How California Academy of Sciences Optimizes Marketing and Supports Its Mission

August 15, 2019 Anne Curtin

As one of the largest museums of natural history in the world, California Academy of Sciences (CAS) welcomes more than a million visitors to explore the wonders of nature every year. But non-profit marketing isn’t easy.

Increasing awareness, admissions and membership without draining resources from other initiatives can seem impossible in a world of for-profit advertisers with deeper pockets. Success depends on adopting smart, efficient and effective marketing strategies.

Making Every Dollar Work Harder

Based in San Francisco, CAS is California's oldest operating museum and research institute, housing over 46 million specimens in addition to a planetarium, rainforest, and aquarium.

Given its relatively small marketing budget, CAS needs to make every marketing dollar work harder. Reaching as many people as efficiently as possible is essential for driving awareness while keeping costs down.

Prior to working with Nielsen, CAS didn’t know if its marketing investments were even profitable, much less how much to spend, when, and on which vehicles to drive the greatest revenue and return. Understanding the impact of all business drivers – from traditional and digital media, to pricing, product and external factors such as weather and competitive activities – would be critical to success.

CAS engaged Nielsen to understand the true drivers of performance and maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of CAS’s marketing spend in driving general admission tickets and membership sales.

“CAS is an analytically rigorous organization, and Nielsen has been instrumental in helping us make fact-based marketing investment decisions within the context of our business realities,” said Melissa Felder, Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer, California Academy of Sciences.

Understanding Sales Drivers

Starting in 2010, CAS has partnered with Nielsen to help them make smarter marketing investment decisions. Every 18 to 24 months, Nielsen performs a marketing mix modeling (MMM) analysis to uncover key revenue drivers and deliver actionable recommendations for optimal marketing performance.

“With each analysis, we’ve been able to answer key business questions around pricing and new products, in addition to understanding performance drivers and how to best optimize our marketing mix. Each MMM study we run is an investment that pays for itself,” added Felder.

Nielsen’s MMM approach is a regression-based model that takes into account all potential drivers of sales to tease out the drivers of demand and calculate return on investment.

For CAS, the media factors in the model included multiple channels such as TV, online video, Out-Of-Home, print, radio (traditional and online), email, direct mail, digital display, paid social, organic social and search. Several non-media factors were accounted for as well including price, weather, holidays, special exhibits and competitive activities. 

Based on the analysis, Nielsen was able to diagnose the drivers of attendance and membership sales, interpret changes over time, and calculate the return on investment by activity so CAS could make key advertising and investment decisions.

Achieving 30% Growth

With each MMM analysis, CAS has seen its return on advertising spend grow, with total returns increasing by 30% over the past five years. This growth has given the CAS team confidence that they are allocating their resources and optimizing their marketing mix the right way. This increase in return has helped offset annual media cost inflation.

Understanding how their product portfolio works together has also enabled the team to fine-tune prices across general admissions and memberships. The pricing optimizations have driven a 15% increase in revenue over the last five years.

California Academy of Sciences ROI Growth

Protecting Research and Public Education

Through its partnership with Nielsen, CAS has gained key insights that will help secure its mission to “connect people to the wonder of the natural world, the power of science, and solutions for a sustainable future.” These insights include:

  • How price changes affect ticket and membership sales: The MMM analysis enabled CAS to understand the effects of short-term versus permanent price changes, as well as the complex interactions between pricing and marketing spend.
  • How to plan for weather and other external factors: CAS was able to quantify and forecast the impact of weather on attendance and to share those insights with the finance and operations teams to improve attendance predictability and manage capacity. 
  • Best media weight and flight levels: Nielsen’s sophistication around the modeling of specific media types revealed crucial areas where CAS was over- and under-spending.
  • Importance of granularity: The granular nature of the insights enabled CAS to take more specific actions to improve results. For example, the analysis revealed that what attracts new members is not the same as what brings them back to renew. CAS is able to use this insight to tailor their message to each audience and media type. 
  • How to time advertising around major exhibits and events: By measuring how response to CAS’s advertising builds and decays based on the adstocking effect on consumer purchase behavior, the MMM analysis also helped the team better time their advertising around major exhibits and events.

"We work with advertiser budgets ranging from a few million to a few billion dollars to help them optimize their marketing spend. While California Academy of Sciences falls at the lower end in terms of spend, it’s impressive to see the analytical rigor and discipline they have implemented in an organization of its size,” said Ankur Jain, VP, Marketing Effectiveness, Nielsen. “It requires the right mindset, team and persistence over time. Nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike can learn a lot from The Academy."

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