Saturday, June 8, 2019

Serving the Museum's Full Age Range

Originally posted December 2012. Magical thinking is not a successful strategy for serving the upper (or lower) end of a museum's age range. Learning from and about those age groups and what engages them can be.

When one museum tackles a big question about serving their audience, I am likely to hear audience in many other questions museums are considering. In multiple master planning sessions, on conference calls, and pouring over marketing studies, the focus on serving the upper end of a museum’s age range comes through again and again. 

Like all museums, children’s museums struggle with how to serve the full range of their intended audience. Their more specific challenge is how to serve the upper end of their target age range and whether to serve children 7 or 8 years to 10 years, tweens, and youth at all. This dance, shared by many museums, has a long history with many variations.

At one time children’s museums opened their doors to welcome children 3 - 12 years old, their parents and caregivers. Children 3 - 6 years arrived, returned, and began owning the museum. With time, many children’s museums rethought their audience and offerings and often landed on serving newborns - 8 year olds, occasionally targeting children up to 10 years. This change, it seems, brought younger children to the museums. More 2 year olds showed up as well as loyal 3 - 6 year olds. Wanting to expand their audience, accommodate families with children of several ages, serve the community well, and sometimes responding to internal pressure to “own” a wider niche, some children’s museums pushed on serving 7-10  and even 12 year olds.

Evidence supports decisions to serve a younger audience and topping out, for instance, at about 6 years. Concern about the skills gap has meant more communities now offer universal pre-K. More 4 year olds are spending more of their day in school with less time for weekday visits to the children’s museum. Elementary schools are cutting budgets and classroom time for anything but teaching to standards and tests. School group attendance that draws children 5-6 years and older is dropping. Out-of-school hours are filled with after-school out-of-home care , with sports, scouts. and music lessons. Growing competition among science, history, and art museums for 6-12 year olds in family and school groups is also impacting attendance. Finally, some children’s museums seem to feel resigned to losing the upper end of their target age, citing KAGOY–kids are getting older younger–and the “boo” factor–bigger children don’t want to be around younger children.  

On the other hand, the lower end of the age range, newborn to 2 years, is fairly secure for children’s museums. Parents with infants and toddlers have fewer options of places where their very young children are truly planned for and welcome. These parents are also strong, sometimes very strong, advocates for their needs and those of their babies: nursing spaces, clean and safe places, less busy times, times with fewer or no big kids. And while art, science, and history museums may be interested in serving 6-12 year olds, serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers is a significantly greater stretch to serve well. Many children’s museums are telling me that they track the average age of their audience and it is dropping. Last week I heard one museum say its average age is 4.5 years. A reasonable decision is to concentrate resources on serving a narrower age group well.

Not So Fast…
Physical challenge in play, part of a healthy childhood
That certainly isn’t the only choice. Before abandoning the upper end of the age range, I would encourage a children’s museum to look hard at the convergence of its strategic interests, the developmental interests of its young audience, and the needs of its families. Children are an audience for many museums. For children’s museums, however, children are more than an audience. They are at the heart of the mission and central to the museum’s reason for being. Children’s museums have become places where children can be children and where they can grow up. They are full of experiences and encounters that enrich millions of childhoods annually. As advocates for healthy and full childhoods, children’s museums have an opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to play a major role in stemming the erosion of childhood. The compression of childhood means children suited for play with toys want cell phones. Compression wears away a sense of freedom, safety, and promise that children need for their well-being.

Many parents and grandparents don’t want their children aging up so fast. They want to enjoy their child at each age and stage rather than find themselves saying, “When the children were young,” regretting that time passed unnecessarily quickly. Even children remain attached to their childhoods, at least occasionally. Regrettably lacking a study to back this up, I do have examples from experience: focus group summaries of tweens who are nostalgic about their childhoods and marketing studies citing 11 year olds wanting “lap time” with their parents. In children’s museums I see and listen to 10 and 11 year olds and remember overhearing an 11 year old announce, “I want to do this for a living when I grow-up,” as he pressed his 10th paper pulp medallion. Museums can make experiences better, much, much better for 7+ year olds by recognizing and responding to parents’ and children’s attachment to childhood.

Holding onto childhood favorites
Any of the 7 year olds we know hover at several points on the developmental spectrum at one time. This is typical. A child may be more like a 5 year old in social development and more like an 8 year old in language development. The broad developmental ranges typical of all children’s development are characteristically greater for children with special needs. A children's museum is a place where an 8 year old  with special needs fits in. These variations expand the picture of the 3, 5, or 7 year old that a museum serves. Differences in children’s background and family experiences also account for variations. What is engaging and challenging to a 6 year old with varied and wide-ranging experiences may be more similar to an 8 year old with limited life experiences. Clear-cut developmental breaks simply do not occur. Even the designations of early childhood (birth-8 years) and middle childhood (6-12 years) overlap. That tells us something. If a museum is planning for 6 year olds, how can it not plan for 10 year olds–who may also enjoy aspects of being 6?

A developmental perspective across the full range of early and middle childhood is invaluable. It shifts the primary focus from chronological ages and grades in school to what is happening for the child. Understanding the full developmental range also means recognizing that it is not prescriptive or predictive. Children's capabilities vary with context, are constantly emerging, and vary across domains. In short we can't follow developmental stages too literally. At the conclusion of a half-day discussion I facilitated with a leadership team to affirm their target age range–newborns through 15 year olds–and how to serve them, one participant noted that serving the age range well means knowing not only where children are developmentally, but also where children are headed developmentally.

Families with children across the age range
Not only are children wonderfully varied, but their families are as well. Many families have children ranging in age from newborn to 10 or 11 years. They want to do things together as a family–in one place. With experiences that engage a 2, 5, and 8 year old and amenities that make it easy for families to explore together, a children’s museum can be family, child, and mission centered.

What other considerations do you find at the convergence of a museum’s strategic interests, the developmental interests of its young audience, and the needs of its families?

Focusing on the Audience
What is interesting to 7 year olds?
By engaging the marketing, developmental and design expertise that has been a hallmark of children’s museums’ growing audience (if perhaps younger audience), a museum could have success serving 7-8 year olds in ways that resemble their success serving 4.5 year olds. This is not the realm of magical thinking and crossing fingers, closing eyes and muttering, “I hope, I hope, I hope they come.” It is the realm of focusing and deepening a museum’s understanding of children 7-10 (or 11 to 12) years; of experimenting, stretching, and revising assumptions about how to serve them. This exploration requires plain thinking and a few guidelines about audience.
  • Trying to serve a museum’s full age range is not the same as “aging up” or changing the target audience to  older children. When a museum works to better serve its full age range, it builds on a foundation of serving that audience: attendance data with school group numbers; member and visitor surveys often with age group information; and relationships with members and teachers. An approach to better serving the upper end of the current age range may also be helpful to a museum expanding its age range from, say, 6 years to 8 years or 8 to 10 years–but the starting points differ.
  • All parts of a museum’s audience are valued. All must be served well. Here’s the catch: all parts of the audience will not (and can not) have a high presence. An equally high level of services, offerings, programs, and exhibit real estate is not needed for all groups. Groups with a lower presence at the museum, typically the youngest and oldest, should have comparably fewer but still high quality experiences. The 7-10 year old set is in this “older shoulder” group.
  • Serving any and all age groups well relies on understanding them well. Get to know 7-10 year olds. Bring varied perspectives and sources of information to this exploration. What do these children say is fascinating to them?  What’s happening for them developmentally? What do their parents say interests them? What do their parents think is wonderful about them? What does the museum do consistently well that other venues do not? Check assumptions about who they are and their interests. Ask them and observe them. Don't guess.
What other considerations of the audience prepare a museum for serving the upper end of its age range?

Getting Started
If serving the upper end of the museum’s targeted age range better is central to mission, attendance, and visitor experience, a deliberate and thoughtful approach is necessary.  By no means comprehensive, the steps below can get a museum started. Lessons from these steps should point to new ones.
Clarify the starting and end points. Decide on the age group to focus on and be specific. Gather information on the number of children in this age range currently served and how: in exhibits? in programs? as members? If no information is available; start counting. A survey may be in order. Also, be clear about what you hope to accomplish with this effort. Is it an increase in the number of children in the age group? If so, what’s a realistic stretch? Is it satisfaction among families with children across the age range? Keeping families as members for longer? Keep in mind that 7-10 year olds flooding exhibits and programs and pushing their share of attendance from 5% to 25% is unlikely. An increased presence could occur gradually as 5 and 6 year olds grow up and stay hooked on museum offerings; as word gets out to more families; and as the museum improves its pitch for older children. 
Get to know the age group. Visit places where children 7-12 years spend time and are engaged in ways the museum hopes to engage them. It may be in your museum, another museum, at the library, park and rec, or Boys and Girls Club. Observe them, listen to what they talk about, notice how they relate to one another. Take notes and photos. Refer to books like Yardsticks by Chip Wood which has a good feel for children 4-14 years and to the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets.
Know your own museumTake a very good look at where children in the upper end of the age range currently have the highest presence in your museum's exhibits and document it. Observe them; talk to them. Ask what attracts them to the area, what they like about the activity, why, and what else they'd like to do there. Photograph them and what they are doing; make notes. Record numbers of children, ages, and times on a floor plan in the area. Then, build on their interests, responses, and insights. Modify or develop activities and incorporate them into exhibits. Be sure to revisit these areas, observe, and compare before-and-after data. Has the presence, activity, or dwell time of this age group changed? Repeat this process; it may take several rounds to get a good feel for a good match. Apply the approach to programs as well.
Open-ended materials: water, mud and gravel
Rethink spaces with older children in mind. Many museums have spaces designated for infants and toddlers up to 3 or 4 years, both as specific galleries and as “tod pods” in other galleries and exhibits. Seldom used for older children, a designated gallery has both possibilities and challenges. Allocating significant square footage often isn’t justified for a small age cohort. Even when it is justified, identifying experiences that appeal to older children without being a magnet for much younger ones can be a challenge; something that can defeat the purpose. Material intense maker spaces, multi-step processes like stop-action animation, physical challenges requiring coordination, cultural explorations, engineering feats, and creative applications of technology and media are possibilities. These engage the increasing capacity in middle childhood to think abstractly, apply complex problem solving strategies, persist, and use fine motor coordination. 
Tweens area (right) set lower 
than children's area (left)
Targeted age strategies are one approach. Strategies that transcend age are another. Open-ended experiences and materials engage children across the age and developmental spectrum differently. A child’s expanding repertoire of experiences that come with age and development play out differently with build platforms, material explorations, and sensory phenomena such as light and shadow. Design choices can also reinforce these strategies. Adjacencies might locate early child spaces out of first sight at the entry. Changing levels and sight lines can visually separate areas and age groups. Selecting a look-and-feel of spaces to appeal to a broader age range can expand rather than shrink age appeal. 

Taking a cue from children's thinking
Build on strengths. Children across the age range are delightfully curious. Even as babies, children express preferences. As soon as they can talk they share wonderful ideas and make observations. Learning from children and how they think can (and should) happen at any age. With development, however, children enjoy additional capacities to think, imagine, explain, solve problems, and express ideas. In serving the full age range of the museum, take full advantage of these exciting age-related developmental capacities of children 6 and 7 years old and up. These children can draw. They have a wider range of experiences to draw from. They can explain their ideas and use increasingly complex and creative thinking and communication strategies to do so. They can tell you a lot. Perhaps the answer to how to serve children 7 years and up is to ask them.

What strategies have you found that are effective in serving children 6 and 7 years old and older?  

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Engaging Audiences Strategically

Originally Published in May 2011, this exploration of the challenge of engaging audiences in targeted, strategic ways is still current.

With some regularity, I have a conversation with museum colleagues about changes their museum is noticing in its audience: fewer school visits, more younger children, a softening at the upper end of their age range. 

Sometimes these conversations are part of catching up on how a museum is doing. Or they are part of a planning project or strategic planning which naturally focuses on the audience. Other times I hear in the midst of a conversation that a museum’s audience never really was who it thought it was. For children’s museums this often means that the audience has been younger than assumed. For many art museums, the audience has often been older than thought.

This issue is not only popping up in conversations. Articles in museum journals take on questions such as, “Is your museum working to engage older audiences?”

Museum audiences aren’t static but are affected by changes in the external environment. A few related trends I’ve heard of recently are: introduction of universal pre-K; increasing costs for busses to bring students for field trips; decreasing money for field trips in school budgets; expectations for museum visits to map tightly onto school curriculum; baby boomers hitting the bulge; demographic shifts in ethnic groups; and population shifts between suburbs and cities.

Let me pause to acknowledge that a well-developed understanding of audiences is not a snap. For many years I certainly didn’t get it. I tried to be a good advocate for the audience’s learning interests. I didn’t recognize, however, that this was only a piece of the picture and of limited value in knowing how to reach the audience. Fortunately, two colleagues, Andrea Fox Jensen and Barb Plunkett, were helpful and patient in expanding, shifting, and deepening my understanding of audiences. Still, after many years, I work to appreciate the complexity of the audience, their interests, and ways the museum can engage them. 

Audience at the Center
Audiences are central to a museum’s purpose and sustainability. Attendance numbers matter so attendance shifts can hardly be taken lightly. Every museum needs a sound and shared understanding of who it must serve to advance its mission. Museums go about this in many ways and on an on-going basis: identifying primary, secondary, and emerging audiences; surveying visitors; analyzing attendance data; and sometimes conducting other types of audience research. Together these practices contribute to an audience-centered museum capable of engaging its audience strategically.

But, just what does engaging the audience strategically mean? It is not planning exhibits and programs for the entire audience and hoping they will come and like what they find. To the contrary, it is intentionally using museum resources–staff time and expertise, museum spaces, and information on and from the audience–to maximize the possibility of effectively serving and engaging those who will most use and benefit from the services.

A focus on engaging audiences strategically is especially valuable when the presence of audience groups at the museum is increasing or decreasing; information surfaces that a group hasn’t been served well; or when a museum rethinks its audience during strategic planning.

Deciding how to serve museum audiences is challenging. Usually one challenge emerges early and persists. Because no museum can offer everything to everybody, choices must be made. While this seems obvious, making distinctions about serving audience groups is difficult; it is not unusual to feel a group is being overlooked or excluded. To help manage this tension, keep in mind and repeat often:

A museum must serve all parts of its audience well. It must serve priority audience groups fully.

Describing the Audience
Planning for specific groups is more effective than planning for one large undifferentiated audience. There are many ways to describe an audience. I have written before about viewing the audience as customers, learners, and citizens and there are many others. Engaging the audience in the museum’s programmatic offerings means considering specific attributes and qualities that are salient to involvement with exhibits, programs, and events. Four attributes I find relevant are age, interests, availability, and grouping. They admittedly interact with one another but are also worth considering separately.
• Age of children is relevant because age-related development drives other important considerations: how children of different ages explore, play with, and learn from objects, activities, and spaces; how they interact with family and peers; and related roles for adults. 
• Interests may be personal like dinosaurs, sports, engineering, music, nature, or art. Interests may also be related to development such as a preschooler being interested in what her parents are doing and a tween being interested in peers. For adults interests may be related to careers and hobbies.
• Availability depends on other options or commitments on someone’s time. This includes school and jobs for most people from 5 to 65 years; school vacations; sports and out-of-school clubs; and more open schedules for retirees.
• Grouping relates to whether children and adults are likely to visit in groups (school, family, or community organizations), or as individuals.

Accessibility (how easy it is to get to the museum and cost) is an extremely important factor that tends to be addressed more effectively and in depth in subsequent rounds of planning and logistics.

Meaningful Audience Groups
Creating audience groups, or segments, benefits from a variety of perspectives, and multiple sources of information. Create a museum team from education, exhibits, marketing, and visitor services. Gather as much information as possible (and realistic): attendance figures, program numbers, surveys, and staff observations. This is a good time to note what information is not available but would be helpful. This could be information to start gathering for future tracking. Multiple sources of evidence will increase confidence in decisions as well as make it easier to share the thinking behind the work. Information is also helpful because myths around the presence of audience groups are not uncommon. Get going.

1.     Describe the audience as a whole in a meaningful way. This should be easy by stating the museum’s targeted audience. For instance, children six months through 16 years, their parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults, in the (geographic) area.
2.     Identify smaller groups, or segments. An audience segment shares within-group similarities that are salient to how they are likely to use the museum and what the museum hopes to offer. These attributes distinguish each segment from another in meaningful ways. Segments for this targeted audience might be:
6 months - 2 years: Infants & toddlers
2 - 5 years: Preschoolers
5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders
8 - 11 years: 3rd, 4th & 5th graders
11 - 14 years: 6th, 7th & 8th graders
14 - 16 years: 9th & 10th graders
Parents, grandparents, and caregivers visiting with children
Adults (visiting without children)
The age groups reflect typical developmental differences among children, relate to grades, and (should) align with museum programming. They will naturally vary from museum-to-museum. There’s no set number of groups, but having many groups can get cumbersome, especially because many individuals could be present at the museum in various groups. Engagement strategies could take that into account as, for instance:
5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders in families
5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders in school groups
5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders in organized groups

3.     Prioritize audience groups. Using the gathered information, characterize the current and potential presence of each segment at the museum. First, think about whether each segment currently has a lowmedium, or high presence at the museum: year round, for exhibits, programs, and events. Use observations, attendance data, enrollment in programs, classes, camps; field trip numbers, etc. Designate their presence at the Museum as L (low), M (medium), or H (high).

It quickly becomes clear that all groups cannot have a high presence. A museum’s sweet spot has a high presence; usually the upper and lower ends of an age range have a lower presence. This is a great place to pause and remember: A museum must serve all parts of its audience well. It must serve priority audience groups fully. High priority audiences are served fully. They should have more offerings compared to segments with low and even medium current presence: more exhibit real estate, more program topics and time slots, more events, more of everything.

Now consider where potential exists to increase the presence of some of these segments at the museum. Before deciding to increase the potential presence of all segments, keep in mind that a    crucial dynamic exists between segments a museum intends to serve and those actually willing to be served. For instance, a museum might WANT seniors to come, but are they interested? Where else might they go? This is equally true of tweens, toddlers, and families. There are, however, factors over which a museum has some control and, if put into play, could increase the presence of a segment at   the museum somewhat.

For instance, if a segment is well-represented in the area population but is under-represented at the museum, increasing its presence is possible. This segment might respond to more offerings, the museum better understanding its expectations, or more convenient scheduling. Not every segment could have a high potential presence at the museum, but usually at least some segments can move from low to medium or medium to high. (Perhaps some possible engagement strategies are coming into focus.)

Now decide whether each segment could have a potential presence at the museum that is L (low), M (medium), or H (high). An audience segmentation might look like the following. Comparing current and potential presence for segments, opportunities for growth appear.

Current Presence
Potential Presence
Engagement Strategies
6 months - 2 years: Infants & toddlers

2 - 4 years: Preschoolers

5 - 8 years: Kindergarteners, 1st & 2nd graders

8 - 11 years: 3rd, 4th & 5thgraders

11 - 14 years: 6th, 7th & 8thgraders

14 - 16 years: 9th & 10thgraders

Parents, grandparents, and caregivers visiting with children


Adults (visiting without children)

Documenting information about each segment is helpful at this point. Elaborate on interests, availability, and, for children, tolerance of or need for adults. For instance: low attendance for preschoolers during naptime; 5 - 8 year olds are coming with field trips; summer camps are filled with 8 - 10 year olds but fall off at 11 years; the museum gets requests for youth development programs for high schoolers, etc. The age at which children get involved in team sports in a community is often the age at which their weekend or afterschool presence at a children’s museum or science center falls off. It’s hard to impact their availability.

Questions related to segments will surface and the museum won’t have information. This is an opportunity to gather that information. Talk directly to the audience; ask parents whether they are looking for more summer camps or how ages of their children affect decisions to visit the museum. Sub-segmenting to characterize the current and potential presence of segments visiting in family, school or community groups is helpful; this may reveal that the presence of a segment is due primarily to particular visitation patterns. Build on the museum’s knowledge of the age groups it serves by using books like Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4 - 14 by Chip Wood to get at some interests typical of children in this age range. Incorporate information from local studies about community priorities that maps onto audience segments: local needs for more out-of-school time, or under-served audience groups.

Finally, important members of the museum’s audience may not have a high, or even medium, current or potential presence at the museum. But they are valued members of the audience and important to achieving the museum’s mission. Non-traditional audience groups may be included as part of other groups, for instance, as students in kindergarten - grade 6th visiting with school groups or community groups. Increasing their presence might also be possible through specific engagement strategies.

Engagement Strategies
Most people are all-too-ready to start with engagement strategies. Without the previous steps, however, finding ways to increase the presence of a segment is chancy. Using information about what is and isn’t working for specific audience segments and problem solving, tweaking, and expanding programmatic formats can lead to more fully serving high priority segments and, often, serving all segments well.

Most museums have a set of programmatic options they’ve developed. Some are fairly common while others are less so. Often these are variations of program format (camps, workshops, parent-child sessions, special events, etc.), topic (school standards, personal interests, career threads, etc.), scheduling (school days, school holidays, weekends, evenings, etc.), and use of space.

Engagement strategies are the ways a museum delivers varied experiences to its audience groups that are responsive to their interests and availability. They are programs, exhibits, and events but are selected and developed in ways that:
• Build on an area in which the museum is already and reliably excellent;
• Avoid areas in which a segment is currently being served well by other organizations;
• Respond to documented community needs or priorities;
• Anticipate relevant trends and shifts. 

I’ve clustered opportunities into five areas. In exploring them, keep in mind those segments with a low presence or even a slipping middle presence.
1. Take advantage of the availability of segments to increase their presence at the museum.
Consider more summer camps for 5 - 8 year olds and 8 - 11 year olds. Most parents of children in this age range (8 - 11 years, especially) are looking to create full summer schedules. For the same reason, consider camps during winter and spring school holidays for these same groups and consider after-school programming. Preschool-aged children who are not enrolled in regular programs are available during the morning for special toddler times, or mommy and me programs.
 2. Follow children’s interests to increase the appeal of museum offerings.
Many exhibit and program topics emerge from school subject areas and what adults want children to know. This is not necessarily what is of high interest to children. Talk with and observe children to learn more about what is fascinating to them and about their interests—especially children at the upper end of the age range. Often sports, music, and technology make the list. So will making things, inventing, becoming competent with tools, and learning feats like juggling. Fill gaps in what’s available elsewhere in the community; intrigue and challenge children; and keep to the mission.
3.  Make finer distinctions in developmental shifts.
As children become more interested in peers, opportunities for social interaction become increasingly important. Programs are conducive to social interactions and can be a more effective way to engage children eight years and up in scout and after-school programs; on over-nights in the museum; or as apart of junior volunteer or youth development program.
Older or younger audience groups may not have a high presence at the museum, but serving them very well might maintain their presence. Tailor spaces for these (or other low-presence) segments distributing activities throughout the exhibits. In some children’s museums, areas for toddlers are set aside and distributed throughout exhibits. This strategy can be used for 8 - 10 year olds as well. But it does take attention to understand what is of particular interest to them. This is a mini-research project. Count where children 8 - 10 year olds currently have the highest presence in exhibits; ask them what they like about that area and why; build on their interests, add an activity layer, expand text, incorporate a challenge, etc. Create a magnet to attract that segment.
Families with preschoolers are looking for age-appropriate ways to celebrate holidays. Tailor not-so-spooky Halloween, New Years at Noon, Valentines Day, and Earth Day for toddlers. 
4. Strengthen events that serve families with children across the age range, including the upper end of the age range.
There are events families share together even as children seemingly age out of them. Increasingly “cool” children and youth can make an exception for family activities as part of those traditions. Some of these traditions are museum Halloween events, the gingerbread house design contest, or New Years celebration.
5. Bring existing content and expertise to new segments and sub-segments.
There are audience segments within segments that a museum already serves that it may be able to serve better. For instance, if a museum serves children 2 through 14 years, it very likely can also serve that age group with special needs. Many museums already have set times for children on the spectrum or with an immune deficiency. There are many families and school groups looking for great experiences for their children with special needs.
Museums have valuable expertise in informal learning that can supplement strategies and approaches that teachers use in the classroom. Museums can bring an understanding of the value of play, active hands-on learning, early literacy development, or inquiry to teachers in professional development workshops, institutes, or academies.

A Way of Thinking and Planning

By no means is this a complete list of engagement strategies and not all of these changes will produce high volume changes. Every museum can expand engagement strategies for its audience groups by being intentional in delivering varied experiences to its audience segments that are responsive to their interests and availability. 

Developing engagement strategies is not easy. Implementing them doesn’t happen in a snap. There is no silver bullet. With tight resources and a growing interest in sustainability, museums will continue to operate in an environment of accountability. Well-honed engagement strategies, however, have the added benefit of serving a museum’s audience more fully. 

Please share! What engagement strategies have you found successful at your museum?

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Managing Multiple Museum Audiences

Originally posted in July 2014, the realities and challenges of managing multiple audience groups continues to be true and challenging.

Photo credit: Vergeront

An article in the July 2014 issue of Curator prompted my thinking about museums managing multiple audiences. Museums by their nature have multiple audiences that are designated in numerous ways: members and general visitors; locals and tourists; adults, young adults, families, and children; enthusiasts, culturals, learning families. 

In “A Place for Kids? The Public Image of Natural History Museums,” co-authors Hanne Strager and Jens Astrup report on a study to investigate the public image of natural history museums. Absent published quantitative surveys and studies, the study explores whether natural history museums are seen by the public as being primarily aimed at children and families with children. Given this question, it examines the implications for the role natural history museums might play in promoting science literacy. Conducted in Denmark, the study brings in relevant perspectives from natural history museums in the US and Europe.

While this study focuses on audience questions in natural history museums in particular, it exemplifies an important practice: investigating an unexamined audience assumption, in fact, one that operates across museum types. Based on my museum experience, perpetuating unexamined assumptions about audiences is not unusual. The authors, in fact, make such a point, “Most researchers simply observe the phenomena described above as a well known fact.” (p. 313). Often unwittingly, museums perpetuate unchecked assumptions about their audiences, sometimes embracing and acting on fuzzy or false beliefs about them. At some point, these assumptions collide: public perception of a museum shifts, audiences compete with each other, attendance drops, funding slips.   

The article surfaces some audience assumptions that can limit museums in advancing their missions and serving their audiences well. The following five axioms solidly ground museum thinking in their audiences. Some are more obvious than others, but all are interconnected and contribute to keeping a thoughtful eye on museum audiences.

-        Mission drives audience.

-        Audiences are plural.

-        Museums identify their audiences but their visitors choose them.

-        Different audience groups have different interests and expectations.

-        Meeting attendance goals is not the same as serving the audience well.

Mission drives audience. The mission as the source of a museum’s audience may be neither obvious nor logical. That’s not surprising given many mission statements that refer to a large, undifferentiated public or group such as, “people of all ages.” On the other hand, a focus on a museum’s audience does emerge when it considers its mission elements: what a museum does, how, and why. A museum can bring additional clarity to understanding its audiences when it asks, who does the community need us to serve in order for us to advance our mission? Without an understanding of its audience grounded in its mission, a museum may unwittingly aspire to be for everyone and venture onto the slippery slope of chasing the audience.

Audiences are plural. Talking and thinking about “the” audience or “our” audience implies that a museum’s audience is a single, undifferentiated group. This is a problematic approach to serving 50, 100, or 400 thousand visitors a year when they come as families, school groups, seniors, or adult enthusiasts; come on busy holidays or slow weekday mornings; visit a dozen times a year or once in a lifetime. A museum must serve multiple audience groups to deliver on its mission as well as to establish a broad enough base of support to its collection, experiences, staff, and facility. Of course which audience groups are served, which are larger than others, and how a museum serves them varies according to the museum, its mission, size, and community.

Museums identify their audiences, but their visitors choose them. The mission broadly frames who the museum’s audiences are so it can identify and learn about the groups it needs to serve well to deliver on that mission. Converting an audience group into a visitor, however, is quite a different matter and not always an easy one. Visitors don’t simply show up at a museum because they fit a museum’s audience profile, although it’s tempting to operate as if that were true. Why a museum attracts whom it does is a function of multiple factors. Research helps sort out how location, experience, relevance to everyday life, educational content, amenities, and local competition play out. Sometimes, however, a group, like young adults that a museum wants to attract just isn’t inclined to be attracted. A museum must decide how much it should stretch to engage a particular audience group and at what cost to other valued audience groups.

Different audience groups have different interests and expectations. While obvious, the implications of this can be tricky to manage. In whatever way a museum identifies its audience groups (learning families, culturals, young adults, millenials, enthusiasts), it does so around within-group commonalities that are salient to its mission and offerings. Various groups may not only have different but sometimes, competing interests and expectations. Sometimes the differences between groups and the expectations begin to drive other decisions. Internal mindsets can reinforce competition for experience or space; sacrifice appealing to one group over another; or perpetuate the idea that one group ruins the experience for others. If, however, audiences are grounded in the mission, then all audience groups are valued. The museum employs its expertise, creativity, audience research, and prototyping to expand engagement strategies capable of serving multiple audience groups–building on shared interests, encouraging collaboration, optimizing spaces and time of day.               

Meeting attendance goals is not the same as serving the audience wellA museum uses many measures to characterize its impact. Among audience-related measures, attendance is most common, characterizing a museum’s popularity and, to an extent, its access related to location and cost. Attendance is used so often we forget what it doesn’t convey. First, it doesn't reveal if these are the right people, the audience groups the museum must serve to advance its mission. Crowds of people coming through the doors is an accomplishment. When these crowds aren’t made up of priority groups or are served at at the expense of groups to whom the museum directs its mission, it is not a success. 

Finally, as important as reaching attendance goals for key audiences is, a museum must also serve its audience groups well. What this means is different for every museum, but it is necessarily a complex choreography across many time frames delivered by a many many people with great intentionality. It doesn't, and can't, happen without thoughtfully examining and updating assumptions and knowledge about the museum's multiple audience groups.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Customer, Learner, Citizen

Photo credit: Vergeront
Originally posted January 2011

Visitors, audiences, guests, customers, clients, patrons, users, the public. How do you or your museum refer to the people it serves and hopes to serve? 

Articles, blogs, conversations, and even mission statements suggest there is little agreement about this important term among museums. In fact, labels are often used interchangeably. This might imply that it doesn’t really matter what we call the adults and children who walk through the doors, enroll in classes, become members, shop at the store, explore exhibits, and visit our websites.

In fact, what we call our museum’s public beneficiaries really does influence how we think of them, plan for them, serve them and our communities, and even assess our impact. “Visitor” might have the lead as a standard term, but with major shortcomings. It is not only impersonal, but it also lumps together millions of people into one undifferentiated mass. It implies a temporary relationship with someone who will be leaving soon. Finally, it ignores the vast number of people who may not physically come to the museum but who have an interest in and a relationship with it. Teachers and school administrators, volunteers, partners, funders, business leaders, neighbors, and taxpayers are only some of the stakeholders who don’t fit the label "visitor."   

Visitor is not so much a wrong term; it is simply inadequate. The lively, exciting activity around audience conceptualizations seems to suggest this as well. (Falk, J. 2006;  Stylianou-Lambert, T. 2010. Pekarik and  Mogel. 2010.)

Somewhere between a one-size-fits-all category of visitor and a research-based audience segmentation is a view of museum visitors as:
  • Customers
  • Learners
  • Citizens
While very basic as a taxonomy, this nevertheless focuses on the person, engages with museum practices, and aligns with most museums’ broad strategic interests. It also accommodates the very real possibility that one person is likely to be a customer, a learner, or a citizen at various times during a museum visit depending on their interests, choices, and activities.

Considering the particular roles and associated interests of customers, learners, and citizens opens the possibility of relationships with them that are more personal than abstract and that may be on-going. It places people in the social context of museums. And it facilitates understanding, describing and assisting people in what they hope to accomplish by connecting with the museum.
  • Customers purchase memberships, attend events, shop in the store, and use websites. They are interested in friendly service, personal satisfaction, a good value, comfort, easy navigation, and a positive experience. 
  • Learners visiting exhibits, participating in a program, or upgrading skills expect rich accessible content, opportunities to apply existing skills and experiences, or appreciate art. They may want to learn together as a family or provide a learning experience for their children.
  • Inspired to serve their community, eager to expand or share skills, or acting on a long-standing interest, citizens may be volunteers, participants in research, advisors, advocates, or enthusiasts. They bring energy, expertise, and goodwill that help a museum strengthen its community connections.
Getting to know and plan for customers, learners, and citizens suggests new contexts and practices. We tend to construct a context that takes into account qualities we attribute to someone in a particular role. So distinguishing among roles is likely to sharpen awareness of expectations and associated contexts. Alternative assumptions, approaches, and practices may come into play along with new resources and studies.

  • Customers. Satisfying customers brings to mind ways to be helpful, the importance of taking the extra step, and the potential of an on-going relationship that serving visitors does not. Two decades ago museums experienced a surge of awareness around satisfying customers. Meeting or exceeding their expectations became a priority. Subsequently, customer service procedures were developed, staff training was implemented, and satisfaction levels are measured and tracked. Lobbies increasingly offer designated lines (i.e. member express), food and other amenities, and activities to engage children while parents purchase tickets. A reputation for exceptional customer service builds a valued brand and good will that benefits a museum for years.
  • Learners. Imagine the discussions, questions, and choices a team planning an exhibit for learners would have compared to the same team planning an exhibit for visitors. To plan for learners, a team might develop a definition of learning. It might identify attributes like curiosityrich experience bank, or creative, that learners bring to the objects, images, text, media, and activities a team will shape into an exhibition. The team could use generic learning outcomes or content-based frameworks to frame learning goals and evaluate the exhibit’s impact, just as it could design exhibits using research on the connection between family learning and exhibit characteristics. The more developed a view of the learner a museum has, the more fully it is able to deliver on a promise of learning value.
  • Citizens. Museums invest significant resources in developing partnerships, growing networks, recruiting volunteers, delivering programs in the community, and reaching new audiences. These are long-term efforts and a challenge to sustain. Engaging citizens in this work, however, can shift resources and results. Whether they are neighbors, hobbyists, volunteers, activists, artists, inventors, or scientists, citizens bring high levels of motivation and commitment. Moreover, their experiences, expertise, and perspectives are assets that help the museum serve its customers and learners more effectively, expand its cultural knowledge, research a pressing local issue, or bring a wider range of the community into the museum. While listening, nurturing relationships, and building trust take time, authentic citizen engagement goes directly to a museum’s aligning its interests and assets with its community’s priorities.
Everyday, museums open their doors, look sharp, eagerly await and welcome visitors. If, however, a museum were to focus on serving its customers, inspiring learners, and engaging citizens, it could accomplish this and more. A museum could also help itself become a recognized and valued asset in its community.
  • Falk, J. 2006. An identity-centered approach to understanding museum learning. Curator: The Museum Journal. 49/2: 151-164.
  • Pekarik, A.J. and B. Mogel. 2010. Ideas, objects, or people? A Smithsonian exhibition team views visitors anew. Curator: The Museum Journal 53/4: 465-483.
  • Stylianou-Lambert, T. 2010. Re-conceptualizing museum audiences: Power, activity, responsibility. Visitor Studies: 13(2): 131-144.