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.