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How the Ashmolean Museum uses segmentation to get to know its audience

Gina Koutsika, Director of Audiences and Content at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, and Angela Diakopolou, Managing Director of Sphere Insights, discuss the importance of getting to know your audience. Their segmentation project is transforming the way the Ashmolean Museum constructs  all its onsite and online programmes and services, highlighting the importance of communication and clear intent.

Gina, the inaugural Director of Audiences & Content for the Ashmolean – with thirty years’ experience in National Museums like the Tate, IWM and the V&A, among others – and Angela – having spent three decades overseeing research studies in the cultural and commercial sectors – were tasked with helping the Ashmolean Museum think more holistically about its visitors in its journey of becoming a truly audience-focused institution.

In launching a new project to better understand the Ashmolean’s audience and potential new audiences, Gina  knew that bringing in the right expertise would be essential. For this reason, and through a tendering process,  she engaged Sphere Insights – an independent market research consultancy with extensive experience in the arts and culture.

The value of segmentation

By collaborating with Sphere Insights, the museum set out to conduct a two-phased audience research initiative, the first of which was the development of a segmentation model that analysed both the museum’s onsite and online audiences. Gina says, “Being audience-focused and audience-driven is the crux of my role. Trying to understand our audiences, and create segments that enable us to, A, understand who they are, provide products and services and programs that serve them, and, B, know where to find them, and how to communicate with them about those programmes is essential for us to carry out our work.

“We wanted to develop a segmentation framework that could be utilised by everybody within the organisation, both online and on site.”

Typically, segmentation is a term that is limited almost exclusively to marketing activities. However, Gina and Angela knew that the benefits of understanding visitors on a more granular level was something that could have great benefit across the Ashmolean. Angela says, “Understanding your visitors, their similarities and differences, is important in defining your relationship with them. That’s something that affects the entire organisation, not just the marketing department.”

Collection, connection, and consistency

Truly effective segmentation requires more than just broad demographics like ‘older’ and ‘younger’ or motivations for visiting on a particular day. Angela highlights the importance of identifying museum goers “on an individual level” in order to successfully connect with them: “We reviewed what data the museum was collecting, and how they were using it. Then we put forward a series of recommendations to make data collection more continuous and consistent. Often, organisations collect data for the sake of collecting data, but don’t allow enough time to reflect on what that means, feeding it into product development and delivery.

“That was just the first step. The second step was to develop an internal understanding of how people within the organisation could benefit from a segmentation model, highlighting their needs. This was a challenge, as people who’ve never used segmentation find it difficult to articulate its potential benefits.”

“We produced insights and developed a tool a tool to support the needs of different departments within the organisation.”

Gina adds, “The goal was more consistency in our evidence gathering. I consulted extensively with colleagues across the museum, and there were very different views about who our audiences are, depending on who you asked.”

Finding new audiences

While the first phase of Gina and Angela’s project focused on understanding the museum’s current audiences, the second phase, beginning this year, is an extension of this model, focusing on exploring potential audiences for the museum.

Gina says, “The first study was purely for our existing audiences. This was partly due to the funding. I had a set amount that I could allocate, and I wanted to do so as thoroughly as possible, knowing the limitations.

Angela and I worked very hard to ensure that every single person in the museum had the opportunity to be involved, either through workshops, meetings, surveys, or departmental discussions. During these conversations, many people brought up questions about attracting new audiences, giving us evidence to secure further funding.”

The study so far has been utilised by all teams within the museum, from interpretation to curatorial to marketing. Directors, relevant Heads of Departments and their teams are using the segmentation research to better understand their audiences, creating a true grassroots project, something Gina says was “extremely important” to her: “We identified our core audience – our bread and butter – but we were also able to investigate which audiences have the potential to grow. This allows us to make informed decisions: where are we going to focus our resources? Who are we going to prioritise?

With the second phase of the research, we will have a new audience development plan, which will help us identify ‘non-audiences’, expand our horizons and identify how we can attract other groups.”

A team effort

Despite the true enthusiasm of some teams, such as Online Communications, Marketing and Exhibitions, the project has not been without its challenges, which have included trying to get the rest of the museum network on board. Gina says,

“We asked our colleagues questions like: what information do you need in order to support your work? Many had never entered into that frame of mind before, and they couldn’t articulate what they needed, or envision what it might look like.”

To overcome this, Gina and Angela decided to make true collaboration an intrinsic part of their project, inviting others within the museum to take part. Angela says, “We’ve run a number of workshops to encourage a feeling of ownership from the various teams. When we developed the segmentation, we needed to name the segments, and we decided to turn this into a workshop activity. Teams had to really think about each of the segments, and name them in a way that felt right to them. That helped them relate to each segment.

“One of the benefits of segmentation is that it allows the museum to be very focused, getting a clear understanding of who they’re going to reach with what messaging. You’re able to ask, if this exhibition was designed to attract this audience, did it achieve it?

“This makes it a lot easier to decide the extend to which a project has been a success. You have clear markers in place. Then, you can fine-tune it for future programmes.”

Looking ahead

Segmentation isn’t a tick-box exercise. The research, as Angela says, is ongoing, and there is always more to learn:

“The more you understand your audiences, the more questions you face.

The work done so far has provided the Ashmolean with a solid foundation on which to build. Gina says, “Over time, we’ll be able to see how our audience has changed, who has remained, and who has become part of our core audience.”

Advice for other museums? Embrace segmentation

When asked whether other museums should consider implementing a similar research project, Gina’s answer was a resounding “yes”.

“Do it. It’s worth targeting and prioritising your audiences. You serve them better, and you get more out of it. I’d also advise involving everyone from the start, and don’t be put off by the disengaged; don’t give up on them. Understand their questions and cynicism, and work through them together.”

By doing this, museums can benefit on every level, according to Angela: “Understand how segmentation will be used by the entire organisation. It should benefit everybody, including the audiences themselves.”

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