Zoos are going wild for social media

Here’s a piece I wrote for Ragan.com about the use of social media by my local zoo:

Zoos are going wild for social media
By Ari B. Adler
Facebook, Twitter and Flickr augment the live experience for animal enthusiasts

Zoos and aquariums across the country are joining the online jungle to attract visitors.

Of the 221 institutions that are members of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, at least two-thirds are using social media of some kind, and the number is growing continually, says Linda Cendes, a member of AZA’s communications team.

“It has provided a great way for zoos and aquariums to interact with their communities on a whole new level,” she said. “It’s not only to promote events and other activities, but a way to provide real-time updates to visitors, whether to announce a keeper talk or a closure due to inclement weather.”

For Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Mich., outreach to visitors has been steadily increasing during the 17 months that Jake Pechtel has been on the job. Originally a producer and marketer of video games, Pechtel joined Potter Park Zoo when he got a job there updating its website.

“Potter Park had updated the zoo on the inside, then the project started to bring the website up to date,” said Pechtel, who has earned the designation “Swiss Army Knife” at the zoo. “Our thought behind social media is enhancing guests’ experience, something for them to take home and share with friends and make them want to be fans, too.”

The zoo started a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a Flickr feed in September 2009, but the accounts sat dormant until early 2010. Pechtel said the zoo just recently started using YouTube, as well, having to opt for the channel name “PotterParkTV” because they hadn’t secured their full name earlier.

“There’s definitely a lesson to be learned there,” he said.

Even with all the activity around social media, Pechtel said organizations need to remember to stay focused. The zoo’s newly updated website is still the core component; it’s what Pechtel refers to as a “discovery tool.”

“It’s a landing site for every piece of social media. It beckons to the way social media works,” Pechtel said. “Someone might love to converse with you on Twitter one day, then suddenly might find Flickr and, when they do, you need to be there.”

Better than 1,000 words

Pechtel said their Flickr account is “very interesting” for the zoo.

“Photos can be more emotional than words, and we try very hard to make our experience an emotional one for visitors,” he said. “When the Flickr pool was started, we made an effort to go find people who were already using Flickr to share pictures of their trips to the zoo and invited those folks to join our group.”

Pechtel said he tries to stay active within the group, posting behind the scenes photos as much as possible, which has gotten the zoo invited to join other Flickr groups.

“Flickr, as it turns out, has been as much about participation as any of its social media cousins,” Pechtel said.

The zoo has used Flickr to engage with visitors and make them feel a part of the zoo, in some cases even offering memberships in exchange for great photos to be used on the zoo website.

“I’ve since met a number of the photographers, as they stop by my office when they come to the zoo,” Pechtel said. “It’s a nice translation from online acquaintance to someone you share a chat with.”

Cendes said social media is allowing people to experience their zoo or aquarium in a way that isn’t possible even when visiting in person.

“People can see pictures of newborns even before they are picked up by the media, videos showing behind-the-scenes animal care or updates about current research or rehabilitation of a rescued animal,” she said. “People look to their zoo and aquarium to be leaders in conservation and education and you will often see conversations between an engaged public and the institution.”

For folks like Robin Miner-Swartz of Lansing, Potter Park’s engagement via social media got her to think about the hometown zoo she hadn’t visited in a long time.

“I guess I had begun to think of the zoo as a family place or a kid place, and I was neither. But once Jake started Potter Park’s social media efforts, I began to see the zoo in a whole new light,” she said. “I love Jake’s enthusiasm for the zoo but also for the Lansing community in general.”

Pechtel gives people a view of what’s going on at the zoo with glimpses behind the scenes but he also shows them a lot of what they’re missing if they don’t visit.

Featured content on Facebook

For the zoo, Facebook is the biggest home base away from its website.

“It’s where we can post the most robust content beyond our website,” he said. “I look at the Facebook posts as tent poles. Twitter is used as a way to fill in the gaps between the tent poles.”

For example, when Pechtel was going to visit the bongo exhibit recently for a Facebook update, he used Twitter to alert folks that he was going to spend some time in the bongo yard and he’d have pictures on Facebook soon.

It’s with his Facebook posts that Pechtel tries to tie the zoo into things the page fans might already be talking about. For example, a recent wall post read, “Our Golden Lion Tamarins are sad after watching their home team Brazil get eliminated from the World Cup. Did you know these guys are on loan from the Brazilian government?”

The Facebook page has more than 3,800 friends. Even when coupled with the Twitter followers, it’s a smaller online fan base when compared with some zoos. But Pechtel said the level of interaction is great, even when compared with much larger facilities.

“A lot of zoos have a lot more fans and followers. They might have 10,000 followers and get 30 retweets. I get the same with 800 followers,” he said. “It’s about quality not quantity.”

Of course, the bottom line is still the bottom line, and any outreach efforts are eventually going to be measured against the number of visitors walking in the front gate. Pechtel said the zoo has seen a 15 percent increase in foot traffic this year, which he attributes a lot to social networking.

“It’s tough to measure that though,” Pechtel said. “The end result of social networking is awareness. If you have a good, succinct marketing campaign in conjunction with a good effort in social networking, then the awareness level goes up. And having a user-centric focus has really driven our success. No one becomes friends with a logo.”

Pechtel said the zoo’s Twitter account, @PotterParkZoo, has “a bit of an attitude,” which makes it more personable for its more than 800 followers. It’s an attitude he tries to carry on throughout all of the zoo’s social networking activities.

“Other zoo employees mention that their friends say they feel like they’re talking to a person on Facebook rather than the zoo—and that’s the point,” he said.

Plus, without social media, Miner-Swartz probably wouldn’t have gotten to know some of the animals on a first-name basis.

“They have a pig named Kevin Bacon. How hilarious is that?”