Sam Ham calls it “the end game,” in your logic model it is “outcomes and impacts,” in business it is “the bottom line.” But WHAT IS IT? How do you measure IT? How do you know you’ve reached IT? Well, … I don’t know. I’ve been in this business over 35 years and I don’t know, but I have a couple of ideas, and I do know a few things.
First, I know that a lot of people in charge don’t have a clue about interpretation. They do know what they know, and they evaluate on their own experience and idea of success. Like every visitor in your audience, they ‘interpret’ the value of your interpretation based on their own knowledge, beliefs and experience. To be successful you must realize that they are your audience, too. Yes, interpret UP the chain of command so that your work is understood and appreciated at the highest levels. They won’t leave the mountaintop, you must take your message to them. It’s likely they’ll not be able to grasp the several dimensions of success in interpretation right away. Begin where they are, work to understand their idea of success and be able to talk to them about your success in the language of their idea of success. You can then begin to fill in the many ways successful interpretation benefits them and the site.
Second, I do know that there is no single “end” or “outcome” or “bottom line.” The real answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your resource, your audience, your management, and your objectives. There’s no “one size fits all” answer.
Third, I know the answer is seldom expressed in dollars. It’s so easy to base success on dollars. Those are tangible, countable, easily measurable, balance the cash register at the end of each day, profit or loss, meet projections, success! So very simple. What a life it would be to live in such a simple world! Dream about it, but interpreters and park managers don’t live there. We live in a world of multiple bottom lines, multiple layers of success. We live in a place where there are many expected outcomes and the end game can be difficult to define and harder to measure. And, that easy, tangible thing called dollars may be the least valuable of the lot over the long term.
Fourth, I know there are several “bottom lines.” I lump several items to create three primary bottom lines. This ‘triple bottom line’ can provide a framework for defining interpretation success.
- Successful interpretation improves or sustains the resource.
Remember Maria Elena’s sea turtle and plastic bag story from the CIG training? She defined a problem, developed a method for attacking the problem, and concluded with visitor action to help resolve the problem. Where we interpreters often fail is the very first step – we don’t define a specific problem to address, thus we can’t evaluate success.
- Successful interpretation enhances the visitor experience.
Interpretation is all about the visitor experience. People come to your site for an experience. Interpretation should add to that experience, enhance it, provide something much more than they expected, all the while being focused on putting the visitor in touch with the resource right there on site so that the visitor leaves with a deep appreciation of the experience and the site.
- Successful interpretation generates visitor action.
This last category is critical. If items 1 and 2 are successful, the visitor will be prepared to take action. Sadly, I find many sites are not prepared for visitors who want to contribute. They don’t have a list of ways the visitor can help. Action takes many forms – visitors may volunteer, may return for other programs, may sign up for a future event, may donate toward a project, may rent or buy equipment you’ve taught them to use, may purchase interpretive resale, and more. Visitor action is powerful evidence of successful interpretation.
But what about those dollars? Revenue is included in that last category; it’s one of the actions a visitor may take. It may include paying for a guided cruise, buying a field guide, or putting heads in the beds and meals on the table in a 100-room lodge. Revenue can be a significant byproduct of good interpretation, but revenue alone has the least long-term value for the park and for the visitor experience.
Look out! Much of byproduct interpretation revenue is not credited to interpretation. Interpretation revenue may not be reported in the ledger book even when interpretation filled the lodge, sold hundreds of meals, cha-chinged the register in the gift shop, and filled the park with people all weekend long. In many cases the site may be “in the black” ONLY because of interpretation, yet interpretation gets no credit for the financial success – it’s all credited to the lodge or gift shop. At the end of the month the park revenue picture looks good but interpretation is seen only as an expense. That’s faulty accounting and it’s up to interpreters and managers to right that wrong.
If you operate interpretation for the goal of revenue, you are likely to fail. Revenue is a single end in itself – you pay the price, you do the deed, and it’s over, whereas good interpretation engages the visitor in the resource such that the visitor wants to repeat the experience, wants to help, wants to maintain that resource that he sees with new eyes. Good interpretation creates stewards who keep on giving to the site.
If revenue is a thoughtfully planned byproduct of successful interpretation then both the values of interpretation and revenue generation will be more likely to succeed.
Here are a few benefits of successful interpretation. You can add more.
- Visitors see the site with new eyes of awareness and appreciation.
- Visitors develop a deep, abiding love for the place.
- Appreciation for management is increased.
- Visitors become stewards.
- The resource is sustained and improved.
- The visitor experience is enhanced; satisfaction increases dramatically.
- Visitors repeat the experience by returning to the site and to programs. (revenue is increased)
- Visitors tell friends. (powerful promotion and revenue is increased)
- Visitors stay longer. (revenue is increased)
- Visitors pursue newly learned interests by purchasing interpretive resale. (revenue is increased)