Engagement analytics and lifelong engagement in museums

Posted on June 4, 2013

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Does a repeat visitor to your museum have more value than a unique visitor? How often does someone have to visit your museum to be considered loyal or ‘repeat’? How do you know whether people are engaged with your museum? These are questions I’ve been thinking about since visiting Dallas back in April (this year is flying), and learning more about DMA Friends, the Dallas Museum of Art’s newly-launched free membership program. The program – which everyone who comes to the museum is invited to join – launched in January, coinciding with the DMA’s move to free entry.

Once signed up to the program, Friends start accruing points and badges in the museum by logging their activities – which galleries they visit, which programming they participate in – via SMS or at dedicated logging stations. Once acquired, the points can be redeemed for rewards like free parking, discounts in the shop or even (at the higher levels) qualifying to spend a night in the museum. In Nina Simon’s 2008 post on modelling repeat visitation, she talks about the importance of rewarding repeat business and letting people know you appreciate them, which is precisely what DMA Friends does. You can learn a bit more about it in the video below.

In exchange for giving away membership, the DMA gets something super valuable… information. The Friends program offers the DMA the capacity to learn more about existing visitors, identify potential new audiences, and make stronger connections with niche and micro-communities (like those who always come for particular types of events). As more and more people opt into the program, the DMA will have opportunities for understanding their visitors and the ways in which they engage with the museum at a scale that seems unprecedented for museum visitor research (please correct me if I’m wrong on that last point). And knowing this kind of detailed information about visitors and their visiting habits opens new windows for thinking about destination loyalty and the sustainability of the museum’s offerings.

What we’re ultimately talking about is engagement analytics
Consider the bank of information that the DMA will have on its visitors over the course of several years. How closely does repeat visitation tie to demographic proximity to the museum? How do you define a repeat visitor? Is someone who visits every year – but only once a year – a repeat visitor? What is the value of their engagement with the museum? How might you get them to increase their visits to twice a year? These visitors who are regular-but-not-frequent visitors might be an interesting place to start when thinking about trying to increase visitation, even though it will take some time to gather the initial data and establish those visitation patterns.

DMA Friends also makes it possible for the DMA to think about individual visitor behaviour and lifetime visitor behaviour. What happens when we start judging success as being about lifetime engagement rather than just numbers in the door? The scale and possible granularity of that measurement is staggering. In DMA Director Maxwell Anderson’s important 2004 paper on The Metrics of Success in Art Museums (PDF), Anderson writes that the first metric of success that museums should be pursuing is measuring the quality of the visitor’s experience.

A museum’s responsibilities to its public are many, and its success in fulfilling them is notoriously hard to quantify. The correspondence of visitor demographics with the demographics of the local population would be useful in pursuing a more representative result. One could continue not with the number of members but with the average number of visits by its members. As opposed to attendance, it would be useful to know the number of visitors who paid full or discounted admission to the permanent collection or special exhibitions. If the museum has no admission charge, then the number of visitors to the galleries (as opposed to the lobby, restaurant, gift shop, or party spaces) would be revelatory. The average length of a museum Website visit and the number of hours that galleries are open to the public are also indicators of success in the quality of the experience offered.

Running through this criteria, it strikes me that DMA Friends offers precisely the opportunities that Anderson was looking for when proposing these metrics almost a decade ago. The program will enable the Museum to see the correspondence between visitor and population demographics; to understand average visitation rather than just total visitation; to see how many visitors go into the galleries and which galleries they visit; and maybe even indications of how long a visitor spends on campus.

In addition, having this kind of information about visitors will allow the Museum to tailor specific experiences for Friends. In the paper Rob Stein and Bruce Wyman wrote on DMA Friends for Museums and the Web, the authors discuss ways that this might play out:

As visitors engage, new patterns quickly emerge showing how visitors use the museum and what sorts of programs are most valued. Ultimately, this pattern of data collection will allow more spontaneous types of programming, almost akin to a game of pick-up basketball: for example, a spur-of-the-moment docent tour around a critical mass of self-identified enthusiasts appearing in the same place at the same time.

Awesome right?!

But we’re not quite there, yet…
For all this potential awesomeness, there are a few things in the current execution of DMA Friends that prevent it from realising some of these longer term ambitions just yet. The first is that, as an international visitor with only limited phone use whilst in the States, I was never going to use the SMS codes to log my Friends points. That’s not a problem in and of itself. I could (and did) use the logging stations. But I only did this at the end of my visit. This meant a couple of things. The first was that I had to record the SMS codes as I passed them to ensure I remembered them all. Not a major pain, but a little one. It also meant that all the numbers I was plugging into the station came at once, so the Museum doesn’t really have a sense of my movements through the museum, like when I moved into each space and how long I took. It also means that, if other visitors are like me, then the idea of running a spontaneous tour for DMA Friends could actually be more irritating than awesome, if I was contacted minutes after I’d left the DMA, rather than in the minutes after I’d arrived. None of these are critical issues. They are just opportunities for further developing the concept in future iterations.

The badging system, which Elizabeth Merritt has touched on, also offers a lot of potential that isn’t being fully realised yet. Because the badges aren’t tied to earning particular rewards (although they do garner the visitor additional points) and there is no social component or way to share and show how many badges someone has earned – or compete against others for rare badges – I don’t think the badges are all that compelling right now. I do see opportunities with the badging program along the social dimension once they are sharable on social media, particularly if there is a competitive element – can someone be the Mayor of the European Art Gallery if they attend it more than anyone else? Would there be those who might compete for the honour of being at the Museum the most?

What I do love about the badges in their current state is the way Maxwell Anderson ties them to self-identification by visitors, in this interview. He says:

The one feature that I’m equally interested in is that people change. Their motivations change in the course of their lives or even their visit. So I think that it’s important to be flexible in presuming why somebody showed up and what they’re expecting to happen when they get here. That’s why [DMA Deputy Director] Rob Stein’s premise of badges has you self-identifying in as many ways as you want: a “sleuth,” you know, a “creative cat,” all these phrases that are tongue-in-cheek. And they’re meant to give people license to self-identify in a constellation of ways. And it’s playful, but it’s also, it gives us some clarity about why people are here.

The idea that visitors change over their visit, and particularly over their lifetime – and that it might be possible to track and tailor experiences to those visitors over that long period – fascinates me. Moves like this one by the DMA should prompt museums to think further about how they can measure and understand those changes, and use those measurements to provide more meaningful experiences for participants throughout their lives. What happens when we start thinking about the engagement visitors could have with our institutions as being (measurably) lifelong engagement?

What do you think about this kind of approach to membership and engagement? How might understanding the way your visitors engage with your museum over the course of their lifetime change the way you think about your work?