The Power of the Audience by lindahy


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                              The Power of the Audience

                              Paper presented to Museum Australia Conference 1996

                              Gillian Savage

Environmetrics Pty Limited    Today I plan to bring the point of view of a consultant who has worked with a
ACN 003 546 192               wide range of museums and other cultural institutions. Environmetrics is a social
Phone:                        research organisation which specialises in research in the museum context. From
+61 2 9954 0455               extensive audience research of many types, we have a good understanding of the
                              power of audiences and the status of audience research in cultural institutions in
+61 2 9954 9046

Postal Address:
Locked Bag 2116
North Sydney
NSW 2059
                              The power your audience has over you
Street Address:
402/144 Pacific Hwy            I want to start with the basic question, ‘What is the power of your audience? What
North Sydney                  power does your audience have over you?’
NSW 2060
                              The most potent power that audiences have is the power to stay away. This is the
                              ultimate veto your audience has over you. A milder form of this is the power to                        ignore you — to marginalise you. As we’ve heard already at this conference, if
                              you’re ignored, if no one’s paying attention to you, you just fade out — you begin
                              to wither away. If your audience ignores you, you will wither away. You can’t
                              afford to allow your audience to ignore you.

                              A more positive form of power that your audience exercises over you is the power
                              to bring other people to your institution. Your visitors have the power of word of
                              mouth which builds your market. If you present an experience that your visitors
                              want to talk to others about, your audience will build over time. When we
                              conduct feasibility studies we have to take into account the likely impact of word
                              of mouth. Marketing and promotion are effective tools in drawing an audience,
                              but they cannot make up for a deficient experience once somebody is in the door.
                     Page 1   Poor word of mouth can kill off an exhibition and have long term effects on
                     Conference Paper: The Power of the Audience
                                       November 1996


                     audience perception of the institution. On the other hand, if an audience is
                     pleasantly surprised, as when the experience surpasses expectations, you will get
                     brilliant word of mouth and may be inundated with more visitors than you can
                     cope with, causing problems of another kind.

                     I think one of the most powerful and important aspects of the power of the
                     audience is the power to cooperate with your values. Museums, like every
                     institution, perhaps more obviously than most, are about values. They are about
                     conveying community values as well as other cultural and economic values. I
                     believe that, in a fundamental way, all of you work in museums because you
                     support the kinds of fundamental values that your institution represents. If your
                     institution is not communicating those values to your audience, you have no one
                     listening to you, and if you have no one listening to you, you may feel a sense of

                     If we acknowledge the importance to museums of transmitting information and
                     values we need to go beyond counting the number of heads through the door.
                     Counting heads through the door is the crudest measurement of the success of an
                     institution. And, while the power to stay away is elemental, audiences exert a
                     more subtle power when they refuse to confirm the values you espouse. Isn’t it
                     the espousal of fundamental values which is the most important reason that
                     museums exist? If your audience rejects the values you present, they undermine
                     your reason for existence.

                     This is why you need an audience — because you need someone to speak to about
                     what is important and valuable to you. When an institution violates the values
                     their audience expect them to convey, the audience rebels. We saw this most
                     recently when the Streeton exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW triggered noisy
                     protests. Potential audiences were objecting to the dissonance between the
                     sponsor and the main message of the artist. Streeton valued forests and, in the last
                     part of his life, many of his paintings were quite political, showing devastated
                     landscapes. This was brought out quite forcefully in the exhibition. However, one
                     of the major sponsors of the exhibition was a woodchipping company. So there
                     were major protests about this sponsorship.

                     I believe that, as publicly funded institutions, you absolutely have to have an
                     audience, unlike the institutions that Leon Paroissian mentioned which are more
                     like private collectors clubs. I think that most Australian museums absolutely
                     have to have an audience.

                     I also believe, that in a way, you choose the audience that you have and you
                     deserve the audience that you get. You choose the audience that you have by the
                     exhibitions you put on the communication strategies you use to bring people in,
                     which need to be closely aligned. An example of an exhibition which has been
                     promoted in way that is highly consistent with its theme is the Women with
            Page 2   Attitude exhibition. The poster for the exhibition communicates quite clearly that
                     Conference Paper: The Power of the Audience
                                       November 1996


                     this exhibition aims to be confrontational. Accordingly, it attracts an audience that
                     is comfortable with this approach and indicates to others that they should stay

                     Not every exhibition is for all people. The business of getting an audience is not
                     about getting anyone through the door — you don’t just want heads through the
                     door — you want people who can respond to the message the exhibition aims to
                     convey. In an evaluation of Women with Attitude, the exhibition it got a very high
                     ‘excellence’ rating. This suggested that this exhibition had attracted the right
                     audience. Exhibitions which are over-promoted or wrongly promoted lead to
                     disappointment, compromise the integrity of the institution, and make it harder to
                     attract an audience in the future.

                     Why museums ignore the audience perspective
                     Now, if audiences are so necessary to Australian museums, we can ask, “Why do
                     museums ignore the audience perspective?”

                     In my experience, the main reason is because staff think they already know their
                     audience, or, put another way, they have confidence in their own professional
                     expertise. Staff should have confidence in their professional expertise, but, unless
                     you really do know it all, then perhaps you ought to do a little bit of listening
                     some of the time.

                     Another major reason for neglecting the audience perspective that I have
                     encountered is that museums think they can’t afford to find out. This is partly
                     because staff simply don’t know how much audience research costs and fear the
                     worst. I can only counter this by noting that there are some very economic ways of
                     researching your audiences.

                     Another reason I have encountered is a lack of trust in any form of social research.
                     I have heard this view from people who seem to see themselves as ‘pure’
                     scientists. I think that they are uncomfortable with the uncertainties of the real
                     world and more at home in laboratories where they have more control over events
                     and outcomes. I have not yet found a way to counter this objection — some
                     people are very fixed in their views.

                     Habit and unfamiliarity are other factors that prevent people from carrying out
                     audience research. It is hard to start a process if you don’t know how to go about
                     doing it.

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                     Conference Paper: The Power of the Audience
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                     Uses of audience research
                     I want to speak a little about the uses of audience research in professional
                     institutions like museums. A range of ways that audience research empowers
                     cultural institutions are summarised in Figure 1. I know that our research has
                     been used in all of these ways, mostly in museums but also in other organisations.

                     Figure 1. Uses of Audience Research

                                                               Long term

                                                                           development —
                                                                            exhibitions &
                                                                           other products

                                       Facility                Audience
                                     provision &                research
                                                                                  to owners
                                      planning                 empowers

                                                                           Staff training
                                                                                & HR


                     Long term planning. In long term planning, all forms of audience research are
                     relevant. One particular aspect is to incorporate population data and reviews of
                     demographic and social trends into long term planning processes.

                     Product development. This category includes exhibition development and
                     evaluation. Most of the literature about audience evaluation is about this
                     particular use of audience research. I think that most of you are familiar with the
                     terms front-end evaluation, formative, remedial, and summative evaluation. This
                     a framework that is quite well developed but it is only one of the ways, perhaps
                     the most interesting and exciting for curators, that professional institutions use
                     audience research.

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                     Conference Paper: The Power of the Audience
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                     Accountability to owners. You need to be accountable to your owners or fund
                     providers. This accountability is most often expressed in terms of numbers of
                     visitors, but it can go beyond head counts to report on the quality of the visitor
                     experience and the educative aspects of the museum experience. I know that some
                     institutions are doing this in their evaluation of particular exhibitions.

                     Staff training and human resources. There is no reason why performance
                     measures based on audience research should not be built into training procedures
                     and perhaps even into remuneration. In some organisations, especially service
                     organisations, customer satisfaction is used as part of the remuneration formula at
                     all levels of the organisation including senior management.

                     Sponsorship and marketing. These activities are greatly assisted by descriptive
                     profiles of your audiences. If you can demonstrate that you attract a high-quality
                     audience or one that matches a sponsor’s market profile, you can present a strong
                     case to potential sponsors. Similarly, marketing strategies are best informed by
                     good knowledge about your current audience and the audience that you hope to

                     Facility provision and planning. In this area, we are involved in providing
                     feasibility studies based on predictions of likely audience levels as well as
                     audience interest in the topic and expectations of the types of experiences that
                     would be offered.

                     Management. There are a wide range of ways that management can use audience
                     research to help run an institution. For example, contracts with service providers
                     (such as caterers who run food and beverage outlets) could require that specific
                     levels of customer satisfaction are achieved. If the supplier is not meeting
                     customer needs in terms of waiting times, quality of food, you will have the
                     evidence from audience research to demonstrate their shortfall. If this mechanism
                     is built into the contract you have with that supplier, you have a powerful way of
                     ensuring that your suppliers can meet standards that you set.

                     Status of audience research
                     What is the status of audience research in Australian museums at the moment?
                     The diagram in Figure 2 summarises my view. Since 1988, we at Environmetrics
                     have seen a dramatic change in the way institutions have taken on the audience
                     point of view. There has been a great maturation as more institutions have
                     developed the expertise to carry out more varied types of audience research.

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                     Figure 2. Status of audience research

                      Beginers end of spectrum                       Experienced end of spectrum

                      Few resources or resources not                 Well resourced

                      Know they need information, not sure           Know what they want and how to get
                      what they need or how to get it                it

                      Focus on the project in hand                   Commission research which will
                                                                     benefit the immediate project and also
                                                                     build resources for future decisions

                      Steep learning curve                           Still on learning curve, but not as steep

                      Direct use of the information                  Usually have internal customers
                                                                     Extensive staff involvement

                      Consultant                                     Consultant
                      — guides the process                           — delivers the goods
                      — transfers knowledge
                      — delivers the goods

                     The ‘Beginners’ are those institutions which have just begun to use audience
                     research, while at the other end of the spectrum are those institutions which have
                     had a program of audience research for several years.

                     Resources. The primary feature of the mature end of the spectrum is that they are
                     well resourced in contrast to the ‘Beginners’. I am referring to both internal and
                     external resources including museum personnel, office space, and a budget to
                     commission outside suppliers. In some cases, the resources are structured as part
                     of the museum’s operating budget, while in other cases the resources need to be
                     allocated from the budgets set for exhibition development. The people we deal
                     with who are fairly new to audience research, the ‘Beginners’, have few or less
                     resources. In some cases they may have the resources but are distracted from
                     audience research by other burning issues.

                     Know what they want. At the more mature e nd of the market, we find that
                     museums tend to know what they want and know more or less how to get it. They
                     know the difference between qualitative and quantitative research and the uses
                     and limitations of observation studies.

                     ‘Beginners’, on the other hand, tend to know that they need information but are
                     not quite sure what they need and don’t really know how to get it — they have a
            Page 6   lot of questions.
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                     Focus. When beginners commission research they tend to focus on the project in
                     hand and the immediate needs. People at the ‘Mature’ end are more likely to
                     commission projects which benefit the immediate project and also build resources
                     for future decisions. An example is a project commissioned by Questacon where
                     questionnaires were designed for formative evaluation of a particular exhibition,
                     but also designed to be relevant to future evaluation of other exhibitions. This
                     kind of project is a good investment in the future.

                     Learning curve. You’ll notice that everyone here is on a learning curve. The people
                     at the beginning are on a really steep learning curve but the people with more
                     experience are still learning and acknowledging that there is still more to find out.
                     I think there is more knowledge to create in this field — ways of thinking about
                     audience research are still being developed.

                     Use of information. At the ‘Beginners’ end, the person who commissions the
                     research tends to be the person who uses the research. At the ‘Mature’ end, the
                     person who commissions research usually has internal customers who are the
                     end-users of the research information. I find that this structure works very well
                     and not only in cultural institutions. Sydney Water, for example, is an
                     organisation which has a person who understands social research acting as the
                     interface for the organisation with social research providers. This structure
                     reduces the scope for confusion and misunderstanding. In this structure, the
                     contractor also has contact with the people in the organisation who are going to
                     use the information and there can be extensive staff involvement in the whole

                     Consultant’s role. At the ‘Mature’ end of the market the consultant ‘delivers the
                     goods’, carries out the project and presents the findings, while, at the ‘Beginner’s’
                     end, the consultant is more involved in guiding the process and transferring
                     knowledge of the process to the organisation so that they can do more of it
                     themselves another time.

                     What makes audience research powerful?

                     Logical and systematic. Powerful audience research is logical, it is common sense
                     and systematic. The difference is between someone wandering around an
                     exhibition and checking out what visitors are doing and an observer who stands
                     in the space with a clipboard and stop watch doing systematic counts. The second
                     process provides much stronger information. To stand in the same spot for an
                     hour and complete an observation task can be a revelation, you see things beyond
                     your expectation and that is when learning is taking place. It is systematic and
            Page 7
                     open, a discovery process. If you already knew what you were going to find, why
                     Conference Paper: The Power of the Audience
                                       November 1996


                     would you be doing it? Systematic observation should enlarge your professional
                     understanding not confirm your preconceived notions.

                     Wide support. Audience research will be much more powerful if it is understood
                     and accepted widely within the institution. If you are to be an effective audience
                     advocate within your organisation, you need to find a way to bring other staff on
                     board early in the research process.

                     Creating and applying knowledge. Audience research creates knowledge, it goes
                     beyond collecting facts to bring things together in a way that creates new
                     understandings. The researcher aims at communicating the knowledge but it is
                     the application of the knowledge that makes it powerful. The application of what
                     has been learnt cannot be done by the research consultant, it can only happen
                     within the museum.

                     Involvement. The application of research findings is much more likely when
                     museum staff have been actively involved in the whole research process, from
                     setting the research aims, to collecting and reporting the data. I came across a
                     familiar aphorism which summarises this — “Tell me and I’ll forget it, show me
                     and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand.”

                     As an example, just last week I was doing some group discussions as front-end
                     evaluation for a new exhibition. There were six museum staff crammed into the
                     viewing room which fitted only three in comfort. Afterwards, I asked the curator
                     what she got from it all and she said, “I really see that I can be a lot more
                     confrontational with this material than I imagined possible.” She modified her
                     views as a result of the research. If she had not been so involved she may not have
                     learnt this. The issue of ‘confrontational’ had not been articulated in the brief, and,
                     indeed, may have remained an unarticulated assumption in the mind of the
                     curator if the audience research had not revealed it directly to her.

                     When you commission research, the main output is the report of the findings.
                     However, a powerful analogy here is that the data of audience research is like an
                     exhibition in all its realised complexity while the research report is like the
                     exhibition brief — it summarises the main themes and presentation, but is a pale
                     shadow of the full exhibition as the following diagram illustrates.

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                     Conference Paper: The Power of the Audience
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                     Figure 3. The report summarises the data

                                                  The data                 report

                     You will be more empowered by audience research if you get involved with the
                     data. If you sit in on the group discussions, if you do some of the observation, if
                     you get the database and play with it you will have a much stronger sense of the
                     audience view and this will empower you to serve your audience more effectively.

                     My final note is to recommend that resources are allocated to audience research.
                     Cultural institutions which serve the public should invest in learning about their
                     audience. Museums are learning institutions, if they learn about their audiences,
                     this knowledge will give them the power to fulfil their mission more effectively.

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