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

(Reading time: 2m, 59s)

I’ve been interviewing some of the executive directors who took my survey on audience motivations. (You can read more about the project here.)

During the interviews, we talk about their experience at the museum. I try to get a sense of their exposure to visitors — in other words, are they in meetings all day, or do they have frequent interactions with guests? I ask them to tell me about their last interaction with a visitor to see what makes for a memorable encounter. I ask them how they define “engagement,” and I try to get a sense of how they segment and think about their audience. We talk about how they’ve studied their audience in the past, and why they chose one approach over another.

Toward the end of our conversation, I ask: “What one thing would you like to learn about your audience?”

After a long pause, they say something along the lines of “I’d want to know what made them want to come to the museum.” Or they’ll say they want to know why people are not coming, or one person said they’d like to know what made some people return to the museum…

They say they want to know why.

It could be that they’re saying this because we’ve been dancing around the topic of audience motivations for a half hour already. But they bring this up after we’ve talked about the surveys and focus groups they’ve conducted. When I’ve pushed back a little and asked how the survey or focus group might have helped answer that question, they either say they have not tried to answer that question or they seem a little surprised — They can’t remember if they asked — “I think we did ask that in the survey. I’m not sure.”

I realize now that I’m not leaving enough time at the end of the interview to dig deeper into that question. The obvious follow-up question is: “What would change if you knew the answer to that question?”

I’m slightly too old to qualify as a millennial, so I use punctuation when I write these letters. If you’re not offended by the sight of a period, casual encounters with commas, and the outright abuse of em dashes, you may sign up to receive these letters in your inbox.

Subscribe now

I could be doing a better job of digging into that question… I need to find out how important answering those “why” questions really is to them. If that’s truly what they’d like to learn, why haven’t they been trying to get the answer?

From what I’ve heard, it seems like they don’t know how to go about finding the answers to those questions. When I ask how they chose to pursue surveys and focus groups — trying to find out what other methods they turned down — they go quiet. They can’t think of another approach they might use. In the past couple of interviews, I’ve eventually volunteered a handful of other ideas — analytics, observation, interviews…?

Analytics is “a jumble of numbers. It makes no sense to me. Beyond how many people come to the site, I can’t make sense of it.” Interviews are “way too time-consuming.” After a pause, one person said, “And I’m not sure I would know what to ask.”

Thinking about these conversations, I still find myself wondering, “How do you come up with ideas for events and programs or improve your messaging if you aren’t studying people’s goals and what they’re choosing instead of the museum?”

But I know the answer because they’ve told me — Their planning relies on staff input and looking to other museums for ideas. And maybe that’s enough — These are smart and resourceful people.

But then a Venn diagram appears in my head.

There is what the organizations wants to say and what the audience wants to hear or do. In the middle, there are ways in which the organization can give people what they want while staying true to its mission.

If you go too far in one direction, you wind up with the event that no one shows up for. If you go too far in the other direction, you find cathedrals with miniature golf courses inside.

To reach that middle ground, I don’t think you can always rely on staff for new ideas or look to other museums for ideas. If you want to reach younger audiences and understand what will motivate people to visit, it helps to have a system for including those people’s values and goals in your planning and communications.

Thanks for reading,


You’ve successfully subscribed to SuperHelpful Letters
Welcome back! You’ve successfully signed in.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Your link has expired
Success! Check your email for a magic link to sign-in.