Audience R&D Origins

(Reading time: 3m, 25s)

Yesterday, I said I was going to interview some moms who are members of children’s museums to explore how museums might use content as a way to cultivate more substantial relationships with parents. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read about how I backed myself into this corner in parts one, two, and three.)

Permit me a ramble as I think about this idea a little more.

First, I can’t rule out that this is a dumb idea.

Some museum folks seem to believe that the only way museums can cultivate deeper relationships with patrons is through one-on-one interactions. Given that there don’t seem to be many museums investing in content that speaks from a compelling point of view to a specific audience, either the idea is just foreign, or museum decision-makers don't value it. I haven’t received a lot of feedback on the notion of a museum using content or design systems to foster stronger ties with an audience, but what I have heard has been a mixture of head scratching and deep skepticism.

Of course, that makes me want to explore the idea all the more.


(What is up with all the movie gifs lately, Kyle?)

I don’t think research and development have to be separate things. Organizations tend to treat them as separate things, but there’s a satisfying coherence to simultaneously learning from and developing an audience. When I asked if there were any museum newsletters that expressed a point of view and was geared to a really specific audience, I was trying to find museums taking this more unified approach to audience R&D.

Maybe we could call that R&D content. R&D content:

  • is the result of audience research,
  • fuels audience research, and
  • develops an audience.

I use the word “develop” to mean “grows” and “cultivates”; The latter being closely related to what Kathy Sierra describes as “making users badass” (or “expert”) — That is, helping an audience become whatever better version of themselves the museum can help them be. In the case of a mom who visits a children’s museum regularly, we don’t know exactly what that is, which interviewing should help with.

And, yes, development also means facilitating financial outcomes for the organization as some portion of the audience transitions from visitor to member to donor.

How do museums handle audience research and development now?

If we trot out the old funnel metaphor, you’ve got marketing doing a lot of activity up top — social media efforts, advertising, web content, etc. Not much personalization happening; Lots of larger scale efforts. Then, at the bottom of the funnel, you’ve got development work happening (private fundraising events, individual outreach, etc.) The work is more personalized — smaller scale. (I know marketing and development may be a single department in some places. Let’s just go with it.)

There doesn’t seem to be much happening in the middle of that funnel, which is where I see R&D content coming into play.

The hardest things about R&D content is that it requires organizations to do different kinds of work in unfamiliar ways. You have to do user research to fuel the content and you have to collaborate with experts within the organization — For museums, that would mean working with curators and educators. Without them, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to develop content that provides unique value.

Looking back, I think the first time I started thinking about all this was about ten years ago. I was working as a communications specialist at a therapeutic preschool.

I was impressed by how knowledgable all the psychologists, teachers, social workers, and behavioral specialists were and what good work they were doing.

But what struck me most was how hidden it all was.

All that experience and expertise — but you’d never see it from the outside. You’d never find it on the school’s website or its newsletters or anywhere else. Even parents of children in the school could only tap into it by attending workshops or in one-on-one meetings. I wanted to make it my job to change that …

Hey, I told you a ramble was coming, didn’t I?

It could be me projecting my own experience, but it seems many museums suffer the same communication gaps as can be found at many other organizations.

As for interviewing to learn more about children’s museum moms, what’s the worst case scenario?

I waste some time and money chasing a dead-end, back alley idea.

I bet there’s some unexpected door to unlock or fence to jump at the end of the alley, though. Let’s see where it takes us.

Thanks for reading,


Kyle Bowen