I am currently training for the Chicago Marathon. As a total newbie to this whole “running” business (I’m not worthy of using the word in relation to myself without quotations yet), I’m learning an awful lot about training, timing, pacing myself, and creating a plan for the course. As I run through the woods in the Midwest, fighting off mosquitos and hoping that a selection from my holidays playlist isn’t the next song on my iPod (try running to I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas… in September. It throws you off a bit), I often find myself thinking about the parallels of this journey, and how zoos, aquariums, and museums engage audiences online. …Yes, I think about these things in my free time.
As it turns out, the metaphor of a marathon might be a useful way to think about engaging folks in an online space. This is especially true when contemplating how ZAMs should approach online engagement on the more popular social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. In this metaphor, individual online advocates are the runners. , The course is the path to effective online engagement that ends in getting people through the door, and it is the organization’s job to put on the event and get runners across the finish line.
1. Recruiting runners to enroll in your marathon: securing positive earned media and organic (not sponsored) reviews. This process involves inspiring folks to become your Facebook fan or Twitter follower so that they can step up to the marathon starting line and engage with your brand through updates and all of that compelling content that organizations work so hard to create. This is a hard task, and of course it is critical (or why be on Facebook?). The best way to do this is to recruit runners to enroll through word of mouth marketing. This can be done most easily by folks who are already advocates (have already completed the marathon. See #7). Luckily, tools like positive reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp can inspire visitation if a potential “runner” is out-of-market or does not personally know an individual who has experienced the institution.
2. Developing a training program to help runners make it through: achieving Facebook “likes.” The parallel between online engagement and running a marathon crossed my mind while presenting social media best practices to an aquarium client. During our discussion on Facebook, a member of the marketing team asked me, “What do ‘likes’ mean? Should we celebrate these?” It’s a good question. The answer, I would say, is that on a social media platform, a “like” on Facebook means that someone has enrolled for your organization’s engagement “marathon” by signing up for a training program… and it’s the role of the aquarium (or other visitor service entity) to help get potential finishers in shape. A “like” means that someone has clicked on your Facebook page and self-identified as a potential visitor or advocate. That person has given your organization the “OK” to appear in their newsfeed and engage them on a daily basis. They have taken the first step and opened up to your organization, and now the ZAM must rise to the occasion and facilitate the connection. However, it’s important to remember that signing up for the training program does not mean that a runner will eventually finish the marathon or even get to the starting line. Also, many “runners” who aren’t enrolled in the training program (not following your organization) will complete the marathon. In other words, “likes” are not the most important form of measurement for online engagement. In fact, sometimes they can be a distraction.
3. Treating runners at aid stations: inspiring connection through organic, behind-the-scenes content. This is super important! These are the surveys, fun facts, photos, videos, blog posts, behind-the-scenes snippets, anecdotes, jokes, contests and data that ZAMs share with fans and followers to make them see the organization in their newsfeed and think, “Hey! That’s cool!” This is how organizations keep engagement going, and build upon this engagement so that the organization can “connect” with potential visitors who are compelled by the organization’s social mission (or, just want to see that exhibit in person). Here’s what I’m learning in my training: aid-stations are incredibly important. I know, personally, that I cannot run a marathon without water, or perhaps some lemon-lime Gatorade. Most runners cannot finish a marathon, or even a half marathon, comfortably without aid. Similarly, it is much harder for friends and followers to engage with your organization online without aid (read: relevant content). This is also the area in which I do the most work and the area in which ZAMs and other nonprofit organizations struggle the most. The secrets here aren’t tough (but every organization seems to struggle with them): be human, be transparent, be real (don’t over-plan) and listen to what your audience is saying.
4. Completing a half marathon: Securing an on-site visit. If we were marathon course-planning slackers, we’d stop here. We’ve accomplished an awesome goal: we secured a visitor– perhaps a whole family! This is not a small thing.We’ve contributed to the double-bottom-line of a nonprofit organization by both inspiring (hopefully) an individual with the organization’s social mission and also by contributing to the organization’s financial bottom line in the form of admission. But there’s still a long way to go to really help runners reach their full marathon-running potential. It would be a disservice to think about the online engagement process as ending here. We are only halfway done!
5. Breaking out the goo around mile 17: providing avenues for half-marathoners to share their experiences, and facilitating and rewarding this sharing. This is a bit like #3 and it is equally important. Compelling content comes back into play in this part of the journey, but it relies more heavily on interactions. This is where word of mouth marketing is at its best. Encourage visitors to share their stories and experiences, celebrate their pictures, videos, and anecdotes. Remind them, if you can, to post about positive experiences on Yelp and TripAdvisor. During mile 17, runners should be actively recruiting runners for the marathon, and the organization should be facilitating this recruitment by continuing to inspire connections with online audiences by rewarding interaction and sharing visitor stories.
6. Finishing the marathon: A past visitor inspiring new visitors to come to the organization. When positive reviews from trusted sources (friends who have been to the organization before or credible earned media sources) inspire more people to visit, then the marathon is complete, in a way. Engaging content has been utilized beyond simply the clicks that it secures. For this reason and many others, it is silly to place too much weight on the number of clicks that a particular piece of content receives. For instance, a YouTube video may receive only 100 views, but if that video inspires those people to visit, and those people share their experiences through word of mouth marketing (online or in-person) and inspire more visits, then those mere 100 clicks have significant worth… far more than the weight that we typically put on the concept of only 100 clicks. However, this does not mean that every bit of content is a success in engaging audiences. It is critical to listen to online communities and create content that is most inspiring to your audiences. Or, content that you notice receives a response.
7. Placing in the marathon: The original visitor becoming a member, donor, or long-time advocate for the organization. Okay, in a real marathon, not everyone can place. But we nonprofit-folk try to be optimistic. The goal in this particular marathon is to get everyone to win, beat their own PR, place in their age-group– however you’d like to see it. This occurs when online and on-site engagement are so high, or personal buy-in is established so well, that the visitor or evangelists carries out an activity that strengthens the long-term bottom lines of the institution. The development of these folks is most frequently the aim for online engagement. Like any good marathon, if runners have fun, they’ll want to run it again. Thus, alongside this track, it is critical to continue to engage communities online. This especially includes members, donors, and advocates of the organization.
Good luck to all of you nonprofiteer marathoners out there running races this season! And also to all of you online-engagement-marathon planners! We’re rooting for you! And, if you happen to be in Chicago on October 9th, root for me. I’ll take all the support that I can get! See you on the course, folks!