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Growing Audiences with the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers

Category: Surveys & Reports
Three children gather around a display table inside a museum, while an adult stands behind them.
Young visitors read a display at Minnetrista, a museum that has used insights from the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers to grow its audience.

Who visits our museums? What are their motivations, and what do they expect from the experience? Alternatively, who is not visiting, and why not?

These are critical questions for the future of individual museums, and for the entire field. To gain rich insight into these questions, the Alliance is partnering with Wilkening Consulting on the 2020 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers. Participating in the survey provides data that can be used to take immediate action and make decisions that contribute to the sustainability and vibrancy of your museum. Today, Rebecca Gilliam from Minnetrista explores how their organization uses the data from the Museum-Goers Survey to develop new approaches to visitor engagement.


Most PR and Marketing professionals have been asked to get more people in the doors of our institutions. To form a strategy, we know the key questions to ask: who is the target audience, and why should they care? But to answer these questions, we often end up relying on anecdotal evidence, like the opinions of museum staff, loyal members, and infrequent visitors whose paths we cross. Using data instead to understand your audience can help you make better decisions. Participating in a national survey project that helps you ask a broad group of visitors about why they visit is even better.

Committing to that project, the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, is a must for your museum. It helps you establish a baseline of data to work from and gives you a benchmark of how your institution’s numbers compare to museums of similar genre in the country, as well as to national and regional census data. When the leaders of your organization begin discussing how to increase attendance numbers, this data is there to inform the conversations and lead to good decision-making. Best of all, these significant returns come from only a small input of time and resources.

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Making good decisions about experiences we create for our audiences is a priority for Minnetrista, a multi-disciplinary museum and garden in Muncie, Indiana. Some years ago, we recognized as an institution that we needed to understand our audience and what motivated them to participate in our programs, attend special events, and enjoy the many exhibits and public garden spaces across our campus. We knew audience data would be critical to this mission, and we wanted to create a baseline that would help us set goals to develop intergenerational family experience and actively partner with our community as a gathering place and convener.

So, we decided to participate in the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers in its first year. From that study, we learned more about our current and potential visitors and began to develop experiences and messaging that aligned with their motivations for visiting. We also refined our audience understanding to encompass demographic analysis, psychographic data, and audience motivation. We were already off to an exciting data-driven start.

In the year of our first study, Minnetrista was serving just over seventy-five thousand annual visitors, only ten thousand of whom fell under the “general museum visitors” category, to our surprise. Instead, our community visited for our farmers’ market, special events, and other activities. While our beautiful grounds and well-maintained facilities had enabled us to become a clear favorite community “gathering place,” we had yet to attract much of this community to daily museum-focused visitor experiences.

The new approaches to visitor engagement that research has led us to implement have resulted in our visitation growing to more than one-hundred thousand annually, and we have seen an increase in family visitors. We are committed to continuing to gather data on our audience and potential audiences, and the Annual Survey of Museum-Goers enables us to continue this work while tracking change over time. We have used the data to guide decisions about brand messaging and imagery, our most current strategic plan, and our annual priorities.

The Annual Museum-Goers survey has been invaluable to our museum. Each year, we look at the overall trends in our data and ask customized questions to make decisions about new experiences and messaging we are considering. With the help of the results, we have been able to improve the experiences we offer and increase the satisfaction of our visitors.


Interested in gleaning these kinds of insights? Sign up to participate in the 2020 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers today for a low-cost early rate!

There is nearly no effort required of your team; simply send an email and post a link on social media. Wilkening Consulting analyzes your audience and museum visitors across the U.S. so you can understand how your museum stacks up against the rest of the field. In addition to demographics, you’ll learn more about your audiences, including why they visit, what they believe you’re doing well, and how they wish to see you improve. On top of the questions included in the survey, you also have the opportunity to include two custom questions that address the nuances specific to your museum.

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