Guest Post: How Visitor Research Can Help You Reach New Audiences

Museums and cultural organizations are increasingly carrying out visitor research with their current visitors in order to find out what motivates people to visit their institutions and what keeps them coming back.

But have you ever considered consulting with people who don’t go to your museum or cultural organization?

audience development
Visitors look at artwork at Art Miami New York, an international contemporary and modern art fair representing about 1200 artists from over 50 countries.

Every non-visitor is a potential visitor in the making. Finding out why people aren’t visiting your institution and what would encourage them to visit can help you make changes that will grow your visitor base, reach new audiences, and with that, potentially generate income. Consulting with non-visitors and acting on the results of this consultation also supports institutions to become more inclusive by empowering people who you have not previously engaged with to take a role in shaping your institution and its programmes.

There are many reasons why people may not be visiting your museum or cultural organization. Through my museum consulting business, when I have asked this question of non-visitors, people have told me that they don’t have enough time to visit an institution, they don’t have enough money, they don’t know enough – or anything at all – about an institution, they don’t think the institution sounds like a place they’d enjoy, and more.

Why museums and cultural organizations need visitor surveys

Once we know why people aren’t visiting our museums and cultural organizations, we can take action to break down these barriers. If limited time is an issue, could you organize some after-hours events to give people a chance to visit outside of working hours, or put together 30 minute trails that give people a quick taster of your institution — for example, a ‘star object’ trail? If lack of money is an issue, how about delivering some free events for the local community or creating a free-to-access or inexpensive membership campaign that gives members discounted entry to your museum or cultural organization?

Think about where your marketing is being directed. If people tell you that they’ve never heard of your organization, consider putting marketing resources into reaching new communities. Working with partners in your local community who can help spread the word about your institution is often a great place to start. If people have poor perceptions of your organization, think about how you’re selling it – for example, what images are you using on your marketing materials, who do they appeal to, and do they reflect diverse audiences? Are your events all aimed at the same audiences and, if so, what new events could you deliver to appeal to new audiences? Also consider recruiting volunteer community ambassadors who talk to people or blog about your museum and help promote it to a new audience.

Consulting with non-visitors need not be costly or time-consuming. Think about audiences who don’t tend to visit then go to places where they hang out and start conversations, and invite people into your museum or cultural organization. You could, for example:

  • Take a simple survey out to places in the local community, such as shopping malls or parks.
  • Create a survey and promote it through social media, partners, and media and community groups.
  • Talk to people or run focus groups in cafes or community centres.
  • Set up “graffiti walls” – massive pieces of paper that people can write or draw on – in libraries or toy libraries.
  • Organize community open days and ask people to complete a survey that tests their perceptions of your organization following the visit.

Looking for a easy visitor survey tool? Try QuickTapSurvey free.

Once you’ve consulted with non-visitors, don’t stop there! Think about how to turn new visitors into long-term visitors by, for example, continuing to hold events and exhibitions that appeal to them, getting people’s email addresses and sending them e-newsletters, and working with people to co-curate exhibitions and events. And don’t forget to keep consulting! Keep talking to visitors and non-visitors to make sure you’re continually meeting people’s needs and empowering them to play a part in shaping your institution.

To finish, I’d like to set you a challenge. Take 10 minutes today to think about what actions you are going to take to consult with people who don’t visit your organization and how you are going to start turning those potential visitors into a loyal audience.

Laura Crossley
Laura Crossley is a UK-based museum consultant and PhD researcher who specializes in helping museums and cultural organizations grow and diversify their audiences. She has a wealth of experience with projects related to improved program offerings, audience development, and income generation. Visit her website at and follow her @lfcrossley
Laura Crossley

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