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Two-Way Communication Using Social Media

By Ciri Haugh

Within the past few years, social media has taken off with consumers around the globe, creating a new space for people to connect and collaborate. With the overwhelming popularity of these Internet communities, organizations of all sizes are trying to become a part of the conversation, and it has become essential to engage. For zoos and aquariums, this new communications landscape offers yet another resource for cultivating relationships with visitors and advocates. At the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, actively participating in social media has given this medium-sized zoo a big, new voice in the community and beyond.

A Beginner’s Lesson in Social Media

Marketers are all abuzz with social media speak, but what does this mean to the average person? In plain English, social media is a general term for online communities where users interact with one another. Most social media sites are easy to navigate and provide users with wide reach and accessibility. Popular social media sites include Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Digg, YouTube and Flickr; but there are volumes of other social media pages that all serve different purposes.

Social media goes beyond classic one-way marketing communication by allowing organizations to really interact with their target audience. This unique benefit creates lasting relationships that are sustained by an enthusiasm that comes from lively ongoing give-and-take. No wonder social media has become such an important part of marketing, communications and customer service plans.

2010: Where are we now?

The Gladys Porter Zoo’s marketing staff saw the opportunity that online communities provided and launched a Twitter profile in March of 2009. Shortly thereafter, in May of 2009, we developed a Facebook fan page. These pages have allowed the Zoo to connect with their fan base, and some individuals remain connected even after moving away from the Brownsville area. An increasing number of online followers are engaging, thanks to our ability to regularly load new photos, post information on current events, and update users on critical conservation efforts. As of December 2009, the Zoo’s Web page (www.gpz.org) saw an 11 percent increase in visitors over the previous year and both social media sites’ have over 1,200 subscribers. As an added benefit, we were able to get our brand out in the marketplace at a zero-to-low hard cost.

Committing to the Social Media Leap

We knew that in order to develop and hold a subscriber base, information, energy and enthusiasm had to be communicated predictably and often. One of the biggest challenges we faced once the initial profiles were set up was establishing a department-wide, disciplined commitment to providing regular updates using consistent messaging techniques. As is typical of many medium-to-small sized zoos, both the duties and talents of our marketing staff are diverse; so was their exposure to and experience with social media. A short, formal training brought our marketing staff up to speed on the basic elements of using the site along with message delivery and user attraction.

In order to ensure that all posted content conformed to communications decisions and policies, preparation of a social media policy effectively started a conversation about what should and should not be posted on our various profiles. Yet, establishing policies was only a first step to managing the Zoo’s social media profiles. Our department needed to find a way to stay on top of the ever changing social media landscape or all of the preparation to develop our presence on these sites would be wasted.

Tools to Stay Ahead of the Curve

New features are added and improvements made on these sites regularly, requiring our staff to stay in a constant information loop with multiple platforms. In our marketing department, this means we subscribe to social media newsletters and blog feeds. Some e-newsletters we subscribe to include Mashable.com, CNET’s Webware and the New York Times technology section.

Additionally, communicating with other zoos and aquariums through the various social media sites has been especially helpful. For example, when on a site like Twitter, we follow other AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to see how other institutions publish news and communicate with their target audience. It’s an excellent way to plan how and when to post messages or how best to engage followers. Trivia, photos and animal facts seem to receive the most attention, as zoos and aquariums are experts in this field. Photos connect users to animals that they may not see anywhere else, like the rare Jentink’s duiker at the Gladys Porter Zoo.

Another big help for our department has been the utilization of online management tools specifically designed for social media. Reporting and organizational tools available at these sites help us tweak our content for greater impact. One of the free sites that our department uses is HootSuite, which provides tracking tools and allows for the maintenance of many social media profiles (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, RSS feed) at once. We also use HubSpot’s grader tools to evaluate the reach and effectiveness of our current pages. This, again, is especially helpful to us because we do not have a great deal of time to devote to each site. Many of these third-party sites also offer mobile applications, so administrators are able to make updates to pages away from their desks.

Moving Forward

There are still a lot of avenues that the Gladys Porter Zoo’s marketing department is planning to pursue for its 2010 “To Facebook and Beyond” Campaign. For example, research from a 2009 Pew Research Center report suggests that 48 percent of African American and 47 percent of Hispanic consumers have access to the Internet via mobile devices. Since we are located in a primarily Hispanic region, and have been dealing with a large market segment that typically did not have a PC in their household, using social media profiles to reach them is truly an exciting new opportunity.

Another important element of the 2010 campaign is to build on our 2009 efforts. Some of our most engaging cross-communications efforts were a baby pygmy hippo naming contest and a bi-weekly trivia game that took place during our 2009 grand opening of Butterflies, Bugs & Blooms. Both of these targeted campaigns stimulated followers to focus on the Zoo and remain engaged through lively on-line interaction. The naming contest drew input from 2,400 people from all over the United States, while the trivia contest allowed us to incorporate an additional benefit for one of our exhibit sponsors. In fact, the initial idea of including social media marketing helped us secure this particular exhibit sponsor.

Although we’ve taken the big leap into the social media landscape, we recognize that there are still many untapped areas that we need to pursue in the near future. We continue to carve out a larger place for the Gladys Porter Zoo in social media space and are happy to share the successes that have taken place in such a short timeframe. And the animals don’t seem to mind the extra time in the spotlight.

Take a look at the Gladys Porter Zoo's social media efforts:

Ciri Haugh is the Marketing Coordinator at the Gladys Porter Zoo.