Inside the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Transformation

By Scott Kirsner |  June 11, 2018

Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was hardly an ancient institution when Greg Harris took over as CEO in 2013. The building opened in 1995, and the nonprofit foundation behind it was formed in 1983.

But upon taking the reins — the mic? — Harris felt it was time to rethink the way that visitors experienced the Rock Hall itself. That meant reassessing everything from the menu in the café to the policies governing photography to the amount of live music performances that take place in and around the building.

The transformation is paying off: in 2017, the Rock Hall hosted more than 560,000 visitors, its third year of setting a new record. And Harris announced recently that the institution delivers $199 million of economic impact to Northeast Ohio annually.

We spoke with Harris in June about what innovation means to his organization, a nonprofit that employs about 140 people, as well as how he measures its impact.

What Innovation Means for Us

We apply the concept of innovation in every area of our organization that we can. For many years, we really stressed that we were a serious museum, and that rock and roll was worthy of a place that would be as serious and staid as any museum. That was great. But we’ve really blown the lid off it in the last few years, to become more of an experiential place.

Greg Harris, CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Harris previously worked at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

We love the artifacts and we respect them. But now, we focus on the story behind the artifact, more so than just the artifact. We want to create impactful experiences for people. We recently turned our bathrooms black, to make it feel like you’re in a rock and roll club. We now do 60 days of live music in the summertime. We’ve transformed our plaza to make it feel like you’re entering a festival – there are giant letters, food trucks, a beer garden, and a live band playing on that plaza most days in the summer.

Minimum Viable Products and NPS

We are big proponents of the minimum viable product approach, and not going overboard with too much planning – just testing and trying things. We have a deep culture of data. We like to trust our interpretation of the data, and go for it. We’ve learned to not accept the status quo, and we always wonder if we can continuously improve in all areas.

We started with increasing the volume of live music we offer in the museum and on our plaza. After one summer of testing about 20 days of music, we doubled down and did 40. Now we’re up to 60. For all of our visitor tracking, we use NPS [Net Promoter Score.] As we see things have an impact, we increase them.

We’ve had some really great wins, and that has set a framework for the staff to see that anything is possible.

Change Policies that Don’t Work for Visitors

We had a policy, like most museums, that people weren’t allowed to take photos. It had been in place for 18 years or more. We were telling people with their cell phones not to spread the word. Our legal [team] said we shouldn’t allow photos. Many of our items were on loan, and the loan agreements precluded any commercial photography. We weren’t sure if [the cell phone pictures] could be used commercially. So we prohibited all photography. In the end, we decided to just go for it. We said, “Let’s revisit it in a few months, and see if it causes any problems.” We kept going with it. Now, it really helps spread the word about the museum. It was our No. 1 negative comment and we were able to remove that in short order.

We always did evening programs. Then went a step further, in the daytime, and had our staff go around with battery-powered amps and guitars, engaging guests, and letting them learn in 15-minute pop-ups. In a month and a half of pop-ups, we reached more people than in a year of set programs. Any visitors that participated in a program like that, their likelihood of recommending the museum to others and the way they rated their visit was markedly higher.

[We also re-evaluated] our food experience. Our No. 2 complaint was the quality of the food. So we changed out a vendor after a long-term relationship. We wanted to involve local and regional celebrity chefs, with a focus on freshness and locally-sourced. That has been a great addition to the visitor experience.

We had a show that was more than two hours long, very encyclopedic, and it had everybody in it. We dug in, and decided we wanted to convert that to an immersive experience — one that was far shorter and really impactful. We created a 12-minute show, the Power of Rock Experience, that draws on the emotions of rock and roll. It doesn’t show every inductee. We launched it last year, and that has scored highly and is very popular with our visitors.

‘Music Enthusiasts’ and ‘Boomer Rockers’

Through audience segmentation, our key target area was a visitor that is more into experiential activities. They liked the “story behind the story” more than the artifacts. We call them the “music enthusiast.” Their average spends are greater, and there’s a multiplier effect in reaching them. Some of the other segments, like the “Boomer rocker” are important to us, and they’re very visible, because they spend the most time in the museum. They are more interested by artifact-driven things. They will come anyway, but the enthusiast will only come if the experience is a more authentic experience. By targeting a certain segment, we’ve had to come to grips with reduced Net Promoter Scores from other segments.

Rewarding Innovation

One of the greatest ways to foster [more innovation] is by showing success, and rewarding innovation. We do that…with staff recognition. We do quarterly awards, and it involves recognition in front of the team. It may involve tickets to concerts or sporting events, or dinners if it is a team, so they can celebrate together. There’s bragging rights, too.

Some ideas get quashed because people worry about budgets. And if you dig in, you can find ways to make things happen, if it fits the plan and has potential.

Attendance is a big metric for us. We’ve seen attendance growth of 11 percent year over year for the last three years. Our Net Promoter Score went from 55 in 2014 to 67 in 2017. (A score of 100 means that every customer is a “promoter,” helping to tell others about a good experience.) We saw both an increase in attendance from more regional visitors — people from this region coming back for repeat visits — while still maintaining a strong national audience.

Don’t Be Satisfied with Maintenance Mode

We stress with our people, don’t be satisfied with maintenance mode. Just because we did something for a number of years doesn’t mean we have to continue it if it doesn’t fit the strategy. For a place that celebrates and recognizes rock and roll, we have to continually transform and innovate. We can’t be about yesterday. We have to be about connecting today and yesterday. That’s when we’re at our best.