Museums: Know your Audience

Many of us are frequent museum goers, which often leads us to ask questions like, “How can my favorite museums serve me better?”. Museum leadership are spending time and resources focusing on what draws attendance and brings visitors to their exhibits. At the same time, these same leaders are interested in learning more about their current visitors. There are a variety of solutions that museums can employ to learn how to serve their audience better.

Analyzing museum demographics is something that a lot of institutions are focusing on right now. There are a few approaches that have proven successful throughout this industry. Most importantly, a museum needs to know who it is serving, what will compel them to visit the museum and how to engage them in other capacities.

The Smithsonian Museums are a leader in this area of expertise. Their recent article, “How do you improve the experience of museum visitors?”1 offers a new analysis of museum visitors and how they interact with museums. They used the Museum of Natural History as a case study for this and used data and qualitative measures to test their theories. In this particular case, they studied interactions with their staff (concierge) and the effect that had on customer experience. By reviewing their current policies and approaches, the Smithsonian Museums can tailor their offerings to those who are already visiting the museum, while also looking forward to incentivizing new and return visitors. The Smithsonian’s Visitor Experience Summary Report2 offers companion data to what is discussed in the other Smithsonian link and how well they’ve done it so far.

By discovering demographics and interests of audiences, museums can tailor and curate collections towards the interests of their visitors. Museums are often more concerned with collection and research than visitor orientation. In recent years, however, museums are competing increasingly for visitors with other leisure and educational institutions. There is a shift away from providing a curator’s point of view and towards a visitor experience.

Museums have started to take demographic information into consideration, mainly focus on visitor profiling in order to determine who visits the museums. But in today’s competitive environment, the focus of museums’ marketing techniques shape the messages about the products and experiences delivered by museums. Parallel to the development of experience in museum contexts, the audience research also is increasingly focused on visitor experiences and learning. In terms of visitor studies, the focus is often the educational role of museums and the learning outcome of museum visits while ignoring other aspects of the museum experience. The recent research on museum consumer behavior reveals that museum visits are no longer simple informative cultural visits, but they are experiences3.

Technology solutions are also being used all over to measure visitor experiences and gain insight into audience wants and needs at a variety of museums. For a long time, these institutions were (and some still are) focused primarily on curating their collections and not institutions were (and some still are) focused primarily on curating their collections and not necessarily appeal to certain audiences. As such, they were not accustomed to directing their attention on the public, trying to address their needs, or including their voices4. Now, more than ever, museums are seeking to engage audiences and meet them where they are. For example, museums are using mobile interactive guides to gauge interests from attendees on local exhibits and use that to capture audience engagement and targeted interest areas.

By finding out what visitors want out of their museum experience, museum leaders have a unique opportunity to shape their institutions to better serve their attendees and members. A comprehensive study of attendees and what they are looking to gain from their experience at the institution can only be beneficial to the success of any museum.

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