Pre COVID-19, only 11% of the High Museum’s visitors pre-purchased tickets online. That means that 89% of our visitors walked up to the museum and made what I call “a game-time decision.” Of course, visitation to the museum in any capacity is great; however, our walk-up model left data collection up to staff, whose priority is to get visitors into the museum with no friction. This usually meant data collection came second and was often logged into a phantom account that was not usable. The marketing team always had just enough data to be informed, but not enough to be completely accurate related to where visitors were coming from and being able to make that correlation with our marketing spend. Of course, there were other ways to get information on our visitors, but I wanted it directly from visitors themselves.
We knew data was powerful and had gotten a preview of just how intoxicating it could be. In 2018, when Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, the Hamilton of museum exhibitions, came to the High, every visitor was required to purchase their advanced ticket online. For four months, we had 100 percent data for the 144,000 visitors who attended that show. We knew how many people were scheduled to come on any given day. We knew how many people failed to show up. We knew that a ticket had been purchased from every state except South Dakota. There is no insight there, but it’s an interesting fact, and it illustrates the power of data. We also could do the following:
- Determine our marketing efforts were effective. The exhibition required tickets to be purchased three months in advance, a departure for museum-goers.
- Communicate in real-time with triggered “Know Before You Go” emails to every visitor 24 hours in advance of their visit. Many visitors were coming to the museum for the first time.
- Send surveys to learn more about their visit.
- Add new audiences to our database to send follow up communications about future events and programming.
- Gain affinity from new groups of supporters.
It was marketing bliss. Then in February 2019, after the exhibition ended, it all returned to normal.
Fast forward to March 2020, and like every other business in the city, the High had to close. Immediately, I started advocating for us to change the behavior of our audience because now there was a compelling reason to do so. While we were shuttered, we factored online ticketing into our reopening strategy. Requiring online ticketing would allow us to collect more data. It would also remove the walk-up model visitors were accustomed to.
Since reopening in July, we’ve been able to reconstitute the communications feedback loop that is necessary to serve our audiences and be smarter about our marketing spend. We certainly need these efficiencies now more than ever. Requiring advanced ticket purchases to be a part of our permanent operations model provides the following:
- We now know where all our visitors live. Nothing creepy, just good old-fashioned zip code data.
- We have real-time information about their visit from post-visit surveys. This allows us to make immediate adjustments or address concerns.
- We can staff the museum more efficiently and provide more support where needed.
- We can institute capacity controls to keep our visitors safe and socially distanced.
There are many things I would change about 2020, but the ability to collect clean data is not one of them. Data collection is the silver lining in this COVID environment for me, and that’s a bright spot I’m grateful for.
About the Author
Kristie Swink Benson, APR, is the director of communications at the High Museum of Art where she leads a team of ROCKSTARS who support all public relations, marketing, creative services database operations, and web/new media needs for the museum. She is dedicated to building an exceptional brand that is consistent with the High’s priorities of growth, inclusivity, collaboration and connectivity. Benson joined the High’s executive leadership team in 2017 and is fortunate to do work that merges her passion for art with her professional passion for communicating.