Understanding and engaging different audiences

Think of Oxford and you think dreaming spires, Christchurch, Lewis Carol, perhaps General Pitt Rivers and his shrunken heads... whatever it is, it tends to be something to do with the rich heritage of one of the world’s most famous (and fabulous) Universities. Its fame puts it in the league of world heritage sites and therefore, in many ways, it does not feel like a part of local people’s history. Oxford Preservation Trust’s aim for 2011 is to engage new audiences and we’ve found that a great way to do this is through people's own history.

© Heritage Open Days - Heritage Open Days Event

This year, we have a sporting theme for Heritage Open Days which we’re hoping is going to be a really exciting way for people to investigate their local heritage. We’re organising a variety of activities including running workshops for those who want to try out new sports from climbing at Oxford Brookes to fencing in the Town Hall. Through this combination of events, we are working to animate cultural spaces such as Oxford Brookes University and the big Victorian Town Hall, making them exciting for everyone. We're also exploring Oxford's sporting heroes by creating a trail for people to find out where these athletes came from. And we'll put on some historic games such as real tennis and Aunt Sally.

A theme is a great way to capture people’s imaginations as different ideas such as music, games, art, and tours can all be based around them. By shifting your focus, themes allow you to uncover new stories and refresh the interpretation of your site or collection. However, the only way to get a really good idea about what different audiences in your local area want is through getting their feedback.

How do you find out what people want?

Oxford Open Doors is part of a year-round programme of events. We also run Discovering Places in the Spring and Archaeology Day in the Summer. These events are a great way to get feedback from the public and build anticipation for the big event in September. It doesn’t matter how big or small your place is, talking to people whenever there's an opportunity and building on feedback you’ve got from previous events is a very useful tool to make your Open Day the best it can be.

To tailor your event to the interests and needs of different audience groups, you have to work out who they are. Pop a little feedback form somewhere people will pick it up and ask them to note their age group, what they liked about your event and whether they would come again. It sounds simple and the extra administration sometimes seems fiddly but it’s one of the best ways to understand your audience and develop your event. The Heritage Open Days team provides an evaluation pack with a visitor feedback form and visitor book which you can use.

When targeting different audiences, it’s important to branch out into online feedback too. To quote another Heritage Open Days blogger, Ben Goodwin, 93% of teens and 18-29 year olds are active online whilst 70% of the Y generation have a Facebook profile. It’s a great way for people to communicate their views and it could be the key to understanding your new audiences. Make a Twitter and Facebook account for your organisation or attraction and “Join the Debate”. Post your events, put up pictures, and start discussions. If you get a retweet or a "like" then it’s made an impact on someone! Take this information and use it as a guide to what people find interesting when deciding what kind of information and activites you offer at your site. 

Put yourself out there!

But what about audience groups you haven't reached yet? Well, go out and meet them. If you find you are not appealing to young children, see whether you can be invited to a local primary school and talk about the cultural heritage of your area or your attraction. Get them to work on a project for your Heritage Open Days event such as coming up with games or trails for the day. Their proud parents will come along as they feel their children have been part of something. Similarly, if you would like to attract more teenagers or students, go into a sixth form college and work on a project with them. For Oxford Open Doors, we are running a project with 17- to 18-year olds on the research and design for a new display at a local museum, and over Heritage Open Days, the Town Hal will host a mini-exhibition by local young people and adult learners on Oxford's sporting heritage. Creating a sense of being part of a project with a tangible outcome is important as it can lead to a long-term engagement of your targeted audience group.

Lastly... everyone loves a party

Or why not throw a party? Whether you have free tea and cake or champagne and celebrities, a swing band or some rock'n roll, creating a party atmoshere and an experience out of the ordinary at your place will help attract a new crowd and provides an opportunity for you to mingle with your guests and connect with them. Free refreshments will entice people and they are likely to give a small donation if you have buckets around!