Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tracking visitor numbers – metrics rule

‘Metrics’ seems to be the new buzz word around town. Metrics are everywhere. It is increasingly with them that we decide what to read, what stocks to buy, which poor people to feed, which athletes to recruit, which films and restaurants to try. The once-mysterious formation of tastes is becoming a quantitative science. Check out a rather cynical article about their pervasiveness in the New York Times November 20th 2009 edition.

Like almost everything, such matters seep through eventually to the museum and galleries sector. By the way, I used to refer to this as the ALM sector - for Libraries, Archives and Museums with museums of course covering art museums otherwise known as galleries. But the acronym increasingly in vogue seems to be GLAM - for Galleries, Museums, Archives and Museums. I like it and will run with that form from now on.

So where is the GLAM sector on metrics? The answer is two part, as the level of metrics varies enormously between the real and the virtual. Let me tackle each in turn.

On the real, namely how many visitors come through the physical doors, where they go and what they do once inside the institution, there is an embarrassing lack of knowledge. Almost all museums have some form of counting system, either through ticketing, or in the case of free entry museums, through counting systems. However even these are invariably inaccurate. There are many stories of attendants with hand clickers clicking away at random to ensure the visitor quota is achieved. Automatic counting systems give better accuracy, but still have difficulty distinguishing between visitors and staff ( and indeed inanimate objects like strollers or boxes). And once inside the institution there is no tracking of visitor paths, establishment of time spent within the institution or dwell times in front of exhibits quantified. One friend of mine admits that the closest he gets to this is sending staff out with a felt pen and a floor lay-out of the galleries, and tracking the route visitors take by hand. When they dwell in front of a particular exhibit, the felt pen is left on the paper in that spot, leading to a bigger splodge of ink. See my blog from June 2009 on the issue.

On the virtual, things are a little more advanced. We all know the power of Google Analytics, which is giving considerable granularity to web site metrics. But the Powerhouse Museum is now doing great work and mining more deeply into what their visitors do on the Museum’s web site. Read Seb Chan’s most interesting latest thoughts on the matter. Seb reports particularly on the issue of repeat visitations to web sites and understanding who is coming back, how often and why.

All is not lost on the real side of things however. We are looking at a mobile phone technology which allows tracking of visitors (all within privacy requirements) , with the added benefit it can reveal how long each visitor stays in the museum, where they dwell, whether they have been before, and, in the case of international visitors, which country they come from. We need to catch up fast to the same level of understanding that Google Analytics can provide for those web site visitors, and in due course work out the crossover.

1 comment:

  1. Things like analytics for the web metrics are well advanced, yes, but that only covers interaction with the museum *in the museum's website*. One of the things we are starting to work on in Wikimedia is improving the metrics that we can deliver to museums about how people are interacting with their collection and subject areas on other websites.

    Currently there are no measures, and therefore no senior-manager-justifications, for pushing information "out" rather than trying to bring people to the institution's own website and "own the conversation".