The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently shared the results of its research on the users of its online collections, which approach about 600,000 visitors per month. Digital analyst Elena Villaespesa collected information on motivations and knowledge through Google Analytics, heat maps, and an online survey to develop six core user segments: professional researchers, student researchers, personal-interest information seekers, inspiration seekers, casual browsers, and visit planners. This typology will help the museum “plan new content and prioritize production of new features for the online collection” and is a finer version of the “stroller/streaker/scholar” categories that are often used by museum educators.
Using visitor research to plan and design the online collection is good application, but the article also points out several other ideas that will be useful to history museums and historic sites:
- User motivations (purpose) and level of knowledge (expertise) are more helpful for developing programs and publicity than the usual demographics (e.g., age, sex, race). Marilyn Hood pointed this out in her article, “Comfort and Caring” back in 1993 (that’s 25 years ago!) and yet, museums place too much emphasis on demographics to make decisions.
- The same word can mean different things to different users. As the Met’s study shows, “While research is frequently mentioned by our users, it actually means diﬀerent things for diﬀerent people. I’ve found that website users may be doing research for a translation, verifying some piece of data about an artwork, researching for a fictional story they are writing, researching fashion designs, or trying to find out the value of a similar artwork they own.” That may be true as well for visitors to historic sites when they say “history” or “museum.” We have to follow up by asking more questions to understand what these words mean to them.
- We have to go beyond surveys and questionnaires. Surveys are quick and easy, but you can’t follow-up on a visitor response (e.g., when you say the tour was boring, what aspects were especially boring? when you say that historic sites are great for families, what makes them great?). We have to understand ours visitor more deeply, and that often means using several methods to obtain a more complete perspective. The Met’s study involved three different tools to gain a deeper and more valuable understanding of the users of their online collections. Check back on the evaluations you’ve conducted recently—are they all surveys?
If you’d like to improve your knowledge of your visitors, the following resources will help you get started:
Diamond, Judy et al. Practical Evaluation Guide: Tools for Museums and Other Informal Educational Settings, Third Edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016.
Klingler, Stacy and Conny Graft. “In Lieu of Mind Reading: Visitor Studies and Evaluation.” In The Small Museum Toolkit: Book 4, Reaching and Responding to the Audience, edited by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko and Stacy Klingler, 37-74. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012.
Kotler, Neil, Philip Kotler, and Wendy Kotler. Museum Strategy and Marketing: Designing Missions, Building Audiences, Generating Revenue and Resources, Second Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.