Who is going to visit your virtual exhibit?

This post is the third post in a series on virtual exhibits. Here are the other posts (in case you want to check them out!):

  1. Should museums invest in virtual exhibits?
  2. What is a virtual exhibit?
  3. Who is going to visit your virtual exhibit?
  4. For virtual exhibits, the medium is the message.
  5. Personalizing Virtual Exhibits to Your Visitors.
  6. Giving Visitors Control Over Virtual Content
  7. Designing Virtual Exhibits to Facilitate Better Social Interactions than Facebook
  8. Virtual Exhibit Case Study: Making Friends around American History

*BONUS POST: Top 10 Virtual Experiences of 2020*

As an exhibit developer, my job is to create exhibits that engage visitors. In order to effectively do my job, I need to know who my visitors are. Unfortunately, few museums understand their in-person audiences and even fewer institutions profile their virtual visitors.

Most museums, nonprofits, and companies have different audiences on different platforms. Therefore, it is likely that your physical museum audience is slightly different from your website audience, which is slightly different from your Facebook audience, which is likely slightly different from your virtual exhibit’s audience. 

How can museums find out who will visit different platforms so they can effectively design those platforms for their target audiences?

To identify a target audience for a virtual exhibit, you first need to understand your museum’s existing audiences, both in-person and online.  A large portion of the target audiences for your new initiative is likely a cross section of your existing audiences or groups that share characteristics with existing audiences. 

Market researchers use demographics and psychographics to understand audiences. Demographics are easily identifiable statistical information about your audience, including  age, location, language, level of education, gender, ethnicity, race, and income bracket. For in person visitors, demographic information can be found through visitor research surveys or ticketing system data. For your online visitors, check out Google Analytics, Facebook Audience Insights, Instagram Insights,and Twitter Analytics. 

Psychographics are your users’ values, attitudes, motivations, and interests. Phsychographics not only examine what people do, but also why they choose to do it and what it says about who they are. In short, psychographics are an exploration of your visitors’ ever-changing identities.

According to museum audience researcher Jonathan Falk, people choose to spend their time and money on leisure activities that allow them to express their values and explore their interests. Visitors selectively scour museums and exhibits and they only engage with content that corresponds to their identity-building work. Therefore, in order to build exhibits that effectively accomplish your visitors’ goals, you need to understand their psychographic profiles. 

Falk crafted five identity-related profiles of visitors to physical museums based on his research: 1) explorer, 2) facilitator, 3) experience seeker, 4) professional/hobbyist, and 5) recharger. Like all identities, these are not static; every visitor is capable of being any one of these types, depending on the day, who they are with, and how they are feeling. Each of the profiles describes how that type of visitor behaves inside the museum. In short, Falk’s profiles demonstrate that the styles of interpretation that a visitor prefers correspond with their motivation for visiting.

Data-driven visitor profiles, like Falk’s, provide an excellent guide for exhibit developers, helping us to define our target audiences and mold exhibits to their needs. Take Falk’s “explorers,” for example. Explorers are enthusiastic non-experts who are curious to learn more about the museum’s subject and want to see new things that will push their intellectual boundaries. When inside the museum, they skim the space looking for things that catch their eye. They do not like exhibits to be too linear. They want to browse and get deep dive information on artifacts they find interesting. Therefore, explorers need clear visual hooks to help them find what they’re looking for and opportunities to explore content on a deeper level. 

Falk’s profiles are compelling, but you still may want to research your own visitors. Little research has been conducted on virtual museum audiences, so there are no pre-existing models for virtual visitor profiles (that I know of). Additionally, while Falk’s psychographic profiles of museum visitors are the most famous, his model is not the only one in existence. For example, independent institutions, such as Museums Victoria, have used his research as a springboard to perform their own research and to create profiles unique to their museums.

Psychographic research is a bit more involved than collecting demographic data. You need to actually talk to your audience by conducting interviews or focus groups. Really robust audience research methodology is ideal and the Visitor Studies Association provides excellent resources for conducting ethical and methodologically sound research. However, if you’re on a tight budget, it’s better to just interview a random sample of a few visitors than do nothing at all.

In your interviews or focus groups, try to find ways to answer the following questions: 

  • What does your audience spend their time doing, both on and offline, when they aren’t engaging with your museum?
  • What do they spend most of their time thinking about? How do they think about it? 
  • What criteria would they use to evaluate an in person museum experience? How would they characterize a successful visit to a museum? What would lead them to question whether their visit was successful?
  • What criteria would they use to evaluate a virtual museum experience? How would they characterize a successful visit to a virtual museum? What would lead them to question whether their visit was successful?
  • How does your audience decide whether or not to visit an exhibit? What about a virtual exhibit?

Once you have psychographic and demographic visitor data, you can create visitor personas for your developers and designers. Visitor personas are characters, detailed fictional profiles based on your data about real visitors. They are helpful because they humanize your visitors and help you empathize with them. For example, instead of describing Falk’s “explorer” in abstract terms, as I did above, I could turn the description into a persona. Let’s call her Jen:

Jen Hanratty is a 40 year old caucasian lawyer with brown eyes and hair who lives in Chicago. Jen belongs to most of the major cultural organizations in the city, but is particularly fond of the Art Institute. She loves seeing new things at the museum and exhibits that push her intellectual boundaries. A successful visit is when she has learned an interesting tid-bit that she can tell to her friends at a book club.

Personally, I think it’s easier to design an exhibit for Jen, than for “explorer.” 

Once you have your virtual exhibit up and running, you will want to evaluate the ways that your visitors actually interact with it and how that differs from what they told you during your pre-design audience research. This evaluation will allow you to adjust your personas for future exhibits. 

Understanding your target audience will provide you with a solid foundation for designing a stellar virtual exhibit.

After all, connecting visitors to content is what this work is all about. 

This post is the third in a series on virtual exhibitsJoin our mailing list to get the rest in your inbox!

Sources (click on a source to access it)

Byrd-McDevitt, Lori. “The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Museum Resources,” August 10, 2020. http://mcn.edu/a-guide-to-virtual-museum-resources/?fbclid=IwAR1YfrMGH8z46KOf1I1w-81Ol39Pr8PYvPD87EnOmT8uyhf3W-u1jS0JkGs.

Carmicheal, Kayla. “How to Find Your Target Audience.” HubSpot Blog. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/target-audience.

Ciaccheri, M. Chiara. “Do Virtual Tours in Museums Meet the Real Needs of the Public?,” May 15, 2020. https://medium.com/@mchiara.ciaccheri/do-virtual-tours-in-museums-meet-the-real-needs-of-the-public-127325d652e0.

Falk, John H. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.

Turner, Devon. “Museum Audiences: How Do You Find Yours?,” June 8, 2020. https://www.museumnext.com/article/museum-audiences-how-do-you-find-yours/.

Kalfatovic, Martin R. Creating a Winning Online Exhibition: a Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2002.

Malnik, Jessica. “9 Ways to Accurately Identify the Target Audience for Your Website: Databox Blog.” Databox, May 28, 2020. https://databox.com/how-to-identify-the-target-audience-for-your-website.

Paolucci, Alessandra R, James Verrill Beucler, Katherine R Comeford, and Kendall Jacqueline Rooney. “Bringing Museum Audience Segmentation to Life.” Worcester Polytechnic Institute Digital WPI, December 2016, 1–15. https://digitalcommons.wpi.edu/iqp-all/798.

Patel, Neil. “3 Psychographic Gems You MUST Know About Customers (Examples),” August 23, 2018. https://www.crazyegg.com/blog/3-psychographic-gems/

Point Visible, “A Complete Guide To Target Audience Analysis For Content Marketers,” December 6, 2019. https://www.pointvisible.com/blog/complete-guide-target-audience-analysis-content-marketers/.

Revella, Adele. “Buyer Persona Template and Mistakes to Avoid: Research Buyers,” August 4, 2016. https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2012/08/4-common-persona-mistakes-to-avoid/.

Sedmak, Gorazd, and Aleksandra Brezovec. “Visitors’ Preferences for Museum Interpretation: Identifying and Targeting Market Segments.” Academica Turistica 10, no. 2 (2017): 141–50. https://doi.org/10.26493/2335-4194.10.141-150.Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels: an Interpretive Approach. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira, 1996.

Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels: an Interpretive Approach. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira, 1996.

Photo Credits (in order of use)

Photo by Jack Sparrow from Pexels

Photo by Cliff Booth from Pexels

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay


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