AD 1

How to Write an Audience Development Plan: A Quick Guide

Ben Gammon on how to draft an audience development plan for your museum. What issues do you need to consider, what data do you need to gather, what should the plan contain, what does it need to achieve? 

Getting started
To write an audience development plan you will need to gather a considerable amount of data about your museum – its aspirations, its strengths and weakness, the challenges it faces and above all else it’s existing and potential audiences. You will need to talk to internal and external stakeholders and review documents such as the museum’s business plan, marketing strategy and annual report. You also need to be clear as to why you are being asked to write this plan, who it is for and how they plan to use it.

Your audience development plan will roughly divide into main four sections – an assessment of your museum’s position; a description of the goals of the audience development process and why they are important to the organisation; a strategy for how you are going to achieve those goals; and a description of how you are going to measuring your progress towards achieving those goals.

When writing the Audience Development Plan always bear in mind who the audience for this document will be; what they need to be reminded of, what will need to be explained to them, what evidence and supporting data they will need to see and what actions they are being asked to sign-off. You need to know how this plan once completed is going to be used e.g. to help raise extra funding, to plan future programmes of exhibitions and events, to guide the development of new marketing and publicity or some combination of these. Above all else this document must be of practical use to your colleagues.

Part 1: Where are you now?
Firstly you need to set out the core aims and values of your museum – its mission statement, brand values, its fundamental reasons for existing and aspirations for the future. This information should be available in the museum’s annual report and business plan and should also be familiar to all senior managers.

Any audience development strategy needs a very detailed section outlining the current audience – who they are, what they do, want and need. At the most basic level you need to know how many visits your museum receives, roughly when they occur, what type of visitor make them and the change in the number of visits your museum has received over the last five to ten years. This though is only the starting point. To effectively plan an audience development strategy you are going to need most if not all of the following information about your visitors and possible some other things as well.

• Their age profile and the mix of ages within family, school and adult groups
• Their socio-economic status
• Ethnicity
• Whether they are UK or overseas residents
• First and maybe also their second language
• Their past history of visiting your museum and how frequently they visit
• Roughly where they live or are staying while on holiday
• How they reached your museum on the day of their visit
• How they found out about your museum
• Who decided to visit the museum
• What they are hoping to see and do during the visit
• Which competing visitor attractors they have recently visited
• What aspects of your museum – exhibitions, live events, shop, café etc
they like and dislike, why they like or dislike them and how they feel
they could be improved
• Their perception of the value for money of the shop, café, any charged
for attractions or events that they attended

Hopefully your museum already regularly collects most of this data. If not you have got to conduct some audience research or commission some from an external market research company. There are a range of different techniques available for gathering information about your visitors. You will need to use several of these to obtain a complete picture of your current audience.

• Audience profile survey – short interviews with visitors (no more than 2-3 minutes in duration) as they enter the museum to gather basic demographic and psychographic data. NB collecting this data from school groups is very difficult and will require a different strategy e.g. interviewing teachers during lunch time or after their visit via the phone

• Visitor satisfaction survey – interviews with visitors as they leave the building or if you cannot afford that at least self-completion questionnaires handed to and collected from visitors

• Focus groups – discussions with groups of 6-10 visitors lasting about one and a half hours led by a moderator; it is vital that members of the group have several things in common e.g. are all parents with children aged under 12 and who regularly visit the museum

• Or if you cannot afford focus group in-depth interview – these are interviews with 1-4 visitors at a time lasting about 15-30 minutes

• Accompanied visits – where a member of staff joins a family group, adult couple or school group and is taken around the museum by them. The member of staff interviews and observes the visitors during their visit but does not provide any advice on what they should do.

In addition it is worth running some brain-storming sessions with your front-of-house staff to gather their experience of your visitors and to review automatically collected data such as ticket sales, turnover in the café and shop, unique visits to your website, records of visitor complaints and compliments.

When you collect demographic data about your audience – age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, place of residence etc – it is important to ensure that your classifications match those of the national census so that you can make comparisons. The census classifications often change – for example in the UK the A, B, C1, C2, D and E categories for socio-economic status are no longer used and instead a new system has been introduced called NS-SEC (see the Office for National Statistics website for more details).
Drawing this all this data together you will be able to produce a detailed profile of your existing audience. To make sense of this information you need to group your visitors into categories of distinct needs and wants.

Often simply dividing visitors by the type of group they are in will suffice – family, school, independent adult, adult organised group etc. The needs and wants of these groups are sufficiently different to make these meaningfully distinct categories of visitor although you will also need to sub-divide these categories for example by age of children in family groups and by the age of the students and the subject they are coming to the museum to study. Visitors to your website would need to be classified differently probably on the basis of their motivation for visiting the site.

As well as this basic classification it is also worth analysing your audience in two or more different ways in order to gain a clearer picture of their deeper lying motivations and expectations. For example Pekarik, Doering and Karns developed a system based upon what type of experience visitors were seeking and identified four main categories: seeing real artefacts (object centred); gaining new insights (information centred); spending quality time with friends or family (social centred) or having a quiet, reflective, personally rewarding experience (introspective centred).

In a similar vein Moussouri developed a system for classifying visitors based upon their reasons for visiting the museum and identified seven categories: Place (people on holiday wanting to visit a famous location); education (seeking an informal learning experience); life-cycle (bringing children or grandchildren to the museum); social event (a day out with family or friends); entertainment (a chance to relax, have fun, see something beautiful); practical (time to spare, because it is raining etc).

Hinton divided museum visitors according to Kolb’s categories of learning styles – how people like to acquire knowledge and how they like to make use of the knowledge that they have gained.

Based upon the evidence you have gathered about your audience you should be able to develop categories for your own visitors; but a word of warning here. It is incredibly tempting to give these categories silly names along the lines of “zeitgeist munching dilettantes” and the like. Resist this temptation. At best it will elicit contempt for your audience development plan. At worst it will engender disrespect for your visitors and will present a misleadingly simplistic impression of their needs and wants.

By now you will have a very detailed picture of who visits your museum but what about those who do not? By comparing the demographic profile of your visitors to that of the population in your catchment area – the geographical area from where you can reasonable expect most of your visitors to reside – you can identify segments of community who are under-represented in your audience. These are will include potential new visitors that your audience development plan will be targeting.

Depending on the aims of the audience development (see the next section) you may need to conduct further qualitative research – focus groups, accompanied visits, in-depth interviews – to ascertain why certain types of people tend not to visit your museum. What are the barriers is it that they find it difficult or too expensive to reach your museum during opening hours, that they do not like what you have to offer in terms of exhibitions and live events, or that they do not like what they think you offer?

Part 2: Where do you need to get to?
What are the factors driving the audience development? Why do you need to make changes to your audience? The answers to these questions are a crucial for your Audience Development Plan because without them it is impossible to identity which types of visitor you want to attract.

A key question to pose is what sort of audience development does the museum want: a) increase the frequency at which existing visitors make return visits (i.e. more visits but not necessary more visitors); b) attract more people like those it already attracts; c) broaden the audience by attracting new types of visitor; or d) some combination of these options?

When identifying how the museum’s audience should develop there are many factors that need to be considered.

• When do you want more visitors to arrive – can you really handle more visitors during your peak times or are you looking to fill troughs in your flow of visitors?

• What would you have to do to attract people back to your museum more frequently and can you afford to do that?

• Can you actually provide the exhibitions, live events and facilities that under-represented audiences want? Can you provide enough attractions? A single exhibit or event is hardly likely to be enough

• Does your museum want to provide such exhibitions, events and facilities or would it run counter to your brand values and fail to play to your museum’s strengths?

• Which audiences are your funders interested in catering for?

• Can you afford the marketing required to attract new audiences?

• By changing your museum to attract new audiences do you run the risk of losing important parts of your existing visitor base?

• How will you cater for conflicting needs and wants among different audience groups?

These and similar questions need careful consideration when deciding how you want to develop your audience. It is important to be realistic in your aims recognising the limitations of what you can change about your museum and the difficulties some audiences will present for you.

Equally importantly is how you will sustain any increase or broadening of your audience. Hosting a high profile temporary exhibition may well attract new visitors to your museum but what will make them visit again once the temporary exhibition has closed? If that exhibition was the only aspect of your museum that appealed to them they will not return.
Finally you need to decide over what timescale you expect and want these changes to your audience to occur. In large part this will be influenced by the decisions you make for the next section of the document.

Part 3: How do you plan to get there?
So you have decided on your aims for the audience development – which audiences you wish to grow and how you want to change the pattern of visitation among existing audiences. You now need to consider, at least in broad terms how you are going to go about attracting these visitors and satisfying their news and wants sufficiently that they will come back and so they will provide positive “word of mouth” marketing about your museum to other similar people.
There are many different approaches you can take to increase and change your audience. You will need to carefully consider the barriers to people visiting more frequently or visiting at all and how these could be overcome. Potentially you could:

• Develop new permanent exhibitions and/or update existing ones
• Develop an on-going programme of temporary exhibitions and events
• Extend the opening hours e.g. late night opening for adults
• Run a programme of outreach activities in local schools and communities to promote your museum
• Change the brand identity of the museum
• Undertake press, publicity and marketing campaigns to raise the profile of the museum and increase understanding of what it has to offer
• Change your pricing structure, exhibitions and events

Which of these or other approaches you decide to use will depend upon the museum’s mission, brand values and particular strengths and weaknesses. The audience research you have conducted will reveal the needs and wants of your current audience and of potential new audiences that you want to attract. You also will need to consider what your funders are willing to support and how much money you can allocate from your own budgets.

A useful way of identifying changes you need to make is to conduct with your colleagues, a SWOT analysis of your museum in terms of its current and potential appeal to visitors – its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This analysis needs to take into account among other things the museum’s collections, exhibitions, live events, café, shop and staff; the building including its location, access to public transport; who your competitors are for visitors and for sponsorship. It is important to be honest about the W and T aspects of the SWOT analysis just as much as the S and O aspects. When conducting this SWOT analysis it is very important that you include the opinions of your current and potential new visitors. In the end it is their assessment of your museum that will determine whether or not the changes you have made were worthwhile.

Once you have a list of proposed actions you will need to arrange them in terms of short-term “quick wins”, medium term actions requiring moderate amounts of time and funding and large scale high impact actions requiring considerable extra funding.

Part 4: How will you know if you’re getting there?
So you have been able to identify changes to your organisation – what it offers and how it is marketed – that you believe will deliver the required changes to your audience profile. You have organised these actions into a timetable and worked out how much time and resources they will require.

Once your programme of change is underway you will need a system for assessing how successful these changes have been; how those that are not working could be improved and how the successful ones could be extended.

At the most basic level you need to record the flow of visitors into the building. You should also be conducting regular audience profile surveys every 1-3 months with about 50 to 100 visitors at a time. You should also be conducting visitor satisfaction surveys at least two or three times a year. The samples for these surveys need to match the actual flow of visitors into the building. For example most of the surveys need to be conducted during the busiest times of the week and the year.

Ideally you should also be conduct more qualitative research with visitors from new and existing audiences to ascertain their detailed reactions to the changes you have made.

Writing an audience development plan is no small undertaking. It involves gathering together and analysing a great deal of information, consulting widely with colleagues and external stakeholders and making difficult decisions with far reaching consequences for the whole museum. It is vital that you ensure your audience development plan provides clear, measurable and achievable goals for the museum. Equally important is that you obtain the support of your colleagues and ensure that they feel involved in the process and understand why it is happening.

Developing the museum’s audience – increasing the number of visits, broadening your appeal, demonstrating that you are truly inclusive and accessible – is vital for the long-term survival of your organisation and is arguably one of the most important roles that you could be assigned. Good luck!

Ben Gammon
Museum Consultant

(prior Head of Audience Development, Science Museum, London)

Sign up to the Museum-iD Newsletter:
Sign up to the Museum-iD Newsletter: