Audience data boosts visitor experience

I also hope what we’re learning will change organisational behaviour in visitor-friendly ways
Anne Torregiani
If collecting visitor data is not helping your museum, don’t do it. That might sound like a strange thing coming from the chief executive of The Audience Agency, but it’s something I feel very strongly about.

We run the Audience Finder programme as a service supported by Arts Council England (ACE), analysing standardised survey information across more than 200 English museums and 400 other arts organisations. In 2015, the arts council took the decision to make it compulsory for the organisations it funds regularly to contribute audience information through the programme.

Even though Audience Finder is essentially free, we know it has cost some museums, particularly those new to surveying visitors, a lot of effort and resources to collect data in a meaningful way. Of course, it is important that we have good data to describe the reach of publicly supported cultural organisations, and I’m delighted if Audience Finder can help ACE be more accountable, and to make the case for culture more effectively. But for us, that in itself isn’t good enough.

We called the programme Audience Finder – not Audience Aggregator or any other variation on counting – for a good reason. Audience Finder is about more than making the case; it’s about pooling intelligence to show where the opportunities lie. How can we be more inclusive, generate more revenue, and use resources more effectively to find new audiences while retaining others?

All this has been in the back of my mind as we’ve looked at the first full year of comprehensive national audience data for the museum sector. There are indications that museums “score” well in terms of serving the diversity of their local community, perhaps best of all compared with other ACE-funded organisations. We’re still finishing the analysis, looking at areas such as the distinctive role of smaller museums.

I have no doubt that these headlines will help the museum sector in terms of advocacy and the politics of cultural funding, but I also hope what we’re learning will change organisational behaviour in visitor-friendly ways. An interesting example is in Yorkshire, where more than 40 museums are pooling insight to make sense of their own visitor information in a regional context.

There is, for example, a significant and consistent variation in motivation between audiences travelling different distances. Local audiences are seeking primarily social benefits, often with family, while audiences from further afield are motivated more by the collection.
Nearly 40% of those travelling for more than an hour consider visiting museums an important part of their identity and are in search of learning – twice as high as for local visitors. Being able to see these clear distinctions as common across the group and accurately mappable is a direct benefit of building a large regional dataset together.

I’m looking forward to hearing more about the experiments museums across the country are hatching to make the most of visitor data.

Anne Torreggiani will give a keynote talk at the Museums Association’s Future of Museums: Audiences event on 29 March at the Wellcome Collection, London.

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