Despite the ongoing effect of COVID-19 on museums’ daily operations, the national Measurement of Museum Social Impact (MOMSI) project has been forging ahead with thirty-eight museum participants since January 2021. The perseverance of the host museums and their staff goes to show the importance of this social science research project. Meant not only to measure their museums’ social impact but also help validate a social impact survey and inform a social impact toolkit (to be published 2023), the project will help raise the whole museum field thanks to their participation.
Each MOMSI host museum was responsible for recruiting study participants. The project team provided the institutions with recruitment language (including translations into other languages as needed), images and flyers, and recommendations on how and where to recruit participants, but in the end it was up to each of them to recruit a minimum of one hundred visitors for the study. Reaching this number for any study is a heavy lift for most institutions, particularly smaller museums and those located in rural areas. Add to that the uncertainties brought on by a pandemic, waves of infections, mask and vaccine requirements, potentially reduced operating hours and staff, and the general fatigue and angst of much of the American public. Furthermore, the ask of participants was greater than in many studies, with each one required to visit three times to be eligible for the study. In other words, each of the thirty-eight museums had to find one hundred visitors who would agree to visit three times in just four to eight months and then complete the instrument! Anyone who has spent time asking people to participate in a study can understand the magnitude of this effort.
While the final data and toolkit for the MOMSI project are still months away, we thought we would share an update on these recruiting efforts from a few of the participating institutions, to provide consolation and inspiration for everyone engaged in community recruiting, whether for social science projects or for other endeavors like advisory committees.
The process has been different for each institution, owing to their individual character and situations. For the Carter County Museum, a museum heavily visited by tourists, it has prompted them to take a new look at their immediate community. For the Plains Art Museum, it has left them reflecting on how they can cast an even broader net in future community work. For the Florence Griswold Museum, current relationships with community members have helped get the word out to those less familiar with the museum. For the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, the community has responded in a big way to calls to help with the study, revealing the depth of feeling for the institution. Finally, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) has discovered the limitations of using targeted online campaigns to bring in first-time visitors. Read on to hear about these findings in each of their own words.
Carter County Museum (Ekalaka, Montana)
We participated in MOMSI with the hope that we could provide representation for rural communities and demonstrate the social impact and relevance of small museums. What we didn’t expect was that this study would lead to a resurgence of interest in our museum from local audiences, who made up only 31 percent of our visitors prior to the pandemic.
So far, we have recruited sixty-three individuals for the study—no mean feat for an institution in a town of only four hundred people. To start out, we posted the usual flyer in our lobby, but we knew that we needed to dig much deeper to reach our full goal. Our board and staff were instrumental in this effort, inviting neighbors during backyard conversations and going off-site to the local holiday bazaar. We created a sign-up link that staff could easily share, which worked well and created a seamless process for people. And, to increase accessibility for our older members, we provided help with filling out the application. We are delighted to share that we have a very high registration/survey completion ratio.
As a result of MOMSI, community members are discovering that the Carter County Museum is a dynamic institution that changes often. Many participants are long-time residents of the area but do not often visit the museum, and this study has served as a spark to bring them back through the doors, and with them their grandchildren or visiting relatives. They leave with stories to share with friends and family about new dinosaurs and archaeological collections on display.
For other participants who are regular visitors to the museum, this study has given them a new lens, where the attention to detail necessary to complete the survey has resulted in new “discoveries” of items they had overlooked or changes since their last trip. Above all we are seeing a renewed appreciation for and pride in this “hidden gem of a museum,” as some are now calling it. As the months shift to summer, our recruitment will finish with our annual visitors to the Dino Shindig, and it will be interesting to see how their perspectives add other colors to the tapestry.
Plains Art Museum (Fargo, North Dakota)
At the Plains Art Museum, we used a combination of digital marketing via email and social media platforms, flyers available for pickup in high-traffic areas of the museum, and a press release to local and regional media contacts. Within weeks of opening recruitment, we had over one hundred study participants.
Having very little trouble recruiting participants was both surprising and affirming, confirming for us that people in our region value and are interested in supporting our museum.
However, looking back, we should have extended our recruitment by a few more weeks, allowing us to be even more intentional with our efforts and secure an even larger sample for MOMSI. Yes, we met the basic requirements, but we believe that with more time we would have been able to cast a broader net for participants. While we will never know if the overall demographic makeup of our sample would have changed with more participants, having more participants would have furthered both Plains Art Museum and MOMSI’s goals: to better understand our social impact and help validate the instrument.
The Florence Griswold Museum (Old Lyme, Connecticut)
When we learned about MOMSI, we realized it was the perfect fit for us, as we had planned to reach out to our community in the broadest terms possible as part of an ongoing capital campaign, major expansion, and new five-year strategic plan. We had pledged to leverage our resources to incorporate our community stakeholders into each and every goal and to be responsive to their needs. We felt that, along with another audience research project we will likely undertake this summer, our participation in MOMSI could help us learn about those not familiar with the museum.
To recruit participants, we used social media and our e-newsletter (reaching more than twenty-four thousand people) and sent emails to local chambers, social service organizations, affinity groups, and others. The recruitment text stressed the importance and national significance of the project while keeping the language light and fun. As a bonus, we added the carrot of free admission to our special event, Wee Faerie Village, and a special gift.
Asking for our constituents’ help was also key. We have such loyal and proactive members and friends, who we know would look for any opportunity to promote us! So we asked our members to appeal to their friends. Through all of our efforts, we sought participants who are not familiar with the museum. It seemed to work. About half of those participating in MOMSI at Florence Griswold Museum have never visited the museum before, and the other half only visit one or two times a year.
Fresno Chaffee Zoo (Fresno, California)
Fresno is unique in that it’s a large metropolitan area by population but lacks other large cultural institutions. As a result, the zoo has an opportunity and obligation to impact our communities and visitors in ways that might be different than other zoos and aquariums, and MOMSI is helping us meet this challenge. Our communities have consistently shown tremendous support for the zoo, most directly by passing a county sales tax measure that provides both capital and operational funds for the zoo each year. We also saw this goodwill and support in our recruitment for MOMSI.
We were able to activate an already engaged audience through our social media channels, a major component of our recruitment efforts. We paired this with leveraging existing mailing lists and other groups that we had partnerships with in our community. By working through these community partners, we were able to amplify our reach while also diversifying our audience. Through these efforts, more than seventeen hundred people applied to participate, and we ultimately accepted four hundred into the project. MOMSI recruitment also helped us identify “mission overlap” with other wonderful organizations in the Fresno area, leading not only to more interest in MOMSI, but also other meaningful relationships for the zoo moving forward.
Minneapolis Institute of Art (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
At the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), we have two staff members responsible for conducting audience research and evaluation of our programs, exhibits, and interpretive material. We have been deeply reflecting on the questions of social impact (like social cohesion, social bridging, belonging, and welcoming), as well as the means to achieve this impact (like multigenerational dialogue, fostering empathy, and challenging dominant narratives). We believe that as a field we are entering a new phase of measuring the museum visitor experience, one that addresses the communal and interconnected way that a museum visit fosters connection between people—both past and present, known and unknown.
To explore these ideas, we know we need to hear from visitors beyond who we typically hear from. If we are interested in understanding to what extent visitors feel they have a positive social experience at the museum, we need to hear from a diverse set of visitors to know that that impact is consistent across demographics. Therefore, we made it a goal to recruit 50 percent new-to-Mia visitors and 50 percent returning Mia visitors for the MOMSI study.
We worked closely with our Engagement Strategy team, who recommended a recruitment strategy that included geo-located Facebook ads to the seven-county metro area, emails to a subset of our mailing list (including participants to virtual events who indicated they had never visited the museum), and a post on Nextdoor. We also advertised a fifty-dollar VISA gift card incentive once participants completed their three visits and the survey. One thing we weren’t able to do was engage in a more grassroots approach throughout the neighborhood and through partnerships. While we think this would have been the most effective strategy, we didn’t have the staffing capacity to take it on.Skip over related stories to continue reading article
Unfortunately, we fell short of our goal: only 10 percent of our MOMSI participants are new-to-Mia visitors. We suspect that Mia already has a large brand recognition in the region, and so people who saw our advertisements were likely to click on them because they were already familiar with Mia. Also, our museum has free entry, so money is not the main barrier for visitation, meaning people who have not visited before are likely to have other reasons for not visiting. Fall 2022 also meant many changes to mask and vaccination requirements for visitation, which may have deterred prospective participants. While we’re disappointed, we are hopeful that the validation of this tool means that we can use it in future studies with more visitors—both new and returning.
The experiences shared above show just some of the challenges and opportunities museums face when recruiting community members to participate in projects. MOMSI’s project team is grateful to the host museums for the unique strategies each of them took in recruitment efforts. The insights they’ve gleaned will not only inform the social impact toolkit but also help museum professionals recruiting visitors for their own studies. Summarizing their findings, here are some general recommendations for recruiting strategies:
- Activate your staff, volunteer corps, and board to talk to their neighbors and let them know what is going on at your museum.
- Activate your relationships (or create relationships) with community partners, and leverage shared interests and resources to help get the word out.
- Consider what community work you may need to do before recruitment begins, especially if you seek first-time visitors.
- Utilize social media, especially local-focused platforms like Nextdoor.
- Include information and a sign-up link in an e-newsletter or blog post, or send emails to various specific lists as appropriate with an appeal to participate.
- Go to off-site community events where you can set up a booth, or keep information at your own front desk.
- Provide technical support by carrying a computer or tablet where visitors can sign up for the project.
- If possible, offer incentives for participation commensurate with the amount of time you are asking people to engage with the study.
Sabre Moore, Executive Director, Carter County Museum
Sarah Anstett, Development & Marketing Manager, Plains Art Museum
Tammi Flynn, Director of Marketing, and Emily Clark, Marketing Associate, Florence Griswold Museum
Dean Watanabe, Chief Mission Officer, Fresno Chaffee Zoo
Alice Anderson, Manager of Audience Research & Impact, Minneapolis Institute of Art