Posts Tagged ‘target audiences’

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.

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I’ve recently read English Heritage’s consultation on under-represented heritages [1] and it got me thinking, yet again, about target audiences. Here are some of the points that struck a chord with me:

We don’t want [insert under-represented heritage here] sites
In fact, one respondent called this idea ‘horrible’ (p. 10).  In other words, they didn’t suddenly want a load of sites that were designated as Black, Muslim, LGBT, whatever.  And there were a couple of reasons why:

The groups aren’t separate
It was actually in the disabled group that they pointed out that disabled people are also lesbian, gay, black, Muslim…But that’s not all:

Groups don’t like to have their marginalisation constantly reinforced
This was specifically said with regard to the language used by organisations: how are the groups represented?  They didn’t want to be represented as always different.

Don’t we all have an ethnicity?
…asked one participant when it came to judging categories for searching heritage lists, such as the category ‘Ethnic History’ – which, alas, doesn’t mean ethnic at all, it means non-White, non-European, non-Western.  But the point that touched me the most was this one:

It is ‘very dangerous’ to address [insert under-represented heritage here] history only to members of that community
This came out of the LGBT group, where they felt that for their ‘political safety’ (p. 25) everyone needed to understand why their history was important.

For me what emerges from the above is one key point: these people don’t want to be singled out and ‘targeted’.  They’re just part of our whole wide wonderful and diverse world.  The moment we focus in on one attribute of a person (“gay”) and then target a programme at that, mostly what we’re signalling is that we, too, see difference, exclusion and marginalisation.  We’re effectively reinforcing that segregation by addressing, as they said, members of that community alone, when the real need may lie somewhere else entirely – for example in addressing our own and society’s focus on just one attribute.  That’s an uncomfortable thought, I know.  But the reality is that there are museums, as mentioned in this report, that simply ignore for example the homosexual attraction their key historic figures may have felt.  And that, more than any lack of targeted programming, may be the reason why people feel our museum is not for them.

So do let’s search our visitor data for under-represented audiences, but let’s understand that what it tells us is not something about those that don’t come.  First and foremost it tells us something about our own organisation.  If there is a black strand to the story of our site, then let’s tell it.  But let’s not set out to tell it ‘for black people’, let’s tell it for people.  Let’s include that ‘ethnic’, LGBT, disabled imagery in our children’s activities as a matter of course, not because we’re doing a programme specifically for these groups.  If there are barriers that may prevent people from coming, be that cultural barriers or physical, then let’s address those barriers – let’s not address the people, as if they were the issue.  That’s what is the underlying principle of equalities legislation and practices, and it’s what museums should apply too.  Once we normalise what we consider an attribute that makes someone hard to reach, our place will become more welcoming to them.  And we may just find that they visit without a single targeted programme on the schedule.

And I will no longer have to use language that talks of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

[1] As an aside, the selection of those consulted is quite interesting: Participants were shortlisted based on whether they had published a major body of research in one of the areas identified as under-represented.  Bless the LGBT expert who noted that it would be more relevant to speak to the local community.  If English Heritage is truly committed to giving equal consideration to communal value then this approach to currently under-represented heritage is unlikely to reach those communities.

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Early in December last year, the British Museums Association issued an exciting research brief.  They want to find out what the public think of the present and potential purposes of museums, and their roles in society.

I am really looking forward to this research report, which is due at the end of March.  Crucially, the research isn’t about what professionals think – the MA’s Museums 2020 campaign has already given us plenty of that.  This research finally goes out to the public directly and asks them what they think [1]. The brief asks for a ‘detailed, qualitative exploration’, and it will be interesting to see what methodology the researchers will apply (I understand they haven’t been appointed yet). 

The research questions are really intriguing for museums and heritage professionals:

  • What do the public think are, and should be, the fundamental purposes of publicly funded museum services?
  • Which purposes (if any) would they prioritise in times of limited funding
  • What principles do they believe should underpin public museums services; and
  • What should museums be trying to achieve now, and over the next decade.

It might be a real eye-opener for the sector to hear what the public think about the purposes, priorities, and principles that we have established for museums (and heritage sites).  My only concern is that these questions are very conceptual.  The brief suggests that these questions are further refined by the researchers, but answers to these questions is what the brief demands.  The brief acknowledges that this will require what it calls ‘deliberation’ on the part of respondents, and it expects that they will be given background information and time to ‘debate’ issues raised in Museums 2020 so far.  However, unless the methodology is radically different from the (traditional) focus groups and interviews anticipated by the brief, this will seriously limit the diversity of respondents and responses. The prospect of having to read through dry, specialist museums and heritage discourse will be intimidating for many, not the least for the underrepresented, hard-to-reach groups that are at the core for example of our social inclusion agendas – social inclusion being of course one of our self-identified ‘purposes’.  The irony is obvious. 

Another worry that I have is that the questions are also very much predetermined by our own professional framings.  The brief specifically requests that responses are sought to the existing professional discourse, including Museums 2020.  The underlying desire is clear.  However, we might limit respondents’ creativity and overwhelm them with our own learned conceptions.  I hope the researchers find a methodology to approach this whereby they truly enable respondents to develop their own discourse and free them from having to use our own thinking as their starting point.  What we don’t want is ‘our usual suspects’ to simply confirm what we think.  This might be comforting, but really wouldn’t be helpful.

The research will focus on publicly funded museums and those run as charities.  The brief consequently makes a distinction between ‘the public’ as visitors, and ‘the public’ as tax-payers and citizen/funders, the latter being the research subject.  Personally, I wish the MA hadn’t made that distinction. It artificially slices the whole person into separate roles, and asking someone a question about purpose on a funding and societal level might produce an entirely different response from one based on personal motivation/benefit [2].  My argument would be that it’s that personal motivation that determines the public view of a museum, practically expressed through visitor numbers and impact, for example.  I would say it is therefore that personal response that will give us the insights that the research seeks: how to make museums ‘more responsive and more sustainable’.  

Finally, it’s notable that when specifying the sample requirements, the brief uses demographic segmentation.  I’ve recently had conversations online and offline about how widespread the implementation of non-demographic audience segmentation is in the (British) museums and heritage sector.  My experience has been that it isn’t widespread at all, and the Museums Association’s brief seems another case in point.  I would be really interested to know why they’ve chosen this demographic approach, for I know that motivation for example is a key category in their current thinking on audience development.  It would seem that when researching the public’s views on the purposes and roles of museums it is particularly important to ensure a sample that is representative of the different motivations that bring visitors to museums, and that make the public care about heritage.  However, in practical terms the challenge is of course that motivation itself is far more difficult to establish as a distinguishing attribute than are demographic categories – you would basically need to do a piece of research first to identify your (potential) sample.

Either way, the research will be interesting when it comes out, both for its methodology and its findings.  I can’t wait.   



[1] Why research doesn’t do this as a matter of course in our sector remains a mystery to me.  Only yesterday I read through a book-length study of the continued relevance – or not – of (heritage) myth and symbolism in society, and the study had not spoken to a single visitor or member of the public.

[2] This is similar to issues around economic valuation, where studies have shown how willingness to pay changes in response to questions framed on a personal and political level.  

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In a few weeks I will start in a new role.  This time around, my job title will be Audience Development Manager.

Oddly enough, although my past, current and future responsibilities are largely the same (interpretation), I’ve never had the same job title twice.  What troubles me about this is that even within our profession we’re undermining that well-established term, interpretation.

Now, when I say ‘well established’, I don’t mean well established in the vocabulary of non-interpreters.  This is an oft-repeated argument in favour of ditching the term: others don’t know what it is and therefore we should no longer use it.  But do you know what Nephrology is? Probably not. And yet, when there is something wrong with your kidneys you’ll soon find out, or someone will explain it to you.  I see nothing wrong with interpretation professionals doing the same.

I’m also a little bit worried about the implications of some of the suggestions that have been put forward by interpreters themselves.  ‘Visitor Experience Specialist’ seems to be a favourite these days.  People often argue that it is good because it expresses more than ‘leaflets and panels’.  However, if anyone thinks 21st century interpretation is only about leaflets and panels, then the issue doesn’t lie with the term ‘interpretation’ but with their knowledge of it.

I think the temptation here lies in the word ‘experience’.  Yes, 21st century interpretation should provide an experience.  But to speak of the outcomes of interpretation as the visitor experience is quite naïve, I’m afraid.  And it also sabotages our profession.

Let me explain.  I find it naïve because visitors’ experiences with and of a site do not begin and end with interpretation.  I won’t repeat here what you will be well aware of – let’s just say, remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Any site manager will tell you that the whole, rather than the interpretive part, creates the visitor experience, and this doesn’t start at the site’s gates either.  Do I think that interpreters should have an input in marketing and the development of the catering menu?  Absolutely.  At my site, I actively encourage the whole team, from gardener to cleaner to cook, to contribute to everything that happens on site.  That to me is visitor experience management.  So if this title is due to anyone, it is due to site managers: those that keep track of the whole.

Of course, if interpreters themselves seek to claim the title of ‘Visitor Experience Specialist’ then we’re basically saying that in reality, we’re not specialists at all, but generalists doing all of the above.  In a way, this understanding of interpretation is what underpins my current job description.  And consequently, I have found my time divided between many different things, only a fraction of which is actually interpretation.  To be perfectly honest, I think the overall visitor experience has suffered for it – because I’ve not had enough time to actually fully develop the interpretation of the site.  And this is why I think promoting the Visitor Experience terminology above ‘Interpretation’ is sabotaging our profession.  It tells organisations that they don’t actually need someone dedicated to and trained specifically in interpretation.

There’s something else that troubles me about suggesting we call interpretation ‘visitor experience’.  In my mind, 21st century interpretation is no longer just about ‘visitors’, or tourists.  As I’ve written elsewhere, to me this focus on visitors is expressive of a lack of critical engagement with the concept of heritage.  Interpretation is very much about engaging with stakeholders, local and further away, and heritage communities.  To exclude these stakeholders is to demote interpretation to a mere tourism tool.

The visitor focus is also connected to another idea that is still at large in our discussions, and that is that of target audiences.  Which finally leads me to my new job title.

The focus on target audiences sits uncomfortably with me, and I’ve explained why here. I understand why an organisation may identify audiences, or rather the lack of diverse audiences, as the issue that needs to be addressed. However, when we as interpreters propose audience development over interpretation as the term to be used, I wonder whether we’re not putting the cart before the horse.  Surely our modern, professional principles of interpretation endeavour to offer various ways of engaging with heritage as a matter of course.  Thinking about the different needs of our possible, or desired audiences is at the heart of this.  So in my opinion, good interpretation already considers what some call audience development.

So if I could have it my way, I would opt to be simply called, Interpretation Manager.  Because that’s what I have been in my past and current roles, and that’s what I will be in my new role.  A role, by the way, that I am hugely excited to fill, and which I have no doubt will bring many experiences to share on this blog.

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I’ve recently read Emma Waterton’s excellent book Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain. Waterton is not an interpreter, but much of her writing applies directly to interpretation also.

As in her other writings, Waterton raises excellent and critical questions in this book.  Some of these are of immediate relevance to interpreters:


1) Are we including people, or are we assimilating them?

In interpretive speak, what Waterton is concerned with here is target audiences: those audiences that are under-represented, and often considered to be ‘excluded’.

In policy terms, this is the concept of social inclusion.  After reviewing the introduction of the concept into policy and legislation, Waterton goes on to examine the discourse surrounding social inclusion, and the organisational practices that flow from it.

The conclusion that Waterton reaches should give all heritage managers and interpreters some serious food for thought: rather than ‘to include’, Waterton argues, what these practices are currently doing is to force the dominant culture’s heritage values onto the ‘excluded’.


2) Is there such a group as ‘the excluded’ in museums and at heritage sites?

This may be a hard question to face for many interpreters.  Identifying target audiences is still uncritically proclaimed as best practice by many, and yet Waterton argues that perhaps, the ‘excluded’ simply do not care about this particular heritage.  It may not represent them, and it may not reflect their own view of what constitutes heritage or how it should be presented and used.

Therefore, Waterton suggests, practices that claim to be motivated by social inclusion, or making heritage accessible to the ‘excluded’ and underrepresented, are actually deeply hegemonic.  She writes, ‘…to presume that everyone can or should share in an elite, class-based and white vision of heritage is to take unwarranted liberties with many peoples’ sense of identity, place and belonging.’


3) Is it fundamentally arrogant to presume that we are ‘educating’, and building bridges or creating connections between ‘visitors’ and ‘sites/objects’?

Underlying Waterton’s argument is her assertion of the existence of an Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD).  In summary, the AHD is a view of heritage that is based on materiality and dependent on expert definition and care.  In Waterton’s opinion, neither is justified.  For one, Waterton argues that heritage is a discourse: it is made, shaped and changed by people and their interactions with materiality.  Because of the nature of heritage as discourse, however, Waterton writes, heritage is ‘inherently exclusive’.

For interpreters, this immediately raises another challenge.  At the core of many definitions of interpretation are images of ‘bridges’ and ‘connections’.  In fact, the most frequently cited mantra in interpretation has ‘to relate’ as its focal point [1]. And yet, such an approach to interpretation quite obviously denies the (discursive) participation of ‘visitors’ in making heritage.  It seems to me that in interpretation, we therefore still practice what Waterton calls assimilation and hegemony.


4) Do we have a clue what we’re talking about?

Waterton criticises that policy and legislation make a link between heritage and social inclusion without actually understanding this link, or how it works – if it exists at all.  Consequently, she calls for further research that provides real evidence for the relationship, or lack thereof.  To some extent I suspect that Waterton hopes that such research will also provide the sort of persuasive argument that no theoretical writing or discourse analysis alone can achieve.

The same applies to interpretation.  The claims are many: interpretation helps protect sites, it adds value, it helps people connect.  But does it?  How do we know?  And how does interpretation achieve this?  There are plenty suggestions of how to go about it, but as far as I am aware the hard summative evidence is lacking.

I think the field of interpretation can take a lot from Waterton’s book and her other writings.  From research to discourse analysis, here are all things that will be worth looking at.  Some of it I imagine will be painful, but I would hope that rather than resist a good session of healthy self-examination, we apply that most important of interpretive qualities: to be open-minded.



[1] I am, of course, referring to Freeman Tilden.  I’ve already written elsewhere that I think we should give Mr Tilden a well-deserved rest.

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In a recent conversation, an interpretation colleague asked me how I addressed target audiences in my interpretive practice.  They didn’t elaborate; it was quite obvious that they considered target audiences to be such an obvious part of interpretation that no further qualification of the concept was required.

Something about this unquestioned assertion sat uncomfortably with me, however.  I do support the concept – I have target audiences at my site also, in fact, I’m writing an HLF application for a Young People project as we speak – and yet, I wanted to know why I might feel this unease.

So here we go:

First there is heritage, then there may be target audiences

In our quest to ensure that our interpretation is accessible and relevant to wide audiences, I fear we sometimes may lose sight of one of the most fundamental aspects of our work: the heritage we actually deal with.  The concept of target audiences in my mind can smack just a little bit too much of changeability – as if we could adapt the heritage of a site to a specific audience. In my experience, many of the audiences we segment, perhaps artificially so (e.g. locals vs tourists), actually want the same thing from interpretation: they want interpretation to enable them to engage with the essence of the heritage that’s there.

So sometimes the issue at hand may not actually be about interpreting for different target audiences at all; it may primarily be about reminding ourselves of the fundamental considerations of best practice interpretation, such as simple language, no assumptions about prior knowledge, and ensuring physical accessibility.


Are we hiding our mistakes behind target audiences?

Sometimes I cannot help but feel that perhaps through target audiences we’re trying to address an issue that we as part of the heritage profession have created ourselves.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, interpretation is often still developed as an exclusive one-way-street from interpreter to ‘consumer/visitor’.  Basing interpretation on expert values, interpreters often don’t spend enough (if indeed any) time on establishing the values held by communities and including them in the development of the interpretation of these values.  My suspicion is that this may be why certain segments of the community don’t engage with a site, at least not officially (i.e. through visiting).

In other words, I’d rather see us focus on stakeholder engagement first before we worry too much about target audiences.


If we do identify target audiences, we must make sure we know what they’re for…

At my current site, I inherited an Audience Development Plan that identified, among others, people with health issues as a target audience.  I’ve not had time yet to change this, and in all fairness, the plan doesn’t specifically say that this is supposed to be a target audience for interpretation.  However, I would seriously question the extent to which this category of ‘people with health issues’ could ever be relevant for the content and implementation of any specific piece of interpretation (the best practice of physical accessibility not withstanding).

Of course, if the category was identified with community activities in mind, then it suddenly gains a purpose – not for interpretation, but for events and programmes that we can offer for people to become more physically active.


…and make sure the categories are meaningful to interpretation

Following on from the above, if we embark on the process of identifying target audiences for interpretation, then our categories need to be able to inform interpretive practice in order to make this exercise worthwhile.  Income, for example, is still a measure that pops up in audience development plans for interpretation (I suspect uncritically adopted from tourism surveys), and I continue to wonder how this category is expected to guide interpretation.  It is meaningful to site management, yes – we can decide on admission prices to ensure lower income families, for example, are more likely to visit. But I can’t think of a scenario in which interpretive content nor interpretive design would be impacted by income levels (and it is simply faulty to equate income levels with educational attainment, for example).


So ditch target audiences?

Not quite.  I think going through the process of visitor and non-visitor surveys is a good way of becoming aware of the strengths and weaknesses in our practice.  However, I propose that we first spend time considering carefully what our audience categories are so that they will be meaningful in informing our future practice.  We also need to reflect more critically on what the results tell us (for example, is the issue more systemic than a ‘mere’ matter of outreach work?), and how we will use these to improve practice.

Most importantly, however, I think other concepts need to become more established first in interpretation, such as stakeholder engagement and inclusive significance assessments.  We might just find that target audiences become less of an issue.

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