Audiences, Visitors, Participants

Sometimes you see the words “audience” and “visitors” being used more or less interchangeably. But to me they represent different concepts and there was a discussion on this point some time ago on the Museum Audience Insight blog. While there was some debate about this, I took the view that “audiences” was a broader term than “visitors”; audiences were passive recipients whereas the word “visitor” implied something more active (through physical or virtual presence). So, you try to reach audiences but they may or may not be listening. Visitors, on the other hand, have fronted up and expect to see something that interests them.

Thinking about this again more recently, I’ve noticed that there’s an interesting semantic distinction between the two. Readers familiar with their latin roots will not be surprised by the fact that that “audience” is derived from the word for hearing and listening, whereas “visitor” has its roots in videre, which means to see or to notice. And, at least in Western cultures, we tend to privilege what we see above what we hear (compare how we think of “eyewitness testimony” as opposed to “hearsay evidence”). So it’s not surprising that such assumptions have, knowingly or otherwise, crept into the way we conceptualise audiences as opposed to visitors.

But something is still missing. Visitors themselves can still be passive or active. In media, this has been described as a “lean-forward versus lean-back” model for the way people consume online content. “Lean back” is passive relaxation mode, while “lean forward” is active involvement in searching, creating and critiquing.* In a visitor experience context, I’ll draw upon Nina Simon’s work and characterise these “lean forwards” as participants. Just like there are many different types of visitation, Simon has characterised varieties of participation (but I won’t go into details here). Participation also has interesting etymological roots, having come from the Latin participium, itself borrowed from the Greek meaning “to share”.

So how do audiences, visitors and participants relate to one another?

At the simplest levels, Participants can be considered a subset of Visitors, who in turn are a subset of Audiences. In theory this could also be conceptualised as a progression, with an individual moving from Audience Member to Visitor to Participant. Is moving through this progression a meaningful measure of engagement? It it an unhelpful oversimplification? Do we need a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between audiences, visitors and participants?

*I recall attending a presentation that referred to “lean-forward” versus “lean-back” in heritage interpretation, and I *think* I remember who it was, but I’m not 100% sure. If it was you, let me know so I can link to it!

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