This has been a godsend! […] I’m not sure what I’d have done without it. It’s really helped me tackle the big ideas, helped me feel connected to colleagues and the local network.

21st Century Museums Programme participant

Your new audience engagement plan

For the past two years MHM has been a co-trainer with the brilliant Julie Aldridge on the Arts Marketing Association’s 21st Century Visitor Attractions programme.

The programme is commissioned by Museum Development East Midlands and delivered by the Arts Marketing Association.  

It is designed to help cultural and heritage organisations become more audience-focused, resilient and successful. This year, as the second Covid lockdown loomed, this felt especially urgent. 

With this in mind, the organisers decided to focus the 2021 programme on the practical rather than conceptual. We created a one-page Audience Engagement Plan (we prefer the term audience ‘engagement’ to audience ‘development’) that each participant was tasked with completing.

This single page document connects: 

  • Why your organisation exists (your cause) 
  • How it articulates that, internally and externally (your brand)
  • What it’s seeking to do (aims and objectives)
  • Who it’s seeking to do that to (audience)
  • How you’re going to do it (strategy and tactics)
  • And how you’ll know if you’re successful (outputs and outcomes) 

Simple. But how many organisations actually have something like this? From our experience, not enough. 

Most of the audience development plans we see are written as dossiers to secure funding. They can’t be used as an everyday strategic tool.

We wanted our 21st Century organisations to have something simpler, more intuitive, more useful.

Step 1: Articulate your organisation’s cause

Writing a cause asks: what’s the big idea that will improve the world, and that all of our activity is ultimately serving?

We used exercises to help the teams reflect on why their museum existed; what change they sought to make on the world; the ultimate impact their organisation wanted to make. 

For most of our museums, this was the first time they’d ever actually articulated this. For many, this was a lightbulb moment. 

Step 2: Define the brand

Brand can be a dirty word in the arts; but we don’t think it should be. 

We define brand simply as your DNA: it’s the essence of who you are. It’s the belief that fuels your commitment to the cause you are serving. It’s what makes you attractive, engaging and impactful. 

Exercises would help the museums to define their brand Belief, Promise, Essence and Personality. All of which should perfectly align to the cause.

Why define this? Because having a centralised and understood articulation of our brand provides a device for auditing our work. It helps to assess if actions are on-brand or off-brand. 

We particularly loved where the brilliant Framework Knitters Museum landed with the line: ‘400 years of craft and graft’. 

Step 3: Set aims and objectives for survival

In normal times aims and objectives should be stretching, but for many at this time this just meant survival. And still does. 

We therefore focused on short, medium and long term aims. How will we get through to next year?

What is our primary aim that will get us there? Then what medium term aim should we set to rebuild? And what long term aim should we set to give us something more meaningful to aim at? 

Step 4: Identify target audience, strategies and tactics

Defining aims and objectives was done in tandem with defining target audiences

We used MHM’s psychographic segmentation system, Culture Segments, as a framework for identifying target audiences not only by demographics, but by their mindset. 

With next to no audience research available, Culture Segments provided a framework and a common language for audiences which all the 21st Century museums were missing.

Audience-focused ideas were drawn out by Julie in exercises exploring questions such as where are potential visitors looking for information?  Where else do they spend time?  Are we visible in those places?  Who influences visitors decisions to engage?  And how might we work with others to demonstrate the value of the museum to more people?

And only at this point did we decide on the precise actions we were going to take, which would be grouped as strategies and tactics.

Step 5: Decide how to measure success

The final element of this audience engagement plan is evaluation. Designing outputs and outcomes to know if we achieved what we set out to achieve. This ensures we only measure the right metrics.

The museums took the template and made it their own! We used the online platform Mural for this. Orders were switched, entire lines left out, whatever worked. But there were always two important outputs for the participants:

1) They had a simple, one-page plan
2) They had connected what they do to why they do it.

The programme, and this approach, has been transformational for the museums. 

I don’t know if this box is big enough! There are so many – we are changing the shop, the website, the education programme, the temporary exhibitions programme, the events prpgramme, the list goes on and on!


We are now much more focused on what our values and cause are, rather than the product we’re marketing.

21st Century Museums Programme participant

This has given us the opportunity, in a time of change, to re-evaluate our objectives and reflect on our plan for the future – going beyond our current identity.


The programme is a great example of sector experts – Museum Development East MidlandsArts Marketing Association, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, Julie Aldridge – working in partnership for the greater good of the sector we all love. 

We hope you too will benefit from thinking through the basic principles.