When Videos Compete for Visitor’s Eyeballs


Video screens at in the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History.

In my recent post, “To View or Not to View,”  I presented general things I’ve learned over the years about video viewing in museum settings. As a follow-up to that post (parts of which I also shared on a professional listserv), I was asked by a colleague to identify some specific factors that I’ve found to be important when visitors are deciding whether or not to watch a video in a museum.

Types of Visitors/Visitor Objectives: Over the years, we’ve seen an interesting trend wherein some museum visitors seem to be driven in their video-viewing-decision-making by the video topic (and personal interest in that topic), whereas others are primarily motivated by logistics associated with the viewing experience (e.g., time, group characteristics, and seating).


In the “topic-driven” category – visitors first determine if the topic is of interest and then seek to determine if they have time to watch, if there is group interest in watching, and/or if the video is at a good place for them to start watching (i.e., just before starting, just starting, not too far in). They also consider specific things about the topic in addition to interest including the likelihood of learning new things or being exposed to new ideas. Members of groups also seek to quickly determine if the level of content presentation is right for all or most members of their group.


Visitors in “logistics-driven” category often seem less interested in what the video is about and are willing to watch if the logistical requirements for doing so are met: Do they have time (i.e., did they have tickets to an upcoming event?  Do they have enough time to get to everything else they wanted to see? etc.). Are the other members of their group also willing to stay and watch the video – or able to go on and do something else on their own?  Are there spots to sit down?  We find that a lot of people who fall into this category are regular visitors, often with children, who value the opportunity to rest for a few minutes, and aren’t worried about rushing around to see everything in the museum.  This group doesn’t necessarily care about watching an entire video – and the video viewing experience is sometimes perceived as a break from other exhibit-related activities rather than an activity in and of itself.


Signage: Visitors in both categories appreciate signage or other indicators that let them know when videos were starting, how far along they were, and how long they lasted. Video viewership in the presence of these pieces of info generally seemed more informed and less random.


Installation Factors: The way a video was installed also seems to be a variable that affected viewing patterns. Here’s a link to a presentation that I presented at the 2009 Visitor Studies Association conference entitled “Believing What We See: Use of Videos in Museums” which explores the impact of different types of video installations.


Video Length: Video length can also play a role in visitors’ decision-making process. Based on my observations through the years I think the right length for a video depends on the viewing context.  If there are several videos within an exhibit (e.g., stand and watch or kiosk-based videos) the right length is usually very short (e.g. 2-4 minutes).  For shorter films being shown in theater-like settings (e.g., separate spaces with ample seating) 8-12 minutes seems to be a good length.  For longer films (e.g. 20-30 minutes), offering tickets, even if they are free, may make the longer length more acceptable to visitors because it can be viewed as a standalone experience within the museum, rather than part of a larger exhibition experience. Keep in mind that if visitors have to stand around and wait for a video to cycle back to the start, they might also consider that to be time they are investing in the video-viewing experience. Push-to-start video installations get around that by allowing visitors to control start times (but admittedly, this strategy may not always work in a highly trafficked exhibition). This also suggests value for exploring ways to incorporate visitor’s own technology  (i.e., allowing visitors to call up specific videos on their own phones while they are in the exhibition or to create playlists that they can watch at a later time).


As with everything, I suspect there are universal truths that are likely to stay consistent over long periods of time, as well as trends that are likely to change over time (for example, most museum visitors now have smart phones or other devices on which they can watch videos – and I think that fundamentally changes the way museums can think about videos).



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