I sit on the board of an arts organization and, this past weekend, I had the pleasure of working with a couple of colleagues to collect data at our annual music and arts festival… Wait! Did I just use the word pleasure in reference to data collection?  Isn’t data collection something we do because funders make us? Isn’t it complicated and time consuming and boring?  No! It can be fun and simple.  It does take a little time, but if you do it right, not nearly as much as you think.  Anyway, time flies when you’re having fun!

In the festival’s 13 year history, this was the first time any data, other than observational, was collected.  Everyone agreed that information needed to be gathered, but the very idea seemed too daunting to even think about.  Enter Mary Milelzcik, Emily Wiseman and I.  Let me say here how lucky I am to have such great colleagues in Mary and Emily.  Smart and creative don’t even begin to do them justice!   Talk about a power trio!

We knew it was going to be tough to get attendees to stop having fun for a moment in order to fill out a survey.  So, we had to make the survey fun and simple.

The first thing we did was figure out what information we needed to gather.  We looked at the questions our funders were asking, which was mostly demographic, and thought about what information would be most useful to the organization as we plan next year’s festival.  We settled on five questions: age; race/ethnicity; neighborhood of residence; mode of transportation to the event; and past attendance.

With the simple out of the way, we started working on the fun.  As we brainstormed about the process, we figured that our biggest challenge would be getting attendees to come to us rather than having to go out and coax them in.  We decided that the best way to do that would be to make it look like something fun and interesting was going on at our booth.  The best way to do that?  Make it actually fun and interesting!

First, we blew up a map of Los Angeles County and gave people pins to tell us where they live.  You wouldn’t believe how much excitement this generated.  We heard attendees squeal with glee that they were the first to push their pin into a neighborhood or that there were so many of their neighbors there that day.

Data collection @ 2015 TarfestFor the remaining four questions, we constructed and painted a six-foot tall, four-sided obelisk (read: giant cardboard box).  Each side had a question with four to five answers listed below in a clearly defined column or row.   Attendees were given sheets of brightly colored stickers with which to identify their answers by sticking them in the appropriate column or row.

Our final consideration was location.  The survey booth was situated right between the main entrance to the festival and the entrance to the bar.   We could not have asked for better placement!  We were the first thing everyone saw on their way in to the festival and those wanting to get into the bar, lined up right next to our booth.

The survey was a big hit!  Not only did attendees gravitate toward the booth and complete the survey, they talked about the trends they were seeing in real time.  We overheard discussions of the pin patterns on the map and of the range of ages represented.  Respondents also gave us feedback that will help us refine our survey for next year.   A couple of dozen attendees took photos of the surveys.  One, who runs a program at a botanical garden, told us he was going to steal our idea to find out more about his program participants.

The entire survey process from brainstorming to conception to implementation to final analysis took the three of us less than a week.  At the end of the day, out of about 4000 festival attendees, over 400 volunteered to participate in the survey.  That’s a 10% voluntary response rate without offering any incentive!

The moral of the story?  When it comes to data collection, sometimes you need to think outside of the box!