Why do visitor research?

Any arts or cultural venue such as an art gallery or museum relies on visitors coming through the door, engaging in something and hopefully returning.  If you are managing this type of venue you will want to know more about your visitors and gather information that will assist you with promotions, exhibition development or audience development.  To do this, you will need to know more than simply total visitor numbers and post codes.

Visitor research is one of the most interesting and useful things you can do in an organisation.  On top of all of your daily pressures of paperwork, accounts, budgets, grant applications, meetings, acquittals, liaison with government authorities and sponsors, why would you want to take on the task of doing visitor research?  Well, to make all of your other responsibilities easier.  Visitor research – or market research – will give you an understanding of the information you need to approach funding bodies, to make fruitful approaches to sponsors, to reduce the risks in offering new visitor experiences, and to ultimately increase visitor numbers.  It allows you to work smarter, not harder.

Two of the most important things to keep in mind when doing visitor research are :

  • What information do I really need to know about my visitors?  and
  • How do I intend to use the information?

It can be costly, time consuming, and confusing if you simply collect as much information you can think of from visitors.   Visitor research should be planned and organised.  It should aim to collect practical and useful information that you can use for making decisions.

The sort of information you may wish to collect

Every organisation’s information needs will vary, but generally, there are some key facts you should know about your visitors.  As a bare minimum, to meet your funding requirements, it is likely that you will need to know the basics, including:

  • Numbers of visitors
  • Where visitors came from
  • Their satisfaction levels.

To delve deeper, it may be useful for you to find out the following:

  • Visitor profile:  age, gender, place of residence, cultural background, family composition, income, education levels, languages spoken;
  • Behaviour:  How they heard about you, reasons for visiting, places visited in venue, frequency of visitation, transport used, attendance group, intent to revisit or recommend, preferred ways of learning (use a map, free roam, use digital technology such as Apps);
  • Attitudes: Towards your venue, towards permanent and temporary exhibitions, towards new programs and activities,;
  • Barriers to involvement or attendance.

How you may use this research

There are a number of ways in which you may uses information you collect from visitor research.  If you are setting up a new venue, or a new exhibition within an existing venue, visitor research will help you get it right from the start.  You may use visitor research at all stages of an exhibition so that you can continually refine the exhibition to respond to what your visitors come to expect.   This is generally called Front-End Evaluation, which involves the pre-planning of an exhibition.

You have may have added a new gallery or wing to an existing established venue. You may use visitor research to explore whether visitors are aware of the new area, how they are using the space, whether circulation of visitors is successful, and how the new area has been integrated into the venue.  This is called Summative Evaluation, which involves compares new exhibitions with the baseline research to provide an overview of visitors’ responses to the new material to check that you have achieved what you set out to do.

How to do this research

The best thing you can do is to take the time to consider why you want to collect visitor information and how you intend to use the information. You should consider your budget and the skills that you and your staff or volunteers have.  There are a number of online resources that can help you determine the best way to approach your research, and to help you determine whether you have the in-house skills to carry it out, or whether you need to commission an external consultant.  The worst thing you can do is to half-heartedly conduct visitor research in-house without the necessary time, skills, or experience to do it properly.  That is simply time wasted and you would be better off not doing the research at all.
You may wish to assign certain tasks to staff members or volunteers to incrementally gather visitor information.  For example, having the person who sells admission tickets may ask visitors how they heard about the venue or where they live.  It may be possible for volunteers or staff to take on an extra project, such as conducting a survey, running a focus groups or simply observing what visitors do.  For example, did they miss entire sections of an exhibition?  Did they linger at particular areas?  Did they get confused about where to go next?  Did they seem confused or unengaged with certain aspects of the exhibition?
There are simple visitor research and market research tasks that are inexpensive and don’t take a lot of time, but someone has to take responsibility for planning, conducting and analysing research and, importantly, using the information gathered.

If you have the budget but not the time or expertise in house, then you would be best to outsource the entire project to an external visitor research consultant, who will recommend the best approach to the research, and take care of designing surveys, analysing results and helping you understand what information you need to collect to best address your needs.
Visitor research is exciting.  If done well, it can give you a wonderful insight into the people who come to your venue, so that any decisions you make in future are not simply stabs in the dark; they will be made on the knowledge and confidence that you understand who your visitors are and what they have come to expect.

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