Bang for the Interpretive Buck

What happens when you have more ideas than you can handle?

I just completed a really productive ideation (brainstorming) session with a client. It’s for a new major exhibit we’re planning. It was a ton of fun—we opened the workshop with a presentation of all the different kinds of interpretive media that could possibly go into a centre, just to show them what was possible, and that exercise seemed to pay off—they really got creative. We now have an impressive list of potential interpretive media, each fleshed out with a paragraph of visitor narrative (“Visitors encounter a topographical map with buttons and lights that show the flow of water on the watershed…”) .

And now we have way more ideas than we have the resources to execute. What comes next?

Evaluation and triage, of course. First we can look at each potential product (exhibit, program, digital interactive, map, etc) and match it to the theme it will communicate—and then evaluate which themes are served most abundantly, and which are still under-represented.

We can tag each experience with the physical zone in which it will be found, and then have a look at which zones are crowded and which still need some things to see and do.

For all of the above I use a database—I realize I have harped on this before but trust me, a Word matrix isn’t going to be helpful for this kind of analysis. Get yourself a content database. I use Airtable but any relational database will do.

Anyway. Today I want to talk about another way of evaluating a potential VE product: bang for the buck. What do I mean by bang? I mean, how much impact will it have on the visitor, and how well will it tell your story and advance your mission? Read on.

Rating the Bang: Potential for Memorability

Take a good critical look at each product description. How likely are your visitors to remember the experience after the fact? How likely is it to have a lasting impact on them? It’s hard to know for sure, of course, but we do have some guidance on what makes for memorable visitor experience.

  • Will this product allow them to tick off a box and fulfil part of their agenda for their trip? Is it the kind of things that will be on their to-do list when the arrive?
  • Does it offer some kind of element of the unexpected? Will it surprise and delight them?
  • Is there a challenge of some kind involved?
  • Does the product appeal to the emotions in some way?
  • Will there be something in the days or weeks to follow the experience—a tangible or intangible reminder—to keep that memory alive?

Rate the product’s potential memorability Low, Medium, or High (a 1-3 scale). If that is too broad, rate on a five scale. But don’t overcomplicate things. You don’t actually know that much about the product at this point, right? If you need a rubric (and rubrics always help to keep you consistent), try something like: Low=visitor unlikely to recall the experience unprompted; High=visitor likely to recall it as a highlight without prompting days or weeks after the fact.

Next: Story/Mission Potential

There’s more to an interpretive product than memorability for its own sake. To what extent will this experience connect people to your story? Is it deeply associated with your content, your essence of place? Are the actions the visitor is going to be doing (reading, playing, eating, whatever) closely tied to the elements of your place’s story? Linked so closely that they can’t do the action without learning about the story?

An example: suppose someone suggested you offer Zorb balling or zip lining at your site. It might have a high potential for memorability, for sure. But does it communicate your story? Is it linked to your essence of place? Will visitors associate that memory with your content? Just how interpretive is that Zorb balling? (And I’m not saying these kinds of recreational products can’t be interpretive—I can tell you for a fact that if you put three good interpreters in a room and task them with turning Zorb balling into interpretive Zorb balling, they will do it and it will rock.) But seriously—this potential experience as described: how much story/essence value does it have? Rate it on a three scale or a five scale, just like the previous one.

Rating the Bucks

Early on in the ideation process, you probably won’t be doing a detailed cost estimate per product—normally you do some triage and decision making before you get into cost estimating. But you can start with some ballpark ratings.

And here’s the important thing: don’t just estimate cost per product. Estimate cost per product per visitor. This is huge. I hear interpretive managers proclaim all the time that interpretive programming is inexpensive. i am here to tell you it is generally not—particularly when staff spend weeks developing a program, offer it to 24 people, and then put it on the shelf indefinitely while they develop another program. Programming is mad expensive unless you have the volume of participants over time to really get your money’s worth on the development costs. The great thing about programming is not its cost, it’s the impact—programming is high on the bang while being relatively high on the bucks too. Evaluate it accordingly.

Now, an interpretive panel, if it is attractively designed and placed in a busy spot, is a cheap investment. It may cost you $5k to develop, but it will sit there proclaiming your message for 20 years to come. Mind you, even a great sign tends to be lower on the ‘bang’ side; it’s pretty rare to have a sign spontaneously pop up in visitors’ recollections after the fact. Medium bang, low bucks.

Digital interactives are tricky. A half-decent app or a custom interactive for your visitor centre will probably start at $40k. (Yes.) How many people are going to engage with it? How many will spend time actually doing the thing rather than just mindlessly hitting the buttons? How are you going to get the bang for the bucks-per-visitor there? Digital interactive can be high-bang and low-bucks if they’re well designed and if they attract a lot of visitors over time—perhaps if they are placed in multiple visitor centres or on your website. But an uninspired and unexciting digital game, tucked away in the corner of your visitor centre? Low bang, high bucks. Think twice before going down that road.

Now: Bang Divided by Buck

From here on it’s just arithmetic. Multiply your first two—memorability x story potential—and divide the result by the rating for the cost per visitor contacted.

For example:

  • Sustainable seafood tasting
    • Potential memorability 5; thematic value 4; cost per contact 5 (unless you’re doing cost recovery). (5×4)/5=4. Four is your bang for the buck rating.
  • Interpretive Sign
    • Memorability: 2; theme value: 5; cost per contact: 2. Result: 5. Five bangs per buck.
  • Digital interactive
    • Memorability: 2; Theme value: 4; Cost per contact: 3. Result: 2.7 bangs per buck.

Try this activity for all of your potential products, and then order them from highest bang/buck to lowest.

Note that you’re free to manipulate the formula and weight each of these factors according to your own priorities and values. Memorability might be much more important to you than mission value; cost per visitor may not be a huge deal if you have big budgets. Reduce the weight of one factor, increase the weight of another factor; it’s up to you. Just be consistent about it (and make sure you’re reflecting the values of the decision makers.)

Yes, it’s a bit of a crude exercise. Yes, it’s quite frustrating sometimes, because you feel like you’re putting apples against oranges with all the different product types

But it will get you, your manager, and your leaders thinking about what you want from your VE products, and what your potential return on investment might be—using indicators that actually factor in interpretive values.

Let me know how this exercise works for you.

Get monthly (ish) updates via email from Don Enright. I write about interpretation and visitor experience. I never sell or share my lists.

One Comment

  1. Mike Mayer

    Hey Don — This post was a good reminder that we have to find ways to balance ideas, money and effectiveness. John Veverka has developed an excellent dollars and sq. fooaget and effectiveness formula that is very nuts and bolts. I can send to you if interested or your readers can contact John.
    About those digital devices — It is not only about are they effective and do they work, but are they helping to reinforce the mission and engage the head, heart, and hands of the visitor. Just back from a visit from a zoo and those who wanted to interact with buttons wanted a sound, a light or a big surprise (ha) and quickly moved on without getting the meaning behind the device. These are very tricky installations in a place where “movement” is the key — of the people and the animals.
    Thanks again for your posts…Mike Mayer

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