Elsewhere: How the National Trust does customer insight and segmentation

In this piece Andrew McLaughlin, Chief Executive at the SU, University of Bath draws on lessons from another major sector with members to see if there’s anything we can learn from their approach

Audience segmentation- as a way of breaking down a customer or membership base into manageable groupings, is standard practice in many charitable and commercial operations. It’s an approach that is growing in popularity throughout the student movement too, and there are a growing number of examples of segmentation models that are helping SUs deliver their strategic objectives.

At SU2017 I talked about the segmentation model used by my former employers the National Trust and the attitudinal segmentation model that has helped to transform the charity’s performance in recent years.

The segmentation work at the National Trust began more than a decade ago when the then Director-General Fiona Reynolds kick-started a major focus on audience, as part of its new strategic plan. This put people, and public benefit, back at the heart of the National Trust’s operating model.

Building on existing audience research, the Trust latched on to a key piece of insight which was that whilst most of the population believed that the National Trust was “a good thing” a much smaller proportion saw it as “their thing”. Demographically, Trust membership was ageing and skewed to ABC1 social grades – an uncomfortable legacy given the principles of the Trust’s founders in 1895.

The Trust wanted to make a specific intervention in its operating model which was to focus on the visitors it could attract to its properties, improving the relevance of the visit experience to them, and focusing the quality of the experience they had. This would help engage and retain them as supporters, and attract growing numbers to enjoy what the National Trust has to offer.

To do this, the Trust embarked on a major programme of research to better understand its audiences. In the words of Fiona Reynolds: “We want to understand our audience as people, not simply as visitors or even members. Only then can we demonstrate how the work we do has real value for them.”

The research involved more than 4,500 telephone surveys, 3,000 extended interviews, 12 focus groups, six forums and seven filmed interviews. Importantly, the researched focused on people’s attitudes to a ‘day-out’ experience. Rather than their demographics, it sought to better understand their motivations, what they wanted to see and experience when they were visiting a Trust place.

What emerged were seven attitudinal-based segments that helped describe what people were seeking to gain from their days out. Based on newly developed ‘golden questions’, the model helped articulate whether visitors were seeking, for example, social or intellectual experiences, whether their motivations were about esteem or about cognitive need, as well as practicalities of a visit. Whilst including some demographic data, for illustrative purposes, the model included segments’ interests, hobbies and media preferences to paint a rich picture of who National Trust visitors really were.

The segmentation model put the visitor at the heart of the National Trust experience and gave impetus to some of the Trust’s most impactful activities in recent years, such as the brilliant 50 things to do before you are 11 ¾ campaign, as part of a concerted effort to be more relevant to family visitors.

Over the coming years, the focus on the segmentation model was fundamental in helping the Trust grow its visitor and membership base towards its 5 million member target. One of the biggest changes in this time has been the improvement in the ‘offer’ for visitors, with differentiated marketing campaigns and member communications helping improve the Trust’s relevance and approachability for families which, in 2008, made up just 15% of the audience but today is in the 20%s (of a significantly bigger pool of members).

Moreover, what this approach gave the National Trust was clear focus on people and introduced a common language that everyone could use, whether you worked at central office or volunteered at a property.  This helped to connect activity at all levels and also helped channel creativity and aided decision making around priorities.

However, whilst the model was great for improving the offer, it didn’t transfer well into other areas of activity. It was never designed to do so, but having adopted a common language, it was tempting to try and make the model fit things like social marketing, external influence and other areas of activity.

Today, whilst the days out attitudinal model persists, alternate segmentation models are being developed to help reveal members needs around digital and customer relationship management and insight specialists are exploring the emotional impact of visits to Trust properties to foster even deeper connections.

In terms of lessons for SUs, my take is to be clear about the purpose of any segmentation model from the very start. It needs a clear and specific strategic fit, and it is important that you don’t try to make it do too much for you. As an easy way in to the world of student audience segmentation, NUS has developed a package http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/student-segmentation-2016-2017 which enables SUs to have a cost effective way into this approach.

It’s something we’re taking a look at in The SU at Bath, so would love to hear examples from others in the student movement who’ve found segmentation to be a useful tool. It would also be great to hear from those who’ve used it not found it helpful, and you thoughts on why that was would be equally valuable too.


Posted in Elsewhere.

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