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Audiences and Evaluation Strategic Plan

December 2016

By Carolyn Sumners




Extensive evaluation of audience characteristics exists for the giant screen theater, but much less attention has been paid to the characteristics and interests of those who choose to visit planetariums. (Giant screen theaters are also facing a change in audience perception resulting in a shift away from traditional documentary films, making their landscape more fluid as well.)  Information about audience composition has multiple benefits for the dome community because generally planetariums survive and thrive by maintaining and increasing attendance. Whoever they are, our audiences define us and they vote with their pocketbooks, selecting one planetarium program over another or choosing another venue/destination over the planetarium. The following recommendations for the strategic planning process focus on defining these audiences, identifying the criteria they use when deciding to visit a planetarium, and summarizing trends and themes in audience choices.





Giant screen theaters are in limited locations with a limited number of variations in physical size, structure, and content. Planetariums are much more variable in all three of these areas and have a much broader distribution in current and potential audiences. As an example, research indicates that the choice of program is significantly different for portable planetariums visiting schools compared with the general public visiting fixed planetariums in a museum. The strategic planning process must include recognition of these different audiences and consideration of targeted programming for them. We recommend that audience analyses consider a variety of dome environments including:

  1. Planetariums in museums/science centers (including space museums)

  2. Planetariums in theme parks

  3. Planetariums in universities, especially those with large student populations

  4. Planetariums (fixed and portable) serving K-12 schools

  5. Portable planetariums at special events  (such as community fairs)



Many institutions must evaluate the potential of the planetarium with other venues such as a giant screen theater. These institutions strive not to cannibalize audiences, but to develop new audiences (millennials, 55+, adults w/o kids, etc.) to bring in alternative content and to extend hours beyond the traditional 10-5 time frame. There are also domes which double as both traditional planetariums and venues for showing films and other content. IMERSA could consider a separate research approach in addressing the needs of those institutions with both planetariums and giant screen theaters. Data regarding how other institutions are experimenting in this arena would be helpful to the planetariums in multiple venue institutions.



Audiences can also be described by demographic data that are often collected when tickets are sold, yielding the following groupings:

  1. Families (where interests of the children are a consideration)

  2. Adults (can be further divided into young, general, and senior)

  3. Students (where the decision maker is the teacher)

  4. Teens/college students who make their own choices

  5. Members (returning to the planetarium/museum regularly)


Also a request for zip code when selling tickets can determine the percentage of the audience that is local compared with tourists. Planetariums with high tourist levels tend to offer fewer choices of programs than planetariums that serve a returning audience. Zip code can also identify whether the audience is rural, urban, or suburban and to an extent economic status.  Data that show how audience interests change with different demographics may be useful in developing targeted planetarium programming. Even large tourist serving planetariums can benefit from alternative evening programming such as live lectures.


The extent to which popular entertainment options tend to draw across demographic groups may indicate that only a few audience characteristics are significant predictors of who visits a planetarium and which programs they choose. Popular and timely programs may tend to draw across demographic groups.

It is also important to participate in and benefit from other studies focused on the needs of like organizations to collect certain kinds of data for their own use as well as use for the field.   COVES is such a project, still in its pilot phase, that focuses on science center audiences, www.understandingvisitors.org.



Evaluation protocols depend on available data concerning characteristics and choices of specific audiences. Actual attendance data tend to be less subject to selection bias than interviews or even kiosks and questionnaires because attendance data summarize characteristics of all visitors who bought a ticket to the planetarium and can also be used to compare characteristics of visitors attending other venues. Surveys can be biased by the way they are collected and distributed, but can be valuable if a large number of responses is acquired. Kiosks and on line surveys sample only those who volunteer to participate and may not reflect the actual audience. Any data collection should extend beyond the membership of IMERSA. A large cross section of planetariums should be encouraged to participate, perhaps reaching out to the International Planetarium Society, to DOME-L, and to the regional (US) planetarium societies.   


Audience analysis might begin by determining which factors play a significant role in defining audience choices of planetarium programs. Are audiences influenced by the title, the description, the content area, the narrator, the poster, ticket price, marketing, and/or word of mouth? The answer will be a combination of these factors, but in using attendance data we need to understand why audiences are choosing specific programs.  Our tendency is to group shows by content area such as extraterrestrial life, stellar evolution, night sky, planets, space flight, black holes/dark matter, Earth systems, children’s programming, etc. Our first recommendation is to develop the protocols to collect data, perhaps by questionnaire in the ticket line, about why visitors are choosing a particular planetarium experience.  Audiences in the planetarium could also respond to a questionnaire by paper and pencil, cell phone, or audience interactive device before and/or after a program.  


In comparing audience choices across institutions, we must also recognize that local factors such as these can influence audience choices:

  1. The show’s availability at the next convenient time slot

  2. The show that the ticket seller is pushing at point of sale

  3. Posters in the parking lot, elevators, banners on the building, etc.  

  4. Is the show tied to an exhibit? Is there a package price for both?  

  5. Are pricing/ticketing bundled, perhaps the giant screen theater and planetarium as a package?


Once we determine who our audiences are, we may still not know what they want to see.  Further research would ask those who visit what they like, as well as those who don't come. Gathering that information and comparing might be helpful, but it could be a massive project given all of the possible variables. It is also important to identify and incorporate the work of partnering institutions such as the research on identifying the factors that correlate with a visitor's intention to return being done by COSI's Center for Research and Evaluation.



In the analysis of general public audiences, we recommend the identification of methods of measuring a planetarium program’s relative popularity when compared with other programs and other venues at the same location. If the content area covered by a show is a factor in audience choice, an approach like the following might be considered. Since most planetariums offer a live night sky oriented program, attendance data could be normalized to the attendance for the live show. A particular program or type of program would then draw a specific percentage better or worse than the live show. These data would have predictive value in choosing or avoiding programs that focus on specific themes.  Normalized attendance data also allow comparisons among planetariums with very different total attendances.



In the analysis of school audiences, research indicates that teachers choose planetarium programs for their students based on different criteria than the public uses. The following criteria have been identified as factors affecting teacher choices: content area; appropriateness for a specified grade level; correlation to national, state, or local student proficiencies; applicability to what students are studying in class; and potential to engage/entertain students. Teachers also seem less inclined to pick programs that address content with which the teacher is not familiar. This market segment is also extremely sensitive to price and will generally pick the least expensive option as long as it meets the required educational standards.


Providing support materials for preparation of students and review after the program have some value, but research is needed to determine what teachers actually want and can use in the classroom and to what extent the availability of these materials causes teachers to select a specific planetarium program.  It would be helpful to know if the educator’s guide really makes the teacher’s job easier or a particular show more attractive.


The recommendations above represent possible approaches in evaluating two audience populations: general public and school groups. Other approaches are needed for other audiences.



With the list of available programs growing steadily, planetariums need help in choosing programs that are most appropriate for their audiences based on topics and show descriptions that are most likely to appeal to their visitors. The following recommendations could be considered and might be expanded as part of the scope of this analysis:

  1. Ask distributors for recommendations since they know which titles are popular and why.

  2. Use online resources/previews to create a short list of shows. (Most content can be screened online.)

  3. Audience test short-listed shows in the planetarium using a brief, well-designed questionnaire.

  4. Use list serves, forums, etc. to get recommendations about what films are best for specific audiences and topics.

  5. Create an industry resource like LF Examiner for fulldome movies. Planetariums are not movie theaters and many don't have box offices.  Therefore attendance data are sketchy and hard to use for comparison. FDDB.org is a good step in this direction.


In summary, little research has been done that is easily applicable across the domain of planetariums. The strategic planning process might begin by asking the planetariums represented in IMERSA to provide questions they have about their audiences. In turn IMERSA could provide processes and rubrics that would help planetariums in collecting and sharing audience choices, attitudes, and trends.

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