Skip to content

Speaking the Audience’s Language: A Q&A with James Heaton

Category: Alliance Blog
Dictionary entry for "Marketing" with the word highlighted in green.

At some point in the pandemic, I was working on a project, and I needed a museum-based definition of a term relating to audience development and museum work. I started by flipping through a few books in my library, none of which had what I was looking for, then surfing the web, which didn’t yield anything either. I decided to reach out to one of my most trusted marketing experts and friends, James Heaton, figuring he might know the answer. We hopped on a call, where we agreed that the lack of information in this case might be evidence of a bigger problem. Why was there so little clarity around marketing and audience-centered terms in museums, and wouldn’t it be great if there were one consolidated resource to fix this?

Eventually, this led to a group call with leaders from the museum marketing, communications, and audience engagement spaces, where we agreed to begin a monthly, multi-year collaboration to produce the now-published (and, as of recently, bilingual) Museum Marketing, Communications, & Audience Engagement Glossary. The following is part one of a two-part blog post in which I interview James, followed by several of the writing team members.

In my conversation with James, we chatted about the role of marketing and communications at museums, the importance of centering museum work on audiences, and how the glossary aims to break down silos in the field.

Adam Rozan: Hello, James. Can you please introduce yourself and share what you do?

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

James Heaton: I’m the founder and lead strategist at Tronvig, a brand strategy and advertising agency with a longstanding soft spot for museums.

AR: Can you share more about Tronvig’s museum work with me?

JH: We help cultural organizations through brand strategy, organizational alignment, and advertising. Those services are sometimes a sequence and sometimes à la carte.

AR: How did you start working with museums, and what prompted this?  

JH: We caught the museum bug in 2010 with the New-York Historical Society. We won an open RFP and were subsequently closely involved with them for several years.

AR: At its essence, is marketing and branding work really about the organization’s self-reflection to better see themselves and understand their value proposition and relationship with customers and audiences?

JH: Branding work involves a lot of self-reflection, but marketing is really about understanding the customer (I use this term generically, and it includes the audience/visitor/patron). The core brand questions are “Who are we?” and “What is our differentiated promise to the customer?” The core marketing questions are “Who is our customer?” and “What do they value?”

AR: Given your background and experience working with museums, can you share your perspective on the museum field’s unhappy relationship with marketing? I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want their work promoted. Despite the critical work that marketing does in our field, the work itself is often pushed to the margins. Why is that, and what can be done about this?

JH: Part of the problem is structural. Marketing is a core business function, and museums are nonprofit businesses. Still, museums often break apart marketing functions like digital communications and audience research and put them outside of marketing. Museums often think of marketing in terms of communications/PR and I have often seen marketing treated as a service (e.g., “Please go promote this exhibition and get some press coverage.”) This unsophisticated understanding of the role that marketing plays is, I suspect, a holdover from a time when museums were more protected academic and public institutions that could safely devote nearly all of their time and energy to product development, never having to worry much about marketing or the customer.

There is also a problem of credential asymmetry. Curators have advanced academic degrees and often become museum directors. Marketers don’t typically have PhDs and aren’t in line for director positions, so their discipline often gets little respect or operational autonomy, which in turn makes it harder for museums to recruit top talent. It’s very frustrating for a marketer to be in an organization that does not understand marketing.

I once ran a workshop with marketing and curatorial teams from a museum client, and we did an exercise that had each group attempt to explain what the other did. Marketing was able to generate an answer that satisfied the curatorial team. Still, the curators had only the vaguest notions about what was required to get people through the doors to see and appreciate their work.

What can be done? Marketing is gradually being professionalized within the sector. This will be accelerated as leadership recognizes marketing as a strategic function that should not be balkanized and should be staffed and funded as a core function. Marketing also needs to be acknowledged as the voice of the customer and, as such, given a place at the table in product development. These steps would move museums much closer to best practices.

AR: Given this, can you share your pitch to museums and the museum field about why marketing and communications are essential functions and tools for engaging and educating the public?

JH: If mission matters, and if serving the customer (audience/visitor/patron) is critical to fulfilling the mission, then marketing is the one core function whose primary responsibility it is to understand the customer and make sure they, in turn, understand the value the museum brings. If we exist to serve the public and not just ourselves, marketing is the vital link that connects the museum to that public.

AR: Before we start talking about the Museum Glossary, I would love to hear your thoughts on the health of the museum field and where you think the museum field needs to evolve.

JH: The museum field faces an existential crisis.

Is the museum an outmoded post-colonial artifact, or is it a vital instigator and inspirer of new ideas and deeper understanding of essential things that cannot be accessed or thoroughly enjoyed by any other means? Where the past is no guide, what must a museum now do to stay relevant in a society that is in constant rapid transition and always in the throes of one calamity or another? This is a serious project.

What is the museum’s purpose? Why does it exist, and what will it do that matters to its customer and society so that both will see fit to support its continued existence and ask that it stay in their lives and the lives of the communities we share?

AR: Can you touch upon DEI work and its importance for museums? And can you elaborate on how you think museums can do this work internally for their staff and externally for their audiences?

JH: Genuine, meaningful representation is job number one, as I see it. This is for staff, leadership, and the audiences. The comfortable isolation of “the academy” is now a danger to the long-term sustainability of museums. I would suggest that you find and break the many written and unwritten rules that insulate and preserve current power structures and find ways to actively undermine the tenacious staying power of the status quo. The pandemic was a dress rehearsal for the rest of the century. Get comfortable with more dissonance and disagreement inside, so you will be better prepared to weather the storms brewing outside but coming inevitably and inexorably in.

This probably sounds excessively dramatic to most ears. Is it really that dire? Demographics are a relentless force, and you can only ignore them at significant risk.

AR: What’s the Museum Glossary, and why is this needed?

JH: It’s a shot in the dark. An attempt to devise a resource to help raise the level of discourse around the professional marketing discipline in museums. Perhaps better museum-specific definitions for crucial terminology will yield less talking past one another and stimulate more cross-functional understanding within museums. Maybe, from these few seeds, a more fruitful kind of collaboration will grow.

AR: You wrote about the origins of the Museum Glossary, in which, over a phone call, we discussed the need for a shared language and how it might better enable staff and teams to work better together and in better support of the public. How, then, does a shared language and definitions do that?

JH: As you know, the glossary was envisioned as a level-set between functional units within the museum. It becomes challenging to collaborate effectively if we disagree on what X is, how it will be used, and why it matters. Collaboration is far more than a nice-to-have. The museum does not need a marketing team, a development team, and a curatorial team working at cross-purposes. The stakes are too high for this. The museum must be one team with professional units that each contribute their specialized expertise to achieve shared goals. This is the only way museums will thrive in the challenging times ahead.

AR: Last question: what’s next for this project?

JH: We launched in Spanish thanks to ICOM-MPR and ICOM Mexico. We continue to add definitions, if slowly. So, the most important thing is for people to know it exists and to use it.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


1 Comment

  1. Great work and thank you for sharing. This is useful for strategic planning we may be engaging in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.