Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Understanding our visitors - the loyalty program concept

I hope I am consistent in pushing the line that I am interested in technology for what it can do to improve the museum visitor ‘offering’ (to use a good IT word), rather than getting too engrossed in the technology itself. That’s where my interest lies, which is not to down play those who are more focused on the technology, as we need them exploring what can be done with new technologies. This year’s Museums and the Web conference in Philadelphia, judging by the last one I attended in 2009, will be dominated by the latter group, with the value to me being the insights that can be drawn by such people as Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum who is tasked by the Museum to ensure it is at the cutting edge of technological implementation.

And one of my particular interests is seeing how technology developed in larger sectors, e.g. visitor counting and visitor tracking in the retail sector, can be applied to the museum sector. Zoos and aquariums sit in a sector of their own (as do Botanic Gardens), personnel from which we rarely meet at conferences. But not only do they share many common issues, they also draw generally larger numbers than museums – in other words their ’offering’ is more attractive than the museum one.

So I read with interest on how the Cincinnati Zoo has been tapping analytics to improve attendance, as this is an area where museums are not strong, as I have blogged previously. We tend to know a great deal about our web site visitors, through such tools as Google Analytics, but very little about the patterns of physical visitor behaviour. The Cincinnati Zoo happens also to include a Botanical Garden, and is the number one attraction in the city with 1.1 million visitors per year.

Concern about operational efficiencies prompted a review, with a couple of interesting outcomes:

1) Centralisation of revenue operations: Membership, ticketing , food service and merchandise were all operating as stand alone entities, with 16 food service locations and 51 point-of-sale (POS) locations on the site. By consolidating all services using POS software, all revenue generating transactions can be tracked through one point. The result – reduced operational expense and increased revenue by, for example, ensuring staff levels are in tune with actual needs.

2) Understanding member behaviour better: Members are asked to share essential information upon joining the zoo membership program, and then as they visit the zoo they leave a trail of behavioural information by using their bar coded members cards to take advantage of member discounts and special offers. This is analysed to understand attendance and purchasing patterns, and this in turn drives email campaigns based on visit frequency and spending patterns.

Museums obviously have far less of a focus on revenue generation, but retail and catering are an increasingly important part of their operations and their potential for helping the bottom line needs to be maximised.

But it was another feature of Cincinnati Zoo’s focus on a different type of visitor that struck me as having particular application to museums. The Zoo has identified that there are a proportion of visitors who come more than once but are not frequent enough or are averse to becoming members. For these they have instituted a loyalty program, a first, they believe, amongst zoos or museums. By asking for an email address and a post code, they have found a way of getting to know a broader group of visitors and reward good visitors (by discounts and early notification of events) without the upfront cost of membership. The Zoo’s modelling suggests they could gain an extra 50,000 visitors per year this way.

Given that museums typically struggle to build large membership bases, this could be an interesting initiative to watch.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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