Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

Posted on May 2, 2013

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One of my favourite moments at Museums and the Web 2013 was the closing plenary. Being invited to talk about museums and immersive theatre (well, really about Sleep No More) with Seb Chan, Ed Rodley and Diane Borger, producer of Sleep No More was kind of incredible. As a group, Seb, Ed and I had been trying to have a conversation about that topic for months (we had squeezed in a Google hangout previously), so to get the opportunity to delve more deeply into the issues was golden. It was also a fairly significant moment to be a part of; when a closing plenary of a museum conference that is ostensibly about the web has very little to do with technology or the Internet at all.

I’ve long been more interested in the implications of technology – in what it actually allows you to do, or how it allows you to rethink and solve problems in new ways – than in the technology itself. It’s one reason why I really interested in the DMA Friends program that Rob Stein and Bruce Wyman gave a paper on whilst at MW2013. DMA Friends is a new kind of membership program for the Dallas Museum of Art that let’s anyone sign on to become a member or Friend of the museum for free. It’s inception coincided with a move towards making admission to the Museum free as well, and has been accompanied by other changes at the Museum, like ensuring that floor staff act more like guides than guards (more on this in coming posts).

As Friends sign up or move around the Museum, they have the opportunity to collect and log codes for places they’ve been, activities they’ve done, or events they’ve attended, earning points that grant them access to specific rewards. So the visitors get a gift back from the museum for their visit (like free parking or a discount in the museum shop). It also means that the DMA is collecting quite granular information about specific guests; about what they are interested in, where they come from, and how often they attend the museum. This offers great potential for understanding your museum’s audience profile, particularly when you start to link it to programs and interests.

But it’s also interesting in terms of the possibilities for personalising communications and even programs to particular individuals who are regular – or irregular – guests of the museum. As Rob and Bruce note in their paper (emphasis added):

visitors can claim a variety of rewards created by the DMA to say “thank you” for participating with the museum. These rewards include traditional membership benefits, such as free parking and special exhibition tickets, as well as special and boutique rewards like behind-the-scenes access to staff and areas of the museum not generally seen by the public. One of the underlying goals of the program is to create long-term relationships with visitors while offering them value and benefits tailored to their experience and engagement with the museum. This long-term connection and repeat participation is seen as key to establishing the hoped-for relevance of the museum in the lives of visitors.

So what does this have to do with Sleep No More and immersive theatre? Well, I’m in New York for a few days this week, and so  I’m going back to see/experience SNM for the second time. Two days ago, the day after I booked my ticket, I received this email communicae:

DEAREST-
AS FATE WOULD HAVE IT, I AM HOSTING A DINNER PARTY ON THE NIGHT 
OF YOUR STAY AT THE MCKITTRICK HOTEL, AND I WOULD BE HONOURED TO HAVE THE 
PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY. WE ARE CELEBRATING THE ARRIVAL OF A VERY 
SPECIAL GUEST WHOM I WOULD LIKE YOU TO MEET.

THIS WILL BE AN INTIMATE AFFAIR - VERY FEW GUESTS WILL BE GUARANTEED A 
SEAT AT THE TABLE.

Now I don’t know whether every guest who had registered to see Sleep No More tonight received this email, or whether a little flag went up in the SNM database next to my name/email address that noted that I had been to the performance before and therefore would be a likely candidate for this kind of upselling experience. But either way, it suckered me in (let’s call my attendance “research”), and I don’t think it would have had I not already engaged with the performance. I don’t think it would have mattered to me that I would get to go to an “intimate gathering in an undisclosed area of the hotel that a majority of guests will not have the opportunity to experience” if I had not already explored the hotel; if I didn’t already have stories of the event to share that I would enjoy adding to.

And this is one of the things that I think is hugely interesting about DMA Friends, and this approach to membership. Information is power. Getting to know your guests, to learn their attendance patterns and what they like, and then being able to offer them something special based on those preferences, offers some unique possibilities about how you can engage with your most engaged. About turning fans into superfans.

I spent last week at the DMA, so I have much more to write on this topic. But when we think about what museums can learn from immersive theatre, one simple thing might be that theatrical performances generally require bookings, and that gives you a little opportunity to learn something about your audience, and that creates opportunities of its own. It’s interesting to think of ways in which museums can do the same.

What do you think?