Costly problems could have simple solutions; how nudge can help Visitor Attractions

By Jon Young

Big challenges can require big (and expensive) solutions. The accepted wisdom is that a problem that loses an attraction lots of money will take lots of money to fix.

But sometimes, a simple solution is more effective.

Take, for example, the global issue of low rates of organ donation. Netherlands and Belgium – two culturally similar countries – both had low numbers of organ donors. To boost the number of donors, the Dutch government conducted a very expensive marketing campaign asking people to opt in to the donation programme. Belgium took a different approach – they simply changed the donor form to ‘opt-out’, so people had to actively state that they didn’t wish to participate in the programme. Consent to organ donation in the Netherlands rose to 27.5%, but in Belgium it rose to a phenomenal 98%.

Road safety offers other examples. In Chicago, the tight turn at Lake Shore Drive has been the scene of a tragic number of car accidents. The expensive option would be to ‘straighten’ the road, or to install speed cameras and warning signs. Instead, a series of perpendicular lines were painted on the road that gave drivers the illusion that they were speeding up. Consequently, they slowed down, and there were 36% fewer crashes in the six months after the lines were painted.

Other notable examples include the French government increasing tax returns with simple word changes in the application form, hospitals increasing hygiene standards by infusing operating areas with lemon scent, and cleaning costs being reduced by painting a fly in the middle of a men’s urinal (don’t ask).

There is method to this simplicity. Each example applies the principles of behavioural economics and nudge theory – the understanding that people can be prompted to act in a certain way by triggering their numerous evolutionary biases.

In recent years, the BVA Nudge Unit has had significant success in changing behaviour by using nudge theory, and we see significant potential for visitor attractions in the UK.

Nudge for visitor attractions

Take wayfaring. Time and time again our research shows that visitors are leaving attractions with a low awareness of key parts of the site. Exhibition visitors (for example) often have no idea about a site’s permanent collections, shop or café. The standard recommendation is to increase on-site signage, print more leaflets or to ask staff to direct visitors (all 100,000 of them). This sounds a lot like the Netherlands’ method of increasing organ donors, and the results are similarly inefficient.  Head down, people rarely read signage or leaflets, unless they are already actively looking for something.

Another example is donations. For many visitor attractions, collecting sufficient donations is the difference between making a loss and breaking even, but getting visitors to voluntarily part with money can be a challenge. Often the kneejerk recommendation is to do more of the same - provide more donations boxes, write elaborate explanations, or make visitors think the venue is chargeable.  Again, this rarely has the impact the investment deserves.

The BVA Nudge Unit has had significant success in improving wayfaring and getting people to part with their money across numerous sectors.  As far as we know, nudge theory has not been applied significantly in the UK attractions sector.  Over the next 12 months we’re hoping to change that, coming up with solutions to the above issues and more.

We’ll be speaking about our plans in a morning seminar on February 6th and at the Visitor Studies Group in March – drop me a line to find out more.

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