Bench Learning: Zoos and Aquariums Social Media | Beth's Blog

Bench Learning: Zoos and Aquariums Social Media


I’ve been looking for an excuse to share this YouTube Video of a River Otter playing the piano that Humberto Kam from the MBA mentioned.     It think it rivals the YouTube video of Mariachi Connecticut performing for a beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium.    Aquariums and Zoos  (and animal welfare groups) may a key asset to leverage for  their social media content strategies:  cute animals.

But is that really true?   If Zoos and Aquariums had a benchmarking process or what I starting to call “bench learning” where there is a dashboard of peer metrics to review and discuss with peers, they might discover a wealth of insights.

Anthony Brown who does social media for the Zoo here in San Francisco let me know this morning that such a bench learning list exists.

He is using a Google Spreadsheet to collect the data, although it is possible to leverage APIs .  The goal is share with peers to get a better understanding of where they are as an industry on Twitter.   He hopes to create a reference point for new/improved twitter usage across the industry.   Some questions he hopes to answer some questions about practice and from there get to a peer dialog “best practices.”

Do you benchmark your organization with peers in your sub-sector?  How do you do it?  What have you learned?  Has it helped improve your practice?


11 Responses

  1. Emily Garman says:

    This is a fantastic idea! I work primarily with the Central Oklahoma Humane Society ( doing social media, and have since 2007–so I have lots of my OWN data for our organization. But I have many other animal welfare clients (humane societies/animal shelters). So putting together a spreadsheet like this would be immensely helpful, and I think valuable to another organization that loves data almost as much as you, Beth–the ASPCA!

    If anyone else knows of a list/spreadsheet such as this for animal sheltering organizations, let me know. Otherwise, I am going to start one immediately.

    Question for you and for Anthony Brown–where do you keep this so that others can see/access it and contribute? Or do you WANT others to contribute to it (or just compile it yourself)? Or is this something that I’d put together on my own and then share when I had it “complete?”

    Thanks for this great idea!

  2. This spreadsheet can only be edited by me, but seen by anyone at:

    I entered all data manually. My favorite metric is the “avg tweets/day” which I calculated with the =days360() function – comparing data entry date and “joined twitter” date. The twitter app on the iPhone was the fastest source for getting the “joined twitter” date (at the bottom of the user profile pane).

    Doing it with multiple collaborators is an interesting idea – it’s worth a try!

  3. Jay Geneske says:

    Yes, and it’s really helpful. Takes some time to set up the system–and also the discipline to keep it up–but it’s worth it. I use a simple, color-coded Excel sheet (sharable with team in Google docs) that’s updated monthly. Covering our sector, some sub-sector, and others within the family or those I think are doing great work. I look for comparisons in followers/fans, # of posts, significant conversations, etc. From a monthly view, it’s helpful to see big picture and outliers with the numbers. Also do a more “qualitative” look every week which focuses more on stories, content, or conversations that got good traction and feedback.

  4. This is an incredible resource, Anthony. I reference this spreadsheet frequently (it was super helpful during an AZA presentation I did in March) and I love the new additions to this round of data. I also love that your 2010 research is still accessible. I think it is interesting to observe the growth in social media presence in these zoos and aquariums over time. .. If zoos and aquariums *do* have an advantage in using social media, they are increasingly in a better place to capitalize on that.

    Thanks for sharing this with your audience, Beth! I hope it inspires zoo and aquarium readers to stop and say, “hey… I do indeed have an advantage with my cute animals!” I do believe that is a key asset.

    One area of hesitancy that I’ve come across in my experience with zoos and aquariums and social media is that of mortality rates- especially when it comes to building personal connections to baby animals with an online audience. Sometimes sharing creative, compelling content can backfire when something not-so-great happens in the world of mother nature. Like other nonprofit organizations, these institutions are scared of potential backlash or a lack of public understanding. I think this is an opportunity to educate and inspire and share regardless of risk, but that’s not always easy.

    Have you heard about the Shedd Aquarium’s masterful use of radical trust in sharing the birth (and death) of their most recent dolphin calf? I wrote about it here: Would love to hear your thoughts.

  5. Colleen,

    As active as our social media presence is at the San Francisco Zoo, the fact is we have those same discussions here. Social media allows us to control the messaging, which is an incredible asset! For too long, we’ve been at the mercy of the middle-man (big media).

    Another incredible example of “grabbing a story by the horns” is how the Minnesota Zoo managed the messaging around it’s wolf escape a couple of months ago – great use of Facebook/Twitter during an emotional and scary time for staff, visitors, and the organization as a whole.

  6. Luke says:

    Hello Anthony and Beth,

    This is a phenomenal resource you have collected here. Beth- thank you for posting it. Amazing work.

    As the social networking manager for several zoos, I have been deeply interested in the utility of twitter for zoos and aquariums. And while I hate to be cynical, your data actually confirms to me a suspicion I’ve had for awhile: Twitter is just not a good medium for zoos.

    In the broad spectrum of brand marketing, 20k followers is just ok. It’s not outstanding but it’s nothing to scoff at. However, most of the zoo brands out there aren’t even near 10k followers. Their klout scores aren’t great either – most are below 50.

    If you look at the data, there is only a slightly direct correlation between # of tweets vs. # followers. This suggest that audience growth is extremely difficult. Many zoos are pouring a lot of energy into the medium with very little return.

    You could make the argument that if your facility is in a major metropolitan area, you might have enough audience growth potential to try twitter out. But even then, you’re going to have to invest pretty heavily in staff time in order to manage and grow your channel.

    I’m certain social network managers from Georgia AQ, Monterey Bay AQ, or the National Zoo can point to successes in their twitter program. I have no doubt they and others can point to conversions from twitter followers to attendees . But when I look at the thousands of tweets it takes to get there… And the constant upkeep it takes to maintain those relationships, I can’t help but ask “Is this really a good PR investment for a zoo or aquarium?”

    I am very eager to discuss so please email if you’d like.
    Social Networks Manager for NY City Zoos and Aquarium

  7. Luke,

    The biggest problem I see with zoo/aquarium twitter use is this struggle to drive attendance – it is continually looked at in this way (probably because the duty ends up living in the marketing department).

    I believe it’s strongest use is in direct interaction – we do this on a daily basis, heres the most recent example:!/KariByron/status/100770269261611008

    Complete conversation:

    This user “KariByron” happens to be one of the hosts of mythbusters and has 98k followers, but gets the same direct treatment as anyone else.

    If you browse our twitter stream ( and click on our thousands of @reply tweets, you’ll see this connection happening.

    Facebook, MySpace, websites, email newsletters, etc have all needed the people to actively engage us (zoos/aquariums).
    Twitter has enabled us to actively engage THEM!

    How much time and money is spent on zoo/aquarium emails – what’s the true return on that!?

    Time to feed some penguins!

  8. […] This post was Twitted by techsoupcanada […]

  9. Humberto Kam says:


    Thanks for showcasing our video. Like our fellow zoo and aquariums, we are pretty shameless about using cuteness (as well as awe and wonder) to further our mission to inspire conservation of the oceans. But then again, our very existence is based on the belief that people engaging with animals is the first step to get them thinking about conservation. It is too easy for an environmental organization’s messaging to fall into a rut of doom and gloom. Cute animals give us a tangible thing to work for and keep people engaged longer.


    In regards to dealing with animal mortalities, we’ve experienced nothing but compassion and empathy from our Facebook community. When a penguin chick passed earlier this year, the post announcing the news received 95 condolences and not a single negative comment. Like other institutions, we let our community share in our sadness at the loss of one our animals.


    Even within the narrow category of Zoos and Aquariums, I think it’s hard to say categorically say whether Twitter is worth the time and effort. It is up to each institution to evaluate. The hard part is being ok with the decision, if it happens to be “no.” After all, everyone is doing it. Anthony’s data is great in that it allows you to compare yourself against other organizations with similar size, resources and demographics. The harder part is accounting for internal factors such as the balance between driving attendance and conservation.

    Like everyone, we are conducting experiments to see how and if social media can be used to drive visitation. But I suspect we have an uphill battle. While our key markets and demographics are technically savvy, coming Monterey is not something most people do on a whim. That leaves Twitter as supporting the Aquarium’s communication goals, specifically to stay top of mind as people consider “what they will do this weekend.”

    We need to stop thinking of social media as an incremental discrete activity. It’s a tool to do the things we already do. For example, the people in my team who used to create pages on our website to tell animal stories (and later blog) are increasingly telling those stories on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr instead. People across departments monitor our Yelp! and Trip Advisor reviews. It’s not social media. It’s storytelling, guest recovery, outreach, marketing.

    Sorry, got on a soapbox for a minute there.

  10. AZA Staff says:

    AZA member zoos and aquariums are using social media in many innovative ways – to drive visitation, to develop closer connections with members, to communicate conservation and animal care messages to the public, and to engage in issue advocacy. In an effort to support its membership in these endeavors, AZA now offers the Social Media Report.

    This report will be available to members of AZA but we have made the first edition available to the public. Anthony’s spreadsheet was a great tool but was missing some key variables and only about 75% of the accredited zoo and aquarium social media accounts were calculated.

    Here a few highlights from the most recent report:

    There are 210 AZA members on Facebook and 178 AZA members on Twitter.

    Combined AZA members, along with AZA, have 4,614,912 Facebook Likes

    Combined AZA members, along with AZA, have 641,528 Twitter Followers

    The average zoo or aquarium has 21,976 Likes on Facebook and 3,604 Followers on Twitter

    To see the full report, visit and check out the November 2011 report. Please email any questions to Jessie Greger at jgreger (at)

  11. Great information! Thanks for sharing about it, i am very fond of the wildlife and love to know many more things about it.