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Understanding Audiences with National Museums Liverpool

In my role as Tech Champion for the Digital Culture Network, I support many cultural and creative organisations with their audience data collection and evaluation. Organisations come in all shapes and sizes, and always have unique ambitions to realise and challenges to overcome. Soon after I began at the Digital Culture Network, I had a one-to-one support call with Wesley Thistlethwaite who was looking to bounce off some big ideas about his audience data with somebody.

I’d like to share a small piece of his story with you, and three big ideas about understanding audiences that link back to our journey together.

Introducing Wesley

Wesley Thistlethwaite is the Insights and Analysis Manager at National Museums Liverpool (NML), a collection of 7 museums and art galleries based in Liverpool. Wesley explains: “NML’s mission is to create memorable experiences, for everyone, challenging expectations.”

“My role is to help colleagues further understand users of the museums and galleries, using data and insight with the goal of creating a truthful picture. One of the biggest projects I’m currently working on is developing our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system Dynamics 365, with the aim of it being our single source of truth.”

Image of a person looking up and holding hands up at a data cloud

Journey with the Digital Culture Network

Wesley says: “I approached the Digital Culture Network and reached out to Jack, who covers Audience Data Collection and Evaluation, when I was getting creative and had a few ideas that I wanted sense checking and to generally soundboard.

I’ve found the Tech Champions really helpful in the past when solving specific problems, but I’d really encourage people to use them in a manner to generate new ideas and chat things out as well – it really is amazing we get such a useful resource for free!”

In talking through specific data challenges, applications and strategies, conversations can sometimes touch on some big concepts. What kinds of data (and therefore knowledge) really matter? And how do we best address the challenges and opportunities of data, truth and knowledge?

Wesley’s passion for data is obvious, and his philosophy and focus on impactful data and insight is infectious, so I got back in touch to ask him to share three big ideas about audience data with us.

Ideas generation: Creativity (and safety)

Wesley feels working with data allows him to be more creative when generating ideas and thinking about the future.

Having audience and operational data at your fingertips allows you to spot opportunities; things that are working well and could inform other areas, or things that aren’t working as well and need improvement.

Organisations can often be risk-averse; and it makes sense – why take a gamble with your programming, marketing or commercial strategy? With insights and learnings from your data in mind, Wesley says: “you should be free to try something new. But set up a robust and safe framework around it, so it can be measured in a way that limits risk.”

What does this look like in practice? Some of Wesley’s data suggests an opportunity to drive more retail and merchandise sales around temporary exhibitions. But it isn’t always possible to develop merchandise ranges, larger retail concessions or shops for every exhibition.

Informed and given confidence by their audience data, Wesley and his team are approaching the retail team to see if they would consider creative, small-scale experiments with merchandising, like pop-up and honesty box shop installations for small items within exhibition spaces: “Being able to create a safety net gives you more right to be creative in your organisation. You have thought things through. You can create an experiment which is measured and limits risk, even if the hypothesis seems really unusual. You can definitively say if it worked or not. Go wild!”

This approach really is the key to audience research: you’re not just measuring what you’ve done and who attended it out of interest – you’re doing it so that you can learn and adapt your work to best fit your audience. So, if you design your research carefully, the data you collect can support you to be more experimental and creative in your work.

Photograph of World Museum Liverpool

Photo credit: Pete Carr

Bringing ideas to fruition: Useful and focused

I spoke to Wesley about a few key areas of focus that are being explored, but not implemented yet. We discussed whether two different audience segmentation systems could be used in parallel for general visitors – a slightly unusual approach. We talked about whether it makes sense, how it would work with customer mailing lists and audience research, and where it would seem right to lean into the strengths of each system for marketing.

We also talked through ideas for an ambitious audience framework and segmentation system for teachers. Merseyside is one of the UK’s largest school systems, with an enormously diverse range of schools with different funding structures, resource levels and educational priorities – making it a huge opportunity for National Museums Liverpool’s Learning and Participation offering, but a complex ecosystem to support.

Tailoring NML’s messaging to teachers about its wide-ranging educational offer is therefore a key challenge, and we discussed how data profiles and segmentation for teachers could be captured, developed and used.

As we discussed these ideas, one aspect of Wesley’s approach that I felt resonates with the Digital Culture Network and with many of the organisations we support is the importance of making audience data useful.

Wesley says: “Half of the skill is being good at asking questions. It’s better to do a few things well, than a lot of things badly. So, the first question is: which one insight or question is imperative to your organisation? What is most useful?”

“Create a way of gathering the data you need to answer that question in a high-quality way, that you are confident gives you a truthful picture. Perfect your process to getting to the answer. Embed the findings in your organisation.”

There are so many questions you could ask, and so many bits of activity and data you could look at; but the key is often to be very focused. Part of the process I go through with organisations is looking at their overall situation, and the work that they do, and trying to distil what they really need into data or audience research with a smaller footprint – simple questions, shorter surveys – which are much easier to work with.

Putting insight into practice: Influence

Once you have your data, insight and ideas for moving forward, the next step is to influence the rest of your organisation.

Being able to build a wider culture of data literacy and see how your data and insight is or isn’t being used across your organisation is a key part of good practice. As Wesley puts it: “I hate to say this, but if your job is insights and no-one is listening, you might as well not be doing your job. Because all your hard work is going nowhere.” This is a challenging idea – and from my experience, it can be a common problem.

So how do we build influence within our organisation? Wesley feels: “Because insights can be stereotyped as a geeky, back-office role, we often miss how important it is to have interactional skills in this type of role. But we should take the idea of influence seriously.” You need to “be someone people want to go to” – building trust, being a good listener, and understanding the challenges others face in their roles. At the same time, being “confident enough to be assertive, as sometimes your findings can be challenging, and you will be challenged on them.”

Above all, it’s about knowing how to present ideas and data. Wesley says: “Decision makers often love the idea of a dashboard – but often never use it. You want your insights person or people to be storytellers. Telling someone an insight once in an engaging manner, is often better than glancing at it regularly on a dashboard.”

It might be surprising, but this is an invaluable piece of advice. People will often approach the Digital Culture Network for advice about a practical issue, or to help improve their surveying completion rates, processes and digital tools. So often I find that an important part of the solution is about working on organisational culture, and about better communication and shared understanding; just as much as it is about improving digital skills.

What Next?

You can chat with me directly about your audience data collection and your approach to research, surveys and evaluation with free, unlimited one-to-one support, resources and advice from the Digital Culture Network. It could be a one-off chat, or you can come back again as many times as you like. You can book in for a one-to-one call with me using our Ask a Tech Champion form.

The Digital Culture Network is here to support you and your organisation. Our Tech Champions can provide free 1-2-1 support to all creative and cultural organisations or individuals who are in receipt of, or eligible for, Arts Council England funding. If you need help or would like to chat with us about any of the advice we have covered above, please get in touch. Sign up to our newsletter below and follow us on X @ace_dcn for the latest updates.

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