About Me

This blog is primarily geared toward staff at the zoos, aquariums, museums (ZAMs), and other conservation education organizations that are part of our growing global network. We aim to provide you with cutting edge, challenging, and creative information, ideas, and tools to become as effective as possible at communicating about and for conservation with your visitors and the public.

See our ongoing communications research, or join our growing network, at The Ocean Project's website.

May 21, 2012

Could Online Advertising be the Key to Shifting Conservation Attitudes? Data Suggests YES! (Case Study)

Substantial data indicate the power of an online advertising campaign to significantly elevate awareness and attitudes of ocean-related issues. Could paid advertising be the key to shifting perceptions – and, perhaps even more critically, behaviors – regarding conservation? Our case study suggests, “Yes!”

For years, the conservation community has worked to deliver credible, relevant messaging that resonates on emotional and intellectual levels with the American public. We ocean advocates have tried many of the usual routes: workshops, email campaigns, exhibits at aquariums, public service announcements, etc…but, as a whole, we’ve generally been unable to quantify specific, lasting outcomes (i.e. “move the needle”) in a documentable, data-supported manner.

For the past 18 months, The Ocean Project has been working to develop an ocean awareness campaign that would achieve a meaningful, measurable impact. We piloted an online campaign designed to elevate awareness about ocean-related issues in the Houston, TX market during Spring 2011. This campaign marked one of the first examples of a nonprofit organization deploying a significant “paid media” (i.e. advertising) strategy to deliver unbranded, purely mission-related messaging.  (In other words, the campaign did not rely on the kindness of media outlets or other benefactors for “free” advertising. Instead, this campaign sought to identify specific market members with the propensity to act in the interest of the ocean, and then deliver customizable messaging tailored specifically to this audience.)  

The campaign’s goal was simple: to raise awareness of plastics pollution and its impacts on sea turtles. Our hope was that plastics pollution would serve as a portal to greater sensitivity and concern for broader ocean issues. 

One full year after launching the campaign, awareness-related metrics remain significantly elevated when compared to the “baseline” condition. This compellingly indicates the campaign’s long-term effectiveness in influencing perceptions of ocean health.
 As a result of this pilot campaign, we believe that we have developed an effective and efficient method for identifying, targeting, reaching and influencing audiences regarding ocean health. Moreover, there may be an opportunity to scale this effort to create an effective global strategy to gain the support of a broad and diverse group of would-be ocean advocates. 

The Campaign: Who, Why, What, Where, and How

Who: The campaign sought to engage the interest of tweens, teens and young adults between the ages of 13-25. It is worth noting that at nearly 100 million strong, Generation Y (“Millennials”) represent the largest population demographic in American history...significantly larger in number than the Baby Boomer generation that has been the dominant population demographic for most of our lives. 

Why: Prior to the launch of the campaign, The Ocean Project developed significant market research indicating that teens, tweens, and young adults are the greatest household influencers in terms of conservation and environmental practices. Therefore, we believed that communicating to this audience would, in turn, influence entire households. 

What: After conducting a workshop with partners including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences, Tennessee Aquarium and Texas State Aquarium, we selected plastics pollution as the campaign focus because our research indicates that of the issues challenging ocean health, pollution is the most concerning to the American public. We chose a sea turtle for the ads because it is a charismatic animal that helps visually and emotionally communicate the threats of plastics pollution. 

Where: We chose Houston as the geographic universe for the pilot campaign because it has the lowest median age of any major US city (32.9 years old), and it is not generally known for its progressive conservation attitudes. We did not want to “stack the deck” by deploying the campaign in a market that we know to possess generally sympathetic conservation attitudes (e.g. Portland, Seattle, San Francisco).  For us to truly test the effectiveness of this initiative, we needed to avoid the “low hanging fruit.” 

How: We developed an online campaign using targeted ads on social media channels (e.g. Facebook) and search engines (e.g. Google) because we believed this tactic to be the best method of effectively delivering the requisite number of impressions with the optimal frequency to the targeted audience within our budget. The medium also allowed the campaign to reach the target audience through their preferred communication channel at their preferred hours of engagement, therefore increasing the likelihood of successfully connecting with them. 

Below are examples of some of the simple, straightforward ads that we delivered on Facebook during the pilot campaign: 

In the eight-week duration of the campaign, we delivered a total of 73.6 million impressions on social media channels, and 51.6 million impressions through search engines. The costs to deliver these impressions totaled $274,045 – the funding for which was provided entirely by a third-party donor. 

One year later, data indicates that the campaign succeeded in altering perceptions of ocean health

Late last week, we received research indicating the perceptions of the Houston, TX audience one-year after the campaign’s launch. We reported on the campaign’s original findings in December, and celebrated the ability of the campaign to influence short-term attitudes and opinions. This accomplishment, in and of itself, was remarkable. 

One year later, we find the outcomes even more extraordinary. Click on the graphs below for an enlarged view of our findings:

As indicated in the data above, the attitudes and opinions of the targeted audience generally remained at their elevated (i.e. more sympathetic to ocean health) levels a full year after the campaign’s launch.  This is notable because we typically see an increase in awareness corresponding with the run of the campaign (in advertising terms, “lift”) that quickly dissipates once the campaign ends.  However, the outcomes of the Houston pilot achieved a lasting impact on the perceptions and beliefs of young adults long after the campaign ceased. 

We’re beyond excited about the outcomes of this pilot campaign and the opportunity to expand this effort on a national scale. We believe that we may be on the verge of making a significant breakthrough in influencing attitudes about the long-term health and conservation of the world’s ocean. 

Houston, we just may have a solution!


  1. Nice work folks... always good to see such important issues being taken seriously enough to spend money on, even if that's just generating learning. Looking forward to hearing more and seeing how this work feeds into tangible outcomes.
    - Patrick.

    1. Thanks, Patrick! This pilot campaign focused on reaching people through online impressions and moving the needle as far as awareness and perceptions. With an expansion of this type of online advertising campaign we certainly plan to provide action steps!

  2. Awesome work! Compelling and inspirational! Great job!

  3. This is truly groundbreaking and gutsy work, if we can successfully influence Houstonians, there's no telling how far we can reach with these important and impactful messages. Great work TOP!

  4. The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center is proud to become a partner of the Ocean Project. We are interested in evaluating our ocean education programs to see the extent of impact after our guests leave the facility. Social media is another effective outlet for our messages as this study shows. Thanks for your assistance in creating impactful programs. Lynn Clements, Director

  5. Great job! Thank you for taking on this important work.

    Thank you for your dedication to our oceans and to ensuring that we learn all that we can about inspiring others to make a difference.

  6. Thank you for these additional research results. This will help us leverage work already underway within the NC Aquariums based on your earlier project(s). Keep it up!

  7. I think it's high-time that we enviros finally got hip to what corporate America has known for years - advertising works! We get hung up on the purity of our messaging and forget that we're irrelevant if we can't engage and influence our audiences. This project has had me excited since I first heard of it, and TOP should be congratulated for bolding launching this project. Many of us are looking forward to what happens next! Keep up the great work!

  8. It is inspiring to see lasting changes of this magnitude. We have similar missions - to raise awareness and have that enlightenment translate into positive behavioral changes towards our common ocean. Thank you for taking on this novel and groundbreaking approach that demonstrates the value of this growing communication tool. We look forward to learning more. Chanda Bennett, WCS-New York Aquarium.

  9. Very exciting findings. This approach is exactly where conservation education organizations need to direct their energies. We look forward to participating in future studies. -- Kevin Mills, South Carolina Aquarium

  10. Groundbreaking work which does a great job of quantifying how this approach can change/influence opinions. The Ocean Project is doing excellent work and special thanks goes to Impacts Research for their generous support. The Tennessee Aquarium is a proud partner of TOP -- Jackson Andrews, Tennessee Aquarium.

  11. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for sharing this. The results looked interesting and raised a couple of questions for me:

    1. Given the brief duration of the campaign, how would you account for the apparent longevity of its effects? Do you have any comparison or control data that would help to separate out any effect of the campaign from something else that would account for increased conservation awareness?

    2. Given the focus of the campaign on plastics pollution, how would you account for the increase in awareness related to other issues such as climate change? This seemed counterintuitive.

    3. Given the focus of the campaign on "be part of the solution" I was surprised that you did not ask any questions related to conservation actions?

    Billy Spitzer
    New England Aquarium

    1. Thanks, Billy, for some great questions. We (our team) responds to them here (in three parts, one for each question):

      1. Given the brief duration of the campaign, how would you account for the apparent longevity of its effects? Do you have any comparison or control data that would help to separate out any effect of the campaign from something else that would account for increased conservation awareness?

      The challenge with online campaigns (or any large campaigns) is that we are rarely able to establish direct causal relationships between the campaign and the action itself. However, given that we were continuously measuring the audience attitude/perception throughout the one-year period, and also keeping an eye on Houston to track any significant efforts to communicate on climate change/marine plastics/etc. or events (media or otherwise) that might contribute to a significant jump in attitudinal/perception changes over this period (nothing of note), it is unlikely that the change is attributable to other educational/communication efforts. We are confident that no other effort sought the change that we were seeking. Could this be the work of a super-duper lecturer or ocean educator who went around Houston giving lectures or meeting with students under the radar and therefore not noticed by our monitoring? Sure. But is it likely? No.

      Given that there were no other concurrent campaigns of any significance, we are comfortable saying that there is no other event that we would adequately explain the change, and therefore assert that there is a strong correlation between this campaign and the outcome. Furthermore, we have been continuously conducting tracking surveys in various regions and nationally and there have been no measurable changes in those baselines, no evidence of an "organic" shift in sentiment. Btw, please see our website for our market research: http://theoceanproject.org/communication-resources/market-research/ - and we'll have new data on ocean acidification next week.

    2. 2. Given the focus of the campaign on plastics pollution, how would you account for the increase in awareness related to other issues such as climate change? This seemed counterintuitive.

      The plastics campaign was the gateway issue – chosen because people respond emotionally to charismatic megafauna (in this case, a sea turtle) in distress (strangled by plastics) – through which FB users clicked to access information on how to help. We linked them to existing sea turtle conservation organizations and efforts, sites that also included info on marine plastics and other conservation issues (including climate change). We didn't track them once they clicked through, but assume that at that point FB users accessed resources from which they learn about and perhaps took action on conservation issues.

      As we usually recommend in our market research analysis – we should engage our audience with climate change issues through specific people/place/animal - this new data is in line with, and supports, this approach.

    3. 3. Given the focus of the campaign on “be part of the solution” I was surprised that you did not ask any questions related to conservation actions?

      This pilot campaign focused on reaching people through online impressions and moving the needle as far as awareness and perception. With an expansion of this type of campaign, we certainly plan to provide action steps!

      For the Houston campaign, when FB users clicked on an image, they were directed to a site with an existing focus on sea turtle conservation, with other resources and ways to help. We unfortunately don't have easy access to these link paths since we didn't control the landing environment so difficult to quantify the preference of "action" items. Instead, we measured the abandon rate for action-based recommendations v. pure literacy/learning. The action-based pages had a much lower abandon rate (thus suggesting a higher level of engagement/preference). It is true that we were not able to physically observe users in their action, but the options indicate the intent to act. Also, this is in line with our national market research findings that people are looking for guidance on what to do to help.

      We believe that this is in fact something that we can truly test out in collaboration with onsite partners in the next phase of the project – where we can test out the extent to which action is actualized. We look forward to working with you!

  12. These are very, very interesting results and give some idea of what might be possible if we adopt somewhat different tactics. How do these results compare to other efforts using more familiar ZAM tactics? The big issue, of course, is can we take concern and convert it to ACTION. Further I wonder how this approach might work on the members of ZAM's? Aren't the members the "choir", the army, that supports a particular zoo, aquarium or museum and its cause(s)? Aren't they more likely to be motivated to action using this type of approach? I think someone at Chicago Zoo Soc gave a talk at last year's AZA about the predisposition of zoo members to act. Bill, you were there too, I think. Well done Ocean Project! Chris Andrews, cra723@aol.com.

    1. Chris, some great questions. On a basic level, I would compare this with our market research data that suggests that recent ZAM visitors have a greater support for conservation action and indicate increased willingness to take action, but we are not familiar with any other campaigns that have moved the needle this significantly, either involving zoos, aquariums, and/or museums (ZAMs) or NGOs or others. There certainly have been many attempts to do so over the years and that's why we're so excited about these results!

      At the moment, what is particularly significant with this study is the reach that it potentially has because there are a lot more FB users (even if only limited to GenY) than there are youth participants than ZAMs can possibly support at the moment. Also, in keeping with our usual recommendations, we believe that online and onsite engagement would probably yield the best results. Our hope is to greatly expand this campaign to other cities and not only raise awareness, but also develop ways for people to get involved personally in taking action. Together with our partner ZAMs, we believe we can develop an extremely effective campaign that combines an enhanced online campaign with enhanced onsite campaigns with our partners.

      As far as the big issue (generating ACTION), what we saw in Houston was a greater interest in linked to resources that were action-based solutions. We need to look at the next step to see what specific actions are taken, and whether we can make it more focused so that it can transform into significant community-level changes.

      As far as ZAM members go...yes, they are more inclined to take action, based on recommendations from ZAMs, which are seen as highly trusted sources of information on the ocean and the environment, and also for solutions to the pressing issues. The research done at Chicago Zoological Society backs up our research, that these self-selecting visitors to the informal science education centers, such as zoos and aquariums, are much more likely to ready to take action. We just need to provide them with tangible ways to help make a real difference. Given that ZAMs have the ears of the community as credible conservation messengers, we certainly expect that the increase with ZAM visitors/members would be more significant…and engagement is likely to be more extensive. These are the hypotheses that we’re planning to test in the next phase(s).

  13. As priority partners, the California Academy of Sciences is excited to see the results of this pilot online campaign. We need information like this to direct our efforts to raise awareness of ocean health and increase sustainability in our society. Congratulations, and thank you! Bart Shepherd, Steinhart Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences.

  14. Thanks everyone for your feedback, enthusiasm, and involvement! We look forward to working more closely with you as this further develops, ideally with a significantly expanded online campaign combined with enhanced onsite efforts with our partner aquariums and others, and which not only elevates awareness, but also results in conservation action, with measurable outcomes!

  15. Great work and I am happy to be a part of something that is creating such positive change!

  16. Thanks for sharing these exciting results. We've used TOP research as justification for new education programs for high school students, and I'm glad to see more evidence that these will move the needle. It's particuarly useful for our grant applications! Thanks again to both TOP and Impacts Research for designing and implementing this study.
    -Anna George, Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute

  17. As enthusiastic partners of the Ocean Project and believers in the ability of emerging media to maximize the reach of conservation messages, we think this initial study holds great promise. When it comes to advocacy, stewardship and conservation results none of us can afford to ignore the power of advertising.
    Jon Dohlin; Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's New York Aquarium

  18. Really great work! This case is extremely interesting, not only for NGO's, and Non-Profits, but in a general social media and marketing point of view.

    We are constantly trying to leverage social media to raise awareness on ocean and conservation related content, while trying to show BlooSee as a free ocean lovers tool. BlooSee is a free user-generated ocean geo-mapping and social platform for ocean recreation and conservation.

    The numbers you are posting are impressive. In this case did you only use FB or did you take advantage of other social platforms like pinterest, stumble upon, digg, etc... To showcase your paid efforts?
    Curious to know what platforms you are using besides FB and paid Google targeted adds to increase impressions on a conservation level, what kind of success you are seeing, and if you are encouraging engament in the community.

  19. I agree wholeheartedly that this campaign is a critical proof-of-concept and a clear demonstration that we CAN drive conservation awareness through precisely targeted online campaigns.

    As others have stated, now we need to move people to action and I believe this will start with the same social media, search and earned media sources that this campaign has proven. We in the zoo/aquarium/museum world need to use our emotional connection with this audience to bring this to life. As IMPACTS and TOP have shown us, Millennials and HESLs will shape the issues of this century and they will very likely elect the US president in 2016. Our research shows they're the cohort that's most likely to take the personal and community action we hope to inspire. At the National Aquarium, that's where we're placing our bets.

    We're enthusiastically looking forward to taking the next step!

    John Racanelli

    1. John, Thanks very much and we look forward to collaborating closely with you in the next phase! Happy World Oceans Day (week)! - Bill

  20. Thanks for your encouragement! We ran a series of online ads through Facebook and search engines (e.g. Google), thanks to a third-party donor. Our plan is to expand this online effort and certainly will consider a variety of platforms. We're working to secure funding to ramp this up considerably online, with our partner zoos, aquariums, museums, and other conservation-oriented organizations reinforcing a similar message onsite and in their other outreach efforts. Putting forward action steps is certainly planned for the next phase!