"Because of the federal government shutdown this National Park Service Facebook page is inactive. We'll start the conversation again when we get back. " - Yosemite National Park Facebook post
Whether it's the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty or Yosemite National Park, fans from near and far currently get the same message on the web and social media sites of the U.S. national parks in the wake of the government shutdown.
While it may seem trivial compared to the financial damage that park closings will have on their local communities, there is another type of damage being inflicted, on the relationship between the parks and their social media users.
Shuttering National Parks Social Leaves Travelers in the Dark
"Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social channels have been well used at many National Parks as key information sources for real-time conditions and long term planning," says Ted Sindzinski, a California-based digital marketing strategist and travel blogger. "You've got people knocking at the door for updates, but no one is there to answer them officially."
In the past seven days alone, over 17,000 tweets have mentioned Yosemite. While certainly not all are seeking information, social recommendations and sharing are a huge part of modern travel, from booking through experiencing and on to remembering.
From a public relations perspective, letting the signal go dead is a huge mistake, says Gabriel Shaoolian, CEO and founder of Blue Fountain Media, a NYC digital agency. "The worst thing to do when your customers, or in this case, the American people, are upset and nervous, is to cut off communications--it's the same as telling people you don't care."
Shuttering social communications certainly wouldn't be the choice of the Parks social media managers, who are undoubtedly among the 21,000 Park Service employees (87% of the workforce) indefinitely out of their jobs.
Government Shutdown Could Leave Messy Legacy for Social Marketers
If Facebook pages remain unused for a long period of time, they will be assessed as less relevant by Facebook's algorithm, causing content to slip further down in the newsfeed and become harder to access, according to Jeremy Goldman, managing director at Firebrand Group, a NY-based brand engagement consultancy. Facebook users could also start to unlike the out of use pages.
In some instances, Goldman says, it may be better to remove the account or page entirely, rather than to leave it there as the object of people's frustrations. He points to the hate tweets received by some local Ikea stores that set up Twitter accounts and then neglected them.
"When you are on social media, people generally expect answers. If someone doesn't get one, they don't care if there's a good reason, they just know they don't have an answer," he says.
Danielle Brigida, social media manager for the National Wildlife Federation, agrees that in some cases, archiving a site may be the best option. "I think shutting down a site is a missed opportunity to listen and be a part of the online space. But there are examples of graceful exits and pages that represent things of the past, so it certainly can be done."
For now, the NWF is doing its part by pointing nature fans to other outdoor alternatives, and she says she has noticed some other sites doing likewise.
Businesses and Organizations Stepping Up to Help Social Fans
Indeed, some social sites are taking up the slack for the parks, perhaps providing some new opportunities to market themselves. For example, while Yosemite National Park's official Facebook page, which has over 149,000 followers, is closed for communication, the Yosemite page operated by DNC Parks & Resorts is active. DNC Parks & Resorts operates the lodging, retail, and dining facilities in the park. They've been posting links to nearby attractions and asking social fans to reminisce about their favorite spots. They've even shared photos of what the park looks like devoid of visitors.
"There's a dedicated group who love Yosemite and like sharing stories and engaging," says Lisa Cesaro, DNC public relations manager, also in charge of social media. "I think people are missing those daily photos and updates."
Cesaro says she hasn't checked whether the DNC site, with its 70,000+ followers, has gained more of an audience since the government shutdown began on October 2nd.
The Facebook page for the City of Groveland, north of the park, has also seen a surge in Facebook fans in the wake of both the Rim Fire in September and the shutdown. "Once we began reporting on real time events with the Rim Fire, our numbers began to grow daily. We increased to over 7000 within a few days. We grew to over 7200 before leveling off post-fire with just over 7100," a spokesperson for the site tells ClickZ.
They continued, "One of the most amazing things has been the increase in international followers. From many of the posts, these were people who had travelled through our area on previous visits and wanted to follow the fate of the area." They've gained followers from the UK, Germany, Mexico, Thailand, Argentina, Italy, France, Denmark, Australia, Ireland, Turkey, Brazil, Canada, Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, New Zealand, Spain, and India, they said.
On the types of discussions they're having with the social parks audience, the spokesperson tells us, "Since the government shutdown, we have been asked mainly about whether roads are open in Yosemite, what people can do in the area since the park is closed and if they can still travel through the park."
Parks Content - Positive or Not - Attracting Interest of Fans
Other smaller outfits in the area say they have noticed a spike in activity, however. Lasting Adventures, a non-profit tour operator based in Groveland, California, has seen both its Twitter feed and Facebook page buzz with activity since the rim fires at Yosemite in September and the government shutdown, according to Scott Gehrman, executive director.
"In a weird way, it has helped our social marketing efforts. People are interested in news and the effects of what's happening. Negative stuff gets you more attention if you use it right," he says.
Recent Lasting Adventures Facebook posts have included a picture of Yosemite's Half Dome with the saying, "The mountains are calling and we cannot go," as well as a picture of a marmot asking "Where is everybody?It's lonely around here : ( #yosemite #shutdown #congress"
Local businesses and organizations clearly have a vested interest in attracting tourists to the area and helping them plan via social media, despite the closure of Yosemite.
During the last government shutdown, Mariposa County, California, lost $10,000 per day in tax revenue because Yosemite was closed and 25 percent of adults in the county were temporarily out of work, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. The 1995-1996 government shutdown cost local businesses $14 million per day; their analysis indicates the actual impact on businesses now could be closer to $30 million per day.
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Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.
March 19, 2014