Understanding Our Audiences

Businesses are made or broken every day on the quality of their market research. 

one colourful woman

I began my career as an interpreter many years ago, doing campfire programs, guided hikes and amphitheatre shows in Kananaskis Country, Alberta. My beat was the Elbow River district, a stretch of highway that led from gently rolling parkland right up to the front ranges of the Rockies. It was a busy destination close to Calgary, and a perfect spot to be a fledgling interpreter.

Back then, nobody talked to us about target markets. We didn’t know the meaning of the term; at least I didn’t. But we had been trained in knowing our audiences, and it was training that we took to heart. Our clientele were middle-class Albertan families with children aged 12 and under, with a smattering of empty-nesters among them. But even within this narrow profile, each of our four campgrounds attracted a different clientele. Gooseberry Campground was where the slightly older folks went. They were a relaxed bunch who had camped there for years, and had all the time in the world to talk to you. At the other end of the valley, Little Elbow was the playground of upwardly mobile families: hikers and mountain bikers and equestrians—people with money and ambition, I remember thinking.

And you only had to work in those places a week or two before you began tailoring your programs to each group. A joke that would kill the crowd at the McLean Creek amphitheatre would fall flat at Little Elbow, and you knew you needed to re-think it when you headed up the valley. Paddy’s Flat was the place for bawdy humour; Gooseberry might be a bit offended by it (though they laughed all the same.)

If you’d asked me about my target markets, I would have scoffed. “My programs appeal to everyone,” I would have said. “That’s my job as an interpreter.”

Chester Lake beauty shot
Kananaskis Country. I still miss it.

Those of us who create magical visitor experiences for a living are sometimes loathe to talk about target markets. The term is vaguely distasteful. We have dedicated so much of our time and talent to creating that mythical “something for everyone” that identifying target markets connotes exclusion and narrow-mindedness.

Mind you, we have no trouble with the idea of market segmentation when it comes to, say, movies. “That’s a chick flick,” we say without hesitation. Or, “I’m looking for a good kids’ movie.” Or, “No, Mom, you probably wouldn’t like the latest X-Men epic.”

Websites are the same: each clearly has its own demographic. (My secret name for Pinterest is BoredEducatedWhiteWomen.com.) Merchandisers are, of course, masters of market segmentation; imagine the makers of skateboards claiming that they have “something for everyone.” Retailers know who their target markets are, and they focus their energies on them with laser precision.

Why, then, do we cling to the cherished illusion that our parks, museums and heritage sites are for everyone? They simply aren’t. How many Saudi princes have you had stopping by lately? Are you doing well with North Korean grandmothers? More pointedly, how many of your nearest city’s extremely poor attend your programs? For most heritage attractions, the answer is sadly, none. This is a painful truth that we rarely like to hear: there are several unseen filters around your site, and many, many kinds of people are not passing through those filters to show up at your door.

The Unseen Barriers Around Your Attraction

Why isn’t everyone on earth coming to your museum or nature centre? Why isn’t everyone in your town or region showing up at your programs? There are likely a number of barriers for them. Traditionally, these fall in three major categories:

  1. Awareness: they don’t know you exist, or they don’t understand what you offer.
  2. Access:
    1. Physical access: they believe that you are too far away for them, or your terrain is too difficult for them.
    2. Financial access: they simply can’t afford to come (or they don’t see the value in paying.)
  3. Appeal: They’ve heard about you, but what you’re offering doesn’t interest them at the moment; they simply don’t see themselves as the kind of people who would visit you.

Each segment of your market will perceive these barriers differently. Location, for example, is a much higher barrier for some segments than for others. Likewise appeal: some segments will simply have a much higher interest in what you offer than others; some will never visit you, while others could be persuaded if you appealed to them in the right way with the right product.

One market’s barrier can be another’s motivation: challenging terrain can be highly attractive to young adventurers, while effectively barring less-nimble visitors. “Geeky” levels of specialized information repel many visitors, while certain niche markets like nothing better.

A word of caution: When looking at the three barriers to participation, you (or your managers and board) may be strongly tempted to believe that the first, awareness, is your biggest barrier. “Our museum/aquarium/park is so inherently appealing that everyone would come if only they knew about us.”

Sadly, it probably isn’t. It’s vital that you step back, do your research, and fully examine what you offer through the eyes of your potential market segments. Take off your own blinders and put on your audience goggles. You may well find that there is simply very little appeal (and thus little perception of value) in what you currently offer, and little motivation to overcome the barriers of distance and cost.

In marketing terms, we look at the above barriers as the five Ps of the marketing picture; the five factors that influence demand.

  • Promotion influences awareness and appeal
  • Placement determines physical accessibility
  • Price determines financial accessibility
  • Product influences appeal

The last P of the marketing picture is public: the different segments of your population who relate to the above four Ps in different ways.

Understanding the Five Ps of Marketing: Pete’s Pepperoni/Pineapple Pizza Parlour

Pete offers the public pepperoni and pineapple pizza for $10.99. The problem is, he’s not selling any. How do the five Ps influence demand for Pete’s pizza? How can manipulating each help him create demand?

  1. Public: maybe he’s promoting those pizzas to the wrong kinds of people. Maybe he has to connect with a new demographic—one who sees more value in what he’s offering.
  2. Promotion: maybe nobody knows about his pizza. Or maybe he needs better copy writing, better photography, better commercials. Maybe he needs new promotional channels altogether.
  3. Price: Maybe he needs to be charging $8.99 instead of $10.99.
  4. Placement: Maybe nobody can find his pizza parlour. Maybe the kinds of people who might like his pizza don’t frequent his neighbourhood. Maybe he needs to move.
  5. Product: Maybe Pete needs to make a better pizza—one that appeals to his current publics at his current place, at his current price. Maybe pepperoni and pineapple isn’t such a great combination after all.

For many years as an interpreter and visitor experience professional, I didn’t understand marketing. I confused it with promotion—I thought they were the same thing. When my programs weren’t fully subscribed, I thought, “Why aren’t those people marketing my programs properly?”

It was a bit of a breakthrough for me to discover that I was a marketing person too; my P was product. If my programs weren’t selling, I finally realized, I had a responsibility to re-evaluate my product and have a look at how it appealed to my public.

We are all in the business of marketing, and we all need to start by understanding our audiences—their behaviours, needs and interests—if we want to further our missions and meet our goals.

Next: Segmentation, profiling and the role of free will

Editor’s note: this article is the first in a series about meeting your goals by better understanding your audiences. Feel free to subscribe to my monthly mailing list to be alerted to future instalments. I never sell my mailing list nor spam my readers. 


  1. Hear hear Don! Here in the UK one of our biggest funders of interpretive projects is a publicly funded body called the Heritage Lottery Fund http://www.hlf.org.uk/ . I have done a number of plans for HLF funded projects and each one has had to be grounded in well-researched audience information. We have to look at barriers (social, cultural, emotional, intellectual, financial, physical) and motivations closely and make sure the interpretive plan is developed to address these.

    Too often interpreters (or people commissioning interpretive projects) are concerned with the resource stories without properly considering who is listening. We need to put audiences right at the very heart of our planning or else the interpretation will be ineffectual and people won’t listen!

    • Don Enright

      Thanks for your comment, Lisa. How does HLF evaluate and influence those interpretive plans? Are you saying that the plans function as a prospectus to get HLF funding? Or does HLF evaluate interpretive plans for projects they’ve already funded as part of the tracking of deliverables after the fact?

  2. Ron Chamney

    Well said Don, spoken like a real pro. It boils down to respecting your audience’s sensibilities and the only way to do that is to listen to them. You were always one of the best at pushing the envelope in your programs, like a six foot four wicked witch of the west screaming down an 80-foot ramp on roller blades and crashing off stage just to make a “nature nugget” point and to add a zap to your program. You knew what would keep your audience coming back for more. I had my doubts at times but I trusted your judgement then and respect your insights now. With all your imagination and adventure in programming, you were never wrong and I am so grateful for what you have brought to our industry.

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