Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Introducing Loyalty Lab

A woman walks into your museum. She's visited a few times before, and you vaguely recognize her as the lady who loved bubble painting, thought the bike sculpture was funny and didn't like the video installation. Last time she had a kid with her, and he got chalk all over his hands from the mosaic activity they did with a volunteer. They wrote a comment about their experience that got turned into a bird by other visitors in the public sculpture hanging in the middle of the museum. You remember seeing them stand in front of the magic mirror in the history gallery, laughing as they made themselves into giants in the glass.

In the admission log today, she is registered as a tick mark under the column marked "General." That's it. No information about who she is, why she's here, what she's looking for, and what she gets out of her connection to the museum. No memory of her relationship with us.

Our museum has a big challenge when it comes to tracking and rewarding participation. Like a lot of small museums, at the MAH staff and community members build relationships on a daily basis. Staff members invite visitors to help write exhibit labels, create art installations, and give opinions on upcoming programs. Visitors become volunteers and take the lead on new projects and activities. Visitors tell staff members and volunteers again and again how their lives are changing because of their involvement with the museum.

This is wonderful and maddening at the same time. It is wonderful to see the uptick in membership and donations and the positive energy from people who come in the door. It is maddening to have no way to track or intentionally encourage these relationships to grow. Like many small museums, the MAH cannot afford expensive ticketing or membership software systems. We have email newsletters and memberships and conversations, but none of those things talk to each other. Our computers are amnesiacs when it comes to participation. We have very high ability to form relationships with visitors, but very low ability to capitalize on those interactions.

With the support of the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, we're starting a new project called Loyalty Lab to change that. In the Loyalty Lab, we will develop a series of low-tech, low-cost strategies and systems for small institutions to track, celebrate, and act on personal interactions with visitors. I'm not talking about RFID chips for every visitor or a Nike+ system to track their every move. I'm talking about human-scale, simple, delightful ways to acknowledge people's involvement and encourage them to go deeper. It could be loyalty cards. It could be charm bracelets. It could be free hugs. We want to be as creative as possible in exploring the options.

Our goals are to:

  • Measure and increase membership acquisition and renewal 
  • Measure and encourage repeat visitation 
  • Increase participant perception of the MAH as a friendly place with high community value

And we want to do it with you, too. We've created a little blog that we will use to track our project openly. It's starting with a workshop tomorrow with Adaptive Path, an experience design firm that focuses on mapping "customer journeys" and developing tools that enable users to more enjoyably and successfully navigate the offerings of the business or organization. In museum terms, that means understanding how visitors hear about us, why they come, what they do when they are here, and what happens after they leave. It means finding the points along the way where we lose people, and the opportunities for us to track and celebrate people's deepening involvement. You can learn more about this process from an Adaptive Path slideshow here.

This is a year-long project for us at the MAH. We'll go from research to prototyping to final design from now until early summer of 2013. We'd love to have you join us as contributors to the Loyalty Lab blog or just follow along and comment on our progress. We've already heard from one museum--the Boston Children's Museum--where they are experimenting with a "V.I.F." program (Very Important Family) to reward repeat family engagement. I know there are other organizations--museums and beyond--playing with innovative approaches to membership, pricing, and tracking to support and encourage deeper relationships. The goal here is for all of us to learn and experiment together.

How do you think about loyalty and relationship-building in your organization?

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