Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

December 17, 2013

A useful approach to big data

John Klein

Big data — or the notion of it — is one of the more significant issues confronting today’s nonprofit leaders.  From large, international enterprises to single entrepreneurs, information about customer transactions, communications connections and purchase preferences exists from a broad array of sources. Some organizations have synthesized their data into meaningful insight that drives or transforms their business. Netflix, for example, gleaned so much value from its subscribers and their habits that it was willing to make an educated roll of the dice on producing original content — and changed the media landscape in the process.

However, Netflix is an exception, perhaps even a rarity: It employed technology, data and the strength of its convictions to leverage big data to its advantage. For nonprofits, technology complexity, the sheer size of the amount of data and the understandable reluctance of leaders to base their futures on this mix stops big data in its tracks. This is not a new occurrence — thousands of research reports and customer behavior overviews gather dust in office bookcases and have done so for decades. The tools behind big data just make the problem bigger.

Perhaps the time has come to apply a more useful and manageable version of big data and to focus these data and technology advances toward specific, fundamental questions nonprofit leaders ask themselves about the viability of their organizations. At face value, this might sound like a typical research project, but the value lies in the approach. The keys are:
  • •   Gaining access to a manageable base of customers and prospects 
  •    Utilizing analytical tools that reflect today’s level of technological sophistication and ease of use 
  •    Asking the right questions in a straight-forward manner based on standard research protocols 
  •    Assembling the results in an easy-to-understand format, focused on action — in other words, presenting insights that can be employed to refine and grow the organization
Why do people go to museums?

This might sound like an ethereal question for the ages, more philosophical than practical. But the arts in the 21st century are facing systemic challenges: competition, funding, even access (through technology). Leaders of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) addressed this issue during a seminar at the Aspen Institute last spring), where they asserted that “the model of the art museum has never been more challenged and in need of creative re-imagination.” In addition, these challenges have become more vexing since there are no current comprehensive best practices guidelines for this environment — and they recognize that potential solutions may be based on each museum’s unique market and audience.

Based on these challenges, I collaborated with an art museum to determine, based on their attitudes and motivations, why patrons and members visit. The research was based on the work of John Falk The Museum Experience, in which he suggests that visitors fall into five categories according to their motivations: curiosity, social interests, experience-seeking, art as a hobby and emotional recharging

To apply Falk’s hypothesis to the museum, we polled through e-mail more 1,300 respondents associated with the museum and the local community. These respondents were asked a series of 15 attitudinal questions about their habits and to rank their agreement on a 1–5 scale. In addition, they were also polled for demographic information and their participation in other performing and visual arts. The data was analyzed with Qualtrics, a leading U.S. online survey research firm.

The museum found that, beyond the art itself, that their patrons regarded a visit as a holistic immersion in an overall experience. Among the top responses, patrons felt the museum:
  •    Was valuable because “it is an important part of the community” 
  •    Was an integral part of their “overall interests in the arts” 
  •    Provided “an insider’s view of art” and the artist’s creative process
  •    Contributed to the social connectedness of friends and family
Why did this data matter to the museum? First, it validated many of the museum’s activities, including membership, educational initiatives and special events. Second, it gained specific direction to enhance offerings of value to its patrons and prospects. Third, it developed a framework to promote holistically its unique artistic experience, reflecting the demographics and the culture of the community. All these insights were new to the museum and would not have been available without the speed and depth of analysis provided by current data gathering and technology. But most importantly, the museum took the first step to re-visioning its role as an artistic entity and important element of the local community.

If a focused approach to big data can work for an art museum, it has possibilities in your organization as well.

John Klein is principal of Trilithon Partners, a marketing consultant firm for nonprofits.

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