Autocratic tendencies

(Reading time: 3m, 32s)

Each morning, I meditate either just before or after I send this daily letter to you, which means I’m not really meditating — I’m either thinking about what I’m going to write, or I’m thinking about what I just wrote and all the things I wish I had said differently.


Yesterday, I meditated after I emailed you, which means I spent 20 minutes agonizing over having sent you an email about my emails.

So, today, I’d like to try to reframe yesterday’s letter about creative decision-making and audience feedback in terms that might be of greater value to you.

As I sat there, not-meditating, I thought about the decisions organizations often cede to their audiences or indefinitely defer. Maybe by expanding upon yesterday’s topic, you’ll be primed to spot ways you can exert more control over day-to-day processes and visitor experiences.

The first example that comes to mind is social media. It’s easy to create an account on every platform and then plaster social icons all over your website. It’s harder to evaluate which channels make the most sense for your organization and your audience and start closing off channels.

I wonder if social media bloat contributes to those sleepy subject lines I see in so many museum newsletters — If the garden you’re tending includes half a dozen social media channels, it’s going to be harder to segment and prune your newsletter hedges. (May need to work on that analogy, Kyle.) The point is, organizations can easily find themselves trying to meet everyone where they are by being on every platform and wind up watering everything down.

So, the fear of excluding people may drive organizations to spread themselves too thin. That fear can also prevent them from communicating clear value propositions, which I’ve written about before — Visit most museum websites and you’ll find an animated list of events but no enduring expression of what makes the museum different from others of its kind.

My concern in letting readers choose how often they’d like to receive these emails is that it will lead to a worse experience for some readers and a weaker product overall. If I ran a museum, I’d be concerned that by not communicating a clear value proposition to first-time visitors, the museum would be missing the opportunity to provide a more compelling experience for the audience. It could wind up being seen as something more like a big, commercial movie theater that offers a list of shows and is interchangeable with every other movie theater in the country.

One more area where organizations may cede creative control is in research.

Research is a creative activity. At least, the research you do will color the creative decisions you make in the future. If an organization is only running satisfaction surveys and studying online reviews to try to figure out how to improve or better serve its audience, then it's running on rails (surveys) and ceding control to its audience (reviews). Surveys are the embodiment of the organizations’ assumptions and expectations, and reviews reflect how various aspects of your organization perform within the categorical expectations of the visitor — Is the café clean? Are employees in the gift shop friendly? Those are the sorts of questions people will base reviews on and any improvements you make based on that feedback will reinforce those categories — not break them or mold them into some new and unexpected experience.

This is tricky because research is arguably always audience-oriented. The distinction I’m making is between two kinds of research — We could think of these as Freelance Research vs. Consultative Research.

(Here’s where I start typing a little ahead of my own brain, so bear with me.)

If you’ve ever worked with a freelancer, they’ll often ask you what you want them to do and wait for instruction. A few weeks ago, I was giving some broad feedback to a graphic designer I was working with and describing the goals of a project … She asked me, “So, should I erase this?”

In a similar way, Freelance Research looks at online reviews or satisfaction surveys and asks, “So, should we clean the toilets more?”

These aren’t bad questions to ask — they need to be answered — but they can feel like they miss the larger point.

Consultative Research is audience-focused but not audience-driven. No one is going to write an online review that says, “Friendly staff, beautiful building, wish they had a mini-golf course that was open at midnight and catered to 20-somethings.” Consultative Research, which generates hypotheses based on ethnography, could lead you to those kinds of ideas, though.

This has been a rambling way of looking at the ways organizations may cede too much control to their audiences. I’ve learned this week that, for someone who is always trying to give users a more influential voice in decisions, I may have some autocratic tendencies.

Now, I’m going to not-meditate and think more about this idea of freelance research vs consultative research, which may just be a different way of describing quantitative and qualitative research. I’ll probably have clearer things to say about it next week.

Have a good weekend,


PS. “Autocratic Tendencies” is the name of my new band. Our debut album is called It’s Not Up for a Vote, and the songs will be released one day at a time for at least a few more weeks. 😏

Kyle Bowen