According to Visitors, THIS is the Best Part About Going to a Museum (Hint: It’s Not The Exhibits)

When it comes to “the best thing about visiting a zoo, aquarium or museum,” visitors indicate that having a shared experience with friends and family is most important.

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to share a tidbit of data uncovered by IMPACTS Research & Development (the company for which I work, folks)! The data below was first published by the National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study (NAAU) and, since April 2011, it has been re-confirmed in six, separate, proprietary studies on behalf of various visitor-serving organizations with which we work. The image below shows unprompted responses to the question and are displayed with the index value for each response. The bottom line? People don’t go to a museum to see the newest exhibit… people go to a museum to see the newest exhibit with people they care about.

Of course, museum marketers are selling an experience, but the trick may be for museum marketers to understand that they are selling a personal experience.

The “with > what” mentality may turn the museum industry’s self-perception on its head. Traditionally, museums (especially certain kinds, such as art and history museums, for example) may be perceived as quiet places preserved in the past and shielded by silence and white walls.  Museums have been seen as intellectual spaces with curators serving as great academic gatekeepers. The ‘museum experience,’ to those of us involved in creating and shaping it, often revolves around the exhibits, the artifacts, the collection…and it is about those things. For visitors, however, the experience is more than an intellectual quest; it revolves around the entirety of the experience and the company attending with the visitor.

This does not mean that the “what” isn’t important. I frequently write about the evolving role of the curator; how in the information age, everyone is a curator and how – particularly for engaging Millennials – highlighting your curator is less important than ever. Although accessibility and self-curation are becoming increasingly important, having and promoting these artifacts and collections can certainly  inspire visitation. They are the things (“whats”)  that people come with their loved ones to see. In other words, the  “with” here may not be as strong without the existence of the  museum’s “what.” (…Did you follow me there?)

Take a look at a visitor serving organization that has shared the love…  To be a museum marketer and miss this critical half of the equation for visitor motivation is a major loss. In fact, institutions that miss this will be limited, especially as the information age continues to reveal increased communication based on public sharing and online brand identity. So who is already onto this information?  To name an example that I’ve referenced before, Monterey Bay Aquarium used the “with” to promote their “what” in their extremely successful Share the Love campaign. The aquarium  got creative and pulled out all the stops with this campaign, and their concept of “sharing the love” – or sharing the experience of visiting the aquarium –  was a hit.  (Notice the  silhouettes, which allow viewers to place themselves into the pictures and videos for the campaign!)

Moreover, there’s empirical evidence that members of Generation Y may be particularly receptive to marketing messages that promote sharing visitor experiences. In particular, Millennials seek existential experiences.  Sometimes this young demographic gets a bad rep for moving conversation online (“Get off of Facebook and go hang out outside”), but this demographic is actually upping the demand when it comes to in-person experiences as well.

In my line of work, this kind of data on visitor motivation  informs significant decisions regarding discounts, exhibit cycles,  reaching new audiences, and long-term planning (to name a few broad areas…). I look forward to delving further into some of the the implications of these findings in the upcoming weeks. Be sure to check back!

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 7 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

7 Responses to According to Visitors, THIS is the Best Part About Going to a Museum (Hint: It’s Not The Exhibits)

  1. Nina Simon (@ninaksimon)

    Hi Colleen,

    Why is this data so family-heavy? What about experiences with friends? Was the research conducted primarily with people who visited in family groups? I’m surprised by the focus on children and grandkids and no mention of friends.

    • colleendilen

      Hi Nina,

      That is a good point. Certainly many people like to visit ZAMs with their friends. The data is representative of 216 nonprofit visitor serving organizations in the US and while recognizing a wide variance based upon regionality and type of museum, the data indicates that a travel party is 5x more likely to be composed of a family, child, or grandchild than it is solely of friends. As a result, due to the volume of persons traveling with a family or a child, the data is indicative of this proportional influence. It may be worth noting that the source data considers visiting with a spouse or significant other as a seperate cohort – uniquely different from visiting with friends.

  2. Gretchen Jennings

    Thanks for posting this – a great reminder of something that I think lots of museums know but don’t follow through on in terms of creating exhibition experiences that an entire family can enjoy. Just posted related comments on my blog, Museum Commons, about a great resource for museums in 21st century – a website called Boston Stories, created by alumni of Boston Children’s Museum. You can read almost day to day accounts of how this museum has been addressing family audiences and the family visit experience for over 50 years.

  3. Marissa Kurtzhals

    Thank you for this post.

    The on-campus theatre I work for performed a special show for students last night. The performance aired at 10pm (as opposed to 7pm) and tickets were Two-For-Ten Bucks! We decided to use this pricing strategy to encourage our students to bring a friend. We had a decent sized audience and the students had a great time.

    We plan on using this same strategy for our next performance of “Guys & Dolls”. This post just inspired me to brainstorm new ways to enhance the “With” experience.

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  5. Kevan

    Fantastic research, super interesting conclusions. Keep doing what you’re doing!

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