then what does it look like to turn that interest into intention? Where does that happen in this journey? Just curious to hear some thoughts around that.

Colleen Dilenschneider: Yes, absolutely. That is a big kind of baseline misunderstanding that we often — you’ve hit on the nail on the head — a baseline misunderstanding that we often encounter is this confusion around intent versus interest. So, Priya, do you have interest in visiting Ireland? I’ll say Ireland. Do you have interest in visiting Ireland?

Priya Iyer: Totally. Absolutely.

Colleen Dilenschneider: You do? Well, that is perfect! I also know that you have a very exciting event coming up in your life, and that you may or may not have a honeymoon coming up. Again, I don’t know if you have a honeymoon coming up, but I suspect maybe you do.

Priya Iyer: I do.

Colleen Dilenschneider: Alright. You just told us you were interested in going to Ireland. Are you going to Ireland?

Priya Iyer: Uh, not on my honeymoon.

Colleen Dilenschneider: No, no! Priya, you just told us that you have interest in going to Ireland.

Priya Iyer: I know. I’m so sorry to let you down, Colleen. I’m not going to Ireland on my honeymoon. I’m so sorry.

Colleen Dilenschneider: And that perfectly proves the difference between interest and intent, because when we ask somebody if they’re interested in doing something, we take away all of the practical reasons why they’re not doing it. First and foremost being, a person could be more interested in doing something else. Presumably you’re interested in going to Ireland. I assume you’re telling the truth also, Ireland would be beautiful. I mean, who doesn’t want to go to Ireland?

Priya Iyer: Yes, absolutely.

Colleen Dilenschneider: But I believe since you didn’t choose Ireland, that there is another place that you and your fiancé might prefer to go ahead of Ireland.

Priya Iyer: Yes. Bali.

Colleen Dilenschneider: Oh, that’s — oh, I’m so jealous. That’s gonna be so much fun. See? Exactly. And so we often think that when we ask about interest, that’s it. They’re coming in the door. Someone’s interested, it’s done. But we know that a lot of people have interest in doing a lot of things that they never do. I have interest in going to — womp, womp — I have interest in going to a lot of places on the planet that, let’s be honest, I’m probably not going to have the time, resources, energy, or intention to go to in the course of my very short human lifetime. So that brings up this idea. Of course, interest is a prerequisite to intent, right? Before you intend to do something, you have to, or you don’t have to, but it helps if you have — unless it’s social force — it helps to have interest in doing that thing.

And so interest is certainly an important measurement, right? It’s the first one that opens the door. But on top of that, there’s this important metric you’ve brought up, which is intent to visit. And that’s that next step. How do we move from just interest in visiting a cultural institution, which we know many people in the United States have interest in doing right now, to that actual intent of actually having a time-based plan to walk in the door and experience that cultural institution.
And we’re finding that there are several barriers to attendance that are taking place right now. And some of them are particularly unique given the pandemic.

We’ve excitingly — I need to find… oh, no, there’s all sorts of metal around me. I need to find some wood right now. Oh, good. She’s got us. Nobody worry. Priya’s got us covered. She knocked on the wood for us. Good. Perfect.
Right now, the Coronavirus-related concerns are not a primary barrier to visiting cultural institutions anymore, which is great for us, but also really scary because there may be several institutions who are telling themselves, well, the primary reason why we haven’t fully recovered is Coronavirus concerns. And of course there are a lot of things related to the Coronavirus that have really changed up behaviors. But right now, in this moment, our opportunity is to adapt to the new environment that we’re in as an outcome, as we learn to live alongside the pandemic. And that includes big changes related to, well, number one, we’re seeing a lot of concerns about travel distance, airline costs.

We’re seeing travel costs. To your earlier point, you had mentioned a Know Your Own Bone article in which we discussed how some of the barriers to visitation have changed in the United States as of right now. And there are two new barriers on the list as of the last two quarters. And that is, one, schedule conflict. We’re seeing people are going back to work, people are going back to school. People wanna see family members that they still haven’t seen in a while. They want to go back to doing the things that they love. And to your point about Bali and going to Bali instead of Ireland, our time is precious. And you might choose to go to Bali for your honeymoon, and there might be seven to ten other countries you might choose to go to before you even chose to go to Ireland.

So our opportunity as cultural institutions is to rise to the top of those factors. So of course, yes, as I mentioned, one is schedule. So our goal there is to, you know, as they say, be so good they can’t ignore you. Make sure our programs are spot on. We are really underscoring our relevance such that, when somebody is thinking about their schedule and how to piece together the bad LSAT question that is everybody’s life and calendar right now, how do we get on that list? How do we become a priority? And the second barrier that has emerged very recently is concerns about the economy, and specifically inflation. And that’s one that is — well, you know, that’s a bit of a bummer. That’s one that’s difficult. That’s a difficult one for us as cultural institutions to overcome.

The immediate reaction to that, that we’re seeing amongst some institutions in the United States, has been to offer discounts or cut their price points. But what is important for cultural institutions to know is that when cost comes up [as a barrier to attendance], admission price is the 13th reason why cost has come up. The first one’s inflation. Second is general concern about the economy, then we have travel costs. Admission cost is 13th. It’s 13th on the list. And if we think about it, it makes total sense, right? If we take $5 off of an admission price, it’s not going to make an airline flight cost $250 less for a single person. But what’s also interesting and exciting for us is that it also shows us that as we move into this new future — or again, I’m gonna use the term new normal again — as we move into this new normal, it’ll be important for us to be especially contemplative of pricing psychology and behavioral economics. It’s a thing we kind of skirted around before the pandemic, but is now a thing that is emerging as something for us to continue to be aware of and to learn up on, especially as we consider that, you know, this pandemic could be… Black swans do happen and there could be some surprises on the horizon. And we wanna make sure that we are as prepared as possible.

Priya Iyer: I am curious to that end, you know, there’s a lot of work that’s been done over the past couple of years, and honestly, plenty more ahead, that arts organizations — the sector has done to make organizations feel more welcoming and perhaps break down some of those perceptions of “that organization is not for me.” And to that end, I’m curious to hear, have you noticed any changes in the way that people are describing arts organizations and cultural organizations?

Colleen Dilenschneider: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. And in fact, we have seen in general that cultural organizations are seen as more welcoming than they were before the pandemic. And this actually makes complete sense if we think about all of those institutions and so many that Capacity Interactive works, and those also that we’ve been seeing and following on the web, have really made an active effort to show, not just tell, but to show that they are welcoming to all audiences. People have noticed. And we’re seeing that in the general overall perceptions of cultural institutions on the whole, but the most exciting thing that I am watching right now in the data is the perception that museums and performing arts institutions are an asset to their community. And that, to me, is a particularly powerful finding because to be an asset to the community is precisely the mission of so many of the institutions that IMPACTS Experience and Capacity Interactive aim to serve. Right? They’re there to educate and inspire people. And what we’re seeing right now, way more than before the pandemic, is that people are actually saying, yes. When I think about a museum, or if I think about a performing arts organization, I believe now that that institution is an asset to the community. Whether or not I am a recent attendee of that institution, it is still elevating my community.

Priya Iyer: Yeah. I mean, it goes back to the trust that we were talking about earlier. It goes back to just a value that the organizations are offering to the community as a whole, as opposed to simply their attendees. And I would like now to round us out with our CI to Eye Moment. So if you could broadcast one piece of advice to leadership teams, staff, thousands of boards of arts organizations, what would you want them to know and think about right now?

Colleen Dilenschneider: Oh, oh boy. I’m, oh, well Priya can see, but that gave me a moment. I’m having a bit of an emotional moment over here.

Priya Iyer: Oh my gosh. Feel your feelings.

Colleen Dilenschneider: I know. I’m just gonna feel ’em, I’m gonna feel ’em all. I will say one as a person who sees the data, and one as a person who supports the people who educate and inspire communities. As a person who sees the data, I wanna say, don’t forget that your mission matters and that what you do is meaningful. And that was never in question. We aren’t seeing that that was at risk. And if anything, we’re seeing that the imperative to keep doing what you do, though it’s been very hard for the last few years, is even greater than it was before. And then on a personal note, and one of the reasons why that question — oh my goodness — that question makes me emotional is that I know I, and we, had the opportunity to see the struggles, to feel the struggles, to have people lose friends in layoffs, to try to meet with boards to make ends meet.

And it’s been a really hard few years. And what I would want to say to the specific listeners of this podcast is, pat yourselves on the back. We’re in a good place to keep moving forward and we’ve learned so much. And I just wanna say congratulations and job well done. Because even as we emerge from the ashes of the last few years, we’re in a better place than we could have thought we were in. And we’re only going to keep building. And there was a period of time when we didn’t know if that was going to be the case, but we’re here now and keep being the amazing people that you are, ’cause our communities really do need museums and performing arts organizations.

Priya Iyer: Now I’m feeling all the feelings. That was so beautiful.

Colleen Dilenschneider: I know! Happy holidays, everyone.

Priya Iyer: Oh, thank you so much for being here. And I did not realize that my heart could feel so warm with such a data-driven conversation like the one that we had today. But thank you so much for leaving us on that note. And thank you so much for all of your insight. It’s been so wonderful to have you here and sit here and have this conversation with you. We’re so grateful. Thank you to all of our listeners for listening, and we’ll see you on the next one.

Thank you for listening to CI to Eye. I’m your host, Priya Iyer, President of Capacity Interactive. CI to Eye is edited and produced by Karen McConarty and co-wrote by Karen McConarty and Krisi Packer. Stephanie Medina and Jess Berube are CI to Eye’s designers and video editors and all work together to create CI’s digital content. This week you heard from Christopher Williams, Sam Kindler, Sara Villagio, and Colleen Dilenschneider. Our music is by whoisuzo. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter for regular content to help you market smarter. You can also sign up for our newsletter at capacityinteractive.com so you never miss an update. And if you haven’t already, please click the “subscribe” button wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time, stay nerdy.


About Our Guests
Christopher Williams
Christopher Williams
VP, Managing Director, Capacity Interactive

Christopher Williams is Capacity Interactive’s VP, Managing Director. Christopher has been marketing the arts across the country for nearly 30 years at performing arts centers, the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and New York City Center where he served as Director of Marketing before joining Capacity Interactive in 2013.

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Colleen Dilenschneider
Colleen Dilenschneider
Founder & Managing Member, IMPACTS Experience

Colleen Dilenschneider is the publisher of Know Your Own Bone, the powerhouse website that provides data-driven insights about marketing, fundraising, engagement and more for arts administrators and executives. It’s required reading for anyone working in the arts and culture today. Colleen is also Founder & Managing Member of IMPACTS Experience, a company providing data and analysis to visitor-serving organizations across the world.

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Sara Villagio
Sara Villagio
CMO, Carnegie Hall

Sara Villagio leads all marketing and brand strategy, creative and graphic design, ticket sales, web content and social media engagement, and customer service for Carnegie Hall’s three iconic stages, including hundreds of performances each year as well as the Hall’s global education and social impact programs. She also oversees brand extension opportunities and merchandising. In addition to her work at Carnegie Hall, Sara volunteers as a Board Member of the Bronx Charter School for the Arts and is a member of Syracuse University’s Visual and Performing Arts Young Alumni Council.

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