Audience, Marketing, and the Digital World: Opportunities for better connections

vlogAsk anyone in the Public History program here at IUPUI what the single most important word in our discipline is and I bet that the majority of the responses will be “audience”. The nature of the term “public history” makes this central to our discipline. Public history is set apart from history by the distinction of who the history is aimed at. As a result, much of our work as public historians-in-training focuses on understanding who our audience is and how we can best convey our interpretation of the past to them. Recently I came across the Whitney Museum of American Art which challenged how I have been thinking of audience. This museum’s Vlog project follows the trends of the business world and forces public historians to reconceive our audience and how we can best connect with them.

My marketing minor in undergrad causes me to see Public History’s “audience” as the parallel to the business world’s “target market”. Businesses design every aspect of their product – design, packaging, price, and advertising campaign- with a very specific market in mind. Traditionally, businesses have focused on the widest possible market to capture the largest market share and gain the most business. But recently, marketers have come to acknowledge that if you try to appeal to the biggest audience, you end up leaving out a lot of sub-markets. In the last decade or so, marketing has experienced a shift in how they envision their target market, or audience. Now, companies divide society into much smaller segments and market to several of them or they pick one non-mainstream group to focus on. The Neilsen Group has a tool for business that will describe a zip-code using 66 unique segments. Digital tools are making it easier to connect with every potential audience/market, not just the largest ones.

What the Whitney Museum’s Vlog Project showed me was that museums are starting to follow this trend in the business world. As many of you may know, a vlog is a video blog. Instead of writing your thoughts about a specific topic online (like I am doing), you make a video about it. But the Vlog Project is unique because the videos don’t have any sound; they are specifically targeted toward Deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Deaf museum educators sign explanations and talks on a variety of topics in contemporary art.[i] These vlogs don’t make me reconsider my concept of audience in public history just because they are reaching out to the hearing disabled community. Museums have long provided written explanations and tours for their exhibits. What makes these vlogs standout to me is the way that they specifically focus on giving this group a great experience, not just an experience. A recent blog entry on the use of vlogs in museums from The Center for the Future of Museums notes that, “Museums are highly visual experiences—and visitors already revel in documenting and sharing pictures via sites such as Flickr and Instagram”.[ii]  If we want someone to experience our museum, which is a visual exploration, why would we provide a written explanation? Museum visitors can read a book any day, but they came to the museum for a specifically visual experience that provides them with something that a written explanation cannot.

The Vlog Project really shows this museum’s desire to provide the best experience for this specific audience by involving them at every stage of the process. In their review of the vlogs, Museums and the Web notes that, “While there are a number of museums that have used video to capture gallery commentary in ASL, the Vlogs are unique in that they involve Deaf individuals in every stage of production, from scripting original commentary to directing and editing each video.”[iii] After “audience”, “shared authority” is one of the biggest buzzwords in public history. But this is a kind of shared authority that we don’t often consider. We get caught up in working with those most directly impacted by an exhibit (usually those being represented) and we forget that there are other people who should share in this experience. In its design, The Vlog Project acknowledges that the experience of a museum is about connection and in many ways human interaction and this can best be conveyed through a video.

I think it is time for Public Historians to rethink our notion of audience. Who is experiencing our interpretations that we are not acknowledging? Digital access to museums makes this an especially important question. Viewing an exhibit is an experience that provides a multi-sensory learning environment in a way that reading a book does not. How can we make this experience the fullest and most captivating for every aspect of our audience? The digital humanities focus on collaboration and connection can help us to reach out to unique sub-groups in ways that we never could have before. We need to think beyond the status quo and go above and beyond to provide a quality experience for all.

I welcome any thought on this. It might be that this project only questions how I have been thinking about audience and public history. Are you challenged by the Vlog Project?

[i] Whitney Museum of American Art, “The Vlog Project,” (accessed January 31, 2013).

[ii]Center for the Future of Museums, “Micro Vlogging: Keeking Up with Social Media Trends,”  (accessed January 31, 2013).

[iii] Musuems and the Web 2012 “The Vlog Project,” (accessed January 31, 2013).


4 thoughts on “Audience, Marketing, and the Digital World: Opportunities for better connections

  1. Christine, I think you bring up interesting points about audience and museums. I don’t know if you can every reach everyone with one exhibit, but this project certainly takes steps toward using another medium to reach that audience. I was taken by the link you posted for the Nielson’s survey. Do you think that museums could use this to help better target new potential audience members?

    1. Yes. The idea of trying to reach every group with one exhibit is unrealistic. But I do think that a shift in thinking needs to occur for public historians and their concept of audience. My marketing knowledge is limited, as is my understanding of how most museums approach marketing their products. However, from my limited viewpoint, I believe that the idea of marketing a exhibit is often left to those who are within the marketing department. If exhibit designs and curators began to view their exhibit as a “product” and approach it’s design and conceptualization in the same way that marketers influence the design of new product, I think significant changes could be made in the field. By embracing marketing techniques such as using the Nielson target segments, museums could attract new audience members. I think there would be value in museums moving away from targeting their “audience” and instead targeting specific “audienceS”.

  2. You chose a really interesting site Christine. I think when I consider audiences, I unfortunately tend to forget about those with various disabilities. In order to best serve their needs, it challenges me to think about presenting history in different ways. I like the vlog, but I wonder if they could have also presented one with spoken narration too. So much of history is presented visually, but could we make more audio experiences for those who are visually impaired or blind?

    1. I also thought it was somewhat weird that there was no spoken narration . I suppose they were trying to completely focus on those who have hearing disabilities. Raising the question of visual impairments brings up more questions. Since this is an art museum, how much of the audience is blind? Is it significant enough that there should be an attempt to provide content for them? How is this different for a history museum? Whereas an art museum is almost completely concerned with the visual, a history museum is more concerned with content. However, visual material is still much of what makes up a museum experience. I am not sure of what the answer is. It may take more interaction and research with those with a visual handicap to determine what their expectations are. These are all things we need to keep in mind as we consider our audience(s).

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