Visitor Studies Group conference notes

The Visitor Studies Group Annual Conference, London, 16 and 17 March 2016

I attended this two-day conference to present an audience development project I ran for SHARE Museums East in 2014, and to listen, learn and meet other colleagues working in visitor studies.

The Visitor Studies Group (VSG) is a membership organisation for individuals whose role involves, uses or benefits from visitor studies. The Group aims to champion visitor studies as a force for evidence-based decision-making to encourage and create excellent visitor experiences for all audiences.

This is a summary of my conference highlights. 

The conference
The overall theme of the conference was “It’s what you do with it” and the aim was to explore:

  • How can visitor studies have real impact?
  • How can research and evaluation findings be communicated internally and externally?
  • How does visitor research influence decisions and contribute to effective change?
  • How can we raise awareness of visitors studies and ensure that it has the profile it so rightly deserves?

The two-day conference was full of interesting and thought-provoking sessions. It struck me that what all presentations had in common was an emphasis on the importance of good communication, whether communicating research results, using research for advocacy or to impact change. Having a clear point or narrative and presenting this in a digestible way that is appropriate to the recipient is key to ensuring visitor studies have impact.

Keynote: Lamia Dabboussy, Head of Audience Planning and Brand Insight, BBC
Lamia’s presentation shared how the BBC works to understand its audiences and how insight is used to help shape programming and strategy. Some interesting snippets she shared were:

  • “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – you need to understand and work within the culture of your organisation
  • You can’t keep doing what you’ve always been doing – the landscape, people, habits and behaviour are changing, so you need to adapt
  • “Data and numbers on their own don’t answer many questions” – you also need insight
  • Key elements the BBC measures are:
    • Reach
    • Quality
    • Value
    • Impact

And it strikes me that these are universally useful markers.

A lovely takeaway from this presentation was learning that the BBC’s six Values are on the back of every staff member’s security pass and that number 2 is “Audiences are at the heart of everything we do.”

Unlock the story: Caroline Florence from Insight Narrator
Caroline explored how storytelling can help to make a better connection between your data and your recipients to inspire action. She offered a response to a quote from Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning Economist:

“Information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

There is a clear issue with many research reports (and reports in general!), which are too long with too much information. Caroline showed how story-telling can bring to life your visitor data, without losing its research vigour, thereby inspiring people to read. This could be through having interesting, engaging or provocative titles and bringing in examples of people and using metaphors to engage people.

At the heart of good stories lie four factors which can be applied to communication of visitor research:

  1. Conflict: this can be used to provoke and add interest. For example the difference between “The cat sat on the mat” (an observation) and “The cat sat on the other cat’s mat” (a story with intrigue).
  2. Consistency: repetition, whether it’s within a story, across projects or within a team
  3. Colour: add nuance as people are complicated and sensory beings
  4. Connection: even rational messages need to be connected in an emotional way.

An interesting example that Caroline showed was a short film showing a hypothetical couple (Charlie and Marie) and their journey from the age of 60 onwards, navigation their way through significant events and their contact with different services at these times. It was created as part of the Young Foundation’s Ageing Well Innovation Series with an aim of stimulating new and more holistic ways of thinking about older people and their experience of services, amongst local government and partners – who may often operate quite separately from one another. Conversations with older people and service providers culminated in the 5-minute animation with music and written words, but no spoken words.

What struck me was how powerful the film was – its message was very clear and it left you moved and really wanting to do something to help at the end. Charlie and Marie could be you, your parents, your grandparents or friends. Arguably a much more powerful way of communicating, than a lengthy and wordy report.

The film can be viewed here or by searching for “Ageing Well Innovation Services Charlie and Marie” online.

Small post‐it notes, Big Ideas
Andrew McIntyre (Director, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre)
Andrew followed on with this theme, talking about so much data, so little insight, or “analysis paralysis”.

He shared that his team do not start writing reports until they have finished with their thinking; rather they assemble reports at the end to illustrate their thinking. This prompted some discussion, with both agreement and some people feeling that writing helped clarify their thinking.

Andrew’s main point was the idea of identifying your main point or argument: if you only had one Post-It Note to write on – what would it be? This struck me as a good discipline in helping to clarify your thinking and then being very clear in your communication. If you develop this idea, you can come up with several Post-It Notes, each of which becomes the basis for a chapter heading, and the executive summary of the report.

Keynote: Esme Ward, Head of Engagement, Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery
Esme shared the journey of the recent £15 million development which has transformed the gallery, and how consulting above and beyond its walls impacted on programming and informed developments.

In particular, Esme talked about the success of outreach and community work they undertook during the development, leading her to coin the phrase that they were “never more open than when closed”. This ranged from pop-ups at 30 sites ranging from placing valuable work in Selfridges’ entrance to DIY art programmes for families at ASDA and a poet in a pub.

It was interesting to hear how the gallery combines being “ambitious and international in outlook” with being “local in impact”.

A few key takeaways from me are:

  • staff were given one day a week to embed themselves within other organisations, as a learning and listening exercise. For example one volunteered in a Forest School in an early years centre, one ran a coffee morning in a residential care home. This seems like a great, transferable idea, in which museum staff can really get to know their audiences and communities
  • Esme also echoed Lamia from the BBC’s point, saying “the work is never finished” as communities change
  • a point about the importance of listening versus “ta-da” – staff don’t always know best

The team have produced a couple of publications which could be useful reading:

Data visualisation
Adam Frost and Tobias Sturt (Graphic digital agency)
Adam and Tobias’s session showcased how to transform data into stories and visuals that gets people interested in data. Their focus was on visual storytelling, for example infographics, animations, interactives.

They emphasised that all design choices need to be driven by data and that visuals firstly need to persuade people to look – draw them in, and that then people should be rewarded with clarity for they can understand and engage with the visual.

They showed many great examples and shared their recommendations for tools, examples and further reading, which can also be viewed in this list they have compiled.

Double Vision: Museums Making the most of shared data
I presented the Visitor Insight East programme, that I ran with evaluation consultant Amanda Burke on behalf of SHARE Museums East in 2014, a one-year programme of visitor research and audience development in which 13 museums across the region took part. The programme involved the creation of a visitor exit survey and online portal for data entry, along with a series of training workshops to support participants in interpreting and using their data. We shared how the programme’s robust yet cost-effective approach was successfully used by museums with very limited capacity, and how benchmarking helped participants make sense of their data. We also showcased a range of case studies and examples of how some of the museums have used their data in the year since the programme finished, including for marketing, operational decisions, funding applications and programming.

I have also written more extensive notes on the conference on behalf of SHARE Museums East and will add a link to these once the notes are live on their website.

A big thank you to the Visitor Studies Group for organising such an interesting and well-run event. To learn more about the Visitor Studies Group visit:

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