US sources of information

Colleen Dilenschneider, Top Information Sources for Likely Visitors to Cultural Organizations By Generation (DATA), Know Your Own Bone, October 2017

Digital engagement rules among Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. (Yes. All three.)

I write and talk a great deal about the data-informed importance of social media and the web. At IMPACTS, much of the market research that we collect and review affirms the incredible power of earned endorsement in securing visitation, maintaining philanthropic giving, and even how it backfires on cultural organizations when they cut marketing budgets.

Communication channels that allow people to share their experiences are increasingly critical for an organization’s long-term survival. In fact, data suggest that there’s no amount of paid advertising that can realistically overcome a lack of shared, positive experiences (i.e. earned endorsement).

If you’ve seen or heard me speak – or if you’re a regular KYOB reader – you are likely familiar with the below chart from the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study. It shows the weighted impact of sources of information for likely visitors to cultural organizations in the United States (e.g. museums, performing arts organizations, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, and historic sites, etc).

These data are expressed as index values, which are a means of quantifying relative proportionality around a mean of 100. The value of 100 serves a bit like an indicator of significance with values under 100 being proportionally less valuable as an information source to likely visitors than those channels over 100. For example, overall, social media is 6.63x more valuable as a source of information for likely visitors than is television. Similarly, overall, social media is 10.92x more valuable than is an article in a printed newspaper.

Speaking of digital engagement channels….

They are most important.

“WOM” stands for “word of mouth” and includes the in-person sharing of information.

As a reminder: These data are not intended to directly inform marketing budget allocations. A thoughtful, integrated plan works best and audience acquisition investments are increasingly a science, not an art. (Here’s the science). These data should help inform strategy, but they aren’t necessarily intended to define a media budget. If, however, yours is one of those organizations without a social media manager that is spending big bucks on printed brochures, well, then these data may prove particularly eye-opening.

I share this information frequently because it’s important. It’s also one of those critical pieces of strategy-driving information that can be particularly inconvenient because the very existence of the Internet challenges the “this is how we’ve always done it” excuse for lack of industry evolution.

The cultural industry is filled with some of the most passionate, driven, forward-facing folks that I’ve had the honor to know. In fact, I write Know Your Own Bone for the express purpose of supporting the people who educate, inspire, and make cultural organizations run. But these folks are also human, and working with limited budgets in order to elevate a slow-moving industry can be tough. As a result, it seems that some executives lean on excuses. Among them is one of the most potentially poisonous: “That doesn’t apply to me.”

In reply to “That doesn’t apply to me,” IMPACTS has segmented data about how likely visitors use various information sources in seemingly countless ways. By far the most requested segmentation is to organize these data by generational cohort. This frequent request seems to stem from some leaders’ inabilities to believe their own eyes (let alone acknowledge their own information-seeking behaviors).

So, what does this data look like when it is cut by generational cohort? Take a look:

It’s a myth to think that millennials “own” digital engagement, and this myth may be standing in the way of long-term success. The data underscore three points that may be of particular note – especially for those who may have guessed that these numbers would be quite different when cut by generation.

1) Digital connection reigns, regardless of age

Social media and web rule. This busts the potential myth that if the data is cut by generation, it will be clear that some other communication method – such as television or direct mail – might emerge as a clear, leading information source. This isn’t the case.

The “big three” – social media, web, and mobile web – remain the same, regardless of generation. While social media and mobile web shift a bit in importance between baby boomers and younger generations, the importance of digital remains.

Other sources of information are not unimportant, but it’s time to be honest: Millennials are not the only generation that rely upon web-based communication, no matter how convenient that might be as an excuse not to consider the importance of these platforms.

2) All three generations are super-connected

To say, “See? Digital engagement is less important for Baby Boomers than Millennials,” is true – but it misses the point of cutting this data in the first place.

Web, mobile web, and social media are the three most go-to sources of information for Baby Boomers. Period.  And with index values over 400 for these platforms, their importance in unassailable. Indeed, these channels (and especially social media) play an even bigger role among Millennials and Generation X, but they are the leading sources of information among Baby Boomers as well.

IMPACTS data reveal that all three generations of high-propensity visitors qualify as being “super-connected” to the web. That is, they have access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device.

This data cut doesn’t make digital engagement less important to the “Baby Boomer engagement” conversation – it makes digital engagement even more important to the conversation. Namely, because it makes it clear that Baby Boomers use the Internet.

(I never thought I’d need to write that last sentence… and yet, here we are.)

As a fun fact, approximately 41% of the people who subscribe to updates from this website are Baby Boomers! The greatest portion of my readers – 28.4% – are over age 65. Admittedly, this makes sense as the data that I share is generally intended for executive leadership. I find it baffling that the idea that Baby Boomers may not use digital platforms as a primary source of information seems to be a popular misconception among leadership.

3) Walk with > talk at

Take a look at the information sources with index value over 100: Social media, web, mobile web, word of mouth, peer review sites (e.g. Yelp and TripAdvisor), and email are two-way communication channels. Two-way communication channels that talk with audiences outperform more traditional communication channels that talk at audiences.

What people say about an organization has a 12.85 times greater impact on its reputation than what an organization pays to say about itself. This number is not new! Reviews from trusted sources have likely always been this important in shaping reputation. What IS new are our communication channels that amplify these reviews from trusted sources.

Digital communication channels are fundamentally different than traditional communication platforms. Both are important for the development of an integrated communications plan, but we don’t get to ignore the impact of digital platforms just because that’s not the area in which our brightest minds have “25+ years of experience.”

Simply, it’s not possible to have 25+ years of experience in these channels (yet). But it is possible to have 25+ years of experience in knowing that communications are about people and not about technology.

Let’s bust the silly myth that folks over 55 do not use web, mobile web, or social media as primary sources of information – and, thus, that effectively reaching them does not involve utilizing these platforms. One need not know HTML to visit a website, nor be fluent in the language of social media jargon to draw conclusions about organizations based on their Facebook communications.

It seems that all three generations use digital platforms for the same purposes: to connect, share, review, and to inform actions and judgments.

All generations of likely visitors to cultural organizations are super-connected to the web. Let’s meet our audiences where they are and quit undervaluing the importance of these platforms. It may be hurting our ability to connect with these audiences.

In that way, we may be hurting ourselves.