Harnessing the power of data - Museums Association

Harnessing the power of data

How museums can use visitor survey data to create change
Jonathan Knott
Once a museum has carried out a visitor survey and got enough responses, it’s time to dig down into the data and decide how to respond to it.

When putting together a report on what has been learned, it’s important to translate the results into specific actions, identifying staff members or teams responsible for each, setting deadlines, as well a date for a review of the work carried out.

“It should be an active report, rather than just saying ‘this is what we found’,” says museum and cultural consultant Laura Crossley.

There are different ways of presenting the findings. Stakeholders will have different priorities, and sometimes it can be helpful to produce more than one document. It can be beneficial to create a presentation of key findings for staff and volunteers, and a more detailed report for trustees.

Survey results can be used for a wide range of purposes, whether that is to help with advocacy work to make the case for support from councils or funders or to garner media coverage. They can also be used to make the necessary adjustments required to market more effectively to different audience groups.

After participating in the Visitor Insight East programme, which ran between 2013 and 2014 and supported museums in the east of England to develop audiences, The de Havilland Aircraft Museum in Hertfordshire found out that the bulk of its visitors had a specific interest in aircraft, and weren’t necessarily interested in a general day out. The results also showed that there were a high proportion of first-time visitors.

As a result the museum changed its approach for 2015 with the aim of appealing to families and younger visitors, as well as encouraging more group and repeat visits. It increased its opening hours during the summer holidays and gave out a free re-admission ticket to all visitors. That year, family visits were up by 75%, visits as a whole increased by 16%, and shop sales rose by 25%.

Christina Lister, a manager at Visitor Insight East at that time, says: “The museum had the basics. It didn’t need to fundamentally change what it was offering – a lot of it was about marketing.”

The museum also used the data to support Heritage Lottery Fund bids – one was successful and the other, which is ongoing, has received round-one funding. Using survey data to support funding applications is one of the key benefits for museums. “Data can be used to demonstrate that museums understand who their current visitors are, who is under-represented, and what they might need to do to appeal to those groups of people,” says Lister.

Sometimes visitor research can provide a more solid foundation to existing anecdotal impressions. But equally, surveys can throw up unexpected information. “One museum in the Visitor Insight East programme had what it thought was a really tired room that it would need to invest money into changing,” says Lister. “In fact, the survey showed that it was everyone’s favourite place.”

While research conducted by the individual museums was useful, says Lister, more insight was gained by comparing the findings with those of other institutions.

“Some of the figures don’t make so much sense on their own, but once museums started to see how they compared with others, they could say: ‘That’s really high, or that’s particularly low. What does that mean? Is that good? Is that bad? Do we want to change that?’ Having a session where the data was seen in context, where they could benchmark it against others, was really useful,” explains Lister.

Essex Police Museum found that the number of its visitors who had come through doors as a result of seeing information on social media was up to five times higher than other museums. This was because content was being shared by popular social media accounts linked to the local police force.

The past few years have seen the development of online tools aiming to make this comparative approach possible on a larger scale. The Audience Agency’s Audience Finder, and BDRC Continental’s Visitor Verdict, use a set of standard survey questions.

Participating institutions can log on to a dashboard to compare their data against aggregate datasets – for example, across the whole country, or for a particular audience segment, or certain type of organisation.

Currently, there are about 200 museums, galleries and heritage sites actively participating in Audience Finder, which is open to all arts organisations. It allows organisations either to use PDF surveys for face-to-face interviews and then upload data, or send out online surveys. The data in the system is updated every week.

Participants can benchmark their results against census data and results from other organisations for free, and can pay to commission bespoke analysis, or add more questions on to the basic surveys.

Visitor Verdict is a similar service. It offers online surveys, is open to all attractions with fewer than 500,000 visitors and is a subscription-only service. Max Clapham of BDRC, which manages Visitor Verdict, says that the tool enables smaller venues to benefit from the sophisticated analysis that large museums enjoy.

“It was designed specifically for small and medium-sized museums, to try and enable them to reap the benefits of actionable insight that have only been available to richer organisations,” says Clapham.

While some survey results are fairly straightforward to interpret, at other times museums will need to show confidence in making their own judgments, says evaluation consultant Harriet Foster. This can be more of a problem with qualitative data, which inevitably requires a degree of subjectivity.

“Any qualitative analysis is always going to be subjective – what you’re trying to do is summarise it in a way that can be easily communicated to someone else,” she says.

Sometimes results can lead to further research – such as a focus group drawn from survey respondents. And sometimes the process of collecting data can prove useful in unexpected ways.

Foster recounts working with a small volunteer-run museum, which was reluctant to collect visitor postcodes – a move that was later championed at a senior level.    

“There was real resistance to this, because it was seen as just another thing to do,” says Foster.

“When I went back, the chair of the board of trustees was championing it. They had plotted the locations on a map at reception and it had started up conversations, both within the museum and with visitors who came through the door,” she says.

“It was a way of opening up a dialogue that meant they learned more about their visitors.”

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