Behind the Scenes: The Impact of Audience Research

As a museum visitor, have you ever wondered if your views are used in the process of developing programming? How exactly does the museum know what the community wants to learn and see? Perhaps it’s the luck of the draw or perhaps it’s the result of something called an audience researcher. The museum’s Audience Research and Development department was created in 2009 and audience researchers help museum staff to understand potential audiences which help make sure that messages, via museum exhibitions or programming, reach audiences in the desired manner “Audience research is new in terms of the life cycle of this museum,” said Elizabeth Bolander, interim director of marketing and communications and assistant director of audience research and development. “The museum has been doing research off and on prior to this time but it was not constant there was a real need to! understand who is coming through the doors and why.” Audience researchers are an important part to the museum because they attempt to create the best atmosphere. The researchers conduct their studies through both quantitative and qualitative research including audience panels, focus groups, formative research, interviews, observations, and surveys. When conducting a gallery observation, visitors can be watched in what is called a “timing and tracking study.” The audience researchers view visitors interacting with the art and time how long they stay in the gallery or look at one piece. “You have to go in with no expectations because you never know what people are going to do or say,” said Elizabeth. “You may have people who go in a gallery for five minutes or someone who stays for forty minutes.” “Elizabeth will conduct many surveys – exit surveys are a good example – and through this you find certain methods that are successful,” said Becky Astrop, advertising and promotions associate. “You may have a high percentage of people who heard about an event through The Plain Dealer, so you know that medium is working. Or you may have a medium that isn’t working at all and this is found through exit surveys.” The day-to-day tasks of an audience researcher consist of three stages: planning, data collection, and analysis. The planning stage involves talking to museum staff members to discuss the upcoming exhibitions or events. The data collection stage is conducting the research, whether that is giving exhibition surveys and exit surveys to museum visitors or facilitating focus groups. The crucial part is the analysis. After every study, the data is analyzed to determine what the information is telling them. Once the data has been sorted and understood, a presentation is given to discuss the data and discuss new ways to reach certain audiences. “When giving a presentation you always try to bring the visitor’s voice into it. It’s powerful for staff to hear direct experiences,” explained Elizabeth. Becky described that Elizabeth presents her results and from that the exhibition team has a conversation and decide how best to move forward. For example, the museum recently held “Buyers Remorse,” a Friday night event for young professionals to meet with photographer Brian Ulrich on his current work, Copia: Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores (2001-11),on view through February 26. The goal of the event was to promote the exhibition to a younger demographic and “we therefore had to find ways to engage on their level.”

Visitor Testing

The audience researchers are currently working on a future exhibition that has been a challenge to work with because most people have not heard of the main topics. Through surveys and discussions, the audience researchers have a better understanding of what the visitor is interested in and the visitor feedback will inform exhibition planning. Conducting visitor research and having discussions with the staff, the audience researcher is able to join these two together to build an equal understanding of what is needed and wanted at the museum. “We bridge the staff perspective and visitor’s perspective,” said Elizabeth. “It’s about linking these two groups together and being the connector. Audience researchers help the museum improve by bringing the visitors voice into the process; this is the number one thing.” -- Meridith Weaver  

Blog Archive