Monterey Bay Aquarium is a nonprofit aquarium located on the central coast of California, with the mission to inspire conservation of the ocean. Blooloop spoke to Emily Simpson, Social Media Specialist at Monterey Bay Aquarium, to find out more about how the attraction has been using games like Animal Crossing to engage, educate and inspire audiences and raise money.
In her role at the aquarium, Simpson is responsible for managing all of its social media channels, from Facebook and Twitter to Twitch and Tik Tok.
“If it’s a social media channel, we’re probably on it!” she says.
Monterey Bay Aquarium and Twitch
While attractions across the US were closed to the public earlier this year, Monterey Bay Aquarium was in the news as a result of its outreach work through the new Animal Crossing game. The Nintendo Switch game was released earlier this year and was an instant hit, as people looked for some light relief during the height of the COVID-19 crisis.
Through the streaming channel Twitch, the aquarium has been using games like Animal Crossing to reach a new audience. Simpson begins by telling us how the idea came about:
“It was a brainchild of mine for a very long time before even quarantine started. So, just a bit of background about myself – I’m a big nerd. That is the best way to describe me, whether it is science or whether it is video games, Dungeons and Dragons, you name it.
“One of the things that I picked up on in my own personal life is just how often the ocean is represented in video games.”
Reaching new audiences
Simpson has been working at Monterey Bay Aquarium for nearly eight years. She joined the social media team two and a half years ago.
“When I joined the social media team, we were trying to figure out ways to broaden our audience and target the younger audience,” she says. “We do really well on Facebook, where the demographics tend to be 40 to 60-year-olds.”
“Twitter is where you find a lot of millennials, and Instagram is just all across the board. But Twitch happens to be this very specific platform for video game streaming. There are other streams on there too, of artists and musicians doing their thing. People live streaming themselves as they’re writing new songs, recording songs, doing art.
“But there’s really no educational Twitch streams. It’s a very young and diverse audience and a very engaged audience. This is a platform where 80% of the people using it are between the ages of 16 and 34.
“So there is this is really young audience. We wanted to see if there was a way that we could meet people on Twitch, where they were. And that’s how we’ve found success across all of our social media platforms. We meet these people where they are and they’ll be engaged.”
Meeting people where they are
However, in order to do this, the Monterey Bay Aquarium team needed to play a game, says Simpson. Initially, they didn’t have the resources to follow up on the idea.
“The idea was kind of thrown around for a while but never quite stuck. We never quite had the time or the tools to be able to stream a video game when we were working at the aquarium. We’re were working on a lot of other live streams. So we started our Twitch channel and were just mimicking the live streams that we were doing for other platforms. For instance, Periscope and Facebook Live.”
“Before quarantine, we had a small following of about 150 people that followed us on Twitch. They watched us stream live in the aquarium and our live cams. But we weren’t getting the engagement that we wanted.
“Then quarantine hit and very suddenly we were all stuck at home. And, also very suddenly, the world was hit with this video game that just went wild. Animal Crossing is the number one selling title for Nintendo, and across any video game platform of the year. It’s one of the top-selling video games of all time.”
Monterey Bay Aquarium and Animal Crossing
“That is pretty shocking when you consider the popularity of games like League of Legends and Fortnight and all these huge names,” says Simpson. “Then here comes Animal Crossing, this delightfully peaceful and wholesome game that just took the world by storm.
“I bought it for myself. And as soon as I started playing it, the light bulb went on that this is the game for us. Because, when you play the game, it’s a natural history simulator. You’re going out and you’re collecting animals. You can build a museum and an aquarium and an insectarium, to showcase the amazing wildlife of your island.
“So, what better opportunity for an aquarium, which no longer has an aquarium to show off on social media because we can’t physically go in there, to have and build a virtual aquarium in this space. With a little bit of persuading, we took a chance. We started streaming and haven’t looked back since.”
Streaming on Twitch
Viewers can follow Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Twitch channel to watch live streams and recordings of the social media team playing Animal Crossing, as well as other games, sometimes with special guests too.
“There are about 30 episodes of us playing video games, live on Twitch, all put together in a convenient playlist for everyone to check back in and watch.”
“We have Rachel, who works part-time with our social media team and part-time with our email marketing team and my colleague Patrick, who’s been working on the social media team for close to five years, and me. We go around, look for animals and then we talk about them with our audience. You can also see the live chat for when we streamed the game here on Twitch.”
Answering audience questions
“We have a pun counter that we use,” adds Simpson. “So it’s always in our voice when we’re talking about the ocean in these games, but we’re also just three very nerdy humans. We have backgrounds in marine science, and when we’re in this game, we’re using those backgrounds to tell people more information. If people have a question, they can put them in the chat.”
“We do our best to answer all those questions. Sometimes we are streaming both here on Twitch and on YouTube and so it’s part of our job to kind of look at both of those chats and, both physically and vocally respond to them.
“Answering them in the chat as the aquarium, and trying to talk about how cool the ocean is, we find that there is a really engaged audience. It can be anywhere from young kids, teenagers in high school who are curious about Marine Science, all the way up to PhD students. Sometimes [PhD students] will tune in to our streams and tell us about the research that they’re doing. So it’s an incredibly diverse audience.”
Attention to detail
One of the benefits of using Animal Crossing to engage with people is the fact that the content is constantly being updated, says Simpson. So there is always something new to come back and see.
“They’re constantly adding to the game and every month there are new animals that you can find on the island. There is always more content and more animals for us to talk about.
“For example, the diving feature was just added a few months ago. Before, we were just fishing for animals to collect and put them into our museum. Now we can actually go diving in the game and look for animals. So it just opened up this whole new world. When we’re fishing, we’re catching charismatic animals that everybody is familiar with.”
“But when you go diving, you can talk about things like a spiny lobster. They have a sponge that a shrimp lives inside of. It’s just fascinating, the number and the diversity of animals. They’ve really put care into the game.
“Of course, they don’t always get everything right and that’s something that we talk about as well. When animals are put into the aquarium section of your island museum, sometimes they don’t put them in quite the correct habitat that you would normally find them in. And so that opens up a new opportunity to interpret and to do what we would be doing at the aquarium, which is interpreting our live exhibits, but it just happens to be virtual.”
The human voice of Monterey Bay Aquarium
Given the wide range of people interacting with the platform, from young children to adults, getting the tone of the chat right is very important
“It is a responsibility,” agrees Simpson. “We’re very fortunate in that we have three moderators that help us make sure that the chat isn’t saying anything inappropriate online. Or if there are questions that we missed that come up multiple times, they can shoot us a message so that we make sure that we answer that question.”
“One thing that we’ve noticed is that by being humans online, and having a really human element to your voice online, even though we are representing a brand, and by treating our audience with respect and kindness, 99.9% of the time, they are going to echo that and treat us with respect and kindness.
“We have close to 10,000 followers on Twitch now. And it would take a long time for me to think of the last time that someone wasn’t respectful in chat, whether it was to us, or to someone else in the chat. It’s a very inclusive and welcoming community.
“We’ve really worked hard to make sure that when people come to our channel, they know that this is an inclusive environment, and we are always going to be in the chat, looking at the chat and making sure that the people who are curious about something have those questions answered.”
This attitude is reflected across all of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s social media channels, says Simpson.
“If someone sends us a direct message or if someone comments on a post, we are always there and we are always answering those questions. Even if it’s just a simple thank you, we’re always making sure that we’re liking those comments so that people feel seen, they feel recognised and they feel appreciated.”
“There are so many large social media accounts out there that just post something and then walk away from that post.
“But as a social media manager, we know that even though there are hours, sometimes days, weeks, months put into creating a specific piece of content for the internet, even though we’ve put in those months beforehand, the moment that that piece of content hits the internet is not the end of the life of this piece of content. It’s the beginning of the life of this piece of content, for our followers to engage with.”
Inside jokes on the Monterey Bay Aquarium stream
“So that goes for these streams, that goes with even just a photo of a sea otter that we put out on the internet. We’re in there and we’re answering those questions, we’re responding to those DMs.”
We have this wonderful community here. They just want to be silly and goofy and engaged and nerdy with us and I love it
“That goes for our chat on Twitch too. They get really enthusiastic. And one of the highlights of being on this channel is now we’re an affiliate, so people can subscribe to our channel and they get more benefits and are helping to support the aquarium too.
“For instance, one of those benefits is that I get to create little emoticons that they can use in the chat. Oftentimes they’re inside jokes from watching the game or just silly things. Like we have a puns emoji because we tend to use a lot of puns. And that’s part of the aquarium voice. We have this wonderful community here. They just want to be silly and goofy and engaged and nerdy with us and I love it.”
The Monterey Bay Aquarium also invites guests from other organisations to join them for events on its Twitch channel.
“We have worked with the Smithsonian, the Field Museum, the Getty Museum, the Tennessee aquarium,” says Simpson. “We’ve been really fortunate to have a really wide range of guests who have joined us on our Twitch channel. Sometimes we’ll also take those streams and then upload them to YouTube, for more people to watch.”
“So, for example, we had Emily Graslie from the Field Museum online and on our stream with us. People might know her from her YouTube series, The Brain Scoop, which the Field Museum produces.
“She is another one of those wonderfully nerdy human beings, who knows a tonne about fossils. I have a background in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, so she and I spent the entire two hours in the section of the museum that has fossils in it. We just talked about fossils until the cows came home. It was so delightful to have her on. She actually has joined us twice on our Animal Crossing streams now.”
Calling on experts
“It’s been such a fun time running around with these experts and talking about the things that they get passionate about as well. So, Emily actually plays Animal Crossing. In the game, you can invite people to come on to your island and explore your island with you. Or you can go and visit their islands yourself.
“She came over to my island and ran around exploring the museum with us and talked about all the different fossils. Then she came back again and we went to her island with a colleague, Dr Ryan Gott, who is an entomologist. Inviting these guests on to talk about the other natural history elements in the game has had a lot of success.”
“The first time that we had Emily on Animal Crossing, we had close to 2000 people watching live. Plus, the replay videos on both platforms have gotten thousands of views on YouTube alone. Now we have close to 10,000 followers, and almost 300 subscribers to our channel, helping to support the aquarium monetarily. It’s been an incredible journey just over six months to see that kind of growth.”
Helping Monterey Bay Aquarium
The benefits for the aquarium’s audience is clear. But how does the attraction itself benefit from this venture?
“Tracking our metrics is part of my job at the aquarium as well. It’s not just playing video games,” says Simpson. “So I get to track our metrics across our social media platforms for the aquarium. Some of the time, depending on the platform you’re on, you’re only given specific metrics. So we try and track kind of the most important numbers to us.”
“One of the things that we can’t track quantitatively on here is the kinds of comments coming through. That’s just something that we have to look and see for ourselves. Oftentimes if there are very positive comments or very negative comments, we screengrab those. We put them in a document to make sure that we’re keeping track.
“When we closed the aquarium on 13 March, our followership was 124 on Twitch. Today it has grown by almost 9000, a 2,300% increase in followership.
“It’s really interesting when it gets down into the revenue because Twitch can be used as a revenue-generating tool. You have to meet certain expectations that Twitch has for a channel in order to become an affiliate, and eventually a partner.”
Generating revenue through Twitch – free money?
“We are at the affiliate level right now. That means that we can generate money for the aquarium, in the form of donations, and there are people who will subscribe to our channel at different levels.
“There is a $4.99 subscription and $9.99 subscription and a $24 subscription. All those levels are set by Twitch itself. Then we are in charge of coming up with the benefits for those three different tiers.
“And people can also subscribe to your channel for free. Twitch is a platform that is owned by Amazon. If you have Amazon Prime, you can use that to subscribe to one channel for free, every month.”
“There are a lot of followers who will use that free subscription. And while it’s not benefiting Twitch or Amazon at all, we still get the same share that we would get from a subscription, as if it was an actual paid subscription.
“About a third of our subscriptions on our Twitch channel come from those free subscriptions. Those followers aren’t paying anything but we are actually making money from it.”
“About a third of our subscriptions on our Twitch channel come from those free subscriptions. Those followers aren’t paying anything but we are actually making money from it.”
[*Update 3/12/20: Nintendo have updated their policy and now prohibit businesses doing fundraising of any kind while playing Animal Crossing on live streams. As a result, whilst Monterey Bay Aquarium will continue to play the game, we will not fundraise or promote the Aquarium going forward during any Animal Crossing Streams.]
Every little helps
“Since quarantine started, fundraising, of course, has become front of mind for all of us at the aquarium,” says Simpson. “And being able to have a social media channel that we are creating content for that just inherently helps to generate that revenue for us, has been such a blessing.
“We’re making anywhere between about $600 to $1,000 a month from those subscriptions on Twitch. It doesn’t sound like a lot, especially when we’re trying to raise millions of dollars. But it’s $1,000 a month that we weren’t bringing in before. Every little bit helps.
“Every little bit means that’s dinner for a sea otter tonight, that’s another colleague whose job has been saved. It’s so important for us now to do whatever we can.
Along with that, we’ve just recently became partnered with a platform called Tiltify. This is a fundraising platform that uses other streamers online, and other people online, to help fundraise. So we have been very fortunate to work with other streamers on Twitch as well.
“There’s a large Twitch channel called Games Done Quick, who do speed runs through video games. We partnered with them for a week and we called it ocean week. They played only video games that had to do with the ocean on their channel. They had our scientists, and Patrick and I, come in and talk about the ocean. while much more professional gamers played the video games!”
A message of hope
There are also other benefits for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, besides fundraising, says Simpson. The streams have helped the Aquarium engage a new audience with its conservation mission.
“This audience that we have on Twitch is a generation of young adults that have been handed a world that is on fire, to be quite frank. Our channel has become a place where we have this community of people who are there to help show them that there is still hope.”
“Part of my job is science communication, not just being goofy and funny and telling stories about the aquarium. Our main job at the aquarium is to inspire conservation. And right now, there is the most engaged and most knowledgeable generation out there. They have access to so much information across the internet.
“At the aquarium, it is our responsibility to make sure that when a young adult has a question about climate change, about ocean acidification, about the global changes that are happening in front of their eyes, it doesn’t become an overwhelming topic or a topic of doom.
“Because the aquarium trusts us to have that very welcoming, open and empathetic voice for the ocean on the internet, these young adults are coming to our channel for the video games, for Animal Crossing, for the sea otter cams. But they are staying because they know that this is a community where they can come and have those big questions answered.”
Inspiring change with Animal Crossing
Simpson says that, in a world where the facts about climate change can seem overwhelming, the aquarium can use its social media channels, like Twitch, to provide a safe space. Somewhere that people can come for hope and inspiration.”
“If we are doing our jobs right, we’re culturing the next generation of young scientists and young minds that are going to change the world. As part of the social media team at the aquarium, I have been gifted this immense and incredible opportunity to be a teacher for our 3.5 million followers.
“The Animal Crossing video that we did with Emily Grasslie has reached over 25,000 different people. And that’s 25,000 different people now who might be interested in fossils, who might go out learn more about it. And if they have a question, they know that they can come back to the aquarium’s channels and get that question answered.”
Monterey Bay’s future plans for the platform
While it’s Animal Crossing streams on Twitch have been hugely popular, Monterey Bay Aquarium is now using the platform to branch out to other games too.
“There are a lot of games out there that represent the ocean in them. We want to talk about all of them eventually,” says Simpson. “So we have started playing Abzu with our audience, which is a gorgeous video game. There are so many really cool details that they’ve hidden in there.”
“For instance, you can see Humboldt squid, which we can also find right here in Monterey Bay. [In the game] they show a flashing pattern, and that’s something that they actually do in the wild – we have footage from our colleagues over at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, of Humboldt squid doing that exact thing that we can see in the video game.
“As well as Abzu and Animal Crossing, we’ve also been streaming a game called OctoDad. It is the second in the series, OctoDad Dadliest Catch. With a pun like that, how could we not play it? It is a series where you are an octopus doing your best at pretending to be a real human father. You have different tasks that you need to do.”
Games with educational elements
There are also education elements to the OctoDad game, says Simpson.
For instance: “It talks about the kelp reproductive cycle. For a really goofy game, you wouldn’t expect to be learning things about how kelp reproduces. So it’s been a lot of fun to have a game that people wouldn’t think of as educational. It’s us just being our goofy selves and, all of a sudden, people are learning about sporophytes and things that you wouldn’t normally think of when you’re talking about a video game.”
“We have about 30 games that eventually we are hoping to play on our Twitch channel. So, that’s definitely something that’s in the works. We also want to work with even more scientists and have them come on as guests.
“We’re very fortunate at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to have a lot of experts that work with our animals. So we can invite some of our own experts on to talk about cephalopods with us in OctoDad or Splatoon. Or one of the many games that feature cephalopods.
“If you had asked eight-year-old Emily what I would be doing in the future, playing video games and talking about cephalopods would not be on the list, even in her wildest dreams, of things that I would get to do. I feel very fortunate to have this job.”
Social media tips from the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Simpson and her team have achieved a lot with social media and games streaming at the aquarium. She offers some advice for others who are interested in branching out to Twitch.
“The number one tip that I have for people is to give your social media team the trust, and the space that they need to be creative. Don’t be afraid of that creativity.”
“When this idea first came about, even before quarantine, we brought it up casually. There were mixed feelings about it at the aquarium. But quarantine has definitely changed us all. We brought this to our director and to our chief marketing officer and they were like ‘Well, I don’t get it, but I know that you and Patrick are going to make something awesome and I trust you. Let’s see how it goes.’
“Patrick and I, in our own time, are not just creating content for the aquarium professionally. We are also the audience that we are trying to reach on these platforms. In my own time, I am on Twitch, I’m on YouTube, I’m on Instagram. I am consuming content as a human, out there in the world.”
Trusting the team
“The things that we see and we like, we get excited about,” says Simpson. “And we come to [management] with those ideas of, ‘Well, what if we tried playing video games but we put an aquarium twist on it.’ We know these platforms and we know what they’re like. And we have a background in marine sciences, in working at the aquarium. We know the aquarium’s voice inside and out.
“That has really led to the success of these programmes – being given that trust, that when we get excited about something, we’re going to make it happen. The first couple of tries might not be smooth and perfect. And honestly, that’s okay. It’s okay to be a human on the internet because you watch other people on the internet and they’re not perfect either.”
“Life isn’t the same, and it won’t be the same for a while. We aren’t going to be able to hop back into the aquarium and do the old style of live streams that were very successful. So it’s okay to try new things.
“The number one tip that I have is that it’s okay to try new things. It’s okay to put that trust in the people that you have hired. There’s a very good chance that you have hired, or are, a really passionate, enthusiastic person in this job. Don’t lose that passion, don’t lose that enthusiasm. Really foster it, culture it, and you’re going to benefit from it.”
All images of the aquarium and its habitats © Monterey Bay Aquarium