A literally captive audience

Why do we track audience “engagement”? What does that word mean?

The word “engagement” encourages us to look at complex behavior in a simple way.

Is our audience engaged or not engaged? Yes or no?

If you lock a group of members in a room, call it a focus group, and ask them why they haven’t renewed their membership — are they “engaged” when they hand you a check on their way out the door?

While that is one way to get people to renew or upgrade their membership, that’s not research. It’s more like sales.

Likewise, it can be tempting to believe that a 50% response rate on a survey means that your audience is highly engaged.

But if you regularly hold events where you ask everyone to complete a survey before they leave, there’s a social pressure at work there that will increase the response rate.

If you hand someone a survey, look them in the eye, and say, “If you can’t donate today, would you at least fill out this survey?” — would you describe them as “engaged” when they fill it out?

And how reliable is the data you collect in that context?

I’ve found that nonprofits, including museums, sometimes blur the boundaries between research and acquisition efforts.

Part of me sympathizes — “Hey, they’re doing the best they can with what they have. They need to raise money!”

But to achieve short term gains, organizations can develop self-defeating habits. What happens when they turn to the results of these surveys or focus groups for insights when they’re developing strategic plans?

Best case scenario? They ignore the results.

And what really scares me is the possibility that many museums may be like so many nonprofits in that getting reliable, actionable research data just isn't a real priority.

What if most cultural institutions would gladly trade actionable research insights for a few more member renewals or a higher survey response rate?

So, now you know why I didn’t sleep last night.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle Bowenengagement