Introducing the National Museum Website Visitor Motivation Survey

I’m leading, with collaborator Sarah Wambold, a nationwide study into the motivation of visitors to museum websites. As of this writing we have 22 participating institutions, including representatives in Canada and Australia.

The Menil Collection
The VMS on the website of the Menil Collection


Google Analytics is a powerful tool in understanding traffic to a website, but site statistics alone do not always tell the full story. A combination of techniques is necessary to gain insight into why visitors come to a museum’s website, which are more likely to return, and how different types of visitors consume the content they find there. One such technique is a Visitor Motivation Survey (VMS), such as the one presented at MW 2012 by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Using their method, online visitors are presented with a one-question survey that asks them to specify why they’ve come to the website that day. Custom variables are used to track responses in Google Analytics. This allows site traffic to be segmented by responses, thereby allowing site activity to be tracked by motivational category. Sarah and I conducted a survey of this kind for the MCA Chicago in 2014.

In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, researcher John Falk outlined a predictive model of visitor experience designed to help museum professionals better meet their visitors’ needs. Drawing upon a career studying museum visitors, he identified five key types of visitors who attend museums and the internal motivations that drive repeat visitation: Experience Seeker; Explorer; Socializer; Recharger; Hobbyist / Professional. (I’ve previously made use of Falk’s framework in the redesign of the Santa Cruz MAH’s homepage.)

A Wide Survey

Our project is simultaneously surveying a myriad of museum websites, pairing an IMA-style Google Analytics-powered backend with segments adapted from Falk’s motivation framework. Since the IMA’s 2012 presentation, studies following IMA’s methodology have been reproduced at various institutions. In addition to the use of Falk, our project is distinct in that it looks at the data in aggregate and provides representatives from participating museums the opportunity to discuss their findings, highlighting patterns that emerge across the various institutions. In seeking to identify trends across the sector, we hope to identify best practices for each motivation and enable participants gain an understanding the similarities and differences in their audiences. Participating institutions include:

Cross-Platform Roll-out

I developed the survey’s implementation, consisting of HTML, CSS and JS files that together create a user interface for the VMS. Along with supporting documents, I packaged the sample code as a WordPress plugin, which was posted to a GitHub repo for easy access by developers at the various institutions. This was soon joined by a Drupal 7 adaptation, put together by Chris Brown of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and further modified by Andrew Fox at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The initial batch of institutions rolled-out the survey in November and December of 2015. Additional institutions continue to join the survey and come online.

Online Professional Forum

As we enter the analysis phase of the project, we’re hosting an online forum for participants via Slack. This is where we share important project information and training and, most critically, it’s where representatives make connections with their counterparts at other institutions, discuss objectives, and share results.

As results are developed in the forum we’ll be taking advantage of opportunities to share our learnings and insights with the broader sector. Stay tuned!

Posted February 2016

Made under the ☀ in Austin, Texas.
WordPress hosting by WP Engine, thanks y’all!

© 2022 Spellerberg Associates LLC