Five Ways to Better Understand Your Audience




I will never forget my days running a state park visitor center when we counted people going through the building. These daily numbers went into a report we submitted to the state office annually. We detected the presence and number of our visitors and that was about it.

Most of us do not have the luxury of hiring a skilled survey team to conduct research about audience interests, but there are ways we can learn more every single day. These are a few very direct ways to better understand your audiences’ motivations and interests as they interact with your resources.

1. Secret Shopper (also known as Interpretive Stalking, but don’t do anything creepy) – Walk among your guests without a uniform or any form of identity, dressing as they would. Look and act like your audience. Wander with them and stand near and listen. What are they saying to each other? What questions do they ask of each other? What do they photograph? How much time do they spend when they stop? What stopped them for longer discussions? Did they read the signs and exhibits or breeze past? This gives you a somewhat subjective, but very useful sense of how they feel about your visitor experience.

2. Observation without Engagement – Sit and watch your audiences in one-hour blocks of time, recording what they are doing. Create an observational form for your site with a category for every major user group. Leave a space for describing those doing things not usual to your site. You may discover a new market segment you had not previously considered. I trained trail rangers at the nature center I managed to do a one-hour survey for every four hours they patrolled a bike trail and the observations were made year-round so we had a much better understanding of seasonal change in uses of our grounds and trails.

3. Constant Conversation – Train your staff to use open questions skillfully to conduct an informal survey every time they meet a guest. Where are you from? Have you been here before? Is there something special you’re hoping to see or do? Is there anything special we can do to help you? But also train staff in how to disengage and respect the privacy of guests. Not everyone wants to chat every time they come to your site. Some guests are “spiritual rechargers” (Falk et al. “Why zoos matter”) and may prefer to relax in your beautiful environs without a chat. When you learn the specific desires of the guest, you have a chance to suggest how they can have a better experience that day, and you can shape future plans according to the desires expressed.

4. Interactive Survey – Devise a simple four or five question survey that your volunteers or staff can administer to guests after getting their permission to do so. Keep it short and meaningful. Have you been here before? How often do you come? What do you like most here? How might we improve? Use a form to collect the data that gives some demographic background such as gender, general age group, geographic area of origin, as well as some simple psychographic information such as why did they come and how satisfactory they found the experience. That allows for analysis later when you have time to do so.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 9.42.44 AM5. Social Media –, and are becoming easy places to look for honest feedback about your site or programming. With Facebook, you can create your own fan page to stimulate conversations, but since many folks are “lurkers” it is not a great place to learn much about your guests overall. People who love your site or are unhappy with the experience in some way may go to Tripadvisor or Yelp and give a review. Read these reviews daily or weekly, as often as they show up. Notice what they are saying and the star rating, but also check out the photos that they post to see what they find most fascinating about your site.

There are obviously many other ways to learn more about your guests but these are some that can be done daily or weekly with little or no investment. Analysis can be as informal as discussions at weekly staff meetings. Or you might have a student intern or local college class take data collected from some methods and do a deeper analysis with cross-tabulations. Understanding the motivations and interests of our audiences is essential. Learning to listen and observe in simple, direct ways can be very effective in helping you improve what you do for your unique audiences.

It’s still fine to count numbers and be aware of the volume of traffic through your building, site or programs, but presence alone is not enough. Try to learn more and apply it to improve all you offer.

– Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

One thought on “Five Ways to Better Understand Your Audience

  1. Common sense tips than can easily be applied to other professional, recreational or avocational settings.

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