Hashtags: A Tourist Operator’s Digital Best Friend

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I spend a lot of time at the Toronto Zoo:

Hello Human. Do You Come Bearing Food?
Hello,Human. Do you come bearing food?

It’s not too far from where I live and has excellent exhibits. Going to the zoo has been a favourite family activity for many years, but I didn’t become a member until I had kids.

For my oldest child, going to the zoo ranks right up there with ice cream and chocolate. Where else in Toronto are we going to see a rhinoceros, tapir or hippopotamus in the flesh?

A quick disclaimer:

I realize there are people who object to zoos on principle. I’m not one of them. While I wish I didn’t live in a world where wild animals and their habitats need protection from humans, I support reputable zoos because they educate children about animals they’re otherwise unlikely to ever see and help make kids (and adults) care about protecting the spaces in which those animals still live.

People who keep tigers or other endangered wildlife as pets? Not okay.

October and November are my favourite months for zoo visits, provided the temperature isn’t significantly below zero.

While the most temperature-sensitive animals are inside, the animals that do brave the cooler temperatures are usually far more interesting to watch in the autumn than in the middle of summer when the zoo is packed with people and any animal with sense is hiding in a cave or curled up under a tree.

I took some photos. Naturally, I tweeted about a few of them:

Snow Leopard paces in its cage.
The snow leopard paces its habitat. I've never seen it clearly during the summer.

I used the hashtag #torontozoo to make it clear where the photos were taken. As I did so, I wondered why the zoo doesn’t advertise a preferred hashtag for visitors to use as they enter.

A quick search showed me that #torontozoo and Toronto Zoo are both popular search terms on Twitter, but the content that shows up under each is different. And while Dwayne the Shark was tweeting this summer, there appears to be no official Toronto Zoo presence on Twitter.

(There are some non-official accounts, particularly around the whole elephant controversy.)

Having an official account and posting signs at the entrance to encourage a consistent hashtag would allow the zoo (or any tourism operator) to:

  • Follow guest experiences in real-time — What are people responding to today? Which animals are doing the most interesting things?
  • Respond to questions or concerns. If your audience has a bad experience and is going to complain, why not find out and take steps to resolve it before they leave?
  • Capture and share unique animal behaviour through uploaded photos (e.g., polar bears ‘kissing’):

    Polar Bears exchange a tender moment
    We probably don't want to know what they're really licking off each other’s muzzles.
  • Make it easy for guests at the zoo, fans or people considering a visit to share information. Are there a zillion school groups eating in the Caribou Café? I would seriously like to know before the fam rolls up for lunch. Waiting in crazy lunch lines with small kids is a recipe for insanity.
  • Actively participate in, and possibly shape, conversations that are happening without you anyway.

The lack of an official Toronto Zoo presence on Twitter surprises me since they have demonstrated their interest in social media in other ways:

  • They have a Facebook page.
  • They have experimented with Twitter accounts, but with more emphasis on promoting unique exhibits (like Stingray Bay in the summer) than the all-encompassing interaction you see on less targeted tourism accounts like @nightmaresfear.
  • They run neat online campaigns like the Polar Tweets and the Say it With Penguins project, but my cursory research suggests these tend to be one-offs. The penguin project is current, but it looks like the zoo gave up the Polar Bear URL; some squatter is using it now.

Flickr is also a huge arena for photography-friendly tourist attractions. The current Toronto Zoo Flickr group has over 600 members and 9,000 images. What demonstrates visitor engagement better than their willingness to share photos?

As far as I can tell, the Zoo is uninvolved with that group.

So what gives, Toronto Zoo? Why not tweet and suggest a common hashtag?

I contacted the zoo, but I have yet to receive a response. Their feedback handling process page seems more concerned with positioning their process regarding complaints than connecting with people. It reads like it was written by the legal department.

The actual comment form has a good list of useful numbers.

If I get a response, I’ll do a follow-up.

Peacock disturbed by baby crying
Dear peacock: The dreadful sound disturbing you is my child, crying. Do not be alarmed. Babies get hungry, too. (A second before I took this, the peacock had its feathers fluffed out, ready to dazzle my child into silence.)