Mission, Income, Audience infographic designed by Mary Warner, 2016.
challenge history museums pragmatic historian

Who Is Your Audience? (It’s Not Everyone)

In nonprofit organizations that create cultural events, particularly museums and historic sites, we like to think that everyone in the general public is our audience. That’s the great potential — that every soul who lives on earth will wander through our doors and be enamored with what we have to offer.

That’s not true, of course.

Challenges in Reaching an Audience

People have to know we exist, be able to find us, have time to devote to the event or exhibits, and be able to visit when the facility is open or the event is occurring. Plus, if there is a fee, they need to be able to afford it. They also need to be interested in what we have to offer and be able to consume it. (No-touch museums, for example, can be difficult for those who are blind or vision-impaired to enjoy.)

That’s a lot of challenges for a museum or other cultural nonprofit to overcome in attracting an audience.

Rather than attempt to attract the elusive “everyone,” we need to figure out which audience is likely to be most interested in attending a particular event, program, or exhibit and find ways to reach them. Where do they hang out? How do they communicate?


And then try to figure out how to reach them.

This is harder than it sounds because if you don’t belong in some way to that audience, and if you don’t know someone in that audience, it can be difficult to convince them that your event is worth their time.

Be Creative in Reaching Your Audience

You’ll need to be creative in your efforts to reach specific audiences. Here’s an example from the field of social services.

My husband spent a couple of years working as a housing case manager for homeless people. How do you reach people who are without an address in order to let them know about your services? One of the places my husband left information was in bars. Sounds unconventional, but bars are open to anyone and fairly nonjudgmental about it, so this turned out to be an effective way for him to find potential clients.

The Long-Term Strategy for Building Audiences

When you focus on a specific audience, especially a super niche one, don’t feel guilty about everyone you might be leaving out. Your cultural organization is in this for the long haul (I hope!). For this event at this time, you have this audience; for an event or exhibit a year from now, you’ll have a different audience. So, you might be focused on new immigrants today, but later your audience will be gamers, and after that, you’ll do something that speaks to fiber artists.

I’ve learned this long-term strategy through my years in working at a county museum that is based in the county seat, the largest city in the county. It’s easy to focus on the history of the county seat because, as the most populous city in the county, there is a lot of history to cover. But, we are always conscious of serving the entire county and work to share and reach the other communities within the county. With limited resources and a small staff, we can’t cover the entire county all day, every day, but we move around our annual event regularly and work on projects that have county-wide impact.

Think about audiences in this way for your museum or cultural organization. If you’re worried you’ll miss an important group, create a long-term calendar (3-5 years) showing which audiences you’d like to reach.

If you know you’d like to design an event in 2 or 3 years for the local Hispanic population, start working to build relationships with community members long before your planned event. (Tip: One of the most effective ways to develop a specific audience is to have them help you build an exhibit or design an event.)

Choosing to focus on a specific audience and giving them your undivided attention through your event will help create long-term supporters of your organization. You don’t have to attract everyone all at once.

When you stop trying to reach everyone, you’ll often discover your targeted event attracts audience members you didn’t expect. (Curious how it works that way, isn’t it?)

Mission, Income, Audience

Here’s an infographic I designed to help organizations stay on-mission and figure out income and audience for the activities they are planning. I hope it simplifies your program planning.

Mission, Income, Audience infographic designed by Mary Warner, 2016.
Mission, Income, Audience infographic designed by Mary Warner, 2016.