Visitor motivation in online museum audiences

What are visitors looking for when they visit museum websites?

Museum professionals have access to a myriad of tools that can reveal useful information about online audiences. Software like Google Analytics provides detailed information about website visitors and their behaviour during their visit. Although this information can be useful to understand online audience behaviour, it often does not answer fundamental questions, such as, what is the motivation behind a museum website visit?

The Indianapolis Museum of Art conducted a series of studies to answer that exact question. The results of their studies are published onlineIn short, the museum team collect feedback from website visitors in order to identifying online motivational categories. With a list of those categories at hand, the team conducted another online survey asking visitors why they were visiting the museum website. The question, the possible answers and respective responses are include bellow:

Today, I am visiting the website to:

  • Plan a visit to the museum (50%)
  • Find specific information for research or professional purposes (16%)
  • Find specific information for personal interest (21%)
  • Engage in casual browsing without looking for something specific (10%)
  • Make a transaction on the website. (2,7%) 

The Indianapolis Museum of Art publish their results with hope that they would provide a reference dataset and a replicable model for other museums that are interested in conducting similar a study.

That is exactly what 15 dutch museums did in the context of a research project dedicated to evaluate and understand online success. The  museums used a bi-lingual surveys in Dutch and in english which was delivered depending on the language of the webpage being visited. The english survey and the results of the survey are shown in the slideshow. The results were similar to those found by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. A noteworthy exception was that in the Dutch research the number of casual browsing was significantly higher. A possible reasons for that discrepancy is the fact that in the Dutch survey the option 'Engage in casual browsing without looking for something specific' was presented as the first option.


Some of the key findings are resumed bellow:

Approximately half of online visitors are planning a museum visit.

It should be no surprise that people visit museum websites while preparing a visit to the museum’s physical campus. From our research, 47% of online museum visitors are planning a visit to the museum. The values ranged from 35% to 57%.

Most museum websites include clear information for those that plan a visit although often that information is spread across several pages in the website. Nowadays, Google also supplies most necessary information, such as, address, telephone, opening hours and even a museum rating based on visitors reviews. Since planning a visit is the main motivation to visit museum websites, how can museums take a step further in facilitating that process? A possible approach could be to send an automated email including all necessary information for the visit: opening hours, admission fee, direction from visitors location to the museum based on user preferred transportation mode and an overview of the programme available for the day the visitors have chosen. Do you know a museum that goes one step further in terms of helping visitors to plan their visit? Please refer it as an example in the comments section.


There are more online museum visitors searching information for personal reasons than for professional reasons. 

For the 15 museums that participated in the project in average, 16% of visitors visited the museum website for personal reasons whereas only 13% of the visits had a professional motivation. This is a relevant finding as often museums struggle with the decision of customising their online information for scholars and museum professionals or for a general public.

Also relevant to notice is that there is a considerable large online audience that is not necessarily planning a visit neither searching for information for professional reasons. Indeed 37% of the online visitors were either casual browsing or searching information for personal reasons. It appears that just like people are interested in visit a museum physical campus, there seems to also be an audience interested in spending some of their leisure time visiting museum websites. What can online visitors do and learn on museum websites? What do have museum websites to offer to these audiences? The Tate website displays prominently in the front-page a large image from their collection which is not necessarily related with the programme at their physical location and instead it is targeted to online audiences. The Rijksmuseum website makes three clear propositions to online visitors: 'Plan a visit', 'Collection', 'About the museum'. In the collection section, visitors can explore or search both the collection and the library catalogue, as well as create and download their your own collection using the Rijksstudio  These are two examples of interaction scenarios targeted at online audience that are not necessarily professionals or planning a visit. Many museums produce audiovisual content that is interesting for online audiences at large, however, this content is not always clear accessible on their websites. We believe this is a missed opportunity as there is a large number of people interested in spending some of their leisure time  visiting and exploring museum websites. Do you know about other museums that offer online experiences for museums? Please mentioned the example in the comment section as it might be useful for future reference.


Online museum visitors are interested in shopping online.

While planning the online survey, participating museums considered to remove the answer 'To book for an exhibition or event, or buy something'. The main reason being that 8 from the 15 museum websites did not include e-commerce functionality. The group decided to keep the answer for matters of consistency with the study done at Indianapolis Museum of Art. Despite the fact that more than half of the museums did not offer e-commerce in their websites, it was surprising to notice that 4% of the online visitors still intended to book an event or buy a product.

Museums have been integrating e-commerce in the websites for several years. Today museums sell online tickets for events and exhibition, request donations or memberships and create online shops to sell books and other products often selected by the museum staff. There are several examples of museums successfully using e-commerce. The Metropolitan Museum of Art reported to have generated $4.5 million on online membership sales alone, in the fiscal year of 2012. In 2009/2010, Victoria and Albert Museum reported an overall net turnover for online retail of £614,862 which represented 9.4% of their overall retail turnover. Their website had a conversion rate of 1.63% which means that every 3 in 200 online visitors completes a successful transaction. These are two examples of museums successfully using their websites as an extra source of income. As museums gift shops are established revenue sources for museums, it is logical that online shops will follow a similar path.

In the spirit of open data, we have made accessible online the raw data collected during the online survey. The survey was installed on the several museum websites using Quaraloo. We encourage other museums to conduct similar online surveys and to publish their results online.

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