Content Is King of the Jungle

Chicago is known for the caliber of its local attractions, from its more than 40 public museums to its two world-class zoos. The Chicago Sun-Times recently reported that in spite of the recession, museums and zoos in the area saw a 7 percent increase in attendance from 2008 to 2009. Last year alone, Chicago’s famed Shedd Aquarium received some 1.9 million visitors, while the Lincoln Park Zoo drew 3 million.

As a digital marketer, I have to assume the increase and impressive turnout is due in part to the work these attractions have been doing with social media. Both Shedd and the Lincoln Park Zoo have fully embraced Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, and continue to provide an exemplary commitment to driving visits through these online channels.

Their secret to success? Great content coupled with a gentle touch.

Content is King of the Jungle

Above all else, the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Facebook Page is designed to offer timely and educational content to its members and loyal visitors. The page features a glut of information the scope of which is staggering, from videos of its animals in action to photo albums, notes, and events.

The zoo is never remiss in posting opportunities related to holidays, such as its “Valentines for the Animals” class inviting kids to make cards for their favorite creatures. Seasonal content is also abundant; users can watch a video of otters braving the cold and snow to frolic through their exhibit, and learn a thing or two about the species and its typical behavior in the process.

Lincoln Park Zoo seems well aware that its audience is largely comprised of families, and has accordingly created a Facebook presence that’s as appropriate for young visitors as it is for adults. When tasked with generating some additional revenue (admission to the zoo is free year-round), posts about a sale at its gift shop, or the opportunity to adopt an animal as a Valentine’s gift blend seamlessly into the usual not-for-profit material.

From a consumer’s perspective, the zoo is clearly dedicated to delivering content that’s of value to its fans and visitors, doing so frequently and without fail. The page’s administrators are quick to answer posted questions thoughtfully and thoroughly (a question about whether or not dogs were allowed on the grounds warranted a diplomatic five-paragraph response), as well as encourage the submission of consumer-generated content.

One story that was recently posted told the tale of a young man who proposed to his girlfriend in front of the polar bear exhibit, because “I think the moment we fell in love was watching the polar bears a few years back.” It’s the kind of endorsement money just can’t buy.

The zoo promotes its Facebook effort – along with its active use of YouTube and Twitter – on its home page, and better still, includes a link to an online survey that asks visitors which social sites they use most. It’s further evidence that the organization knows full well the importance of social media to its success, and is dedicated to making it work.

Sea-ing User Engagement

Shedd Aquarium is only a few miles south of the Lincoln Park Zoo; its social media strategy is even closer. Shedd also uses social media to connect its visitors with the animals in its exhibits. The museum’s blog is central to its efforts; Shedd drives traffic to it with Twitter updates, a Facebook page, and e-mail newsletters. The blog also receives traffic organically as it’s embedded in the Shedd Aquarium site.

The last few weeks have seen a dramatic story unfold through these social media touch points as the aquarium celebrated the birth of two new beluga calves, then mourned the death of one of them. The blog post announcing the sad news generated dozens of heartfelt responses from site visitors, as did Shedd’s Facebook post. Shedd demonstrated quick thinking and a dedication to both its animals and its visitors by posting an update on the health and well being of the mother whale – along with photographs – the next day. It continues to post regularly about the progress of the second calf, and has invited its users to see it in person by offering a discounted entry coupon.

Shedd handled this event the same way that the Lincoln Park Zoo approached the question of bringing a dog to the zoo: with sensitivity and good sense. If only every business using social media understood so well the delicate nature of this potentially volatile environment and the mindset of its loyal fans and users.

If you’re ever in Chicago, stop by these attractions to see what the buzz is about. In the meantime, they’ll be happy to let you sample the experience online. Just don’t forget to tell your friends.

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