Close up if a tiger at the Toronto Zoo with it's mouth wide open.

Digitalization of Zoos

Digitalization is the path that all businesses have been on for decades. The recent past has only sped up the momentum towards this inevitable digital transformation. Businesses that are reluctant to digitalize or choosing to avoid it are only adding unnecessary pressure to themselves. 

Close up if a tiger at the Toronto Zoo with it's mouth wide open.

Zoological institutions are not exempt from the movement towards digitalization. They will need to discover methods of being able to engage the consumer in increasingly inventive ways that keep a visitor attracted. Even if they are not physically present on the site. To borrow the sentiment of Karin Falquist, a professor at Umeå University in Sweden, and apply it to zoos generically, “The idea behind a virtual zoo is to share information and create and retain relations with future, current and past visitors. One of the goals for a digital zoo project is to enhance the visitor’s experience of the zoo, making the zoo experience something more than just a visit to the actual park.”

In addition to this, research based upon visitor surveys is finding that a significant portion of the estimated 700 million people who visit zoos globally choose not to return beyond a single visit. These customers are revealing barriers that severely limit their ability to support zoos. This is one of the reasons digitalization of zoos have become more popular.

It can be a financial burden to visit a zoo with a family. Additionally, it can be a geographic burden, if visitors do not live close to a zoo. Furthermore, it can be a lifestyle burden because visitors may not want to be in a space occupied by many others.

Physically going to the zoo

So what is it that convinces this cohort to physically attend a zoo even though it can be a burden in their life? Being in the presence of exotic animals can be a once in a lifetime opportunity! This means, to the average consumer, it is worth the burden to experience it once. Beyond that once in a lifetime experience, the consumer will deprioritize a return visit for reasons previously described. A zoo needs to add enough significant once in a lifetime opportunities to encourage this visitor cohort to return. Are zoos willing to continuously get new animals, no, but they are constantly creating new events and experiences in the hope of capturing the curiosity of visitors old and new. Is it working?

Zoos are continuously searching for methods to re-engage these visitors. This is an issue that is shared with the entire attractions industry, including museums. Both zoos and museums are committed to getting visitors to adopt new or maintain current behaviors. These will have long-lasting positive effects in their areas of focus, while also balancing an important need for economic support. There are numerous studies on how technology can impact the museum industry. Furthermore, they are consistently finding technology to be an economic and educational advantage. Although, the studies are sparse for zoos; the museum and zoo industries are parallel. And, it can be assumed that the research findings are as well. 

Digitalization of zoos is a solution. When zoos can exist online, they are increasing their accessibility to the enormous audience in waiting. A zoos online presence is not meant to replace the once in a lifetime opportunity, it is better positioned as the “rest of a lifetime opportunity”. 

Man takes a digital picture of parrots at the zoo.
The difference between an in-person visit and digital visit to the zoo has become harder to identify.

Advantages of digitalization

The advantage to this approach is that if a consumer has already been to a zoo. The online presence is able to build upon their experience. However, if a consumer has not been to a zoo yet, the online presence will encourage them to visit. This is the advantage of digitalization! According to research from the University of Kansas, “This reach and technology can really personalize the experience and allow a visitor, whether virtual or real, to be engaged in something that may be five continents away. It is an exciting new way to explore how people can access wildlife around their country and around their world.” 

The most popular methods utilized by zoos to digitally reach visitors, in order of popularity, are websites, social media, on-demand virtual experiences, and live zoo cameras. 

More about zoos

Almost 100% of zoos worldwide have websites and social media. Animal related content has been one of the most popular choices of the global community since the dawn of the digital age. With the popularity of these digital assets, the market is flooded and it takes quite a lot of resources to stand out.  

Roughly 38% of zoos take advantage of on-demand virtual experiences, with a sharp increase observed ever since early 2020. Many innovative zoos have added these experiences to their traditional roster of programs. They are a great way to share important messages with large audiences (classrooms, conferences, etc.) without affecting physical capacity limits. The drawback is that the additional resources (extra staff, tech, etc.) make these experiences expensive to produce. Zoos may not be ready to replace in person programming with virtual programming. Therefore, virtual experiences are currently an added cost as opposed to a long-term investment. Time will tell whether on-demand virtual experiences are able to generate enough revenue to give a proper return on investment. 

Lastly, only about 29% of zoos offer livestream cameras. Live zoo cameras have been used by these zoos to increase their engagement beyond their physical perimeter. In an interview with a representative from a Zoo in the United Kingdom, “webcams have allowed guests to really get involved with the animals and the zoo itself and with a 65% propensity to visit following viewing of the live action cameras, the marketing value speaks for itself”. 

Virtual zoos

Some virtual zoos include a call to action on the same page that the animal livestream is located. In an article written by Camstreamer, “the animals become stars, helping zoos in turn to broaden their missions and gain the funds to carry them out. This is done either in the form of online donations, adoption of an animal, or via merchandising linked to the zoo’s chosen animal hero.” 

There has not been any research completed that evaluates the effectiveness of this strategy. The understanding of why so few zoos have taken advantage of livestreaming may be rooted in this lack of knowledge. 

Without any facts to demonstrate potential return on investment, zoos may be unwilling to take the chance. Those that do are mitigating potential risk. Animal livestream cameras and the services required to broadcast them are both costs to a virtual zoo, therefore the budget for them is usually minimized. This translates to lowered quality of video and a lack of capability (static position, low frame rate, lack of zoom or low-light enhancement, etc.). 

Platforms like Zoolife.tv are diligently working to remove this risk barrier. Increasing digitialization of zoos by fast-track accessibility for zoos to high-quality camera technology. They offer users a chance to connect with wildlife using controllable cameras. These cameras have 20x zoom that allows viewers to take photos and clips of their favorite wildlife in high definition. The streaming platforms also hosts educational and informational zookeeper talks. This way, their audience can learn more about wildlife while contributing 50% of its revenue to its partners conservation efforts.

Technological advancements

To gain an advantage concerning the transformation from analogue to digital services, new innovative user experience formats have to be improved continuously with technological support,” states Karin Falquist. Zoos that are innovating are realizing that digitalization is a necessary step that will eventually need to be taken. 

It is still early on in the adoption of technological advancements that can allow for zoos to be supported by the massive community that is willing to do so remotely. It will be through these ever-adapting technologies that zoos will find their place in the digitalized market.

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