Understanding your audiences – Narrow Guage Railway Museum

Audience analysis doesn’t have to be expensive or overly complex. We spoke to Malcolm Phillips, Collections Manager at the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum about how they went about improving their understanding of their visitors.

The Narrow Gauge Railway Museum collection began in the 1950s when the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society (TRPS) was formed to take over and operate the Talyllyn Railway. A small independent museum with lots of family visitors, many of whom are looking to be kept amused whilst waiting for the Tywyn Wharf railway ride.

With 45,000 visitors per year to the railway, and about a third of these coming through to the museum, visitor numbers are significant and, according to Malcolm, understanding their needs is critical to the work of the museum.

“In the past have had a visitor book, but most of the feedback was about the railway rather than the museum. So, we needed a different way of doing things. We set up a visitor survey for use on site via the web, visitors could either fill this in a dedicated machine in the museum or online – we printed up business cards with the URL which our attendants handed out, so they could complete at home, rating our activities, telling us a little bit about them – the disability feedback in particular has been very helpful, we’ve had an indication of what languages (as well as Welsh) our visitors would welcome.”

Malcolm calculates that around 1% of visitors complete the survey and once a year he gathers all the information from this survey, from the visitor book and presents the findings at the trustees meeting.

“We’ve been running the survey for three years and, alongside the mystery shopping we get from Visit Wales, we take the feedback seriously. We’ve refined the questions each year and the free text feedback is particularly useful; if its practical we act. For example, we’ve seen demand for more hands-on activities, so we applied to NLHF to support the development of interactive displays. We use the feedback to inform MALD feedback and it has informed funding bids, we can demonstrate to our funders that we’re doing what our visitors want.”

Malcolm’s Recommendations: Start the small way and don’t be afraid to change if its not working for you – at first, we weren’t getting much use out of the survey as people didn’t understand the questions! So we refined. Our survey is short and only takes a couple of minutes to complete – don’t expect people to fill in a 5 pager.