The uses and limitations of target audiences and segmentation

Target audiences are meant to do two things: guide our practice as we become more visitor focused, and increase visitor numbers. I’ve come to believe that in both areas, target audiences actually do more harm than good – at least the way we’re currently using them.

In general, audiences are segmented by the following: age, physical ability, mental ability, cultural background, motivation to visit, use of interpretation, experience sought [1]. These segmentations are applied to baseline audience surveys to identify the faithful and those underrepresented, and both are then converted into target audiences.

Of course, many studies have also shown that the ‘soft’ criteria (identity, experience) are not constant at all, but change for each visitor – from visit to visit, and sometimes even during a visit [2]. In practice, however, segments are treated as stable, and their behaviour as predictable.

Another point is that the criteria used to segment audiences aren’t actually mutually exclusive. Someone aged 15 is potentially as much a facilitator as someone aged 65. A Brit is as likely to have a disability as someone from an ethnic minority. Targeting one attribute ties up resources with only limited overall impact. In fact, as I have argued here, it may cause more problems around exclusion.

Another key question that hasn’t been as thoroughly considered is which practice these audience segments are actually meant to guide. Non-personal interpretation? Personal interpretation? Visitor infrastructure? Marketing? The assumed answer in practice seems to be: all of them. This very quickly causes confusion and problems as the needs of target audiences may be in conflict or so varied that no coherent development seems possible.

So what to do? It strikes me that the key thing missing from all our heartache over target audiences is the heritage itself. At the moment, our audience research seeks to channel data into segmentations based on visitor attributes alone. But some heritage tourism research [3], and incidentally my own research too, suggests, however, that we need to build a picture that is site-specific, and allows us to reflect on the particular value the site has for visitors.   Rather than impose generic audience categories, this means specific criteria can emerge that are relevant to the particular site in question, and which are in fact determining factors that cut across other visitor attributes. These factors will be on a spectrum, requiring a multi-tier provision, similar to what in interpretation literature is often described as an information hierarchy. For some sites, the factors may indeed be around knowledge, while for others it may be more about national identity. The point is, whatever categories emerge, they will be meaningful for this particular site and its visitors.

I also think that we need to be clear first what practice we’re using our audience research for. The determining factors above should always play a key role no matter if we’re talking marketing or interpretation. However, I think it helps to approach development by thinking in terms of a flow diagram: is the determining factor the starting point, or something else, such as how much time visitors have? For example, if you’re developing your event programme, the international visitor rushing to her next destination is unlikely to attend our two hour evening lecture, although she may be as passionately connected to our site as a local visitor. It makes sense, therefore, to start the diagram with visitors’ origin, and make the determining factor the second tier – you get the picture.

And finally: I still think that much of what traditional target audiences are meant to achieve is actually primarily a matter of best practice interpretation, taking away barriers, and good public relations.



[1] I’m sure we’ve all come across various segmentation models. In the UK, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre’s Culture Segments have held sway for years (although this model seems to be falling out of favour now), and in the more museums/interpretation-oriented world, Falks’ idea of ‘small identities’ is still talked about widely (2009, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience). The latter three criteria (identity, use of interpretation, experience) have been particularly stressed in visitor studies/tourism/heritage literature over the last ten years or so, and hailed by many as a sign of enlightened audience focus in practice. The former, meanwhile, nevertheless continue to be strong among practitioners, partly due to the emphasis these criteria receive in interpretation/communication literature, partly due to the way in which especially public bodies, including funders, conceptualise those that are meant to benefit from museums or heritage.

[2] A look at various identity studies, for example, shows this – something that Falk also noted. My own visitor observations, incidentally, also showed how visitors’ behaviour can change even while going through one exhibition gallery.

[3] See for example studies by Yaniv Poria et al.

2 thoughts on “The uses and limitations of target audiences and segmentation

  1. Have you seen Pekarik et al’s IPOP model that was developed at the Smithsonian? It’s more of a model of preferences than an audience segmentation tool, but I think still relevant to this discussion. IPOP stands for Ideas, People, Objects and Physical activity. Most of us are predisposed to one or two of these kinds of experiences. But there is also the phenomenon of “flipping” – when someone is drawn into an experience that is different from their preference, they often have a more profound experience.

    One interesting thing is that the Smithsonian exhibition team also tested themselves to see their own preferences. I think this is another use of segmentation tools – in the development process, it’s all too easy to conceive of your imagined audience as being an extrapolation of yourself (what you like = what the audience will like). Segmentation tools are (albeit limited) useful rules of thumb for keeping different kinds of people and needs in mind.

    1. Yes, I’m familiar with it, thanks! You’re quite right that understanding our audiences better is key during development. I’m not convinced it’s helpful to think about it in terms of segmentation, though. I think we have to separate between developing a more ‘generic’ understanding of people visiting heritage sites and museums, which will become part of the philosophy and toolkit of professional interpretation, and ‘segmenting’ or ‘targetting’ audiences for a specific site or project. Even then I’m not sure applying target audiences is particularly helpful. Visitor research we’ve recently done for a major project shows, for example, that certain needs cut across the majority, if not all of the segmentations that are around, including IPOP. What I like about that is that it unites, rather than separates audiences.

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