Social Media Cuteness Sells Sea Otter Film and Cause

otter501For “Otter 501,” a tender documentary-style film about the rescue of a sea otter pup, social media is not only a marketing vehicle – it’s a character itself. Facebook, Pinterest, and other social platforms are helping the film’s production studio get the word out about the limited release movie, as well as extending the conversation started in Otter 501 about the plight of the endangered species.

In Otter 501, the first feature film from 25-year-old Sea Studios Foundation of Cannery Row, Katie Pofahl plays a fictional character who rescues the real-life orphaned sea otter, named 501 by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program. The maritime flick tells the tale of the achingly adorable baby otter’s rehabilitation and eventual release back into the wild of Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay.

In it, Pofahl’s character keeps in touch with far away friends through Facebook posts and videos about her life in the Bay Area as a volunteer for the aquarium, where she learns about the squeaky sea creatures that once populated the Bay in droves. Pofahl didn’t actually rescue 501.

Now, social media has taken on a central role in marketing the movie. And it just so happens that Pofahl is behind that campaign, working as outreach project manager for Otter 501.

In the film, people ask her character questions about 501 on Facebook, which is “sort of what drives the story forward,” said Pofahl. “The online outreach campaign is a continuation of what you see in the film…wanting to get people engaged with [sea otter] conservation…. We’re also a grassroots nonprofit that doesn’t have a lot of money for outreach.”

Pofahl has leapt onto a variety of social platforms to push the film and its environmental message, from Facebook and Twitter to Pinterest and Tumblr. Pinterest has been especially successful, she said, noting she has used Facebook to ask people what they’d like to see on the Pinterest page.

“We can solicit ideas from our crowd…We can ask them, ‘Hey what else do we need to have on our Pinterest page?'” she said. In fact, a user suggestion inspired Pofahl to post an image reminding people that they can donate to the California Sea Otter Fund through their state tax forms.

It’s not just about snapshots of irresistible fuzzy otter babies, either. The Otter 501 account features an “Otters Get Serious” board that includes photos associated with various causes, such as reducing usage of plastic bags that can trap otters and harm the environment.

Pinterest’s popularity among women is also a plus as kids and their moms are a target audience for the educational film. “They’re probably pre-loaded to enjoy a G-rated film,” she said. Another mission of the movie is to help get a series of science videos into classrooms to teach children about sea otters and conservation.

The Facebook and Twitter platforms also help coordinate volunteers to post fliers in areas where the movie is showing. Otter 501 premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this year and got its theatrical release in May in California and other points West.

As for Twitter, it’s helped the film generate earned media. “It’s a great way to connect strategically,” said Pofahl. “We’ve had really good luck with journalists.” As it does for other advocacy and political groups, Twitter also helps spread the word – in this case about upcoming showings of Otter 501.

Of course, video is an obvious format for film promotion, and the Otter 501 YouTube channel offers several clips from the movie, including one featuring an otter covering his eyes that made it to CBSNews, Huffington Post, Jezebel, and Cute Overload. Pofahl makes a point of including info about the film and educational messages about otters in video descriptions.

In June, Otter 501 celebrated her first anniversary of being released into the wild, a feat for a species that has struggled to survive. Toola (below, right), the Monterey Aquarium’s female otter who raised 13 sea otters in captivity including 501 (below, left), passed away in March.

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