By Todd Cohen
ASHEBORO, N.C. — During a visit to a North Carolina museum as part of a series of professional-development seminars that are focusing on museum marketing, Jayne Owen Parker of the North Carolina Zoo Society opted to observe visitor traffic at an elaborate globe of the Earth.
What she discovered, she says, was a simple lesson that opened her eyes to the challenge museums face in marketing themselves.
While the globe was huge and centrally located and featured highly-detailed information such as the location of tectonic plates, she says, visitors were walking right past it without even noticing it.
“We make a mistake as museum people by trying to be too subtle about what we’re trying to teach people,” says Parker, director of conservation education at the Zoo Society, the fundraising arm of the North Carolina Zoo. “We need to make things clearer to them and not assume they come with the same background we do.”
To help bridge the gap between the programming museum officials want to offer and the programming that visitors actually want, she says, 14 museums throughout the state have teamed up to better educate themselves about marketing, branding, evaluation and market research.
That effort has included a series of two-day seminars, like the one at which Parker saw the globe, that have been presented by officials from the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The seminars, funded by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Alcoa Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, have been held at Discovery Place in Charlotte, the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
Topics have included how to interview visitors; evaluate interviews; analyze and present data; build a brand; and measure program impact on visitors.
The results of visitor surveys and interviews that participants have conducted at their own institutions will be analyzed at the final seminar, to be held May 3 and 4 at the Nature Science Center of Greensboro.
As part of the initiative, the participating museums also have developed an online community they can use to share information and ask questions of one another.
And Parker says she and Ellen Greer, curator of design at the Zoo, now plan to observe each other conducting interviews with visitors, and to conduct more research and look for ways the Zoo and the Zoo Society can work more closely with one another.
As part of its effort to raise money for the Zoo, the Zoo Society traditionally has developed programming for the society’s 25,000 members.
Parker says the marketing initiative has helped participating museum officials better understand the need to conduct market research before designing educational programs and exhibits.
“We are really not good at predicting what will attract people and what won’t attract people,” she says. “We need to understand very clearly what we’re trying to teach, and understand what people have in their heads when they walk in the door.”