5 Things About My Audience: John Stack - Science Museum Group

What we know and don’t know about our audience’s attention

Hello there!

We hope many of you enjoyed last week’s interview with Matt Carlstrom. We’re finding this way of learning about different audiences rather fascinating ourselves! Audience types and engagement approaches are not something people typically discuss, so by getting these thoughts out in the open we hope to kick-start a conversation about what it means to attract different people’s attention, and how we as clients and agencies need to adapt to the changing times to keep them interested.

Welcome back to 5 Things About My Audience, a series where we interview people who are trying to reach different kinds of audiences to understand how they approach audience engagement, and how that’s been changing over the years.

This week we have John Stack, Digital Director at the Science Museum Group. We’ve known John for a while and always like the things he has to say, and today you get an insight into his thinking too. Over to John.

I am Digital Director of the Science Museum Group. The Science Museum Group encompasses five museums: Science Museum, London; National Science and Media Museum, Bradford; National Railway Museum, York; Science and Industry Museum, Manchester; and Locomotion, Shildon.

1. Who is your audience? Tell us a few things you know about them. 

Our digital audiences roughly divide into two broad areas: (a) those planning a visit to one of the museums; and (b) those accessing our content remotely via digital channels. Of this second group, there are three main sub-groups: (i) audiences motivated by an enquiry into a STEM topic related to the museums’ subject domains, (ii) teachers accessing learning resources for use in the classroom, and (iii) those accessing research and scholarly material. It is worth noting that some of those accessing digital content have a high level of subject knowledge and although they are not academics, they behave closer to the scholarly audience. For example, elements of the National Railway Museum’s audience behave in this way.

We have a set of audience segments based on the MHM culture segments but with an “attitude to science” science twist added in. These are market segments, and we incorporate a set of “golden questions” to place audiences into these segments when we do surveys (including online surveys). They are solid for many uses, but we augment them further with functional user-needs analysis when doing formative audience research for digital content (e.g. teachers or researchers). These segments are widely shared in the organisation.

2. What research or tools do you have that back up your understanding of them?

We make extensive use of Google Analytics, YouTube Studio analytics, customer relationship management (CRM) tools and social media analytics to measure the reach of our digital outputs. In the generation of content, we also make use of search analysis tools (e.g. Moz) to shape the commissioning of our editorial outputs.

We carry out a (roughly) annual web user survey to gather qualitative information, as well as focused surveys of users as we enhance or redevelop websites to better understand particular audience groups (e.g. teachers or families). In some cases, these more detailed surveys include follow-up telephone interviews and focus groups.

We share these insights on our intranet in an audience insight hub and have plans to extend this with further pages on the digital section of our intranet. To help non-digital colleagues understand audience data, we do have to add notes so that colleagues know what these numbers actually are (e.g. what constitutes a web visit? – people do still occasionally say “web hits”, which takes me back about twenty years). These are added as notes to the various slides and charts, along with the data source(s).

3. Have you noticed any interesting behaviour changes in your audiences over the last 2 to 3 years?

Over the past few years, a number of our digital content formats have grown strongly, notably, online stories (our collection-centred online article format), digitised collections, learning resources and video content. These grew during the pandemic and have continued to grow as we have invested in content development.  

We have also seen a shift in content platforms to algorithmic content recommendation, which we are aware that we need to better understand and respond to, as this is likely to require a somewhat different approach from search engine optimisation (SEO) which we have adopted over the last decade.

When we think of the changes in audience behaviour and platform (algorithm) behaviour, the most important in the next few years will be the changes in audience content discovery and consumption (as noted by you in a recent newsletter. I am reading Traffic – thanks for the recommendation!). I think we’ll continue to get better at working on content strategy and editorial treatments/angles, but we’ll definitely need to get better at understanding and responding to the context in which this content is discovered and consumed.

4. What’s the one thing you would really like to know about your audience that you don’t know?

Whereas we have large volumes of quantitative analytics and some qualitative data, it is harder to measure the impact of our digital content. We use a number of “vapour trails” for impact and engagement such as web page scroll depth, video percentage viewed, etc. It would, however, be good to develop a more robust set of metrics around impact to inform our content strategy. It would be desirable to also have industry/sector benchmarks for these.

We are also aware that in some instances we are missing full reach metrics. For example, a download of a classroom learning resource likely has much higher reach than we are counting, as a teacher may use that resource with a class of 30+ school pupils and potentially for multiple academic years; or a single app download might represent a user engaging heavily with the app or not.

For the future, I can foresee a management-consultant-style four-quadrant chart that would allow us to review reach vs impact – perhaps with the third dimension of resource inputs. This would mean that at a high-level we could deploy our resources better and evaluate our digital content outputs better. I would hope it would start and feed into an ongoing conversation around what we should be doing. The tricky one is that for different formats and channels the impacts might be measured differently (e.g. video play percentage vs. web page scroll depth vs. download of something needing a survey to understand subsequent usage).

5. Is there a project that you’re really jealous of, that you wished you’d done at the Science Museum Group?

Although it is an old one, I really liked the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app(s). It was somewhat limited by the technology of the time, so one could doubtless execute it better today, but I thought it was a great way to engage audiences with the collection beyond the walls – and it got great PR. Sadly, the apps are now decommissioned.

Thank you, John! We’ve loved hearing your insights about the Science Museum Group audience.

Do you know someone who might be a good interviewee for this series? Let us know in the comments - and also tell us what you think of this format!

If you liked this, have a look at our other newsletters , which breaks down successful content formats, and the , a beautifully curated set of links on creativity.

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