Museums and cultural institutions: Welcoming big data to your institution

Big data. It’s still new, and it’s everywhere. The term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2014. But what does it actually mean, and how can it be of use to museums and cultural institutions?

Nonprofit big data — museums, cultural institutionsBig data commonly refers to very large, very diverse data sets. It also describes the technologies that allow effective mining of data for analytical insight and informed decision-making. Advances in tracking technologies and social media growth are a couple of the trends that have made it possible for a wide variety of entities to make sense of volumes of information drawn from corporate databases, smartphones, Web activity and other sources. Mining, analyzing and comparing data can draw a detailed, and sometimes unnervingly extensive, picture of individuals and their behaviors.

Cultural institutions, including museums and performing arts organizations, are — or should be — increasingly using big data tools in their programming, marketing and fundraising.

Track visitor engagement to inform improvementsIn the museum environment, where visitors are continually moving throughout a building and viewing exhibits, how do you collect data related to their engagement and interaction? The answer, increasingly, is digital beacons. The majority of museum visitors now carry a smartphone. Digital beacons are devices that transmit a signal, allowing a smartphone to register its position, collecting a considerable amount of data, including how visitors move through exhibits and how long they linger in front of a particular display.

Additionally, by offering a customized smartphone app, museums can not only obtain details about visitors’ locations, but can also send additional contextual messages about exhibits to visitors’ smartphones, helping to educate and enhance their experience. In addition, museums may send a visitor viewing a particular exhibit an alert about related exhibits and presentations or products in the gift shop.

Another method for gathering useful data is offering a frequent-visitor program. By checking in at a performance center or sites around the building with their smartphones or at kiosks, members can earn points toward rewards, such as tickets for special exhibits or performances, free food and parking, souvenirs, or admission to private events. You can then dissect the data to better understand visitor behavior — how often they visit, which exhibits appeal to them and which don’t, etc. This analysis can help an institution understand if an exhibit is popular on its own or only because of its location, allowing for improved exhibit placement and museum layouts to enhance the overall visitor experience. Likewise, performance centers can analyze ticket sales data — as well as statistics on sales methods and referring websites — to build smarter schedules, boost turnout for poorly attended events, make better decisions about how and where to market your programs, and incorporate dynamic pricing based on current market demand algorithms.

Track and analyze how visitors use your space, including observations such as the days and times visitors are present or absent, areas they tend to populate or avoid, and length of stay. Also, note how they use auxiliary operations, including ticketing services and your website. These data can provide input to improve efficiencies of staffing and services.

Where institutions historically gathered data on visitors through a ticket-taker and a clicker, big data is a revolution. In appeals to potential sponsors, institutions can now present more than just attendee counts. They can come armed with detailed statistics indicating who attends, what draws them in and why.

Mine data for revenue opportunitiesUse your data to boost outreach and funding. Dig into the details of your supporters and draw on what you uncover. Your institution can learn more about who its patrons are, where they come from, who else is like them, and other marketing opportunities. These data can be used to personalize direct mail and to be more efficient in marketing subscriptions, memberships, special events and fundraising appeals to single-visit attendees.

With information from your ticket and donor databases, your development department can customize fundraising appeals. For instance, you can filter for a list of people who have been longtime ticket buyers or visitors but not significant donors. You can approach that group, explaining how even modest donations to your annual fund can help strengthen their connection with your institution, thereby turning this untapped population into donors. Corporations and other sponsors often look at the number of donors as much as — or even more than — the total contribution amount.

Prepare to answer privacy and other concernsThe biggest obstacle to gathering big data may not be technology, but instead public apprehension. The methods used to collect this level of detail may result in a backlash about personal privacy. Your visitors may not want documentation of when they visit, how long they stay and how they move around the building.

As cultural institutions collect more personal information, they open themselves up to the same kinds of security breaches we have all read about. To protect your institution and your visitors, require that data be accumulated only about those who have opted in to the program. Encrypt all data and engage cybersecurity expertise. Determine what data require individual identification and where aggregated or anonymized data will suffice, thereby limiting the information you need to protect.

With data-mining tools calculating your most popular offerings, be aware that curators and program developers could make choices that are the most crowd-pleasing instead of the most artistically significant or mission-related. This can lead to bypassing innovation or controversy, and resorting to mediocrity and the expected.    

As institutions continue developing technologically — taking advantage of the considerable diversity of data available and addressing privacy and integrity concerns — it is clear that while the public is experiencing tremendous artistic offerings, institutions will be taking note.

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