Pop quiz. At any given time, do you know:
- how many visitors are in your museum?
- how many members are in your museum?
- whether an individual visitor has visited before, and if so, when?
- the purchase history of visitors buying items in your store?
Yes, some retail works that way. In Macy's or at the movie theater, I'm just a credit card. But not so in other facilities that encourage repeat visitation. Consider, for example, how my climbing gym uses data. When you arrive, you have to swipe your member card (comparable to museum membership) or pay for entry if you are not a member (again, comparable). The person behind the counter can instantly see how often you come, when you last visited, and can relay to you messages about your bill, classes you are taking, or warnings/compliments about behavior based on prior visits. It doesn't matter whether I've never met the person behind the desk or not--he or she can engage with me appropriately based on data. This kind of tracking enables faceless visitors to be treated as regulars, long-lost buddies, and or potential sales opportunities.
And on the web, this data use goes to the next level. Many months ago, there was a provocative post on the O’Reilly Radar called “If Google Were a Restaurant." In it, the author explored the Google's "pervasive culture of measurement," and considered how similar tracking and alterations might be made in the real world. Imagine a restaurant that tracks every single order, how much food is left on every plate, and uses that information to buy, market, and plate food differently. Imagine book stores that rearrange displays every day based on the sales of the previous day. Imagine museums that… well, we’ll get there.
The point is that Google monitors every single transaction on its site. It knows how many people in what geographic areas search for which terms when. It knows what people are most likely to click on for a given search. And it uses that data to prioritize content—to make the search functionality better.
Many interactive sites do this. Amazon tells you not only what product you might like, but when you click on a product, it tells you what people who clicked on it actually purchased. There are sites that change their inventory, their content, and their marketing to personalize your experience based on passive monitoring of your usage.
Is this Web 2.0? Absolutely. It’s not user-generated in the typical sense, but it fits the basic law of "architecture of participation with network effects": the services get better the more people use them. If Google wasn’t collecting information about what people click on for a given search term, they would have to hire thousands of people to prioritize the content on the web for meaningful results—that is, they’d have to curate the internet. Instead, Google lets users do this curating with their everyday searches for climate change and Paris Hilton. It is user-generated. It just doesn’t take any special effort on the part of the users.
So what about museums? Through the ubiquity and ease of web statistics tracking programs, museums are learning who does what where on their websites. Simply making your collection available for browsing in a database fashion—without any fancy tagging interactivity—can give you data about what parts of the collection are most interesting and or accessible to your web users. These kinds of stats have been used to help museums reorganize their sites; for example, to put PLAN A VISIT front and center when they determine that that’s the content most web visitors want.
On the web, it’s easy to track user actions, and, if you’re inclined, to act on them. But what about in the museum? As discussed in the O’Reilly post, it’s much harder to track and assimilate data in the real world than on the web. We can certainly do it at the ticket counter. Inside the museum, it becomes trickier; exhibit tracking requires human intervention or highly integrated technology. This is what evaluators do, though their monitoring requires resources and effort. Many educators hand out surveys at the end of programs. As more museums, particularly science and tech museums, move towards personalizing the museum visit using RFID and other technologies, these same technologies are being used to see how many people spend how much time interacting where. There are some privacy and data integration challenges, but real-time tracking of activity in the museum is possible.
And tracking isn’t the real challenge when it comes to “googlizing” the museum. It's not brain surgery to create a system, like that at my gym, that gives you historical information about each visitor that walks through the door. In fact, there are many museums, including my own (The Tech), that collect data on visitor use of exhibits incidentally--but do nothing with the data. Now that RFID and barcode scanners are becoming more popular as tools to "personalize" the museum experience, some museums are generating a lot of data about who uses what exhibits for how long. And while we hand that back to visitors--in certificates congratulating them on completing several exhibits (Sony Wonderlab) or personal websites with images from their visit (The Tech)--we don't use it internally.
Why don't we get this data, and if we have it, why don't we use it? Because the challenge isn't tracking: the challenge is to listen to and act on the tracked data. That's the problem I've seen with educational program surveys--the results are tallied, the great quotes are emailed, but intelligent actions aren't taken. Let’s say you performed an evaluation in which you placed tape recorders in a museum wing for a month and recorded every single thing said. If the transcription revealed that visitors were confused, disappointed, or disaffected by exhibits, were skipping some in favor of others, how would you react? Would you repeat the experiment on other areas? Would you move the most popular exhibits to the front of the wing? Would you reconsider inclusion or implementation of the least popular ones? Or would you destroy the tape?
I think most of us would destroy the tape (or at least hide it in a drawer somewhere). On the web, we’re willing to reorganize content to improve the visitor experience. But in the museum, it’s more expensive, more painful, more personal. This is one of the secret sources of resistance to 2.0: it requires listening to people we're not used to listening to. Beth Kanter wrote about this recently, commenting:
The premise is that listening must become a priority in order to use the Web2.0 tools successfully. I think it is a pretty critical marketing practice despite what technology tools you are using.And if we can get over ourselves and start listening, there are real financial and visitor rewards to be realized. Google and Amazon doesn’t track user actions to "appreciate" their users' interests. They do it to be more effective institutions. They do it to sell more stuff.
How can museums become more willing listeners? By designing for modularity. By acknowledging unsolved design problems (exhibits stuffed into hallways, nooks of random growth) and considering visitors' input to find solutions. By taking on more experiments so that we're generally more change-positive. By opening exhibits before they are finished so that evaluation isn't an onerous afterthought. By generating more data about visitor actions and analyzing it.
Good operations officers know how much specific exhibits cost in maintenance and disposables. Good marketing directors know that there's a direct relationship between number of visits and likeliness to buy or renew a membership. Why aren't we tracking the data that can make us more successful? Wouldn't you like to know what value different exhibits and programs have as you work out the equation of what's worthwhile and what direction to take?