Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, Director of Interpretation, Media, and Evaluation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), Silvia Filippini-Fantoni manages the Interpretation, Media and Evaluation Department, which is responsible for the development of analogue and digital interpretive content about the permanent collection, temporary exhibitions, and historic properties as well as audience research and evaluation.

Silvia talked with us about how museums can identify and better understand their online audiences.

Technology can help museums engage younger audiences as well as expand communications beyond those who visit the physical buildings. But technology projects can also be expensive. In order to invest funds wisely, museums must first know why and how people are using technology. Only then can museums build effective digital experiences that support a specific need. Research should also be an ongoing process: conducted before, during (e.g., through prototype testing), and after a digital project launches.

In recent years, the IMA has increased the resources it puts towards audience evaluation (including both online and physical visitors). A full team was put in place to conduct research, including four research associates, one data analyst, and several contractors to help with data collection.

One example of formative studies conducted at the IMA is ongoing research about people’s motivation for visiting the website and how motivation impacts behavior. The IMA team has used a hybrid model to combine short online surveys (conducted using the inexpensive SurveyMonkey tool) with free Google Analytics data, essentially linking survey answers with data the survey taker’s web behavior. See this published paper from Museums and the Web 2012 for more details about the IMA’s methodology and subsequent research findings.

The results of online research have influenced redevelopment of the IMA website, including:

  • redesigned information architecture and navigation
  • clustered content areas based on the motivations of web visitors (such as finding specific information or planning a visit)
  • better cross-referencing to drive people to less visited areas of the site (e.g., collections and exhibitions)
  • reduced time required to complete a transaction (such as purchasing tickets)

An increase in website visits from mobile devices influenced the IMA’s decision to move to a responsive website design. On a mobile device, it can be easy to get lost in a website with deep navigation, therefore, the redesigned site was reduced to 3 levels deep (rather than 5, as was the case prior to the redesign). The IMA is working on more improvements based on ongoing audience research, such as simplifying the online calendar and improving the search experience.

In seeking to better understand their audiences, the IMA has also looked at the differences between on-site and online visitors . . . and found very few differences. The key divergences are age (online visitors skew younger) and social groups (online visitors tend to visit individually while on-site visitors are more likely to come in groups). The website also reaches a wider swath of the population in terms of place of residence (more international).

Moving forward, Silvia is excited to bring design-thinking strategies to the IMA, working to better involve visitors in the development process.


  1. Jennifer Kingsley says:

    The IMA’s efforts to incorporate motivation into the analysis of their online visitors will make it possible to compare the motivation of online visits to onsite visits. Since the IMA found few differences among their online and onsite visitors and studies at other museums have found the majority of online visitors use of the website is to plan an in-person visit (with a certain number delving deeper into the content of the site after a visit), it will be interesting to develop a more nuanced understanding of why visitors visit museum websites. This interview made me curious whether the results of such analysis can be used to change online behavior. That is, I wonder if the use of the website stems from habit and whether those can be changed. I’m also curious about how the IMA’s results compares to similar analysis at different genres of museums – a historic house, a science museum or a children’s museum for example.

  2. Rachel Pierson says:

    I really appreciated the questions and answers regarding getting a museum’s administration on-board for online visitor research. The “selling points” for this are persuasive, and referencing free or small-budget resources like google analytics and survey monkey are very helpful. I also appreciate the tips on how to best use these resources, like keeping surveys to one question only to get a larger data pool. Thank you for sharing this information! The museum I work at doesn’t have the resources that the IMA does, these tips will help with being able to dedicate some time, if not staff, to visitor studies.

  3. Jennifer Ferrin says:

    This is a great learning experience for me since I do not know too much about museums and how they try to figure out the needs of their visitors. It seems like such a frustrating line of work at times, but the rewards are when they reach out to a new group of visitors based upon their on going audience research. It was great to hear her responses to our questions and then having the ability to pose follow up ones to her as well. I thought it was really neat how visitor friendly they are by having available devices for visitors to use if they did not want to use their own to tour around the museum with. She gave us some great tips for us to share with our respective museums that might not have the budget now, but in the future could be a possibility. Great guest speaker this week!

  4. Solimar Salas says:

    I enjoyed this interview very much; Ms. Filippini-Fantoni was incredibly generous when sharing he experience. Her emphasis on interdepartmental communication and content creation for an exhibition resonate greatly with what I would like to implement at the museum where I work. This provides a measure of structure and uniformity throughout the exhibitions and the fact that they are also the ones that research what their audiences want from the museum, allows them to directly address these needs. I also agree with her that understanding the audience is key to promoting engagement and a fertile relationship between museum and audience. I am very interested in integrating the brief online surveys they used in their website so that I can work better for my audiences.

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