Feature | Meaningful Segmentation

Is segmentation really the key to inclusivity and resilience? Oliver Mantell demonstrates how bespoke and off-the-shelf tools can help develop approaches for multiple audiences...

More and more organisations are commissioning The Audience Agency to create a bespoke segmentation that enables them to juggle the often competing needs of a huge diversity of audience groups.

Some commentators have criticised the use of segmentation tools associated with commercial marketing in the audience development toolkit. They claim it reduces people to stereotypes in the interest of profit, and that it creates elite audiences by sifting only for those likely to bring a decent return on investment.

But we have seen that, used for the right reasons and developed with suitable sensitivity and respect for audiences, segmentation can enable organisations to be more inclusive and democratic as well as resilient.

Multiple audiences

People are different. People are similar. Both statements are obvious and both are true. Acknowledging that both of these are true of audiences requires us to find a way of accounting for both that similarity and difference in how we interact with them.

It couldn’t be any other way. Just as it’s impossible to treat all current and potential audiences the same, even if you wanted to, it’s impossibly complex to tailor every aspect of what you do and how you do it to each individual. The process of finding that middle ground – usefully aggregated and meaningfully distinct – is segmentation.

In that sense, there’s no such thing as an audience. There are always multiple audiences, even if they turn up in the same place and at the same time to see the same thing. There will always be differences between them: who they are, where they’re from, what they do, what they think, feel and believe. And, crucially, within those many differences are the few distinctions that matter most – the ones that, by understanding them, will make most impact. The challenge is to find them.

If we say that audiences vary and need to be treated and responded to differently, it’s unsurprising that there’s no one way to do that. Different situations need different approaches. Sometimes you may want an approach that uses geo-demographic information – maybe a strand of your work is for 16 to 19 year olds living in specific rural areas. More often, it may be behaviour, such as new attenders or those who currently attend two to three times a year. Or it may be attitudes, such as fans of particular genres, people who want to keep up with cutting-edge trends. Or a combination of both. This means you can’t choose your segmentation approach until you know what you want it for and what meaningful differences there are within your audience.

Bespoke tools

In a recent segmentation model we designed for Opera North, the key purpose was to drive increased income from currently engaged audiences at both low and high frequencies, taking advantage of the greater usability of booking data from its new box office system.

We knew from previous research that different operas attract different audiences – and not always in ways you might assume. So we included an analysis of different ways to describe the operas – period, composer, type of production and frequency of staging – to work out what seemed to make most difference to audiences when choosing what to buy tickets for.

Using this in conjunction with survey results exploring audience attitudes, we were able to identify a group of infrequent attenders who liked the ‘greatest hits’ as part of what you might call a ‘classic opera experience’. This group clearly needs communicating with differently from those who attend infrequently but go to much less well-known work, as part of a consciously eclectic cultural diet.

Conversely, our segmentation for The National Archives was intended to enable a fundamental repositioning of what it does as part of opening up its website to new audiences. So existing audience data was far less important within the segmentation process. Instead, it was about understanding the different uses of the archives and how that should shape the organisation, its operations, offer and outreach.

Understanding the purpose and mode of engagement allowed the differentiation between the ‘head-down Kew researchers’ doing self-directed study on site, those who use a variety of platforms to discover and debate ideas, and socially motivated visitors who go to the archives as one among a broad range of cultural interests.

Off-the-shelf segmentation

Another approach is to use Audience Spectrum, the off-the-shelf segmentation tool. Based on extensive data about cultural behaviours and attitudes, it is a segmentation of the whole UK population, linked to all UK households.

It describes ten major profiles of people with distinct attitudes towards culture across the country, and assigns a profile to every household. It gives a cost-effective (often free), comparable and contextualised understanding of audience, supported by a wide range of information about the profile behaviours and attitudes of each segment.

Many organisations use it to segment their audiences by assigning a profile to people on their database. Even better, organisations are using it in conjunction with other information to help focus on specific needs. So instead of ‘Trips and Treats’, one organisation had ‘Frequent Trips and Treats in town/five miles’ and ‘Visiting Trips and Treats on day trips’.

Audience Spectrum also helps identify and locate people not yet attending who match segment profiles.

We’ve seen some impressive uses of Audience Spectrum, from targeting new audiences to planning a fundraising strategy. But it is only one tool among many and we urge you to develop a way that best suits your organisation depending on what you want to achieve and what makes most difference to your audiences.

A clear purpose

Once you are clear about the purpose, every segmentation has four further challenges:

  1. Develop the segments.
  2. Identify who is in which segment.
  3. Plan what you do based on the segments (programming according to their interests and working out how to reach them).
  4. Put it into action and see the results.

Different segmentation approaches may suit the purpose and this will also vary by circumstance and what you’re trying to achieve. The key is finding the approach that can most effectively get you through all four stages.

You need to look for an approach that is relevant, well-differentiated, intelligible across your organisation, actionable and measureable. But the most important thing to focus on, more than how to segment your audience, is why you are doing it and what you want to achieve. It’s when you are clear about the purpose of segmentation that it can make the most difference.


Oliver Mantell, Director of Consultancy, North

First published on Arts Professional, 27 July 2017