Understanding Audiences: The Downside of “Falk Types”

About twenty years ago, Dr. John Falk and Dr. Lynn Dierking did a body of research on why people visit museums and other informal learning institutions. It’s fascinating and valuable stuff, and if you get a chance to read their work, you really should.

They discovered that, broadly speaking, people have a handful of different motivations for visiting our attractions. You have Explorers, who love to learn when they visit. There are Experience Seekers, who are motivated by being part of the buzz of a place; they want that “been there, done that” feeling of ticking a popular attraction off their list. There are Personal History explorers, who see their ancestors in your story and want to learn more; there are Rechargers and Hobbyist/professionals (more about them below.)

Since Falk and Dierking published their findings, many museums, parks, zoos, and aquariums have incorporated what we now call “Falk Types” into their audience segmentation plans. In general, I really applaud this—it’s much better than taking a spray-and-pray, “general public” approach to target audiences.

But Falk types aren’t enough. Yes, they are an important way of understanding audiences. But they aren’t a substitute for actual audience research; they don’t answer some of the most important questions you need to ask about your visitors in order to meet their real-world needs and interests.

(And while I’m at it, all of this can be said for Explorer Quotient types as well. This is a comparable audience analysis system popular here in Canada. EQ types are a fascinating and valuable way of looking at audiences; they are not a substitute for market research.)

You probably have more than one “Explorer” type, for starters.

I have seen interpretive plans that simply target each Falk type one by one, and then enumerate how they are going to appeal to each. But here’s the thing: an Falk Explorer who is 22 years old and visiting from Romania has vastly different needs and interests than a Falk Explorer who is a local 65 year old with disabilities and three grandchildren in tow. An Experiencer arriving on a bus tour for 20 minutes has vastly different needs and interests than one who holds a membership to your organization.

It’s all well and good to understand that a Falk Facilitator wants to facilitate another person’s visit—but how much time and money do YOUR Falk Facilitators have? How much knowledge of your subject matter do they have? How much help do they need from you? Are they visiting on weekends or on weekday mornings? How are the grandparent Facilitators different from the Saturday morning divorced dad Facilitators? And how on earth can a program that just broadly targets “Facilitators” be expected to meet the needs of both?

See what I’m saying? You need the full picture. Your market segments need to be based on real research—demographic and geographic as well as psychographic. So dive into your data and you may well discover that you don’t just have “Explorers.” You may have two or three different segments who fit the John Falk Explorer type, but who have distinct demographics, different group dynamics, and different patterns of visitation. And you may be missing a big opportunity for audience growth by simply painting them with the same simplistic brush.

Research starts by asking two big questions:

  1. Who is coming to your site now? How are the weekend visitors different from the weekday visitors? How are the repeat visitors different from the one-timers? How are the families different from the single people? How are the locals different from the visitors? What do the older ones have in common? What do the single people have in common, and how are they different from other visitors? How do these people chunk out or segment into a handful of useful groups, described by their demographics, group dynamics, geographic origin, program preferences, and pattern of visitation?
  2. Who is not coming but is present in your greater region? Where are they going now, and how are they spending their leisure time and dollars? What motivates them to travel: visiting friends and relatives? Meetings and incentive trips? Group tours? Are they demographically younger or older than your current visitors? What is their socioeconomic breakdown? Their ethnocultural makeup? What media do they attend to? And what is the way to their heart?

You may not need to appeal to “Hobbyist/Professionals” or “Rechargers” at all.

These two Falk types can be expensive and high maintenance, for different reasons. Hobbyist/professionals are the visitors who know as much about your subject matter as most of your staff do. They’re the ones who want to corner your interpreters and talk to them for hours; they’re the ones who will write you 2000-word emails about the historical accuracy of what your volunteers were wearing on Parade Day. You do not need to cater to this market unless it is strategic for you to do so.

“Rechargers” aren’t there for the content; they’re there to feel the spiritual and mental benefits of simply being in your space—ideally all by themselves, without children running around, without couples talking, without maintenance staff working, and without other Rechargers trying to soak up the same air. Rechargers are hard to please. You do not need to cater to Rechargers simply because John Falk says they are a thing. You really don’t.

I had a breakthrough with audience segmentation when a social scientist reminded me that target markets are simply the people you need to reach to meet your goals. That’s it. If it’s not strategic for you to appeal to rechargers, then don’t. If it’s not strategic for you to be all things to all people—and honestly it never is—then don’t.

Dive into your mission and your strategic plan. Make decisions about what you really need to accomplish in the next three years: is it better community relations? Meaningful steps toward truth and reconciliation? Revenue generation and fiscal responsibility? Make those hard decisions first, then find the audiences that you need to connect with to help you get there.

Don’t waste your time and money chasing audiences that can’t help you, just because a social scientist tells you that they exist.

Get monthly (ish) updates via email from Don Enright. I write about interpretation and visitor experience. I never sell or share my lists.

2 Comments

  1. Rogier Gruys

    Good and important article, Don! But all institutions should also ask all their staff to take the EQ test or determine what Falk type they belong to. There is a good chance that a large percentage of staff are Explorer types. This may mean that exhibits, campaigns, etc are more attractive to those types, as it is easier to design for our own traveler type than for other types. It is important to take this into account and engage staff or testers from a variety of traveler types if your institution wants to appeal to those types.

    • Roger- I agree. We should all be repeating the mantra “I am not my target audience. My boss is not my target audience. The VP is not my target audience.” And we should have profiles, with avatar photos, of our three or four target audience types on the walls of our offices.

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