PITTSBURGH — Snap a selfie in the Islands exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, and you may end up with big sunglasses on your face and a pineapple drink in your hand — at least that’s what might appear on your smartphone screen if you’re using the zoo’s new app.
The app, which was developed by the Station Square-based Schell Games and launched this spring, features a dozen Snapchat-style photo filters that the zoo communications team hopes patrons will share on social media.
A lion’s mane appears around a photo subject’s head when using the app near the lions’ den, and patrons can appear as though they’re scuba diving in the aquarium.
“We’re reimagining what this experience can be for that more screen-minded individual,” said Laura Gething, communications manager of the Pittsburgh Zoo, a nonprofit with the mission of conservation.
Ninety-two percent of 18- to 29-year-olds own a smartphone, according to a Pew Research Center study this year.
The app is just one way the zoo aims to reach the millennial and post-millennial generations.
According to Pew, millennials are those born between 1981 and 1997 — now the largest living generation. Other analyses define the post-millennial generation, or Generation Z, as those born after 1995.
“Kids automatically are intrigued by zoos, but how do we make our facility a great place for other than just that standard audience?” Gething said.
Experts find that millennials and Gen Z are more diverse, more educated and more connected than ever.
According to market research by PGAV Destinations, a firm that designs zoos and aquariums, nearly 80 percent of millennials like to connect to causes that are important to them. When it comes to zoos, Generation Z is even more so influenced by messages about conservation, according to PGAV’s research.
“This is a generation that’s incredibly informed, but how they process information is different,” said Ari Lightman, professor digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University. “Consequently, zoos that have been at the forefront of education need to work on experience management and how people integrate with their mission.”
The Pittsburgh Zoo’s new interactive map resembles other smartphone GPS maps — with a pulsing red paw print signifying a user’s real-time location in the park.
Clickable markers on the map reveal animal profiles and photos. Educational games become available depending on one’s proximity to certain exhibits.
Walk near the primate exhibit, and a “Gorilla Groom” game unlocks. Cartoon ticks in imaginary gorilla fur crawl across the smartphone screen as users are prompted to squash them with their fingers. After the game, a message reveals that eating bugs is one way primates get protein.
The app, the zoo’s first, was funded by the R.K. Mellon Foundation. Communications staff would not reveal how many patrons downloaded the app but say they’re “very happy with the results so far.”
Beyond the app, the zoo targets the younger adult crowd with after-hours fundraising events and is working to curate other experiences.
This year, the zoo introduced a “Beer Den,” which serves up craft beer in the former bear den exhibit — a historic tall stone structure that was built in 1937.
The new Jungle Odyssey exhibit will feature a zip line by summer’s end.
Gething said the zoo also has evolved its presence on social media over the past five years.
“(We had) Facebook and Twitter, and that was it. We kind of only pushed out advertisement-style messaging,” she said. “In 2013, we had a baby gorilla whose mother couldn’t nurse, and so he had to be hand- raised. We started doing a weekly video blog on his progress. Now we have the (baby) elephant blog that we update daily. We’re giving you these wonderful moments about these animals. That’s important because people don’t want to see ads all the time.”
Especially millennials and post-millennials, research shows.
The zoo now creates content on Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.
“Fifty percent of the time that millennials and Gen Z spend online is on social media,” said Param Vir Singh, a CMU business professor who researches social media. “It’s always increasing more and more.”
He said “inbound marketing” — for example, the zoo’s shareable photo filters — is especially valuable.
“(In) traditional marketing, the advertiser would create content, and customers would passively look at it,” he said. “Companies are finding value in customer-created content, when the customer talks about you.”
Gething said the zoo encourages the #ZooforAll hashtag online.
“If they were to livestream this elephant baby, this would be a huge craze,” Vir Singh said. “Other zoos have done it with chimpanzees and baby pandas.”
Not to mention April the giraffe.
Gething said the zoo has no plans right now to livestream its animals. The app, however, directs users to the zoo’s YouTube page, where 360-degree videos show the organization’s conservation sites around the world, as well as behind the scenes at the zoo. The gift shop has begun selling cardboard virtual reality headsets displaying the Pittsburgh Zoo’s logo.
In its own efforts to incorporate technology, the National Aviary recently added an exhibit called “Birdly,” a VR experience where patron can experience flying like a bird.
Vir Singh called the incorporation of VR “excellent.”
“Millennials and Gen Z are more comfortable with technology and want these kinds of experiences,” he said.
But Gething said that despite all of the new technology and communication channels, it’s millennials’ values that dovetail with the zoo’s mission of conservation.
“It just so happens that that’s a message that tends to resonate with millennials,” she said. “There’s a really great intersectionality. To me, it says, ‘Hey, our mission is right where it needs to be.’ It’s sort of a progressive mindset.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com