When New York’s hottest club is your museum

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During my conversation last week with Dr. Ari Zelmanow, one thing that kept coming up with the idea that museums could benefit from Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) interviews. (ICYMI, see yesterday’s letter for more on my chat with Ari.)

In a JTBD interview, you’re trying to understand the “job” that an individual is “hiring” your organization to complete, as well as what leads people to “fire” your organization at other times. The line of inquiry is contextual — you’re not examining the individual’s relationship to the organization directly. You’re trying to understand the value of an experience within the context of the individual’s life.

Example: A young man visits your museums often by himself because he loves drawing from the objects in the collection. But the last time he visited he was on a first date. On that day, he hired the museum to explore a potential new relationship and maybe to help show himself in a flattering light.

The person is exactly the same in both scenarios in terms of age, race, income and so forth. If you were trying to cater to him based on demographics, you might miss the opportunity to find ways to serve both scenarios — a missed opportunity.

I haven’t heard many people who talk about audience research for museums terms of JTBD, though I admit I’m working from a small sample. Beyond the interviews I’ve conducted, I’ve done some hunting online and haven’t found much about this kind of qualitative research for museums there either.

One exception was an article by Ron Halverson, 5 Ways Museums Can Grow Earned Income—Besides Opening a Hot, New Restaurant (emphasis added):

… one thing we have heard in various conversations with leaders at cultural organizations is that it is often difficult for them to know which ideas are smart investments …

Focus on people’s lives, not your offerings or needs. To grow, it behooves institutions to think more like innovators developing a user-focused product. It’s not about ‘we need more younger audiences’ or ‘we need to sell out our season’; it’s more about ‘how can we help people make progress in their lives?’ People ‘hire’ leisure activities for the jobs in their lives, from having pure fun to slowing down; it is critical to align around a plan for getting hired more often for the jobs in people’s lives. Plans should be less about what we as an institution are trying to accomplish and more about what people are trying to accomplish—their underlying motives for seeking leisure and entertainment activities to make progress in their lives.’

I imagine the idea of trying to find new ways to make the museum a dating destination might horrify some museum curators and educators. I admit that I winced a little bit when I read that the Halverson Group’s research led the Indianapolis Museum of Art to open a mini-golf course.

I suppose every mission-driven organization has to find its own balance between the commercial interests that help ensure viability and its core values and ideals.

If you have thoughts on where you draw that line, and the degree to which you believe audience research should influence that decision, I’d love to hear them.

Thanks for reading,


Kyle Bowen