Leveraging Business and Analytics for Successful Audience Engagement: Interview with Musical Instrument Museum

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We recently visited museums in Arizona, including the incredible Musical Instrument Museum.  While there, we were amazed to see how the museum has used tactics from the business world to very quickly become the TripAdvisor Top 1 Museum in Arizona and among the Top 20 museums in the United States.  We also learned that their membership program has already garnered over 1,000 signups — all because their community perceives them to be of great value.

We asked Brian Dredla, Director of Education and Public Programs at Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), to talk with us about their huge success.  His insights shed light on how museums can use business world practices, a continuous improvement focus, and data analytics to increase their museum’s ratings and become accessible, engaging experiences for a wide range of visitors.

Musical Instrument Museum sign

MH: One of the most interesting things we found was that a lot of your staff utilize tactics from the business world, such as Dashboards and an obsession with the guest experience. How and why has that happened?

Brian:  MIM was created by people who genuinely want the guest experience to be exceptional.  We look at nearly everything we do through the lens of a guest.  Our dashboards allow us to see things such as the number of guests who visit a certain display or the length of time the average guest spends in our galleries.  We even monitor the attendance at a certain hour compared to the same hour on the same day a year ago.  This information allows us to understand guest patterns and behaviors and enables us to make improvements to offer an even more enjoyable experience.

MH: How did you become Director of Education and Public Programs?

Brian:  I initially became involved with MIM because of my background in music (degrees in music performance and experience as an orchestral musician), not in museum administration.  I had enjoyed visiting museums earlier in my life, but I never saw museum work as a career option before 2008, when I was hired as MIM’s first curatorial assistant.  I worked with a team of curators as they built our collection and developed the content for hundreds of displays in our galleries.  After we opened in 2010, I had the opportunity to be involved in a lot of different projects, including launching MIM’s student internship program.  I worked with different departments and started managing team members with a variety of responsibilities and job functions.  I became manager of collections in 2014, and then stepped into my current role in late 2015.

Child listening to Ivory Coast museum at Musical Instruments Museum
MIM’s audio guides do not use spoken words — only music. Here, a young guest listens to music from the Ivory Coast.

MH: You’ve achieved Six Sigma Green Belt and the MIM uses continuous improvement processes. Can you give us an example of how that has helped in your success?

Brian:  Six Sigma is a process-improvement methodology designed to help eliminate defects in a process. A formal Six Sigma project will travel through five distinct phases: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve/Innovate, and Control (DMAIIC). We recently applied this formal methodology to a project designed to reduce defects (defined in our case as factors preventing growth) in our school tour program. We took an incredibly deep dive into the program to better understand our tour audience, seasonal attendance trends, communications strategies, etc. We went through a systematic root-cause analysis to identify factors contributing to a lack of tour growth and ultimately identified a special event, a “Preview Day” offered to educators each summer, as something that could have far greater impact if modified and improved. We optimized this summer event and collected attendance data for six months after it took place. The findings? A statistically significant increase in the number of tour bookings relative to the previous year!

The school tour project was the first large-scale DMAIIC project completed at MIM. But even without a big, in-depth undertaking such as this, it is still possible to use various Six Sigma tools for smaller tasks. Process maps, for example, are very useful to help team members understand their role in a larger process. As the name implies, a process map is a graphical representation of the various people involved in a process and the complexity or simplicity of getting from point A to point B. We have used process maps many times to help identify bottlenecks or opportunities for efficiencies in any number of departmental processes.

MH: What tools and tactics have been integral to MIM’s success?

Brian: I think one of the most successful things we have done to monitor and improve the guest experience is to launch a Brand Ambassador (BA) program at MIM. Every full-time team member signs up for several BA shifts during a year. They come to MIM on a weekend day (or attend a selected theater concert during the week) and experience the museum as a guest. It’s a pretty dramatic experience to leave your desk and spend a day engaging with our exhibits, attending special classes, eating in our café, etc. During a BA shift, the team member also introduces himself/herself to guests and volunteer team members and interacts with them in ways that may not be possible during the workweek. The report created by each BA after his/her shift is reviewed regularly by leadership and a list of action items is created. The program has led to some significant improvements at MIM and also enhances the team environment.

Nick & Dustin with Musical Instruments Museum staff.
Nick & Dustin with Musical Instruments Museum staff, including Brian Dredla (left).

MH: Why is it vital for museums to integrate business perspectives into their operations?

Brian: Museums are businesses, even if they operate differently from for-profit corporations. I think there are many benefits to considering tools and perspectives from the business world and creatively adapting those to our industry. It might be hard to see how process-improvement methodology like Six Sigma and concepts with roots in manufacturing can apply to the nonprofit world. But is a company trying to reduce the number of defective items coming off an assembly line really attempting something fundamentally different than a museum striving to reduce the number of guest complaints or comments of dissatisfaction? Is trying to streamline a complicated shipping process that different from trying to streamline an admission ticket process? You get the idea. Everything isn’t a perfect fit, but there are ways to adjust and adapt.

Business practices may also require an organization to gather and analyze data in new ways. What I find really exciting is when hard data is found to support the qualitative or anecdotal data that we may be more used to gathering. For example, it’s great to feel that a weekend program is a qualitative success, but when you couple that with a study of incremental attendance and are able to calculate a favorable cost-per-incremental-guest metric, you get an even better success story. Having this sort of data can be really beneficial when seeking grants and sponsorships because it can show potential funders that their contributions are going toward, in this case, a program that truly benefits the organization and helps it achieve its mission.

MH: Discussions on providing engaging “guest experiences” in museums abound today.  How has bringing in skills and tools from outside the profession — like business tactics — contributed to the MIM becoming a premier guest experience?

Brian:  The business tactics have simply provided us additional tools to monitor and improve. In the grand scheme of things, we are still a very young organization and these tactics have allowed us to measure and improve and, hopefully, build a stronger organization and a more exceptional guest experience.

MH: Your volunteers aren’t called “docents” but, rather, they are “museum guides.”  Why change the name?  How has a focus on your staff as professionals — even when they are volunteers — contributed to your success?

Brian:  If you have the chance to visit MIM, you will notice that our displays are designed with the general public in mind. We certainly want musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and scholars to enjoy the content that we present, but the vast majority of our guests do not have this level of expertise about music or musical instruments. To some, the word “docent” connotes something academic and instructional; we opted for a term that more accurately describes the role of those who lead tours at MIM. They don’t lecture or talk in great detail about complicated topics, but rather guide guests and offer contextual information as the guests experience the galleries. So the term “museum guide” seemed a better fit.

Almost everything we do at MIM is really a team effort. Our volunteers contribute to the work and mission of MIM in such a meaningful way that we call them “volunteer team members” since we really are all part of the same larger team.

Dashboard showing data on MIM’s customer experience.
Dashboard showing data on MIM’s customer experience.

MH: What kind of metrics are vital to understanding how guests experience the museum?

Brian:  That’s a big question and one that each institution will have to define for itself. For us at MIM, especially as we are still growing and entering our seventh year of operations, we like to do a lot of tracking related to attendance, incremental attendance when offering a special program, time spent in galleries, etc. We’re very lucky that our Sennheiser guidePORT system tracks data about the number of guests and time spent at each display. This has been really informative and helpful as we have improved and updated audiovisual content in our displays over the years.

We also place a lot of importance on one particular outside measure: our TripAdvisor rating. Because we are so guest-focused, we take a lot of pride in being the #1 attraction in Phoenix on TripAdvisor. We’re also ranked in the top 20 of museums across the country. Maintaining those high rankings and creating an experience that warrants a five-star rating are major institutional goals for us.

MH: Some in the museum world worry that a focus on analytics will lead to a loss of perspective.  How do you ensure that data contributes to – rather than detracts from – your mission?

Brian:  Data is all around us on a daily basis. You can choose to take a look at that data and see what information and insights it offers, or you can choose to focus energies elsewhere. I personally feel that if data is available that can help inform or support conclusions and direct efforts toward meaningful projects, then that serves the mission of an organization. I don’t feel MIM is focusing on data to the detriment of other perspectives at all. It just adds a layer of understanding that has proven beneficial thus far. I suspect many institutions would jump at the chance to learn and apply some of the tools and techniques we use here, if training and resources were readily available.

MH: What do you imagine is the future of museums, and how can we achieve that vision?

Brian:  Museums are dynamic organizations. Sure, some evolve more quickly than others, but change is inevitable. The future of museums is one of embracing change and being open to new and different ways of thinking and working. I am not suggesting that organizations need to drop everything and incorporate the latest fad of the moment, but it is important to always be listening to guests and trying to reconcile their needs and wants with the mission of the organization. Museum Hack is an excellent example of an organization that reinvents certain aspects of museum life to address guest requirements. Technology, specifically interactive technology, is another area that will play an increasing role in the future. I don’t think there is any one specific path to lead museums into the future; what will work for one organization in a particular environment (geographic, economic, etc.) may not apply under other circumstances. But I do believe that all museums and cultural organizations should periodically step into the shoes of their guests and validate that expectations are being met. It is a perfect opportunity to change, improve, and create a stronger organization for the future.

Thank you to Brian Dredla from the Musical Instrument Museum for talking with us and sharing fresh new ideas and insights.

Do you work for a museum? Do you have a program that is successfully engaging new audiences? We’d love to hear about it! Send us a quick email at [email protected] or read more about our workshops, presentations, and museum consulting work.

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