Case Study: Boosting Audience Engagement in Non-Museum Settings

Most people don’t go to a zoo or botanical garden expecting to be entertained by wild and unexpected stories filled with little-known facts their tour guide has dug up. We don’t often expect high-level engagement, like games, activities or great stories. Instead, we simply go, assume we’ll walk around and look at beautiful flowers and check out the tigers. It’s not difficult to attract visitors to these types of institutions, but getting them to come back again and again? That’s the challenge. Because we often don’t think of these places the same way we think of museums, it’s easy to overlook how critical engagement can be.

The truth is, engagement is a powerful tool for any institution that thrives on entertaining and engaging guests. And while the Denver Botanic Gardens is a member of the American Alliance of Museums, many people don’t think of gardens in the same way that they think of places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, or the Louvre. But that doesn’t mean this incredible oasis in the heart of Denver’s Cheesman Park neighborhood couldn’t use many of our methods to engage and reinvigorate their audiences.

Does your site suffer from low engagement?

The Denver Botanic Gardens has a lot going for it. They have incredibly diverse exhibits, including Western, Japanese, tropical, ornamental, and water gardens. It is home to the largest collection of cold temperate climate plants in North America. Not to mention, the organization is known for its world class educational and research departments. The Gardens even made a cameo in Woody Allen’s 1973 movie “Sleeper.”

But despite all of these cool, beautiful elements, The Denver Botanic Gardens was still an organization with an engagement problem — and it’s one that plagues dozens of institutions around the country.

The Denver Botanic Gardens were hosting tons of cool events designed to attract and engage millennials, but attendance numbers weren’t what they had hoped for. Even when the Gardens had success bringing in this younger crowd, those first visits rarely translated into second and third visits. Essentially, the Gardens needed help fostering long-term relationships with their visitors.

How to attract (and keep!) new audiences

That’s where Museum Hack stepped in to help.

Our staff traveled to snowy Denver to explore new ways to warm up the Gardens’ audience. We crafted and led a customized Audience Engagement Workshop for thirty members of the Denver Botanic Gardens staff. The staff came from a variety of departments across the institution, including Horticulture, Research, Education, Interpretation, and Marketing. It was important for the workshop to include staff from many different departments of the Gardens, as this would foster a more cohesive implementation of new ideas.

Our workshop was all about attracting and engaging a new audience. We focused on crafting dynamic narratives, inquiry-based challenges, and kinesthetic modes of engagement. One key area of emphasis that is super important for museums looking to attract millennials is what we call “Using the Tools in Our Pockets.” This section includes discussing how smartphones and other technology are excellent tools of engagement and great sources of background knowledge. We demonstrated ways that staff can use technology-based challenges and activities to keep visitors engaged and learning, as well as prompting visitors to continue exploring and making connections long after their visit was over.

Participants left the workshop armed with a new set of ideas for attracting and keeping their targeted millennial audience. Each staff member now had the confidence and skills to approach the gardens from a narrative perspective, digging for the non-traditional, and truly human, elements of spaces in order to tell fascinating, passion-based stories. Even better? These stories helped showcase each staff member’s personal connections with the garden, using their passions to create stronger connections between audiences and the gardens.

“It was great to bring different perspectives and experiences together.”

The Denver Botanic Gardens saw the value in workshopping new strategies and methods through a different lens. By bringing in attendees from many different departments, the workshop also acted as a team building event for Garden staff. Colleagues from all walks of the organization spent the day interacting, sharing ideas, and working together to create new ways to help their visitors fall in love with their institution.

How did the Denver Botanic Gardens feel about the workshop? We’ll let Lisa Eldred, Director of Exhibitions, Art, and Interpretation, tell you herself:

Find out about our consulting work with museums, or email us to find out more about how we can help your institution develop fun activities and new audience engagement strategies.


Originally published at museumhack.com on March 12, 2016.

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