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Editor’s Note: Associate Professor of Marketing Melissa Akaka wrote the following blog as a follow-up to her Arts Marketing Coffee Chat, “Research & Data: What Do You Need?,” where she shared how arts organizations can identify what kinds of data they can use to provide insights into developing effective solutions to business problems. Akaka said several event participants shared a common problem that many organizations face—lack of participation across different types of programming—and that audience segmentation can provide insights to find solutions. Akaka is the co-director of the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center at the Daniels College of Business. Her article below originally appeared on the National Arts Marketing Project website.


Associate Professor Melissa Akaka

With so many options, activities, events and competitors, it is increasingly difficult to get targeted audiences to interact with your organization in desirable ways. The heart of this complex problem is audience engagement. 

Audience engagement is a driving force of success for all organizations. Although audience engagement in the arts is often measured by in-person attendance or online interaction with an event or organization, it can also be assessed through donor responses and successful grant funding. This is because your “audience” includes all current and potential customers, donors or other individuals or organizations you are aiming to engage. “Engagement” involves a variety of interactions between your audience and your organization or brand. 

Research projects that aim to increase audience engagement may appear similar on the surface, but understanding the problems your audience (not your organization) faces can uncover specific gaps and issues that are unique to your audience and engagement with your organizational programming. Getting to know your audience is a critical step in providing effective solutions. Below are three insights tools that can help you understand different audience groups, what matters most to them and how they experience your solution. 


Customer segmentation is a critical first step in understanding that different people have different needs, wants, behaviors and experiences. Segmentation is often done using demographic approaches (e.g., age, gender, race and income). However, if we want to increase the diversity of our audience while understanding different problems people face, it may be more helpful to segment our groups based on behaviors (e.g., frequency of use or purchase), goals (e.g., purchasing something for fun, function or family use) or lifestyles (e.g., sports or hobbies). Alternative forms of segmentation can help us align our products or services with customer needs that go beyond demographic differences. Organizations should take the time to recognize what matters most to their organization and align those values with segmenting current and potential customer groups. 


Once an organization has identified potential segments with which they can engage, they need to dig deeper to better understand who their audience is beyond customer characteristics as defined in the segmentation process. This often requires some additional data collection. A good way to do this with existing customers is to first segment them into groups with distinct characteristics. This could be something like frequency of visits of members to a museum. You may have some groups that visit weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually—this could be considered different levels of audience engagement. To better understand what influences different levels of engagement, you can select a few customers from each group and reach out to them via email or phone to request an interview (incentives are always helpful!). Then you can interview people in the different groups using the same questions and identify patterns both within and across the groups. You can use this information to create a more enhanced persona that represents each group and gives additional details about the different audiences and what is hindering or helping with their engagement. 


The third insights tool is a journey map. This is particularly useful if you have one target group that is currently engaging with your organization, but in a limited way. If you want to better understand a group’s lack of engagement you can map out the journey for that particular group. Using the example above, let’s say you are interested in increasing engagement for those who only attend your museum once a year to at least quarterly. You could again solicit interview participants from your customer database or email list and conduct an extended interview particularly focused on their experience journey. Consider before, during and after a year of membership. You want to consider why they joined, how they are interacting with the organization (through websites, social media, in-person), and the different points of engagement along the way.

It would also be helpful to understand why they would renew their membership after only attending once a year or why they decided to cancel instead. Exploring additional reasons for engagement beyond individual experiences, such as family outings or group events, can also help to pinpoint specific events that can potentially increase engagement (as measured by museum visits). Using a timeline to map out a sequence of events from before a person becomes a member to after renewal or cancellation is helpful in understanding how the member experiences the organization over time, rather than focusing on the one visit. 

These three tools are specific ways for you to discover more about your audience, so that you can enhance experiences and potentially increase engagement. To get started, plan out your data collection process by asking: What do you know? What do you need to know? What sources of information do you have? How will you get the information you need? Then, decide how you want to group your customers into segments and which groups matter most to your organization. Focusing on particular groups within your current or potential customers will allow you to strategically increase audience engagement while meeting specific needs in meaningful ways.

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