A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

(Reading time: 4m, 39s)

Over the past few months, a few questions have come up that I’d like answers to (in no particular order):

  1. To what degree are museums practicing design research today?
  2. What does the donor journey look like — what obstacles must museum donors overcome to go from visitor to member to donor? What motivates people to make that journey, and how do museums help some people become better versions of themselves?
  3. What is the value of reviews or social word-of-mouth to museums?

These are the questions I’m considering as I plan a research project that I’ll pursue over the next several months.

The question(s) I choose to answer will likely become a core part of what I write about in these letters in the weeks to come. So, let’s take a closer look at the menu.

Question 1: How are museums practicing design research or value-based design today?

In other words, what informs the beliefs museums have about their audiences? How do those beliefs get translated into communication decisions? And how do those beliefs wind up creating more or less value for the people cultural organizations serve?

Early this year, I interviewed over 40 people at museums and similar visitation-based membership organizations, in part to get a better understanding of this question. I learned from those interviews that most museums use surveys and sometimes focus groups to better understand their audiences, which is kind of like trying to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner with just salt and cyanide …

Suffice to say, I’m not starting from zero with this question. If I were to dig into this more, I’d want to use surveys to understand how design research practices play out at scale and across different kinds of museums. Quantitative analysis would help me better understand clients, and could satisfy some organizational leaders curiosity as to how their organizations’ communications practices compare to others like themselves.

Question 2: What does the donor journey look like and what “jobs” are completed along that path?

How do different kinds of museums help different kinds of people become better versions of themselves? If we view the museum as a product, what do people hire that product to do at different stages of the journey from casual visitor to donor? To what degree are those journeys similar and quite different from one museum to another?

An initial survey of donors or higher-level members would let me get a taste of how these people think about their relationship to the organizations they support. From there, I could drill down and interview to get a more coherent view of motivations and pitfalls.

Museums aren’t conducting much ethnographic research. I’m sure there are exceptions, but they seem to be few and far between. So, this research could yield some unexpected insights and demonstrate real value to organizational leaders.

I’ll likely need to narrow this down more — What kinds of museums? What kinds of members or donors?

Question 3: What is the value of reviews or social word-of-mouth to museums?

After reading about The British Museum’s experiment studying TripAdvisor reviews, which I wrote about here and here), I thought it might be interesting to see what patterns might emerge in looking at reviews of different kinds of museums.

  • Do people review different kinds of museums and cultural organizations based on different criteria?
  • How does the practice of responding to online reviews by museum staff (or lack of response) influence reviews, if at all?
  • Do reviews change at different times of the year?
  • What sort of vocabulary do people use to describe museums? How might that be used in museum communications?
  • How does all this play out over different social platforms? For example, do certain platforms tend to garner more negative reviews?

I would work with one or more developers to try to answer those questions using machine learning. We should be able to source data from different review and social media platforms. And we may be able to segment by things like the type of organization (art museums, zoos, children’s museums, etc), region of the country, annual visitation, and so forth.

Organizations could then see how their reviews compare to others of their kind. The resulting resources could also provide a unique and valuable lens through which to view their audiences.

Usefulness & Method

One of the ways I was thinking about these questions over the weekend was to compare:

  1. the degree to which answers to each question might be more or less useful to museum leaders, and
  2. the character of the research that I’d need to pursue to get those answers.

Here’s how I sketched it out:

Usefulness and method of research

The question about the state of design research at museums may satisfy the curiosity of some museum decision-makers — “To what degree are we doing things differently/the same as other museums?” — but I don’t think the survey data would be as actionable.

In fact, the more I write about this topic, the less inclined I am to pursue it as a subject of research. Thank you for helping me with that.

I believe Review Analysis could yield more actionable insights, but I’m not sure what I’m going to find — I don’t have any strong hypotheses to work from, so it falls on the more inductive side of things.

Donor or member interviews could also be valuable to museums, but there are more variables at work.

It's possible that some insights could be common to different museums of a similar type — the motivations of a donor to a children's museum on Long Island may overlap with those of a donor to a children's museum in Iowa — but the deeper you go the less likely that may be the case. I think the real value here would be to demonstrate to museums the vaule of qualitative research.

Choose your own adventure

Those of you who have been on this mailing list since way back in January of 2017 know that I like to think of these letters as a way to share what I’ve learned as well as a way to learn from readers. I do harbor some autocratic tendencies, but I see you, dear reader, as my co-pilot.

So, as we head off into this new chapter, this is your chance to chime in with feedback and questions.

  • Does one of these topics appeal to you more than others?
  • Do you pray to Thoth that you won’t find emails in your inbox about a particular topic I’ve mentioned here?

If so, speak now in a reply to this email.

Tell me what topic you love, or hate, or makes you feel “meh”.

You can remain silent, but you’ll only have yourself to blame when Emailus, the communications god, rains down SuperHelpful hellfire on your inbox for the next three to six months.

Thanks for reading,



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