Victoria Wallace from Leeds Castle shares some valuable advice for getting your visitor experience right.
Much as we love our collections, a museum without users is very unlikely to survive. It is also missing the point. Never before have consumers had as much choice, or as much money to spend, on their leisure. In theory at least, we have far more leisure time and holiday than our ancestors, even if we feel 'time poor'. Yet there is so much competition for that time, and for our leisure pound. And standards are being driven even higher. Not only do you have to compete for attention before you receive any visitors, you have to offer them something that they perceive as worth leaving the sofa and TV for.
So getting the visitor experience right is vital. It will ensure your collections or your site are better appreciated and understood; your museum or heritage site is properly valued (by funders and by your community); and that more people visit, and are willing to pay for their experience, encourage by positive recommendation both by word of mouth and from online review sites. Ultimately, a museum collection is a pointless bunch of objects unless people can see them, appreciate them, and learn from them.
Yet they won't be able to do that unless you've got the basics right: the visitors can find you, they know what you are offering, and once on site they feel comfortable, able to access what you have, and are enjoying themselves.
Learning to meet visitor expectations and make their day will also ensure your team and volunteers are positive about the challenges they face; making people happy is something almost everyone enjoys.
In this guide, I hope to help suggest:
- how you can find out more about what your visitors think of you - without that knowledge, you haven't a chance of getting it right
- the steps you can take to give yourself a 'visitor experience healthcheck'
Know your visitors
The experience of your museum begins well before visitors even reach you. Unless they are tourists working out of a guide book, most people will visit either because they've heard about you or because they've looked online. So they already think they know something about you. How much do you know about your visitors?
We are blessed with an incredible resource our predecessors did not have. Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to know what visitors you had, and what they thought of you, you had to spend money on customer research. As a result we imposed our own vision on customers, and were left rather in the dark if they didn't come. Now, with our ability to capture information online, or to look at social media websites, we can find out a massive amount. You can see where people come from, what they thought of the experience, and how they like other places. Tripadvisor, Google, Twitter and Facebook should be your best friends.
The public have also become more discerning in the way they consume, and are less afraid to be critical. They tell you - and others - about their experience. That can be scary for the museum - all those opinions flying around, and with no ability to counter them yourself - but actually, it's the most amazing tool for you. Your challenge is first how to engage the visitors, and then how to channel the free advice they give you after they've visited into improving the experience for others. Even if you think online reviews are rubbish, this is why you need to take notice of them:
- 30% of people who read your advertising material will trust it unquestioningly
- 70% trust online consumer opinion
- 92% trust personal recommendation (including via social media)
So you first want to get your staff, volunteers, friends and visitors talking about you, spreading the positive messages. Then you want to try to influence - but emphatically not fake - online opinion, in order to get it looking positive.
Think about how you respond to feedback online. If you get negative feedback, it's easy to be really defensive. There's also a real risk of getting into an online slanging match, or of being seen as insincere in any apology. You want to try and show you are concerned, but not to get into protracted explanation online. There's a real danger of breathing more oxygen into the fire - if something is toxic, you want to cut it off. We've found that by responding to negative social media by saying something like: "we're really sorry to hear this - get in touch direct and we'd really like to help sort this out" it gets it out of the public eye, and calms things down. And you may learn something by talking direct.
You can also be proactive. Make sure you find ways of capturing contact details. This may be through feedback forms, Gift Aid forms, competitions in which people have to give their email addresses. Then ask if you can stay in touch. A lot of people won't opt out if they have had a half-decent experience, and you promise not to share your data with others. Encouraging visitors to find you on Facebook, or to 'check in' and tweet about their experience also gives you a new way of reaching them after their visit. It doesn't need to be a major, expensive database - but simply a mailing list you can grow.
If an issue arises in customer feedback that you're uncertain of - you think it's a one-off subjective opinion but you aren't sure - you need to test it out with others. You could use a focus group. Or you could ask your visitors. Use your database - however small - and send out a simple survey, which you can make for free using Survey Monkey.
Don't worry too much about the science. It's very easy to over-analyse, and to fret about whether you are asking the right questions. Market researchers will blind you with science, but that can often paralyse you. Ask open questions, or offer options, and you will soon see a trend.
Download the guide to read on:
AIM Success Guide: successful visitor experience - getting it right (PDF)