How Banff Squirrel turned from Internet meme to tourism ambassador
The original photo that spawned thousands of photoshopped images with the Banff Squirrel. / National Geographic
Banff Squirrel says it best himself: “A good approach to Twitter is to have someone at the helm who loves their product.” Being able to convey a personality and passion can define a destination’s brand more than sharing events and pictures.
Destinations might feel lost when considering ways to capitalize on the enormous marketing opportunities available on social media. Twitter and Facebook have given small towns and forgotten places a voice for much less than marketing budgets of New York or Chicago. Getting that voice heard; however, takes creativity.
One Canadian park is an ideal example of success. Banff Lake Louise Tourism, a non-profit marketing organization for local businesses, took a viral image of a squirrel crashing a tourist’s photo and turned it into a long-term marketing strategy. Banff Squirrel has since become the face of tourism for the Canadian town and park.
Banff Squirrel turns to Twitter to spread the word on his hometown. He has the 18th most active and 52nd most followed Twitter account of the 240 destinations in SkiftSocial. He sends out an average of 13 tweets every day, actively retweeting and replying to followers. Not bad for a rodent who stumbled into his role.
This January we launched our first data dashboard in beta, SkiftSocial, read more about the launch here, and what it means for social media monitoring in the travel industry.
We emailed with Jeff Mitchell, who describes himself as the Banff Squirrel’s closest man friend (and is also the authority’s social media manager), to see how the rodent-focused social media presence has impacted tourism at the park. The answers were returned in the voice of Banff Squirrel, who explained his rise to fame, shared social media advice, and detailed his tweeting strategy.
Skift: What is the Banff Squirrel up to these days? Have things slowed down since your photo went viral in 2009?
Banff Squirrel: Well it has been quite the whirlwind. I went from full time foraging and hibernating around 8 months a year to working for the Banff Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT) organization as head twit. Or is it ‘tweet virtuoso’? ‘Twitxpert’?
Whatever it is called, it’s fun and I have made a lot of friends over the past few years-the likes of that darling wordsmith @MargaretAtwood and the incomparable @Marilyn_Res from National Geographic. I’ve chatted with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Models, Alec Baldwin and some other people with great hair. It’s humbling, and it’s a blast.
Skift: How did the idea for a Twitter account just for Banff Squirrel come about?
Banff Squirrel: They have some real sharp cats there at the tourism bureau, who thought it could be entertaining to have me tweet for them (no stretch for me, as I am a born and bred Banffie and love the park). I went into their office with a bear and a wolverine in tow…and we had a quick negotiation. The wolverine marked out my office area, I raided the fridge, the bear took over a bathroom, and then we set up a twitter account.
Skift: How does the social media team decide what content goes on the Twitter stream of your Twitter stream and the media relations stream? What is the strategy for balancing these accounts, and which purpose do they each serve?
Banff Squirrel: There is no rhyme or reason to it. I like to just have some good conversations with my tweeps, and also share some of the uber-cool stuff that happens in this national park. We don’t really sell anything with twitter, except pretty views and inane observations about some of the other wildlife here. BLLT represents hundreds of terrific businesses as well as live performance venues in Banff & Lake Louise, and we’ll nudge our followers to the relevant ones when it is timely, but mostly this is about the ‘dreaming’ stage of things-an overture to potential future travelers with images of crystal blue glacial lakes and fluffy lynx cubs….
The media team account (@BLLTmedia) mainly tries to bother journalists with story ideas, then we both bother them on twitter while they visit the park. It’s a fine system.
Skift: How many people monitor the social media accounts? Is there one person responsible for monitoring the Banff Squirrel Twitter stream?
Banff Squirrel: There is one guy, Jeff Mitchell, who does some other social media stuff and blogs (therealbanff.com) for BLLT. I know he monitors the tweets-that’s why we don’t do any more ‘nut’ jokes. Other than that, all I really know about him is that he has an enormous head. Really big. Like 50 lb-medicine ball-on-a-fencepost big. That, and once a week he leaves me a gift basket of legumes in a secret location.
I think a good approach to using twitter in tourism is to have someone at the helm who loves their product and then let them be themselves (with some guidelines, though!). People can smell if something’s not authentic-even in 140 characters. If you are tweeting to ‘XYZ Global Business’, it seems a lot less personal to me than tweeting Molly or Dave at XYZ Global. Many companies will identify who (or which animal) is doing their tweeting for them, and that makes sense to me.
Skift: What impact has the Banff Squirrel, and its social media presence in particular, had on tourism?
Banff Squirrel: Well, that original photo (where I crashed that cute Minnesotan couple’s timer camera setup out at Lake Minnewanka) had upwards of 500 million hits online-so our IT nerds tell me. That many eyes towards Banff is great, even if it’s a photo with a rodent in it. I could list a bunch of stats about twitter impressions, Klout scores and so forth but for us it’s all about interacting with people who are or could be interested in our park and the events and activities that go on here. It’s always hard to quantify the dollar amount into the park from one squirrel’s tweets, but I know that we have affected many people in a good way and convinced others to visit when they otherwise might not have. Visitor numbers are up in the park, which I attribute entirely to our tweets.
Skift: Are there any other tourism boards doing something similar?
Banff Squirrel: Yep, I have many allies in the animal twitterverse. I think there are around 50 squirrels following me, alone. I’m a big fan of @JasperThaBear from Jasper, @AlbertaBoss (a big grizzly bear with no fixed affiliation), @OisinTheDeer from the UK. @YegMagpie and that @BronxZoosCobra are hysterical. I’m missing a few-there are lots of good ones, too many to mention.
Thanks for the chat. Now you’ll have to excuse me-it’s time for ‘Cheek Club’ in the forest. It’s kind of like ‘Fight Club’, except there is no fighting. All we do is see how many things we can stuff in our cheeks, and everyone is allowed to talk about it after…