In Search of New Audiences: Blockbusters and Beyond
Asset or Liability?
By Sheila Grinell
For science centers, as for other culural and educational institutions, today's marketing environment is a challenge. Audiences have many choices for accessing education, recreation, and entertainment; they don't need us as much as they once did. At the same time, science centers, faced with a drop in government and corporate support, need audiences even more. The income generated by putting "more butts in seats," as sports promoters so elegantly phrase it, is crucial if we are to survive as educational, recreational, and, yes, entertaining institutions.
While the number of new science centers may have dropped off, cutting competition within the field (see the 2005 ASTC Sourcebook of Statistics & Analysis), for-profit venues have begun to offer some of the same exhibits and programs museums traditionally offer. Theme parks, commercial IMAX theaters, and even shopping centers now offer such experiences as dinosaur fossil digs, movies about Mars exploration, and panel discussions about healthy lifestyles. Blurred boundaries like these add to the confusion in the marketplace.
For many science centers (at least the larger ones), the nearest thing to a sure bet for boosting attendance has been the "blockbuster exhibition." That's why the staff and board at Phoenix's Arizona Science Center (ASC) decided, once the glow of our 1997 opening had faded, to step out of our core of Arizona-related, hands-on experiences to offer large-scale, high profile traveling exhibitions.
The blockbuster experiment
We weren't sure who would come to these temporary exhibitionsnew or repeat visitors, adults or kids. But judging by what was happening at other science centers and museums, the idea had promise. Between 2000 and 2005, ASC booked five major traveling exhibitions: Aliens: Are we Alone?, The Dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, Dragon Bones: When Dinosaurs Ruled China, and Bond. James Bond. The Exhibition. Four were artifact-based (we added inquiry-based programming), and three were linked with feature films.
We were careful to build evaluation into the process. With each new exhibition, we studied the effects on attendance, membership, and image, using a combination of visitor surveys, ticket-counter questions, and countywide telephone interviews of adults performed by a market research firm. Naturally, we also kept track of the bottom line. Data were collected for all five exhibitions and compared to a baseline year.
Here, in summary, is what we learned from our experiement:
Young Arizona Science Center visitors search for dinosaur "fossils" in Dragon Bones: When Dinosaurs Ruled China.
Photo courtesy Arizona Science Center
- Not every large-scale show attracted "blockbuster" attendance. The most popular exhibitions (Dinosaurs, Titanic) were those associated with a recent movie.
- Blockbusters can skew the audience: A higher proportion of teenagers visited Titanic than any of our other offerings. More males over age 18 came to see James Bond.
- School groups and members came to all the exhibitions in similar proportions, with one exception. Teachers avoided James Bond because they felt it was inappropriate.
- Although loyal visitors (members and school groups) and casual visitors attended all five exhibitions in greater numbers, the greatest increase was among casual visitors. Many of the latter came for the exhibition, not the science center; indeed, quite a few confused us with the art museum, which was also hosting big shows. Among members, the pattern of visits did not change; the same percentage made multiple vs. single visits during and after the blockbuster.
- Word of mouth was a powerful force. We could see its effect, independent of our advertising, as attendance built over the months. The new audience did not come from distant places; rather it included many more people from our typical 30-minute-drive catchment area. (For more on regional attendance patterns, see Charlie Trautman's Zip code study in the 2005 ASTC Sourcebook).
- Staff reported success in converting casual visitors into members (perhaps because the line was shorter) and retaining old members with the promise of something new and exciting both now and next year. But for most visitors, the lure of the exhibition did not last; six months after a show, adults' "intent to visit" had dropped back to the habitual level.
The bottom line? In terms of audience response, the result was positive. At the end of the five-year period, both loyal and casual visitors surveyed said they saw value in ASC's temporary exhibition program and wanted it to continue. The science center has obliged.
Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition continues to draw crowds. Here, visitors at the Miami Museum of Science check their "boarding passes" against the ship's passenger list.
Photo courtesy Miami Museum of Science & Planetarium
Financially, the picture was also generally positive. Including a rough estimate of the opportunity costs, the exhibitions did generate net extra incomealthough in a few cases not much. The outstanding exception was Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, which ASC hosted on a revenue-sharing basis with the exhibition's producer. Even more important than ticket sales, Titanic provided terrific opportunities for fund-raising and marketing. We were careful not to calibrate our financial expectations for future temporary exhibitions on this one experience, however. A true blockbuster is hard to find.
Beyond the blockbuster
ASC's experiment showed that the capability of raising earned income and bringing in new audiences with blockbuster exhibitions is definitely there. But can this strategy sustain a science center for the long term? Despite the generally positive results of our experiment, ASC doesn't plan to put all its eggs in the blockbuster basket. One reason can be found in the literature on organizational change.
Organizations that survive, researchers find, do so by using a variety of strategies. Jay Rounds, professor of museum studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, observes that in stable times the "best practice" for an organization may be to exploit its existing assets with more efficiencyin Rounds's words, "to take what they already know how to do, and improve, extend, elaborate, and routinize how they do it."*
But in times of social change, says Rounds, a better strategy may be to break with the past, to explore new avenues that can lead the organization "away from what it already knows how to do to discover other possibilities for things that it might be doing." Adaptability thus becomes the key to success.
What, then, are some of the adaptive strategies that hold promise in a changing environment? One is flexibility in marketing. Today's museum-goers, like today's symphony-concert patrons, tend to make up their minds at the last minute. Symphonies have responded by offering flexible subscription ticket packages that allow subscribers to customize their choice of concertsand even to swap in the 11th hour. Some science centers have had success with radio promotions that run the day before an event.
Another strategy is audience segmentationbreaking down potential visitors into dimensions like frequency of visit, age, gender, special interests, and social connectedness. This makes it possible to repackage or reinvent institutional offerings to suit particular segments. (The tactic can be risky, as opera companies discovered when they began experimenting with adding visual librettos above the orchestra or on the backs of seats; some patrons were delighted, others outraged.) With segmentation, museums in different disciplines have been able to attract young adults to social gatherings offered in conjunction with more traditional programming.
A third promising avenue seems to be finding a partner or partners with whom to address and serve a common audience. An option for U.S. museums is the Partnership for a Nation of Learners (PNL), an initiative launched in 2004 by the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Two ASTC membersthe Children's Museum of Boston and Charleston, West Virginia's Avampato Discovery Museumare part of seven groups that received PNL matching grants in 2005. Last November, PNL sponsored a teleconference at which some 2,000 U.S. public broadcasters, librarians, museum professionals, and community representatives explored effective collaborations. For 2006, series of five one-hour, professional development web casts is planned.
Themed spaces surround a winding Main Street corridor at Cerritos, California's "Experience Library."
Photo courtesy Cerritos Public Library
In a few cities, libraries have teamed up with cultural or civic agencies to offer the public a convenient, composite menu of features in one place. In Orange County, California, the award-winning, 88,500-square-foot Cerritos Public Library was developed with advice from Harvard Business School professors Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, authors of the 1999 best-seller The Experience Economy.
Cerritos' "Experience Library" has 225,000 books (in several locally used languages, as well as English), 200 public-access computers, and 1,200 "hot seats" for computer users, all organized in themed user spaces surrounding a winding Main Street corridor. Young visitors can enjoy the art studio, 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, and 40-foot T. rex replica; adults can read classic literature beside a "phantom fireplace" in the Old World Reading Room; and community groups can hold events in a state-of-the-art multimedia lab and conference center. Details of the project's development and some lessons learned are posted on their website, http://cml.ci.cerritos.ca.us/static.htm.
Another partnership strategy is suggested by the work of the Urban Land Institute (www.uli.org), an international nonprofit that supports community involvement in public land-use decisions. Here in Arizona, ULI recently sponsored a design charette to help forge a common identity for Papago Park, a 1,500-acre open space that abuts the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe. Participants included many cultural and recreational agencies that had not previously interacted.
In the near future, I expect to see more science centers entering into such collaborations, as well as finding subtler ways of segmenting potential audiences and then doing things differently to meet their various patrons halfway. There will be a place for wonderful exhibitions, of course, but only as part of a fully considered and well-rounded package of informal science education offerings.
Sheila Grinell founded the Arizona Science Center, Phoenix, and served as its president and CEO from 1993 to 2004. Now a museum consultant, she received the ASTC Fellow Award for Outstanding Contribution in October 2005.
* "The Best of Practices, The Worst of Times." In Are We There Yet?, Conversations about Best Practices in Science Exhibition Development. Kathleen McLean and Catherine McEver (eds.), San Francisco: The Exploratorium, 2004.
Cover image credits (clockwise from upper right): Marvel Super Heroes Science Exhibition/©2006 Marvel; A T. Rex Named Sue/courtesy Field Museum; Body Worlds, Gunther von Hagens with Horse and Rider/Photo by Ton Poortvliet/courtesy Institute for Plastination, www.bodyworlds.com; Tutankhamun and the Age of the Gold Pharoahs/Photo by Andreas F. Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung Ludwig; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire/©2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Harry Poter Publishing Rights ©J.K.R.; Grossology, Tour du Nose/courtesy Advanced Animations LLC; Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition/©RMS Titanic Inc.; Star Wars: The Exhibition/Photo by CSI/B. Baudin-Le Bar Floreal