Welcome to the first in my Dear Don series, in which I do my best to answer questions from my readers about interpretation and visitor experience. (And if I don’t have the answers, I’ll be featuring wise experts who can help.)

Barred owl
Owls are always a hit.

Dear Don:

I attended your webinar on target audiences and have a question: We offer a variety of adult-only programs but there seem to be an increasing number of adults that attend programs geared to families as well – owls, slugs, squirrels, bats, seaweeds etc.  For example last week 70 people showed up for Who’s Hooting, which is a program geared to families.  About 20 of these were single adults or couples who are in the “wanting advanced information” category.

So recently I’ve started offering an adults-only version of really popular programs, such as woodpeckers for adults in the morning, and then a family one in the afternoon (I had 65 adults, and then 90 people came to the family one!)  It can be challenging to always offer an adult one and then a family one right after, so I was just wondering if you have any further ideas, suggestions or experience to share. We try to be as clear as possible in our publications as to which programs are geared to who but this doesn’t seem to get through.

Signed, Very Popular Naturalist

Dear VPN:

First of all, congratulations on your success! Over-subscribed programs are the kind of problem we all should have. But if I understand you, the problem isn’t too much demand, exactly—it’s the match between the people showing up, and the intended audience of the program.

The first thing that comes to mind is the possibility that maybe these adults are showing up at your family programs because they actually want to be treated like children—and I mean that in a good way. Maybe your family programs kick ass, and word has gotten out. I’ve got a theory that really good adult programs are actually just really good children’s programs, but with the content smartened up a bit: they’re fun, varied, active and hands-on (as opposed to traditional stand-and-deliver adult programs.)

And this jibes with a current trend in popular culture: Childhood Nostalgia, where millennials and late Gen X’ers are taking part in activities (wearing onesies, buying colouring books, having sleepovers, playing Super Mario) that remind them of their childhood. (It’s a much nicer term than Arrested Development Syndrome, don’t you think?) [ref]And think of the programming possibilities, people! We’re always complaining that millennials are hard to reach.[/ref]

Barring that possibility, I suspect you have a communications problem. The message isn’t getting out that some of your programs are for adults, and some for families or just kids. What does your brochure look like? We often assume that by putting a tiny note on a brochure like “Family Event!” people will read it—but more often, they’ll just respond to a photograph or a subject heading (“Owls”) and never make it to the fine print.

When we talk of target markets, we talk of communications channels. Are you hitting both audiences with the same brochure? I suggest you not only split your brochure into two different promotions products, but also send them down two different channels: post the adult ad in, say, the weekly entertainment magazine, and the family program in your local young parent weekly. (You might want to make this transition gradually: don’t cut off your brochure for a while, because clearly it’s working.) And if that solution is too expensive, I suggest you keep the brochure but split the different program streams into clearly different sections: Family Events, Connoisseur Series, Just For Adults, etc.

Good luck. I hope to see your programs one day—I’ll be the guy with the onesie on.

Do you have a question I can help you with? Hit me up, below.

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