Content Master: The Morton Arboretum


As the leaves of autumn give way to the bare branches of winter, the Morton Arboretum is a place of both refuge and inspiration. The preserve west of Chicago has a well-deserved reputation as a destination for hiking and bicycling amid the trees, ponds, and fields that comprise the 1,700-acre grounds. But the arboretum doesn’t assume that its reputation alone will attract visitors. To ensure that the natural playground remains top of mind amid the many digital and offline distractions vying for its patrons’ attention, the Morton Arboretum also happens to be a powerful content machine.

The arboretum’s content strategy is twofold: use digital to attract visitors, and offline content to support the organization’s mission of protecting and appreciating the natural world.

Visual Storytelling the Digital Way

The Morton Arboretum creates awareness and engagement by sharing content across the digital world where its patrons share their own content, on social spaces ranging from Facebook to Instagram, thus demonstrating that if you want to attract an audience, you need to be present where they live and search for things to do.

And the arboretum speaks the language of its audience: imagery. For instance, in October and November, the arboretum’s Instagram account offered an explosion of fall colors enticing the Instagram community to experience the bright red leaves of a sour gum or a golden yellow cork tree. The arboretum’s growing Pinterest community takes advantage of Pinterest’s organizational tools, with images organized under boards ranging from Gardening Ideas to Winter Trees. On YouTube, the arboretum offers more immersive tours that give potential visitors a taste of what they’ll find if they stop by. For instance, the arboretum recently posted a video tour of Illuminations, during which the grounds come alive with a festive light show at night. But YouTube is also a learning destination, offering how-to videos on topics such as tree pruning and watering plants and trees.

On Facebook, the arboretum also includes user-generated images, thus drawing from a broader palette of images and creating more engagement from its Facebook followers. Facebook and Twitter also act as sources of updates on the events that the arboretum offers around the year. In fact, its Facebook page is a textbook example of a how an organization can use a local page to generate awareness where people conduct searches for things to do nearby. The arboretum makes it easy for visitors to learn about events such as its Boo Breakfast for children, and the arboretum cross-promotes content on other social spaces, including TripAdvisor reviews. By being transparent and informative, the arboretum makes Facebook an important digital touch point that complements its website, which serves as its hub for learning more about things to do there. Patrons can also sign up for an email newsletter that curates content as frequently as needed.

A Learning Experience

The arboretum’s not-so-secret weapon for engaging its audience is educational content. Its website modestly claims that we engage students, families, teachers, and life-long learners to dig a little deeper into the science of trees,” which is putting things mildly. The arboretum is practically a year-round school, offering lectures, classes on topics such as nature art and photography, and opportunities to get involved in conservation. The arboretum does a masterful job segmenting educational content for different audiences. Here are just a few examples:

  • School groups: for grades PreK-5, the arboretum hosts classroom visits in which educational leaders provide courses such as plant investigation and the basics of trees. Its half- and full-day field trips offer deeper dives into nature for ages ranging from kindergarten to high school. Kindergarteners might learn about using the five senses to explore nature, whereas high schoolers can get involved into the maintenance of the park by acting as restoration stewards during their field trips.
  • Adult programs: the arboretum empowers adult visitors to enrich their understanding of nature and discover their inner artists. During chilly winter Saturday mornings, visitors can take winter bird walks, in which small groups discover the habits of the birds who winter at the arboretum. The Nature Artists’ Guild encourages patrons to express their artistic sides through paintings, drawings, and other creative endeavors — really a form of user generated content.


Image source: The Morton Arboretum

One of my favorite arboretum activities is to immerse myself in learning at the Sterling Morton Library. The curved shelves full of neatly arranged books, comfortable chairs, and high ceiling create a welcoming environment to learn the old-school way: by burying your nose in books about the natural world the arboretum has vowed to protect. The library reminds me that a location need not provide blinking lights, video, and pulsating music to be immersive. The silence that invites quiet exploration of the mind is as immersive as sound.


All the content has a purpose: to support the arboretum’s self-proclaimed role as “the champion of trees.” The exhibits, the classes, and the tours all ladder up to a mission to get everyday people involved in protecting the natural world. And the arboretum supports its mission in obvious ways, such as the Vanishing Acts traveling exhibit. Vanishing Acts: Trees Under Threat was developed with the Global Trees Campaign to raise awareness for threatened and endangered trees. What makes Vanishing Acts special is that you can take the exhibition with you. The exhibition is designed to be set up in public spaces appropriate for learning about tree conservation. As such, the arboretum offers a program to help others set up the exhibition, including a how-to guide for constructing the exhibit. Consider Vanishing Acts an old-school way of creating sharable content.

 Questions for Brands

  • Are you creating content that will engage your audience at a location level?
  • How well do you employ visual storytelling to share your brand?
  • Are you distributing that content where your customers are going to find it?
  • How well does your content support your mission?
  • How well do you involve your audience in the branded content you create?

Other Brands to Examine

  • Nordstrom, for its mastery of content on platforms such as Pinterest.
  • Starbucks, for capitalizing on social spaces to generate awareness for its stores.
  • Bass Pro Shops for providing activities such as 3D Archery
  • Weber Grill Restaurants for offering grilling classes and special events

For brick-and-mortar businesses, sharing meaningful content is increasingly essential to combat the ever-present threat of such as video games, Netflix, and apps that make it all too easy to remain planted on our sofas in the comfort of our homes. The Morton Arboretum can teach any brick-and-mortar business the power of immersive content.

Portions of this blog were adapted from a post I wrote for SIM Partners.


Al Green and the Family War


Art can divide a family.

In 1973, my family lived near a network of ponds and fields on the northern fringe of Battle Creek, Michigan. You can visit the neighborhood anytime through Google Street View and even check out our old house at 242 Wanondoger Trail. The area still looks pretty much the same: simple wood or brick ranch structures, the occasional split level, big lawns, trees, and, beyond the cluster of houses, an open expanse of grass that still invites kids to play war games in the summer and ride their snowmobiles in the winter, just as my older brother, Dan, and I did. I was 10 years old in 1973. Dan was 12. I had two older sisters: Karen, who was in high school, and Cathy, who had recently graduated, worked at a Dairy Queen, and lived at home. Our family lived uncomplicated lives, or so it seemed to me. Besides playing outside a lot, Dan and I listened to record albums, including Bible stories that our Grandma Deal bought us. And somewhere along the line, I had discovered the joy of Al Green.

I don’t remember when or where I first heard Al Green’s voice — probably on the radio during a family drive in our Monte Carlo. But I loved everything I heard. I was a quiet kid. By age 10, I had already lived in Peoria, Illinois; Atlanta; and Indianapolis, and I did not make friends easily. Mine was a lonely world defined by books, the fields, the pond, and Al Green’s voice. His music was like a companion. His soothing, sweet vocals on songs like “I’m Still in Love with You” made me want to sing. The romance and longing in songs like “Call Me” made me want to experience the passions that had inspired such powerfully emotional songs even though I was too young to truly understand what he was singing about. I lacked the money to buy his albums, but I could afford the occasional 45s, which I purchased at K Mart and kept in a small stack in our parents’ big wooden console stereo, right next to my dad’s copy of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream and Other Delights.

“You Ought to Be with Me” was my favorite Al Green single. I listened to it over and over. At the time, I didn’t know how songs were made. I thought singers and musicians performed them live as opposed to recording their parts separately and assembling the parts into a song. I wondered how Al Green made his voice become like an instrument in the opening few seconds, with his “Hey, yeahs” and drawn out “hey-ah” jumping an octave over a bed of horns and strings before pleading and asking someone to be with him. I always listened closely at the one-minute mark, when his teeth made a slight whistle sound as he sang the word “us” in “They don’t want to see us do.” I suppose someone else might have done a retake, but Al Green made every vocal tic sound like honey. And I thrilled at the way he made the word “night” sound like an extended “nigh-hi-ey-aye” as the song faded out. Whenever I saw the Hi Records logo on his 45s, I thought of that drawn-out “hi-ey-aey” and still do.

But Al Green was not an obvious choice for a 10-year-old growing up in Battle Creek. On the one hand, he was at the peak of his popularity as a soul singer. His sweet vocal style combined with Willie Mitchell’s slick production generated a slew of hit singles and albums that would help shape 1970s soul. But there was something about him that didn’t sit right with the masculine small-town culture that defined our neighborhood. Maybe it was the way his voice soared high and cooed. Maybe it was his occasionally florid choice of attire, such as the frilly coat and sleeves he wore on the cover of Al Green Gets Next to You. Never mind that he was a notorious womanizer in real life. He was just too sweet for the boys of Battle Creek.


I soon experienced his impact firsthand when Cathy began to bring home boyfriends. They all looked big and rough to me in their greasy jeans, dirty flannel shirts, and long hair. When they hung out at our house, they always brought their records, and they played Cathy’s records, such as the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) and Paul McCartney’s Ram. Sometimes they would discover my Al Green singles and play one, which always evoked the same incredulous “What is this shit?” expressions before the 45 was abruptly yanked from the turntable and replaced quickly with something more suitable, such as Deep Purple or Uriah Heep.

And Cathy was not exactly in a position to explain my odd musical interest. She really didn’t know me. We lived in two completely different universes. In 1973, she was soon going to turn 19. She was the oldest child, which meant being the first among us to experience the world, and I was the youngest, which meant I had experienced nothing, in her eyes. We were not hostile to each other, but we didn’t have anything in common. She tolerated me — but she accommodated her friends.

My mom and dad expected their kids to abide by the rules of the house, which, for Cathy, meant the usual prohibitions, such as on overnight guests without our parents’ consent, no drinking, no drugs, and generally no partying. It was fairly easy for my parents to enforce these rules so long as they were around.

But they weren’t always around.

My dad traveled a lot for his job as an insurance executive. We all grew up being accustomed to him living long stretches away from home. He would later keep an apartment in Chicago after he took a different job, and for awhile, the rest of us stayed behind in Battle Creek, as we had gotten used to him not being at home much. Part of my dad’s job involved attending annual company meetings in locations like St. Maarten. In 1973, he took my mom on one of these trips, and left the kids at home under Cathy’s care. Which meant Cathy had carte blanche to break the house rules. Which she did with relish.

She had her friends over. A lot. Overnight. With drinking. And maybe drugs. Probably drugs. I didn’t like it. Our house had been overtaken by a bunch of long-haired Vikings from the wild, drinking what they wanted, eating what they wanted, and sleeping where they wanted. And who could blame them, Cathy, or any other teenager once they discovered they had the run of the house? One morning, after a few nights of their general debauchery and hedonism had passed, I discovered my collection of Al Green singles had been reduced to a pathetic pile of sharp vinyl shards. I never found out who destroyed them, but it didn’t matter. Cathy had let them in. And they had violated my prized possessions. Even worse, Cathy didn’t care. Maybe she didn’t even notice.

That week, I discovered the meaning of revenge. I could never get those singles back, but I could get back at Cathy. So for the rest of the week, I kept a journal that described every rule violation that had occurred while my parents were away that week. Down to the minute, I recorded each party, each random cigarette butt tossed in our yard, each bottle of beer consumed by the Viking hoards, and every moment I had endured listening to their loud music. When the week was over, and my parents had returned home, I dutifully handed over the journal to my mom. Our parents never trusted Cathy to babysit the kids again, and they stripped her of the right to have any friends over for a long time, with or without my parents there. Essentially, the house became a prison for her, or so she thought. And my journal was to blame.

Today Cathy and I get along just fine. She lives not too far from me, and we share a deep love of music. But the journaling incident caused a rift that took years to heal. In Cathy’s eyes, I was nothing more than the worst kind of younger brother possible: a snitch. As I saw it, she was responsible for a horrible violation of my world. But I was willing to pay the price. You just didn’t mess with Al Green. Not my Al Green.