It’s a pretty safe assumption everyone other than the crankiest of curmudgeons likes a feel-good story. I know that after being bombarded about news that makes me sad, or angry, or both, I like to hear about something good that happens to the deserving. I don’t think I am taking any risks with that premise. So when a small park 250 miles north of the Twin Cities, that features a bear and her cubs, is able to increase its annual budget by half and beat out some of the largest national parks in the United States for a $100,000 prize, this sounds like a story that is going to have a happy ending.
Lily is a black bear living in Bear’s Head Lake State Park near Ely, Minnesota. She also is probably the most popular living bear on Facebook with over 112,000 followers. Last year when Lily was pregnant, a webcam was placed in her den and the world was able to watch the birth of her cub, Hope. Soon after the webcam was set up, www.bear.org was overloaded with visitors to the site who wanted to catch a glimpse of Lily. Soon after, a Twitter feed and Facebook fan page were set up to disseminate quick updates regarding Lily and to provide educational information about American black bears. Many look to social media as a quick way to get the latest celebrity gossip, breaking popular news trends, or just to catch up with friends. Lily was able to transcend the traditional assumptions by being a conduit of knowledge for her followers. A look at Lily’s Facebook Page illustrates not only how people can keep up with their favorite Minnesotan black bears, but also how they can gain extensive knowledge from bear experts. Facebook is allowing interested individuals to learn from people they might never have been able to communicate with before and to learn more about bears than a watered-down TV special could provide.
So what does this mean? By putting up the webcam, and providing information through blogs, tweets and Facebook status updates and interacting with their followers, the research group working with Lily raised a significant amount of money to continue their work. Through direct donations and the sales of Lily-branded goods (like t-shirts), the North American Bear Center can continue to “advance the long-term survival of bears worldwide by replacing misconceptions with scientific facts about bears, their role in ecosystems, and their relations with humans” as they state on their website.
Just as exciting as the money coming into the North American Bear Center is this news for Bear Head Lake State Park. The park only has about 100,000 visitors a year, but this year had hundreds of thousands more virtual visitors. When you considered that 285 million people visited national parks in 2009, with the Great Smokey Mountains National Park garnering 9.5 million of those visitors (according to a USA Today article), the next piece of information should come as a shocking surprise. Coca-Cola’s LivePositively website’s contest for the most popular park in the United States, allowed voters to select Bear Head Lake State Park as the most popular park in the country. Out of the 5.7 million votes, the Minnesota park received 28 percent. So a park with an annual budget of only $230,000 gets another $100,000 from Coca-Cola to use on park improvements. How awesome is that?
I know in my last blog posting I had to walk a fine line when discussing the value of social media and email campaigns, in relation to traditional postal mail. I think in the case of Lily the Bear we had an extraordinary event, which helped to drive the success of social media campaign—Lily’s social media success wasn’t manufactured, instead it grew organically from the webcam, the expertise of the researchers, their willingness to share their knowledge, and people’s thirst to learn more about wild bears beyond what they saw in Yogi Bear cartoon. There’s a wealth of context to make Lily’s story interesting.
I understand this is unique. However, nearly every organization has something interesting to say and the ability to share it with their members, donors, customers or just the general public at large. Social Media should be fun, and engaging and *gasp* sometimes enlightening. That’s what makes it great. The North American Bear Center can determine its ROI from Lily because there would have been significantly less in donations without the bearcam. I highly doubt they were sending out tons of fundraising requests each year.
You might not be able to measure the value of your social media spending, but that doesn’t belittle its value. For small organizations, it can provide a lifeline to raising donations by finding an audience you might not have previously been able to access, or by reaching customers in a very niche market. Organizations and businesses shouldn’t feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to social media. Just because you have a Twitter account or a Facebook page, doesn’t mean people must follow you. Instead you have to be engaging and interactive and actually provide content people are interested in. If you do that, you may be able to reap significant rewards for your hard work.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to look at some cute cub photos on Lily’s Facebook page and smile.