A Social Media Success Story from the Far North

Lily and Hope, the famous black bear mom-and-daughter duoNow that social media has gone from being a novelty to becoming standard fare in marketing and communications programs, we’re seeing evidence as to where these tactics shine their best.

One aspect that’s become clearer over time is that the most effective uses of social media must have an underlying “hook”; it’s not sufficient simply to engage in social media as just “business as usual.”

An interesting example of this phenomenon at work is Bear Head Lake State Park in extreme Northern Minnesota. It’s located near Ely, a town that’s miles from nowhere but somewhat famous as the embarkation point for exploring Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

This is the most famous park you’ve never heard of. How so? Because it beat out every other national and state park in the country in winning a popularity vote on the Internet.

In a just-completed “America’s Favorite Park” contest co-sponsored by the National Park Foundation and Coca-Cola, Bear Head easily outpolled every other park in the United States by garnering nearly 1.7 million votes out of 5.7 million cast, far outdistancing the runner-up (Great Smokey Mountain National Park).

How does a park ranked just 11th in the state of Minnesota and visited by only ~100,000 people annually accomplish such a feat?

The answer lies in taking a fortuitous event and figuring out how to give it velocity through the social media world. In this case, the “hook” was a webcam that had been set up in the park by the Ely-based North American Bear Center to record the birth of a bear cub named Hope.

Hope and her mother Lily were given their own Facebook page and had attracted more than 112,000 fans, while another ~90,000 people followed the bears on the North American Bear Center’s own web site.

So when the Coca-Cola contest came along, the web site administrators went into action, asking the bears’ friends and supporters to vote for the local park as home to the research bears. They emphasized that people could vote as often as they wanted, which resulted in some friends placing dozens or even hundreds of votes for the park.

The objective wasn’t just to gain fame as America’s “favorite park.” The contest also included a $100,000 prize for the winning park. That was the big incentive in the case of Bear Head Lake, which as a small state park has an annual working budget of only ~$226,000.

Reportedly, the prize winnings will go toward building a three-season trail center, a project that has been on the drawing boards for years but never begun due to lack of state funding. “At a time when many parks are facing difficult financial and budget decisions and reducing services … this is quite an opportunity for us,” noted Jan Westlund, the park’s manager.

Lynn Rogers, a researcher at the North American Bear Center, summed up the success of the initiative this way: “None of this would have happened without our 200,000 fans.”

This one example of social media success tells us an awful lot about how to harness the power and “viral velocity” of social media as a tactic.

The key is to consider each event or opportunity that comes along and then envision what could happen if social media tactics are applied. By contrast, starting out with social media is approaching it backwards … and more than likely, mediocre results will be the result.

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