Asking the right questions

Developing content for visitor surveys
Jonathan Knott
A visitor survey offers an opportunity for a museum to find out more about its audience.
But in order to carry out the research effectively, it’s important for venues to determine exactly what their aims and objectives are, says Harriet Foster, a museum consultant specialising in evaluation.

“It’s really important to be clear about the purpose of your survey. What do you really want to find out from your audience?” she says.

Typically, museums may want to understand who visits them and what their motivations are for doing so, or indeed, who doesn’t visit them, and what barriers prevent them from doing so. It is also helpful for museums to understand what visitors do at their venues and what their overall experience is like, as well as the interests they have.

Data on these areas can be fed into the development of new exhibitions, interpretation and programmes, or can shed light on how to attract a particular audience. Often visitor research is used to support a funding bid, or to inform marketing approaches. It may also be used to evaluate a particular project, or to assess work against benchmarks over a period of time.

While it can be tempting to find out as much as possible, it is important not to ask more questions than is strictly necessary, says Foster.  In her view, one side of A4 or two sides of A5 is a good rule of thumb for a paper-based survey. “It’s got to be quick and easy to fill out,” she says.

Stressing that even simple questions can lead to valuable insights, Foster says: “You can get a really good idea of what people think of a museum by saying, ‘choose three words to describe your experience today’.’”

The order and phrasing of the questions and the need for quantitative or qualitative responses are also important factors to consider when designing a survey. See museums and cultural consultant Laura Crossley’s article in which she shares her practical tips for creating visitor surveys for more guidance.

These issues and many others are covered in the Evaluation Toolkit for museum practitioners, a SHARE Museums East document, which was written by Foster in 2008 and is regarded as a comprehensive guide to good practice. 

The general consensus among consultants is that the advice in this document continues to hold true, but the understanding of best practice among museums has improved since its publication.

This is partly due to the work that regional museum development bodies have done to encourage smaller institutions to get to grips with visitor research. Visitor Insight East, a one-year project for museums in the east of England, which ran from 2013-14, was designed to help museums in the region create audience development plans.

The project involved creating an exit survey that museums could use to gather visitor data, and an online portal to enter this into a shared database. The survey was kept to two sides of A5, says Christina Lister, a marketing consultant and one of the project’s two managers.

“The museums didn’t want something onerous that visitors would baulk at filling out,” says Lister. “It was about making it as focused and manageable as possible – only asking the questions that museums wanted answers to and would be able to do something with.”

A generic survey was created that museums could print out themselves – though some opted to tweak it by adding extra questions.

“We talked to museum development officers from each county and the museums themselves about what information they didn’t know about their visitors and what they felt would make a difference,” says Lister. “A lot of them wanted to understand how they could best use their limited marketing budgets.”

Each museum was responsible for entering its own results into the database. The institutions agreed to share data, so that they could all see each other’s results. Lister says that using the same questions enabled museums to compare their results to those from other organisations – a process that many participants found valuable.

Asking the same questions over time in this way can be a powerful way of measuring progress. But even one-off evaluations should be part of an ongoing process, says Harriet Foster.

“Good evaluation is cyclical,” she says. “If a museum holds an exhibition and finds out what people liked and didn’t like, an effective organisation will then use that to inform its next exhibition.”

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