The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) has just published a report, Segmenting Publics, co-written by Nick Mahony and I, which reviews the use of market segmentation technologies and other segmentation practices for the purposes of public engagement. This little project, co-funded by the ESRC, investigated the use of segmentation tools in various fields – environmental policy, political campaigning, arts and heritage sectors, charities and campaigning – in the context of various imperatives, including personalisation agendas, behaviour change paradigms, and public service reform agendas. It places the proliferation of segmentation methods in the wider context of the changing dynamics of various ‘public’ issues, including the public health, development aid, environmental issues, and climate change, and in particular the increasing use of social marketing principles and CRM technologies to address problems defined in terms of behaviour change.
This is the first time I have worked on a project like this, directed primarily to a non-academic audience – the specific brief for the report is to address the potentials and limitations (lots of those) of using segmentation methods in higher education contexts. Conceptually and methodologically, the report is an attempt to apply some of the lessons learnt on the Emergent Publics project that Nick and I were involved in with Janet Newman, including ideas outlined in the Rethinking Publics book (reviewed here). It’s an interesting challenge, to take a framework primarily oriented to ‘critical’ analysis and try to use it to address a practitioner audience – i.e. to make the ‘critical’ insights useful and useable by ordinary professionals with jobs to do.
There are a couple of things which I find most interesting about this topic, thought they are not the lead items of this report, given its audience.
Firstly, segmentation gets used all over the place in noncommercial sectors, and while it may seem counter to obvious ideas of inclusive publicness, these methods drawn from marketing are deployed to enable organisations to address obviously public pressures – imperatives of diversity, inclusion, responsiveness, accountability. So I think there is scope here for thinking about how segmentation practices are indicative of the ascendancy of particular models of public responsibility amongst across a range of organisational fields.
Second, there is an interesting ‘hypothesis’ I have now about the relationship between the techniques of segmentation packages (lots of data, lots of cluster analysis) and the ‘theory’ that is inputted into these, to define variables and interpret results. The rage at the moment is all for ‘pyscho’ or motivational variables, that enable organisations to target different ‘susceptibilities’. The ‘subjects’ of these practices, then, first and foremost are not necessarily ‘visitors’, or ‘citizens’, or ‘clients’ – not, that is, the different figures of the public that show up in different segmentations. I think the primary subjects formed by these exercises are the professionals within and across organisations whose practices of engagement are re-shaped by the knowledges of motivations generated by segmentation practices. This is actually a theme you can find in some of the management studies literature about how segmentations work in practice, but as yet there is next to no academic research on how these marketing-sourced practices are used in public and third sector fields, and to what effect.
Segmentation methods are certainly being used in the higher education sector more and more (do let us know you if you know of examples!), although it was difficult to find out much about this in this type of synthesis project – the segmentations used in HE at the moment are likely to be commercially sensitive and valuable, and so are not quite so accessible as the ones generated by DEFRA or the National Trust. And the HE sector is an interesting hybrid in this regard – part of the imperative for the use of these types of methods fits with the ‘public’ purposes we address in the report; but part of the imperative is, of course, a more obviously ‘competitive’ looking one of re-defining the position of institutions in national and international higher education markets.
So, as I say, there is actually lots of scope for academic research on this whole field. We identified various topics in the report for further work:
– How and why segmentation methods are translated across policy areas and professional fields.
– Research into the practices of ‘doing segmentation’ in public engagement contexts (equivalent to leading-edge research on the practice of segmentation in commercial settings undertaken in management studies and marketing theory.)
– Research, assessment, and evaluation of the extent of the use of segmentation in HEIs.
– Research and evaluation into the conceptual and methodological issues involved in using segmentation tools in public engagement activities, including research on the use and analysis of different forms of data and the implications of digitalization for the generation of sophisticated segmentations of motivations and values.
– Research into how the applications of segmentations in public engagement activities are evaluated in practice.
Not sure we will pursue any or all of these. Not sure I want to. But somebody should. This stuff is coming to a University near to you anytime soon. If it is hasn’t already.