The role of demographics in visitor surveys

In my last post, I shared information about how to create a survey based on Dr. Falk’s visitor identity theory.  Such a survey can help your museum better understand what is motivating your users to visit your museum.

The identity/motivation of visitors was not the only information I gathered.  I also collected demographic information and information about other important aspects of visitors and their experience, such as length of stay and group size.

Collecting demographic information
In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience Dr. Falk strongly discourages museums to market and serve visitors based on demographics.  Falk writes:

“Knowing a museum-goer’s age, gender, race/ethnicity, income, education, and occupation does not now, nor will it ever tell anyone why someone does or does not visit a specific museum…museum-going is far too complex to be understood only on the basis of easily measured variables such as demographics.”

I agree that demographics are the not primary type of information to gather and use when understanding and serving visitors.  However, there are still some benefits to collecting demographics.

Age is important to know because if too many visitors are in a certain age bracket the museum has some work to do to attract visitors of other ages.

There should be some balance in the gender of visitors.  If there is too much imbalance the museum may want to explore ways of correcting that.

The same idea applies to ethnic / racial heritage.  Museums have an obligation to serve everyone in the community.  If visitors of certain ethnic / racial heritages are not coming to the museum then there is a problem.

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Arnold Lehman, the now retired director of the Brooklyn Museum, has said “the most important book any museum director should read is the U.S. Census.”

The Census is only one of many governmental resources for demographic information.  Many local governments collect and sort Census data in a way that is beneficial to museums.  In a study I compared the results of the participating visitors with demographic information from the Greater Des Moines Partnership.  The Partnership gathered demographic information for eight central Iowa counties, including the county where the study museum was located.  Thankfully, the study sample closely mirrored the racial and ethnic heritage makeup of central Iowa.  Keeping tabs on the demographics is an important measurement of the museum’s mission to serve the public.

Here are a couple of important tips to keep in mind when collecting demographic information:

First, make sure visitors participating in the survey understand that providing this information is voluntary.  Some people may be wary of providing strangers with their racial /ethnic heritage, age, gender identification, or other demographic information.  You can make study participants more comfortable in providing this information by asking for it at the end of the survey and by allowing visitors to provide the information privately.

Second, descriptions of racial / ethnic heritage and gender identity are constantly changing.  Do a little research to see the classifications that others are using.  Facebook now allows users to choose from one of 71 different gender options.  You’ll have to decide what types of classifications you’ll want to use.  If you plan on comparing study participants with another set of data, such as the U.S. Census, you may have to use the same classifications as the other data set.  The good news is that agencies collecting demographic information are now constantly revising their classifications in response to the public.

Collecting other types of visitor information
While you’re collecting data about visitor motivations, why not collect some other data about them?  It will only give you more insight into your visitors.

For a study I conducted, I asked visitors to tell me how many people were in their group.  I did this because museum-going is a social experience.  If we consider the visitor alone we miss out on understanding the visitor’s social context of the visit.

In my study, I wanted to know how many people over and under the age of 18 were in each visitor’s group.  Knowing the average group size can help you design exhibits and other services that can accommodate visitor groups.

I also tracked the time visitors spent at the museum.  When people find that the expectations associated with their motivation for visiting are fulfilled they will be more likely to stay longer at the museum.  If expectations are not met, they will cut the visit short.

There are other types of visit information you can collect that will add insight into visitors, such as if it is their first visit, if they are a member, etc.

Concluding thought
I believe it is important for all museums to periodically measure and understand the motivations and demographics of their visitors.  Museums are not able to properly serve visitors unless they know what motivates guests to visit and if the expectations associated with visits have been met.

As institutions that serve the public, museums have an obligation to know if their visitors reflect the community.

Collecting other information about the visit can give you greater insight to how your visitors are using your museum, which can help you make the adjustments needed to provide more fulfilling visits for your users.

I’m passionate about surveying and understanding visitors because it makes for a stronger museum.

Creating a survey based on Falk’s visitor identities

Understanding visitors or users is paramount in today’s museum work.  Understanding our visitors helps museum professionals be more effective.  The educating, preserving, interpreting and exhibiting we do is enhanced by deeper understanding of the people who come to visit us.

One of the most exciting pieces of research I came across in graduate school was Dr. John H. Falk’s visitor identity theory.  Dr. Falk outlined the five common visitor motivations he discovered in his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, published in 2009.  This is an essential book for any museum professional working in the 21st century to read.

According to Falk, most visitors have one of five motivations for visiting a museum:

  • Experience Seekers are similar to tourists. This type of visitor wants to see the building and grounds and the most important parts of the collection or experience.
  • Explorers describe themselves as curious and enjoy learning. They have a general interest in the subject matter of the museum and come to learn more.
  • Facilitators come in two subgroups. Facilitating Parents come to have a shared experience with a child.  I advocate for this group to be called Facilitating Caregivers since this type of visitor could be a grandparent, aunt/uncle, older sibling, mentor, etc.  Facilitating Socializers come with another adult – a spouse or friend – because they think their companion will enjoy the museum’s experience.
  • Professionals / Hobbyists have a specific goal in mind for their visit. An example would be a visitor who has photography as a hobby and wants to come to take photos of plants, gardens, or sculpture.  Another example would be a visitor who has a deep interest in impressionism and comes to see your museum’s collection of impressionist paintings.
  • Rechargers seek what Falk calls a “restorative experience.” They use the museum as a setting for a mental and physical break that they use to recharge their batteries.

Visitor identities have important implications for museums.  Understanding visitors in this way means that museums will need to create experiences and services that cater to the needs, expectations, and preferences of each visitor type in order to successfully serve visitors.

In my first position out of graduate school I was responsible for creating the organization’s “guest experience.”  One of the first things that I wanted to do was conduct a study to help the staff better understand visitors, including their identity.

I knew that Dr. Falk’s research had been funded by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and that the tool he used in his study was available on the organization’s website.  I figured I could use this tool myself.

Dr. Falk’s original tool was 20 statements that the visitor had to read through.  Each statement was a possible reason the visitor had decided to visit the museum that day.  The visitor was asked to choose five statements that most closely matched the reason for their visit.  Next, the visitor was asked to select on a scale of 1 to 7 how important each of the five statements was to that day’s visit.

The person administering the survey would then take the information the visitor had provided and input it into a spreadsheet, also available on the AZA website.  The spreadsheet would then indicate the visitor’s identity.

I was no more than 10 surveys in when I realized I had a problem.  Each time I would enter the information in the spreadsheet it would tell me the visitor had a non-dominant identity.  In other words, the visitor did not seem to fit into one of Falk’s visitor types.

The problem was with how the data was collected.  When doing any type of visitor survey it should not be too difficult for the visitor to provide you with information.  In these initial surveys, visitors seemed to be struggling with the three tasks of reading through all the statements, selecting five that applied to them, and then ranking those five statements on a 1 to 7 Likert scale.  I knew I needed to simplify the survey.

The tool I created also had a list of statements about why the visitor had decided to come to the museum that day.  There were two statements for each type of visitor identity.  For example, two of these simple statements were “I’m here because this is a good place for a child to learn about plants / nature / gardening” (Facilitating Caregiver, this survey was done at a botanical garden) and “I was looking for something to do and someone recommended I come here” (Experience Seeker).  The visitor was asked to select one of the statements that applied to their visit.

I was pleasantly surprised that the new tool worked effectively!  Suddenly, it was easier for visitors to fill out the survey tool and for me to gather the information I was looking to capture.

Visitors were asked to complete this part of the survey when they entered the museum.  Before they left I conducted a short interview with them to ask about their experience.  The first question I asked was why they had decided to visit that day.  I asked this question because I wanted to ensure that the statement they had checked on the survey tool was accurate.  I found that the answers to my verbal question supported the information visitors gave me in the survey tool.  This validation supports what Falk has said about museum visitor identity—that the identity of the visitor will influence their motivation for visiting, what they will see and do during the visit, and what they will remember about the visit after they leave.

I had the opportunity to attend the American Public Gardens Association’s Education Symposium earlier this year.  The keynote speaker was Dr. Falk.  I asked him about what tool he uses to gather visitor identity from visitors.  He said that he has five cards with pictures of visitors.  There is a word bubble, kind of like what you would see in comics.  In each bubble is a simple statement that reflects one of the five visitor identities.  He asks the visitor to hand him the card that represents why he or she is visiting the museum that day.  I felt a bit of pride as I heard him say this.  I had simplified Falk’s tool in the same way he had!

In my next post, I’ll share more information about designing this visitor study, including the other types of information I gathered.

Highlights of the APGA Education Symposium

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Mount Rainier, seen from the plane on my way into Seattle.

Conferences provide many opportunities for professional development, from the chance to meet and network with others in the field to seeing how other museums are operating.  The greatest opportunity is to learn and take that new knowledge home and put it to use.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the American Public Garden Association’s Education Symposium.  This conference was extremely well organized and I brought home much that I want to share and implement at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Symposium Organization
The organization of the Symposium was excellent and provided a framework that other conferences should follow.

The Symposium was held in the Seattle, Washington area over three days.  Each day was at a different public garden.  Visiting other gardens and museums is a great way to see what colleagues are actively doing to serve and engage their public.  It was great that the Symposium provided the opportunity for us to visit three separate gardens during our visit.

Organizers also took advantage of the proximity of the University of Washington.  Universities, of course, have researchers working in a variety of fields that can enhance museums.  The Symposium featured U of W professors from museum studies, neuroscience and environmental psychology backgrounds.

Evaluation / Washington Park Arboretum
Day one was held at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture.  Dr. Jessica Luke, chair of the university’s museum studies department, gave a talk about the importance of doing evaluation.  Luke made three important points:

  1. Evaluation starts with strategic thinking: She encouraged us to think about outcomes in our evaluation.  What is the change that comes about as a result of our guests participating in the activities we’re evaluating?
  2. Evaluation doesn’t have to be big or expensive: Luke asked the audience what the major barriers are to doing evaluation.  Of course, the top two answers were time and money.  I appreciated her bluntness in asking us to get past these barriers and make evaluation part of our jobs.  Evaluation is something you can do yourself and with your team and something you can keep simple.  Just do it!
  3. Evaluation requires you to translate your results into practice: As Luke said, “Evaluation is about use. If you don’t have a use for your data, don’t collect it.”  Another way to put it is be prepared to act on what your data tells you.

Following this presentation we had a tour of the Washington Park Arboretum, including the park’s Fiddleheads Nature School, a nature preschool.  I encourage you to check out the school’s website to learn more about this program, which will hopefully not be so unique in the future.

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Me with Dr. John Falk

Meeting Dr. Falk
For the second day, we were at the beautiful Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Dr. John H. Falk is a name that many of you are probably familiar with.  His research has had a profound influence on my museum practice and our field as a whole.  One of the first things I wanted to do when I began my career at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden was conduct a study based on John’s Visitor Motivation Theory.  I did and I’ll tell you about it in a future blog post.  The opportunity to meet John, pick his brain, and gather ideas from him was one of the highlights of this trip.

Every once in a while, someone says something that you know is going to stick with you forever.  There was one of those moments during John’s presentation:  “Many people are coming for people things,” he said.  I’ll be repeating that quote to my colleagues for a long time as a reminder that we need to keep people things top of mind in our work.

So often we think about our content first.  But our guests are thinking about people things first:  spending time with family or friends, looking to get away from life for a little bit and relax, making memories, etc.  We need to consider these people things first and our content and collections second.  When we do that, we’ll create better experiences for our guests.

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Dr. Falk giving his keynote address and talking about visitor motivations.

Next, Susanna Cunningham and Jenny Williamson, two University of Washington faculty members, taught us how our brains work and what happens when this plastic organ learns.  Here were the points I found most valuable:

  • The regular attention span of the brain is 20 minutes, and may be getting shorter in our digital world. We need to provide varied experiences for our guests so we can continue to hold their attention.
  • People learn more when they believe they have a “growth mindset.” There’s an increasing amount of literature about this, which I encourage you to explore.  At our gardens and museums we can play a role in helping people believe they have a growth mindset.  Failure—and learning from it—is an important part of the process.  So is mindfulness.  There are things we can do to help our guests be more aware of their mindfulness, such as providing space in serenity gardens.
  • Cunningham and Williamson shared the Pyramid of Learning and encouraged us to think about how it applies to the programs and experiences we create for guests. Google the Pyramid if you’re not familiar with it.  Most learning takes place on the bottom of the Pyramid, which is active learning—discussion (50%), practice doing (75%), and teaching others (90%).

Lynn Manzo and Kathleen Wolf, environmental psychologists, presented next.  Manzo talked about placemaking and place attachment, two related ideas extremely important for museums and gardens.  (She’s co-edited a book about this, which went on my reading list.)  Our environments are special places and through place attachment we can help people create emotional bonds.  Manzo said that we need to love what we save.  This reminded me of Freeman Tilden’s principles of interpretation and his idea that through understanding comes conservation.  Love is a very deep type of understanding.  Place attachment was new to me, but an area that I am going to become more familiar with, since it has important implications for how people interact with the physical space of gardens and museums.

Interest-based Marketing
Gabe Kosowitz, the acting head of brand marketing with the Smithsonian, presented on this topic.

The goal of interest-based marketing is to reach new audiences by meeting them where their interests are.  Falk has encouraged museums to pay more attention to the interests of visitors, including in marketing.

Kosowitz encouraged us not to only market to what he called our “gold viewers” (he comes from the world of television).  He says that gold viewers are super fans—they are already engaged.  Instead, focus on new audiences through three steps:

  1. Identify what those motivations might be for people to interact with you. Kosowitz called some of these motivations “sideway entrances.”  I’ll give an example in a second.
  2. Create contact groups.
  3. Find places to reach the audience with the motivation.

Kosowitz provided an example using the dating website Hinge.  Hinge needs places where people who have met online can meet in person.  The motivation in this case is people looking to fall in love, the contact group and the place to reach the audience is the Hinge platform.  If a museum holds a Hinge meet-up event it can become a platform where new audiences and brought into the museum.

Evaluation, Visitor Motivation Theory, the importance of understanding how the brain works in learning, place attachment, interest-based marketing and the incredible Seattle scenery—these were the highlights of my Symposium.  These highlights were inspirational thanks to a well-designed conference that was well worth the trip.  I’ll be putting these ideas into practice over the next few years at the Botanical Garden!