What do a mountain lion named Rose, MC Hammer, and TikTok have in common? Not much at first glance, except all three play a part in Oakland Zoo’s social media strategy.
Oakland Zoo, located in Oakland, California is one of the city’s most long-standing institutions and has been very successful on social media lately, even going viral on TikTok, and is using social walls in various ways, both online and on a screen at the zoo.
The Oakland Zoo marketing team produces a lot of great content, both entertaining and educational, thanks to a great relationship with the zoo’s keepers, who provide them with amazing photos and videos of the animals in their care. The zoo also gets a good amount of user-generated content from visitors and has garnered a large following on various social media channels.
By now, you probably know that we’re big fans of cute animal content combined with fantastic marketing insights. So, of course, we had to know more.
A huge thank you goes to Adam Zuby, Oakland Zoo’s Marketing Coordinator, who patiently let me ask him way too many questions and provided me with incredibly interesting insights into how Oakland Zoo does social media marketing and how a team of four can be this prolific at content creation.
Marketing Coordinator, Oakland Zoo
We’re celebrating our 100th anniversary this year. 1922 was our establishment year. We have over 850 exotic animals. We prioritize animal enrichment, animal husbandry, protocols, and proper, safe animal care.
We were one of the first zoos to require elephant keepers to be in “protected contact” with the elephants [ed. note: “protected contact” means barriers are kept between humans and elephants, and positive reinforcement is used]. So they’re never actually sharing space. That’s a safety precaution for humans, and for the emotional well-being of the elephants. And we advocate this standard of care within the rest of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) community.
Our social media team is a team of four people who try to put up as much content as possible to create owned media that gets our name out there. We track all of our stats through the lens of impressions and engagement. And this year, we are hitting numbers that we’ve never hit before. Starting in January, we had some viral videos take off like none before. We had over 27 million impressions in January and hit a max of about 42 million in April.
It all centers around the animals that live at the zoo, of course, but also our conservation work. We do a lot of work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We rehabilitate mountain lion cubs and find forever homes for them. Previously, these animals would have been euthanized. The stories that these conservation projects create just really take off.
People who are watching from other states across the United States or other countries will write to us and want to know, “how’s Rose, the mountain lion doing this week? I have to know because I’ve been following her progress.” So we have a responsibility, too. We’re putting up stories that people really care about, and we try to see it through from start to finish.
People seem to really like these stories. I know there’s a hippo called Fiona at Cincinnati Zoo who also has a huge online following.
Yeah, the very famous Fiona! And that was a very interesting topic to even bring up to the public because when she was born, they didn’t know if she was going to make it. And for them to post that online, when it was this kind of protected situation, like, “oh my God, she might actually pass away.” And to make it so public! It was very transparent. And I think people appreciated being part of that struggle. And when she did pull through, it was such a relief. So now, every zoo in the nation wants to find their Fiona.
So for you, it’s Rose, the mountain lion?
Right now, it’s Rose. Two years ago, we had a trio of mountain lion cubs. Captain Cal was the main individual that came in first. He had been badly burned in a fire in Northern California; the pads of his paws were basically burned off. And he took months of rehabilitation and daily procedures to clean up and protect his tissue. Eventually, he pulled through. We had two more girls that were orphaned at another fire just a few weeks after him, and we put them together. And now they’re a nice trio that we found a home for in Columbus, Ohio.
We originally had a social wall from a different company. When I joined the marketing team in early October, I was asked to take over that platform. But then the platform pivoted away from UGC, which didn’t mirror what we were hoping for. The price for it doubled, and it just seemed outlandish. We wanted full control; to be able to present the different happenings around the zoo, as well as guest engagement and guest content. So we did a lot of research and found Walls.io. And it’s turned out to be absolutely everything I wanted and more.
The live video feeds that you can get through Twitter, the accessibility, TikTok — all that is something that wasn’t available before with other companies. Now we have a wall on our main website. We also have one on our Centennial page. And then we have a screen in our main entrance plaza. That brings such a positive energy when you’re able to walk into the zoo and see how much fun people have had in the past and how they’re doing today, and it gives you ideas for what you’re going to do yourself.
The screen is divided into four zones. One is the wall; one is just a static logo. Another is a rotating video feed of owned content that we switch out on a monthly basis just to kind of keep it fresh. And then the fourth zone is a rotating, static post for events.
How have you set up the sources for each wall?
For the Centennial page, I manually find as many of our Centennial images as possible. They’re a lot rarer; we created a hashtag #OZ100 for our Centennial, but it’s not used as much. We’ve discovered in the past that creating new hashtags isn’t really the most successful thing for a zoo. But we just wanted one for this year to celebrate the Centennial.
Our #OaklandZoo hashtag has over 60,000 posts to it. That’s what people have been using for years. We probably get a couple of posts every single day.
How do you tell people that they too can post to your wall?
We’ve had a few Insta Stories recently that have pushed that. We haven’t done much in our static posts to influence people to post because it has already happened organically. And when people see the plaza screen and the scrolling social wall, it’s pretty straightforward that people can post to get on it.
We also have the #OZ100 hashtag physically adhered to different cutouts around the zoo. We have a big “100” sign with animals so people can take photos of themselves in the “zeros.” And it’s on there as well. So it’s getting around.
I saw you’re also actively resharing a lot of user-generated content. What’s the thought behind that?
UGC content is my thing, and it’s just been a wonderful experience so far. I think it’s really important to be able to show the artistic viewpoint that a lot of our guests have that we don’t always have. We have photographers that come to the zoo every single week. They want to share their photos just because they’re retired and they love being here, they want to showcase what they love. And so this offers that opportunity.
We’ve also had a lot of artists — the San Francisco Bay, where Oakland is, is a very artistic location. I think there are more artists in Oakland per capita than in any other city in the nation. And so we don’t just get photos and videos; we also get images, drawings, sculptures, etc. And I like to showcase more of the culture of Oakland that uses the zoo as a resource. Because it really shows just how amazing the people of Oakland are, using what I see every day,
Do they just send you the pictures to upload directly?
We mostly get them through the hashtags. I’ll find them and write back to them. I’ll say, “this is absolutely incredible. Thank you so much for showing us some love. We’d like to put your work up on our website.”
We try to be really respectful about people’s own media. So, we also have another hashtag called #OaklandZooYes. We’ll reach out to someone and say, “this photo is absolutely incredible. Do you feel comfortable with us using this for different media opportunities? We will credit you if you agree. Just respond with the hashtag #OaklandZooYes.” And it goes automatically to that hashtag. It’s basically a free media library, in a sense, for our user-generated content.
You’re entirely on manual moderation for all the walls, right?
We’re on manual moderation because we want full control. This is a very family-friendly place. And we want full control of what’s going to be shown to the guests. So it’s really important for us to be able to go through everything. It’s a little more work for me, but the platform is so easy-going that it’s no problem at all.
I like to focus a lot on families. We are family-oriented. And I try to offer as many different backgrounds as possible to make it really inclusive. I add a lot of our own content as well to make sure that we can present people, animal videos, and conservation projects.
How much work goes into moderation?
Getting used to it took some time, but now it’s just one of those things I do. I check multiple times a week. I just pop in and pop new stuff on all the time. There’s no real need to take anything off; the more, the merrier! Especially for the plaza screen with the Fluid theme, the longer it takes to scroll through, the better I feel about it. It’s all current. And there’s usually nothing up there that’s designated for a certain time of the year.
For example, we have a big winter event called Glowfari, a lantern event. So when we come closer to November, I’ll probably want to focus more on that because it’s a big draw for families in the Bay Area. But for now, I can just have heart content and user content. It’s there to show more of a generic, fun day at the zoo.
What is a user-generated post that you really loved?
There’s a very famous 90s rapper named MC Hammer. He’s basically the unofficial mayor of Oakland. So, when I first started, I was going through old content and came across his son, who had a professional video done about MC Hammer’s grandson’s first visit to the Oakland Zoo. It was really professionally done, with a beautiful song, and was kind of inspirational.
It was the first video that I ever put up that was user-generated content. And, I don’t know, it just reminds me of starting out in this position, even though it was on a different platform still, and you had to press play twice. It was still one of those things that signified a change for me. It was really beautiful that someone would spend the time making a video about their grandson’s first visit.
MC Hammer is not in it, unfortunately. But I found it through his Twitter feed. Actually, I should go back and try to find it and put that up on our walls, because it would play perfectly.
What kind of user-generated content would you like to see more of?
I love the idea of the videos. I think it puts Walls.io above other platforms. It’s just so catchy to scroll down our homepage and see an animal running by versus just seeing a photo. The platforms we used before showed an image of the video with the play button in the middle, and then you had to press that, and then it sent you to the platform, where you had to press it again to actually watch it.
But with Walls.io, videos coming from Twitter play automatically as soon as the wall comes up. It’s dynamic, not cut and dried, and just pulls you in and makes you want to watch more.
Speaking of video, can you tell us a little bit about how Oakland Zoo is using Tiktok?
Our TikTok shows the less serious, funner side of caring for animals. We approach Facebook and Instagram each with a certain tone. With TikTok, there’s more freedom to have fun because I think that’s what the entire platform is about. Yes, it’s serious. It’s a business people are making money off of. But it’s all related to having fun. And that’s what we want to try to get across.
At the beginning of 2022, we probably had no more than 2,000 followers on Tiktok. It was our fourth most subscribed platform. And then, after the first viral video, we jumped to around 20,000. Then we had another viral video, working with California condors, and jumped to around 60,000. And then we had Rose, the mountain lion, come in. And people just cared so much about her progress that they wanted more and more.
Now we’re at 106,000 followers, and, you know, more are coming every day. So now it’s become our second most followed platform and one of our more important focuses.
Your first platform is Facebook?
Facebook is still king because our main demographic is usually 25 to 45 years old; a demographic tends to prioritize Facebook, and the younger demographic tends to go with TikTok and Instagram. So you know, the parents that come here, they’re the ones that find us on Facebook. The kids and the younger audiences interested in the conservation issues are focusing more on TikTok.
Do you feel the audience on TikTok is reacting better to the whole topic of conservation?
I’m actually surprised by how much conservation issues are getting noticed on TikTok. It’s easier to go viral on Tiktok, and it’s easier to break out in different countries. We’ve had videos that had maybe 20,000 views on a Friday, and then we come back on a Monday, and it’s got over a million. And that includes 500 comments in various languages. Something happened over the weekend. And you don’t get that on Facebook. I think around 95% of our Facebook viewers are in the United States. You can’t get the opportunity to just blow up in different parts of the world on Facebook.
Facebook is straightforward. You just send it to your audience. Maybe something takes off. But then, on TikTok, once people start stitching your content, it starts to spread and allows the story to get out there. TikTok has a mind of its own.
The first video was an up-close video of a chimpanzee drinking from a hose. And it was taken by a keeper. It’s really cute because you’re so close to the chimp. And you can see the dexterity of their lips. They have prehensile lips, so they can move them in directions that we cannot. And it’s such an odd idea, but it just took off.
And then that was followed by a conservation video about California condors being released into the wild. Only about 80 California condors are left in Northern California in the wild. And they routinely ingest lead bullets that are left behind by hunters and get lead poisoning. So they come to us for treatment. And then, once they’re fine and healthy, they go back out into the wild.
So this video was of a California condor going back out into the wilds, flying off. We’ve released around 50 different condors over the years; it’s the same sort of video every single time. But for some reason, this one took off, and people were interested in it.
And on TikTok, people are asking questions that we’ve answered routinely over the years. It’s all stuff that we’ve been talking about for years on Facebook. But now, it’s piquing interest in people that never get a chance to see it on our Facebook page.
It sounds as if you’re finding your international audience!
We’re a top-10 zoo in the nation; we’re known for our husbandry, ethics, and conservation work. And we’re kind of renewed, in a sense, in these last 20 or 25 years. So we’re kind of catching up to the status that the other big guys have had for a very long time.
You’re quite prolific on Tiktok. How do you keep up, producing all that content, given it’s just the four of you?
It’s four of us, but we also have a good connection with the keepers in the zoo. I myself was actually a zookeeper in the zoo for ten years. I know what it’s like to be in animal care and not have the mindset for marketing. Because your job is literally to take care of the animals, it’s not trying to market them.
So, we prioritize relationships and connections with the animal care team and offer credit for their work, so they associate with the department a little more. We offer incentives every month for the videos that perform the best. It gets people in the mood to want to offer us content.
I myself was actually a zookeeper in the zoo for ten years. So I know what it’s like to be in animal care and not have the mindset for marketing. Because your job is literally to take care of the animals, it’s not trying to market them.
So now people are associated with the marketing department a little more. We’re trying to go out there to talk with the keepers a little more and say, “it’s so important to be able to share your stories. You are the stars; your animals are the stars. Let us show the world!”
The association that keepers have with their animals is so unique. I couldn’t walk up to the chimps; they wouldn’t allow me to take a photo of them within a foot. But you’re talking about keepers who can sit there and scratch their backs if they want and film the whole process. It’s a relationship-driven opportunity, a key only the keepers have that we need to respect but also try to prompt.
So they just send you the videos, and then you put them up?
Our social media manager collects them all and goes through them. He’s got the strategy in his head for what to post when. Sometimes you want to pull on heartstrings. Sometimes you just want to post straight-up conservation issues when you want the public to be aware of an issue.
We want people to focus on the fact that we’re not just a zoo where you visit and then leave again. We’re an institution, a research facility, and a conservation stronghold for the state of California. We are more than just a zoo. We are your Zoo. So the more we can focus on stories that make people feel associated with us, the better.
I added it right away. There’s no reason not to. The more, the merrier. Maybe it’s an API thing, but videos from TikTok won’t play the same way videos from a Twitter feed do — you have to click on them to play the video. [ed. note: Yes, unfortunately, that is indeed a limit the TikTok API puts on us.]
But I will add videos from TikTok, even if they appear static, just to have an opportunity for someone to be directed to our account on TikTok. So it kind of creates this network of opportunity that we wouldn’t have had without the wall.
I feel I’ve gotten across just how pleased I am with this platform compared to previous ones I’ve worked with. It’s dynamic; it’s got video; it’s got our branded colors; it’s got our icons. And it’s also an incredibly easy platform to work with. It’s very user-friendly and makes my job easier.
This is perhaps a bit off-topic, but you mentioned you used to be a zookeeper before you switched to marketing.
I worked in the zoo for about five years as a regular keeper. Then I worked at the hospital as the hospital keeper for another five years taking care of all the sick, injured and quarantined animals.
But I had a wonderful relationship with the marketing department because, while I was working at the hospital, I had access to the conservation stories. I had access to all the new animal arrivals. It was a wonderful relationship that was created over the years. So when a position opened up, I mentioned that that’s something I’d be interested in trying. I said, “use me on a trial basis, and we’ll go from there,” but it’s already been six months, and I feel I’m doing pretty well.
That speaks for Oakland Zoo that they’re open to people moving laterally into different positions.
Yeah, it’s really nice. Our VP of Marketing has a very strong marketing background. Our social media manager has been doing this for decades. And then the rest of us are kind of a mix of different departments. We have me from animal care in the vet hospital; we have another marketing manager who worked in education before this. We have another marketing manager who worked in operations before. So yeah, Oakland Zoo really offers people the opportunity to try new things, as long as the departments are comfortable with it. And because it’s our wheelhouse, we know these animals. I can tell you most of the animals’ names in the entire zoo, so it’s quite a resource to have people who have that information.
And you also know all the keepers, that must be helpful too.
That was our issue In the beginning. When I was starting out as a keeper, no one really kept in touch with marketing because it seemed like an Ivory Tower situation. But over the years, when you start incorporating people who know the zoo and know the people, the connection just gets stronger and stronger.
Needless to say, this interview with Adam is an absolute treasure trove. I’m so glad I got to learn so much about how Oakland Zoo approaches social media, how they use social walls, and especially how well TikTok is going for them.
I’m sure you’ve enjoyed reading it all yourself, but there are a few things I want to draw attention to because they could really help other organisations with their social media strategy.
A good mix of content
Oakland Zoo has a great mix of content on the social walls. Of course, entertainment always works, but you’ll want to give people more than that, especially if your organisation does a lot of different things.
Oakland Zoo smartly combines entertainment with educational content that helps them present their important conservation work to the public.
There are many ways to get content
Hashtags are great for content aggregation, but there are other ways to get content on your social media wall as well. If you don’t mind a bit of extra effort, you can create a finely tuned, curated experience — which is what Adam has chosen to do. He does use the hashtags that are connected to Oakland Zoo, but he further curates the content by using manual moderation.
He also actively seeks out and adds content that might not show up as new content on hashtags but is still relevant. That’s how you find fantastic content like MC Hammer celebrating his grandson’s first visit to the zoo! And, of course, content from Oakland Zoo’s own accounts is also an important part of the social wall.
All in all, this allows Adam to create a curated experience that specifically fits the zoo’s focus on families while also making sure all important topics are covered, whether it’s educating the public about Oakland Zoo’s practices — from animal husbandry to enrichment to conservation —, showing off how the zoo inspires local artists and photographers, or simply entertaining everyone with cute animal videos and pics.
I really love the idea of introducing a hashtag that allows users to specifically communicate their consent for an organisation to use their content in marketing, creating a media library of sorts. That is such a fantastic idea.
Small team? No problem!
The Oakland Zoo social media team consists of only four people, including Adam, but they manage to produce an impressive amount of content. How they pull it off is by not trying to do it all by themselves.
One thing, of course, is what we always talk about on here: to encourage UGC, which can then be used to pad out owned content. But another step that the Oakland Zoo marketing team has taken is to solicit internal UGC. User-generated content doesn’t always have to mean “content coming from users outside the organisation.” Look, for example, at employee-generated content that many companies are beginning to use.
So, the Oakland Zoo marketing team has enlisted the help and support of the zoo keepers. They’re the ones who can get up close and personal with the animals. They’re the ones who can get content that no one else can even dream of getting. And while I’m sure the keepers are providing photos and videos partly because they genuinely love sharing the lives of the animals that they’re taking care of, offering monthly incentives probably doesn’t hurt either.
We see it again and again with our customers: putting social walls on a physical screen can have a great impact by boosting engagement. Oakland Zoo prominently shows the social wall right at the entrance on the plaza screen. And they promote the hashtag at various spots throughout the zoo, including the cutouts that encourage posing for photos.
What’s luck got to do with it?
When zoos end up with animal stories that particularly resonate with the public, that’s a huge opportunity. And just like Cincinnati Zoo with their hippo Fiona, Oakland Zoo has realised that and started featuring specific animals, such as the mountain lion Rose, more prominently.
It might be instinctual not to want to risk posting anything with an uncertain outcome or something that could end up being sad, but those posts actually show people the realities of zoo work and life. And once you know what your audience wants to see, you can give them more of that.
That those videos then went viral was, of course, partly luck. There’s always some luck involved with viral content. And, of course, some networks just lend themselves to going viral. Adam has very accurately pointed out that with Facebook, “You just send it to your audience. Maybe something takes off.” But “TikTok has a mind of its own,” and once people start stitching your video, it can take off literally overnight.
Ready to make your social wall take off as well?