Social Media in Public Gardens

Member Highlight: The New York Botanical Garden

Interview with Ann Rafalko, Director of Online Content


APGA: How are you engaging your visitors via social media? 

NYBG: One of my goals as the Director of Online Content at The New York Botanical Garden is to use all the social media platforms available to me in order to talk to our visitors where they hang out online. There's a real difference in demographic between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. so I want to make sure we're talking to everyone, because they're all potential visitors, whether they're in Manhattan or Madagascar.


APGA: Can you tell us a bit more about the various channels of social media that you currently employ? 

NYBG: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr, YouTube, Foursquare, Google+. We're on all of them and always looking out for the next big thing. I am particularly excited by Pinterest's introduction of dedicated business pages. I think that's going to be good for brands looking to utilize this very popular network. We are on all these channels because I think each one offers something different. Botanical gardens are inherently beautiful places, so it makes sense to use Flickr (especially the Group Pool where we get to see how our visitors see NYBG). Foursquare provides some good demographic data. For instance, because of Foursquare we knew that the period in which we experienced the greatest number of check-ins happened to be the Orchid Show. This led me to believe that these were our techiest visitors, so we tried an experiment; throughout the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, we placed window clings with #orchidshow on them. Nothing else. We were trying to talk to these techie visitors in their language, and guess what: they loved it! We were inundated with Tweets, Instagrams, Tumblr posts and so much more, and we were able to track them, thank them, and highlight them because of one simple hashtag.


APGA: What are your strategies for success?

NYBG: Always be working, social media never sleeps (plus you can carry most of these networks in your pocket, so why not Tweet someone "Thank you for visiting!" even if you are not physically on grounds). Never turn it over to an intern. Be smart. If you don't know the answer to something, ask someone (that applies internally and externally). And most importantly: Always be nice.


APGA: What do you consider a 'win' in social media? Can you provide a specific example? 

NYBG: Social media is hard to quantify. A lot of these networks aren't yet providing us with great analytics, so it's hard to gauge how well you are engaging your audience and whether or not it is translating into increased revenues, so it helps to take part in a social media contest. Last year the Garden was picked for inclusion in the Partners in Preservation contest. Each year this contest moves to one city in the U.S. and asks cultural institutions to compete against each other in a social media popularity contest for preservation grants. In 2012 we were lucky enough to be picked as one of 40 sites in New York City, and were even luckier to come out as one of the top four popular vote winners which means that we won our full grant. The most important thing I took away from this was that gauging engagement is even harder than I thought. Day after day I was discouraged by the limited amount of feedback I was getting from each Facebook post, Tweet, and blog post. I expected people to tweet "I voted!" to like a Facebook post, to comment that they had passed it along to all their friends, but they didn't. But, day after day, we maintained our position near the top, which meant that people were voting, tweeting, and sharing the info, they just weren't talking about it. To me this flew in the face of social media convention. I thought everyone talked about everything they did on the Internet. Turns out it's just not true. I can't make any grand conclusions from this other than, just because people aren't commenting doesn't mean they're not reading. Social media is very important in getting your message out, so don't let a lack of interaction steer you away from it. Keep trying new things until something resonates.


APGA: What is something you have learned about social media that you'd like to share?

NYBG: The number one lesson I have learned is be genuine and don't talk about yourself constantly. It is very important to make your social media efforts genuine. Simply regurgitating press releases is not a social media strategy. Taking that press release and turning it into fun, engaging content is. Also, it's fun to talk about other people and to draw links between your institution and other institutions in your area. No one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked us to write about their Ellsworth Kelly plant drawings exhibition on our Tumblr, but to me it seemed like a natural fit. And I enjoyed it. Enjoyment and enthusiasm are contagious. If you have genuine interest in the topic you are writing about, it will translate into enthusiasm in your readers, and hopefully into ticket purchases, too.