What can museums learn from visitor reviews?

(Reading time: 3m, 18s)

A few months ago, I wrote about the British Museum’s efforts to glean audience insights from TripAdvisor reviews. Since then, I’ve begun working with Melissa Smith, a developer and data scientist, to see what we might learn from exploring reviews of different cultural organizations. We’re just getting started, but I thought I’d a little bit of what we’re up to.

Take a look the number of TripAdvisor reviews by year for the 20 organizations we’re looking at initially:


After 2016, the number of reviews for all the museums start to decrease. These are all museums in New York, so it could might be a local pattern, but it sure seems like TripAdvisor may be falling out of favor as a review platform. I assume people still want to review these organizations, they’re just reviewing them elsewhere. We’ve ran into some obstacles in gathering review data from other platforms — more on that another day — for now, one question I had for you all was where you’re noticing people reviewing your organization. Are you seeing people use TA less? Have you noticed more reviews coming in from another platform? Let me know in a reply.

Here’s a view of each org’s average review over time:


It’s worth pointing out that some of these museums have relatively few TripAdvisor reviews. In those cases, an average review for a given year doesn’t mean a whole lot.


But for a museum like the Guggenheim, which has 3,005 reviews, you’ll notice a relatively low rating. When we looked at what kinds of words were popping up frequently in reviews of the museum, we noticed a lot of references to the architecture — it seems some people may not appreciate the spiral rotunda, which is affecting the museum’s overall rating. But we’re just beginning to try to make sense of ratings and sentiment based on the language reviewers use. And I’m looking forward to comparing the review data set with the results of my survey of museum leaders.

For example, one survey question was, “What motivates people to visit your organization?” Of the 117 people who answered that question, only one has mentioned online reviews as a factor that they believe motivates people to visit their organization. Yet it’s not uncommon for museums to feature links to review sites like TripAdvisor, which suggests that decision makers must believe there’s some benefit to having people read online reviews — If the purpose isn’t to persuade people to visit, then why are they directing people away from their site to read the reviews?

It could be that the question is framed in a way that somehow prevents respondents from thinking of reviews as a motivating factor. If I asked “What influences people to visit your organization?” maybe reviews would wind up being a more common response.

In any case, based on the survey, .8% of museum leaders believe that reviews are a motivating factor for visitation, yet many more than that are promoting these review sites.

Melissa and I found that about 4% of reviewers mentioned online reviews in their own reviews of museums. Now, that’s just a basic frequency analysis — When people mention “reviews” in their reviews of museums, they could be referring to reviews on a review site or they could be talking about reviews of an exhibition in a newspaper or magazine. They could also be saying something like, “We went in spite of some of the reviews we read online.” In that case, reviews would not be a positive influence in their decision, but something to overcome.

As I said, we’re just getting started, and you can see how there’s a lot of nuance to be accounted for.

Still, I think it’s interesting that we might be able to get a more accurate view of visitor motivations by triangulating these different sources:

  • What do reviewers cite as factors in their decision to visit?
  • What does existing survey data tell us about visitor motivations? ([Susie Wilkening][0] has a lot to contribute here.)
  • What does user behavior online tell us?
  • What can we learn from interviews of different visitor segments?

How does all that compare to what we know of decision makers’ beliefs around visitor motivations?

Where are the gaps and how can these organizations shape their operations and communications to better address the obstacles to visitation?

More to come — in the meantime, I’d love to hear whether and how you might be learning from online reviews of your organization. Have you found them to be helpful or actionable? Are you curious to learn how your museum compares to others of its kind? Would you like us to take a closer look at your museum and see what we can learn about audience motivations?

Let me know in a reply.

Thanks for reading,


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