A Flipchart Survey

IMG_0702This very simple survey method at a special event caught my eye last year at the Larimer County Farmers’ Market in Fort Collins, Colorado, where we live. When I managed a nature center for thirteen years in Pueblo, special events were the lifeblood of our fundraising and they attracted thousands of people to our site. This kind of survey method would have been a great way to answer questions we had about visitor preferences.


The method is simple. They set up three or four flipcharts side by side at a prominent location at the farmers’ market. One question with three or four options is simply stated on each flipchart. Volunteers hand out large sticky dots, one per flipchart so that a guest has one vote per question. People stick a dot in the column below their preferred answer.


Is there peer pressure in the voting? Perhaps. But I was aware when making choices that I don’t know any of the folks around me and do not care what they think so its not the direct kind of peer pressure of making choices in the presence of classmates or friends. All surveys have some potential bias, but this method is not intended to be a scientific survey. It simply gives an indication of the preferences of IMG_0704the audience in attendance. The down side is that it does not solicit any input from those not in attendance, but that information, if desired, can be gathered in another way. On the up side, this method does not require face to face interactions with the surveyor, so the bias associated with using an interviewer can be avoided. Since interaction with the person handing out dots is somewhat limited, the design of the questions is critically important. They must be stated clearly with easily understood options. People seem to enjoy the activity but usually want to participate quickly and move on.


This kind of survey has value beyond the information obtained. It invites the customers to think about their motivations. It gives them instant feedback on the motivations of others. It tells them you value their input and will be trying to improve events based on that input.


On varied occasions in the management of sites and events I have seen planning processes that make important decisions with no feedback from users at all. Usually the reasons include “too much trouble, too costly, and not enough time.” Surveys like this flipchart approach offer a simple, direct method of getting useful input; however, like all surveys, they should be considered just that – an input tool, not necessarily a decision-making tool.


We manage better when we know what our customers or guests want or need. This simple tool can help those we serve express their desires easily, quickly, and inexpensively.


– Tim Merriman

Five Ways to Better Understand Your Audience




I will never forget my days running a state park visitor center when we counted people going through the building. These daily numbers went into a report we submitted to the state office annually. We detected the presence and number of our visitors and that was about it.

Most of us do not have the luxury of hiring a skilled survey team to conduct research about audience interests, but there are ways we can learn more every single day. These are a few very direct ways to better understand your audiences’ motivations and interests as they interact with your resources.

1. Secret Shopper (also known as Interpretive Stalking, but don’t do anything creepy) – Walk among your guests without a uniform or any form of identity, dressing as they would. Look and act like your audience. Wander with them and stand near and listen. What are they saying to each other? What questions do they ask of each other? What do they photograph? How much time do they spend when they stop? What stopped them for longer discussions? Did they read the signs and exhibits or breeze past? This gives you a somewhat subjective, but very useful sense of how they feel about your visitor experience.

2. Observation without Engagement – Sit and watch your audiences in one-hour blocks of time, recording what they are doing. Create an observational form for your site with a category for every major user group. Leave a space for describing those doing things not usual to your site. You may discover a new market segment you had not previously considered. I trained trail rangers at the nature center I managed to do a one-hour survey for every four hours they patrolled a bike trail and the observations were made year-round so we had a much better understanding of seasonal change in uses of our grounds and trails.

3. Constant Conversation – Train your staff to use open questions skillfully to conduct an informal survey every time they meet a guest. Where are you from? Have you been here before? Is there something special you’re hoping to see or do? Is there anything special we can do to help you? But also train staff in how to disengage and respect the privacy of guests. Not everyone wants to chat every time they come to your site. Some guests are “spiritual rechargers” (Falk et al. “Why zoos matter”) and may prefer to relax in your beautiful environs without a chat. When you learn the specific desires of the guest, you have a chance to suggest how they can have a better experience that day, and you can shape future plans according to the desires expressed.

4. Interactive Survey – Devise a simple four or five question survey that your volunteers or staff can administer to guests after getting their permission to do so. Keep it short and meaningful. Have you been here before? How often do you come? What do you like most here? How might we improve? Use a form to collect the data that gives some demographic background such as gender, general age group, geographic area of origin, as well as some simple psychographic information such as why did they come and how satisfactory they found the experience. That allows for analysis later when you have time to do so.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 9.42.44 AM5. Social Media – Tripadvisor.com, Yelp.com and Facebook.com are becoming easy places to look for honest feedback about your site or programming. With Facebook, you can create your own fan page to stimulate conversations, but since many folks are “lurkers” it is not a great place to learn much about your guests overall. People who love your site or are unhappy with the experience in some way may go to Tripadvisor or Yelp and give a review. Read these reviews daily or weekly, as often as they show up. Notice what they are saying and the star rating, but also check out the photos that they post to see what they find most fascinating about your site.

There are obviously many other ways to learn more about your guests but these are some that can be done daily or weekly with little or no investment. Analysis can be as informal as discussions at weekly staff meetings. Or you might have a student intern or local college class take data collected from some methods and do a deeper analysis with cross-tabulations. Understanding the motivations and interests of our audiences is essential. Learning to listen and observe in simple, direct ways can be very effective in helping you improve what you do for your unique audiences.

It’s still fine to count numbers and be aware of the volume of traffic through your building, site or programs, but presence alone is not enough. Try to learn more and apply it to improve all you offer.

– Tim Merriman