High Horses, Ivory Towers and the M-Word

This is the third instalment in a series, The Visitor Experience Revolution. You should probably start at part one, here.  I will be presenting this topic at  the National Association for Interpretation’s big workshop coming up next week in Virginia Beach. I hope to see you there.

Montmartre, Paris

As interpreters, we identify ourselves as educators first and foremost. That is not a bad thing. But with that lofty self-image sometimes comes a sense of superiority over our fellow professionals. How many of us also consider ourselves professional marketers?

I’ve discovered that the M-word can be a hot-button term: to some of us, it’s simply part of how we do business. To others, marketing is everything that is distasteful, compromising and cheap in our industry.

I confess that in my earlier days, I avoided anything to do with the marketing department. They’re not like us. They dress fancy and have big hair and they talk about unique selling points, and in those days I would generally rather drink bleach than have lunch with any of them. That is, until I got to know them, and discovered that they’re passionate about exactly the same things we are: connecting people to place.

It was after I finally got off my high horse and started hanging around with marketing people that one of them took me to school about what marketing actually was. Marketing is not just promotion and it’s not just merchandising: it’s bigger than those.

We work in a free-choice environment. Nobody has to come to our programs and exhibitions; it’s by definition a market system. And each of us, like it or not, has a role in creating or maintaining demand for what we offer.  In marketing terms, you are the products person (by product we simply mean program, exhibition, event.) And who are those people you always thought of as doing marketing? They’re probably actually promotions people, and together you make up two equal parts of the five Ps of marketing: product, promotion, price, placement, and publics.

With a Visitor Experience approach, we need to work together. That means acknowledging that we actually need to meet the needs of our markets. No more art for art’s sake; no more elitism; no more of what I call visitor experience by historians, for historians. No more preaching to the choir. Those days are gone; if we don’t bend to meet the needs of our markets, our managers will hire people who will. Oh wait, they’re already doing so, and we are no longer being invited to the management table.

Which brings me to our second big handicap.

Segmentation: Letting go of the “everyone” myth

We need to catch up with the world in the area of audience segmentation. Interpreters are so far behind in this field it’s embarrassing. We need to understand our audiences as well as our promotions people do; as well as social scientists do; as well as Facebook does. And in order to do that we have to let go of the cherished belief that our work appeals to everyone.

I still hear this in our field! Every time I train front-line interpreters, I ask who they’re planning their programs for, and I get the same answer every time: “Everyone. My job is to make programs that appeal to everyone. That’s why I’m here.”

Sorry, it just isn’t true. Everyone doesn’t come to your park, your historic site, your zoo. Everyone is elsewhere. I guarantee it.

It can be difficult to accept that our institutions are exclusive, but they are. Your beloved institution has three major barriers around it: three unseen force fields that keep almost everyone out. These are awareness, access and appeal.

Awareness refers to the sad reality that a whole lot of people still don’t know you exist.

Access is a barrier in three ways: the distance to your front door, the difficulty of your terrain, and the financial cost of visiting you.

Lastly, appeal (or lack thereof) recognizes that you haven’t managed to come up with a compelling reason for people to visit you.

Because of these eternal barriers, we do market research—segmentation—to help us find and connect with people. Not the mythic “everyone”, mind you, but the specific types of people who are likely to get through those barriers to help us realize our missions.

Do you know who your institution’s top three market segments are? Do you understand your target audience’s life stage, their education levels, their values and priorities? Do you know their patterns of visitation, their group composition, the length of their visits, and their average dwell times in your various exhibits and attractions? Do you know the way to their heart? 

Because if you do, you’re placing yourself at the cutting edge of the visitor experience revolution. And that’s probably something your VP would like to see.

Coming soon: the last instalment. M-Word, Meet L-Word- Learning In the New VE Environment

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boy on cannon
Vive la révolution.

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