What zoos’ websites could be doing for them

Museums, especially art museums, have made tons of progress in figuring out what it means to be a museum in the internet-connected world. All significant art museums now have most or all of their collections online, engaging social media strategies, and effective email marketing programs. And all these efforts are all fundamentally content-driven (i.e., they use the art as the draw), serving the mission at the same time they drive visitorship.

I would draw a contrast here between museums, on the one hand, and zoos and aquariums on the other. Zoo and aquarium sites are heavy on marketing–though without always being savvy about fundraising–and usually provide pretty good visitor information. But they do almost nothing to serve their missions online.

I recognized this a while ago–I’m a lifelong environmentalist and supporter of environmental causes, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, and the New York Aquarium. Last year, when I interviewed for a VP of Information Technology position at one of the most-visited aquariums in the US, I started thinking about it seriously. While I was there, I suggested they engage and educate visitors by publishing the animals’ images and data online. The message I got from the boss was a clear “no.” In that person’s view, the science of the place–essentially, anything having to do with its mission–didn’t really belong online. This was exceedingly disappointing for me, and it became clear to both of us that the job was not for me.

So I think there’s an opportunity out there for an enterprising live animal-related cultural or conservation institution to make a big statement online. Museums have very successfully, and in many different ways, connected their art management systems to their websites. For example, at the Metropolitan Museum, the internal systems containing art metadata and images talk to one another, and via a translation layer that connects artworks by various descriptive data, present the Met’s collection online.

Similar to the metadata and image management systems at museums, zoos, wildlife centers, and aquariums all use animal management systems that they could connect to their websites. These systems contain information such as

  • Enclosures/tanks that contain each animal;
  • Feeding records for the animals;
  • Disease history and other health information, including visits to the vet and medications/treatments given;
  • Transfers in and out of the institution;
  • Animal weights and measures.

This is cool stuff. So let’s say you connected these systems to the institution’s website. Visitors could “adopt” one or more favorite animals, and

  • Learn when they’re going to be fed, or perform in a show;
  • Map (in print or on mobile device) where they are in the exhibits, to visit them easily in person;
  • Get email reports about their vet visits, and share get well cards with friends on Facebook;
  • Learn about when they go across town, or across the country, to get busy with a new friend–and tweet good luck to them;
  • Follow their babies as they grow, and then move on to new institutions, and share their send-off photos on Instagram;
  • Get invitations to members-only events where they can see their animals;
  • Learn about, and gain respect for, the intense level of care zoos devote to them;
  • Give donations in their memory, when they eventually, tragically, pass on.

And of course, the zoo could add links to relevant educational information tied to the animals’ habitats and conservation status, relatives, etc. Visitor interest in the animals (why we’re all there) could lead us to greater understanding of the cause and engagement with the institution.

I’ve mentioned this idea to many frequent zoo visitors and they are first of all, really excited by it; and second, as disappointed as I am that it isn’t happening yet. But I imagine that zoo administrators who read this may think mainly about how difficult it would be to share this information publicly. I’m sensitive to this concern, but it’s worth remembering that this is exactly what every art museum said before they all got started publishing collections online. And I’ll bet that tech people at zoos, etc., have already thought this through:

  • There is a subset of information, images, and videos of each animal that is totally innocuous and totally interesting to the public;
  • There is other information that is messy, because it was not previously intended for public consumption, but is mostly innocuous and totally interesting to the public, that can be published now and improved over time;
  • There is other information that is not innocuous, but of great public value, and with care could be exposed to the public, over time;
  • There is other information that you really can’t share in any bulk/automated fashion.

Your system can be built to accommodate all of these distinctions. You may think it’s a lot of work, and you’d be right. Do it anyway; it’ll be worth it for your mission, and your bottom line.

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