What kind of relationship does your museum have with TripAdvisor? Have you ever quantified it? After all, that’s what TripAdvisor itself is all about and that’s what makes it a potentially valuable resource for our sector. “Never before have museums had access to visitor research data on such a broad scale and at no direct cost,” commented Victoria D. Alexander, Grant Blank & Scott A. Hale in their 2018 paper: “TripAdvisor Review of London Museums: A New Approach to Understanding Visitors”.
Accentuate the positive
The occasional negative review on TripAdvisor shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the overall value that the site represents for the museum and heritage sector. That the majority of reviews on the site are positive, is the conclusion of both TripAdvisor and independent researchers.
Museum professionals being human, and usually humans with highly developed critical faculties, it’s likely that the impact of any negative comments will be felt disproportionately. Most people have a tendency to focus on the negative and undoubtedly that trait helped to keep our ancestors alive in a challenging environment in the days before we became top predators.
Navigating through the choppy, changeable waters of the 21st century, with its instant reactions, Twitter storms, and lava eruptions of opinion may seem to be an even more testing environment for the museum professional. That’s why statistics that tell the real story have never been more important, and the ability to read and interpret the data is a key skill. In this article, we look at the ways TripAdvisor tools and statistics can work as a resource for museums, and best practice for getting the most from your TripAdvisor account.
Visitor perception starts before they arrive
One of the key points raised by the TripAdvisor Review of London Museums report is that visitors arrive at attractions (including museums) primed with knowledge, even on their first visit. Some of this knowledge is inevitably acquired via TripAdvisor.
This will, of course, be common knowledge to all museum staff who have engaged with visitors anywhere, anytime, ever. “I’ve always wanted to visit!” “My friend came last year and she told me all about it. She loved it!” “I thought this statue would be bigger? It looked much bigger in the video.”
Museum visitors, in other words, arrive with expectations that are often built on the experiences of other people. On the whole, in the words of the immortal Sellar and Yeatman, that’s “A Good Thing”. There’s nothing quite like watching the reaction of a first time visitor whose expectations have been completely met: “I’ve wanted to visit for so long and it’s everything I hoped it would be – and more!” How can TripAdvisor help museums achieve this response?
TripAdvisor: be proactive
Visitors use TripAdvisor to stay informed. To make sure that visitors are getting the most reliable and relevant information, it’s important for every museum to dedicate resources to keeping their TripAdvisor account updated along with the social media accounts.
Because of its emphasis on reviews, TripAdvisor occupies a unique place in internet rankings. The academics who produced the TripAdvisor London Museums report noted that a Google search for the British Museum brought up the museum’s own site, followed by its Twitter feed, then the BM Wiki page, with TripAdvisor in fourth place. The academics found this pattern extended to other museums as well.
The report’s information was based on 2014 data showing that TripAdvisor had 315 million unique visitors each month and the site contained over 200 million reviews of the attractions, restaurants, hotels and so on that were listed for 45 countries. These figures indicate the benefits of setting up and engaging fully with a TripAdvisor account for any museum, particularly in terms of outreach.
Getting the best from a TripAdvisor account
While various business accounts are available, a basic TripAdvisor account costs nothing to set up. Museums can register for free via the TripAdvisor Management Centre, which means they can start listing a description of what they do, photos of exhibits, videos and other information right away.
Support is available from TripAdvisor’s multi-lingual team. A TripAdvisor account also gives the museum the opportunity to respond to critical reviews, often considered to be one of the trickier parts of public engagement. Consider this, though; as mentioned earlier, the majority of the reviews listed are positive.
What’s more, the majority of negative reviews often focus on areas that don’t relate directly to the cultural experience of visiting a museum. They’re mostly about other aspects of the experience, such as what the toilets were like, the quality of the food in the cafeteria, or how long people had to queue.
Highlighting areas where there are issues is useful not just for other visitors but for museums themselves. These data can be used effectively in all areas, from staff training to budgetary management to forward planning. Engaging with the negative, rather than simply wishing it away, can have positive results. A tip: always read the reviews very carefully, whether positive or negative, and take a break to think about what prompted the reviewer to respond in the way they did. Adopting a “how can we improve?” attitude isn’t just about better public relations. It’s about improving the experience for everyone, including museum personnel.
An egalitarian approach – for museums?
Returning to the benefits of a TripAdvisor account, while the better known museums may occupy the top of the rankings, TripAdvisor is also a boon to small and specialist museums. In fact, the world can sometimes discover our much loved favourite “small and quirky” museums like those described by Hunter Davies and turn them into overnight celebrities. Baked beans or pencils, anyone? Or how about the Museum of the Cat?
This means small and medium sized museums may have even more to gain from a TripAdvisor account than big institutions. TripAdvisor offers various tools on its site to keep in touch with visitors and encourage them to write about and rate their visit. Using TripAdvisor tools may be more cost-effective than in-house resources for smaller museums.
One area where it may be particularly important to keep in touch is if a museum has to make a sudden closure or change of status to its exhibits. The unique experience offered by a small museum may be its rural location and highly specialist artefacts. Enthusiasts can travel across the globe to experience this. There’s nothing more disappointing than turning up to find it’s closed, or a key exhibit is on loan.
Anyone who has experience of this from either the curatorial or the visitor side knows just how frustrating it can be. The TripAdvisor management centre has tools to enable visitors to be brought instantly up to date when there are changes. This is clearly a bonus for those museums that don’t have a significant online presence or very active social media, since TripAdvisor’s high Google ranking means it will appear in the searches of those who are planning a visit.
Engaging the whole museum
One of the interesting, and daunting, aspects of TripAdvisor is the sheer scale of engagement that it represents. Millions of unique visitors each month, posting millions of reviews. The arrival of the internet pitched humanity directly into the world of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and despite having been warned of exponential change since the 1970s, few were prepared for it.
If this volume of information is to have any meaning and application, it’s important that every member of staff in the museum has an understanding of how TripAdvisor works. This may mean applying time and resources for training, and here again TripAdvisor can help with the resources in its management centre.
Reviews may appear to be random, but tools exist for examining the data that can reveal patterns. These may be problem areas that staff already know about but haven’t known how to open up the discussion. Applied resourcefully, TripAdvisor stats can improve both visitor engagement and staff well-being.
One of the words that appears frequently in 5* TripAdvisor reviews is “inspiring”. How inspired are your colleagues at the museum? How inspired do your visitors feel after they’ve visited? Can your museum provide a more inspiring experience for staff and visitors alike? What would the first steps be to achieve that?
TripAdvisor also offers business awards that can be displayed on websites, social media, literature and so on. Gaining a TripAdvisor certificate or award is due to the effort of the whole staff. Can this be reflected in some in-house recognition too?
Learn from the commercial sector as well as other museums
Clearly there are benefits to be gained through studying how other museums use TripAdvisor as part of their ongoing development. Most museums are in the habit of sharing best practice with similar institutions anyway, through producing and reading papers in the specialist press, or attending conferences and training events.
It’s just as useful to take a look at what’s happening in other sectors, particularly the commercial sector. One useful piece of advice from TripAdvisor, directly related to the hotel sector, is the idea of “owning the guest relationship from the start”. This links back to earlier comments about being proactive, but suggests a deeper level of engagement. How could this work for museums?
The relationship between visitor and museum starts before the museum is even aware of it, with searches and informal discussions online. TripAdvisor suggests that customer loyalty is based on a good relationship, which starts from the first connection. The site then poses an interesting question: a quarter of accommodation providers across the world make relationship building a priority before the visit. Why is that figure so low, given the advantages of having a positive relationship as early as possible?
TripAdvisor also points out that excitement is at its height before the visit. Anticipation is everything. Creating a connection at this point, and, crucially for museums, providing relevant and appealing information, can affect how a visitor responds; and whether they return. The most recent reviews are always the most influential and that’s why it’s important to keep up to date on what’s happening and respond appropriately.
The future: museums as attractions
Museum listings on TripAdvisor and similar sites most frequently come under the heading “visitor attraction” rather than in a category of their own. There’s no conflict of interest in the majority of visitors’ minds between education, information and entertainment. Does the categorisation create particular issues for museums, and if so, what are they?
Interestingly, one of the major areas for improvement indicated by TripAdvisor reviews is that of display and signage, with comments such as “confusing” and “poorly lit” being used to describe them. Some visitors feel that complex display boards overwhelm the artefacts.
Does this perhaps reflect an audience for whom the visual is of greater importance than the verbal, or written material? Sometimes it’s not feasible to radically change existing displays, so can anything else be done to remedy these issues? How can displays be made more relevant for visitors for whom a museum is one among many attractions?
The recent initiative by Bristol Museum may help here. Their decision to drape mourning veils over taxidermied animals that had been favourite exhibits for previous generations was a simple, but very effective way to highlight how museums used to be and what their role is now. It didn’t require the creation of complex new interpretative material. It was entirely visual, and completely relevant to a generation whose greatest fear is the extinction of species and the threat humans pose to the planet.
It showed that in a world of competing attractions, each glossier and louder than the last, museums can still move their visitors without compromising their essentially educative role. The fact that museums are consistently at the top of the TripAdvisor visitor attraction ratings reveals that museum visitors are well aware that they are very special attractions indeed. In other words, TripAdvisor stats confirms what museum professionals already know – museums matter.
About the author – Miriam Bibby
Miriam Bibby has worked at Beamish Museum, Manchester Museum, Clan Armstrong Trust Museum and Gilnockie Tower giving her a broad overview of the museum sector. She has written and edited a number of magazines and developed an Egyptology distance learning course for University of Manchester.