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Blogs > Laurie McCabe

How Zoos and Museums Use Big Data to Refresh and Reset Visitor Experience
Laurie McCabe By: Laurie McCabe, Partner, SMB Group
Published: 12th July 2013
Copyright SMB Group © 2013

For most of us, a trip to the zoo, museum or an aquarium is a fun and interesting way to learn about animals, history, art and other cultural experiences first hand. Behind the scenes, however, these organizations must work hard to create the engaging, interactive experiences that today’s visitors want, and successfully market that experience to the public.

This is especially true today, when these typically not-for-profit venues must compete with an expanding array of theme and amusement parks, live and digital entertainment events and sports attractions. To remain viable and vibrant, zoos and museums must continually fine-tune their vision and exhibits to grow visitor traffic and membership. They need to be creative with concessions, and optimize use of their meeting rooms and cafes.

In this post, I discuss how Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and History Colorado Museum are using analytics and big data to better understand what visitors want and to deliver it.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium Refreshes Visitor Engagement and Conservation Initiatives
At the 100-year old Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) in the Pacific Northwest, Manager Donna Powell oversees all business, budget and visitor services. The 29-acre combined zoo and aquarium promotes and practices wildlife and ecosystem conservation initiatives, and attracts more than 600,000 visitors a year.

PDZA generates millions of data records daily on attendance, exhibit and event preferences and participation in conservation initiatives—but didn’t have a good way to pull information out of it. As Powell explained, “Staff generated a SQL sales report from our point-of-sale (POS) system each morning but it only gave us turnstile sales and didn’t include online and reseller sales. So staff had to pull this all together manually, which took days.”

“It also couldn’t tell us what customers do while they visit, or what they’re saying about us on social media” adds Powell. “We need to know things like, which exhibits visitors prefer, and what conservation initiatives they’re participating in, what they liked and what they didn’t like.”

Powell knew that PDZA needed to better understand visitor trends and feedback, but had concerns that an analytics solution might be too difficult and/or expensive for an 80-person organization with 2 IT staff to deploy and use. Then she attended a presentation from the Cincinnati Zoo, and learned about the analytics system that they had deployed. “They were using the same POS as we use. They introduced us to BrightStar Partners, an analytics solution provider that did their implementation that really understands zoos. The light bulb went on—if they could do it, so could we.”

PDZA went live with IBM Big Data Analytics in 2012. “Everyone immediately made the connection of how they could use this to help. We can strip things out, and see how things relate. Now we can pinpoint how different weather patterns will affect attendance and exhibits, and change scheduling as required. We can also use it for marketing. For example, after analyzing sales data and open rates, we sent a promotion to members whose membership was about expire and offered them a discount if they renewed before the end of the day. We had a 6% buy in on that campaign compared to the typical mail renewal rate of 3%.”

Other benefits Powell points to include:

  • A 700% rise in online ticket sales over the past year, with an expectation that online sales will go up another 25% by the end of this year.
  • The membership team can pull the data they need in minutes instead of waiting days for IT to extract data from the POS system to create a mailing list for campaigns.
  • PDZA also uses social media and analytics to more effectively engage millennial visitors in its conservation initiatives.

Zoo employees now use iPads to access financial, attendance, membership and retail information so they can make decisions anywhere anytime. Looking ahead, PDZA plans to introduce a mobile ticketing solution. In the future, visitors will be able to “check in” at different areas within the zoo, providing zoo managers with more data to better understand which exhibits are most popular and how much time visitors spend at them.

History Colorado Center Resets To Attract a New Target Audience
History Colorado Center
likes to think of itself as a brand new 134 year-old museum. Founded in 1879, the museum had shared the same block with Colorado’s State Justice Center for more than 40 years. “The location wasn’t ideal, and the museum wasn’t as interactive or engaging as we would have liked,” as COO Kathryn Hill explained. “Most of our visitors were senior citizens and children on obligatory school field trips.”

In 2008, History Colorado had the opportunity to build a new, state-of-the art museum—and to bring Colorado’s history alive through storytelling and interpretative exhibits. According to Hill, “We wanted to understand how we could bring history alive, attract more families, and best sustain our mission over time.”

In conjunction with planning and construction of the new building, History Colorado conducted extensive audience research to test design ideas and stories. During this process, Hill “stumbled on the story of how the Cincinnati Zoo was using analytics to drill down into all aspects of visitor behavior so they could continually improve the visitor experience.”

“As a non-profit, we don’t have a lot of money for marketing, so we needed to find a strategic way to keep a close pulse on how we can best engage families. We hadn’t budgeted for analytics, but once we learned about IBM’s BIg Data Analytics, it was a no-brainer for us,” according to Hill.

In collaboration with IBM Business partner BrightStar, History Colorado deployed IBM Big Data analytics simultaneously with their new POS system. “I’m not a tech person, but I can go in and look at admissions, programs, merchandise, food, and membership data in real-time,” notes Hill. “We have a single view of the data, and can see patterns now, such as when retail sales peak and what exhibits attract the most traffic.” This helps the Center’s 125 employees fine-tune exhibit and marketing strategies.

The museum is also developing more personalized experiences for its visitors by analyzing social media commentary, and expects that this will boost engagement and repeat visits.

“We have a unique mission to help visitors understand the present in the context of the past so Coloradans are better informed in making decisions for the future,” explains Hill. “To make this happen, we need to bring people in and provide a compelling experience. Analytics helps us do this.”

Perspective
Chances are that your organization isn’t a zoo or museum. But these stories underscore the fact that big data analytics solutions are within reach for organizations of all shapes and sizes.

However, these experiences also reveal some important pointers for getting successful outcomes from an analytics investment that other SMBs should keep in mind. First and foremost, PDZA and History Colorado had clearly articulated what information they needed, and how they would use it. In addition, both organizations:

  • Selected a solution designed for SMB requirements and for limited IT and budgets.
  • Worked with a partner that had experience in their industry, and could tailor the solution to best meet their specific needs.
  • Had input and guidance from organizations with similar requirements.

Whether you need to know more about visitors or customers, exhibits or products, with a clear vision, solid planning, big data analytics can provide the insights your organization needs to thrive in an increasingly complex and competitive world.

This is a fourth, additional post in the blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. You can find the first three posts at these links:

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