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.
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 low, medium, 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.
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.
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.
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?