One of the daily pleasures at Spark headquarters is browsing the funny, informative, and beautiful stories that our users create. Last fall, one story in particular grabbed our attention. It came from the Forest Preserve District of Will County in Illinois and it featured, among other things, a video of a baby bat eating a banana. Naturally, we were captivated.
The Forest Preserve District has since become one of our favorite and most prolific Spark storytellers. Whether showcasing local spring wildflowers in bloom or chronicling the elaborate courtship rituals of whooping cranes in honor of Valentine’s Day, the District’s Pages always blend fascinating facts with humor and stunning visuals, inviting readers to be awed by nature.
We reached out to the content mastermind of the Forest Preserve District, Chad Merda, to discuss how this nearly 100-year-old governmental organization is breathing new life into its cause with Spark storytelling and social media.
How did you get involved with the Forest Preserve District of Will County? What is your role there currently?
I had worked in the media for nearly 20 years in a variety of roles as a graphic designer and editor, and I also managed various social media accounts, most recently at the Chicago Sun-Times. The job as the Communications and Creative Services Manager at the Forest Preserve District of Will County seemed like an obvious fit after a reorganization within the agency led to a greater emphasis on digital communications. I started in March 2016 and currently oversee the District’s digital communications, including the website, production of the weekly digital newsletter, managing our social media accounts and shooting and producing all of our videos. The position also paired well with my love of nature.
The mission of FPD is distilled nicely into the motto “Bringing People and Nature Together.” Will you tell us a little about how you see the role of content and social media in advancing the organization’s mission?
Social media has been a huge driving force for us in helping to spread our message, publicize our programs and share our stories. In a year, we’ve taken our Facebook account from 5,000 followers to more than 26,000, and steadily have been increasing our Twitter and Instagram followings, as well as building out our YouTube page. It’s a great way to promote what’s going on in the preserves, as well as educate and inform people. For example, we often get questions about prescribed burns, so we put together a Spark to answer some of those questions. Many government organizations don’t fully utilize social media, which is an invaluable tool to communicate with the public and openly engage with them.
We repeatedly get comments from the public in response to stories or videos we’ve produced, saying that, as a result, they are going to go check out that specific preserve or a particular program. That’s the biggest proof that we’re heading in the right direction.
Your content pieces are flush with gorgeous nature photography. Do you consider rich visuals an important part in bringing people and nature together?
Visuals are just one of the ways to inspire people to come to our preserves, and the public often has a strong response to them. Whether it’s a beautiful sunset or a photo showing the raw power of nature — such as a recent shot of a great blue heron with a dead frog dangling from its mouth—there is so much that can be seen and heard out in nature. It’s just a matter of slowing down and taking it all in. Our annual Preserve the Moment photo contest provides an opportunity to encourage people to get outside while showcasing the work of amateur photographers in the area and drive engagement on social media. This year, we’ll be expanding the annual photo contest by starting it a month earlier and having a different theme each month.
How do you and your team use Spark? What do you love (or just like) about it?
Our primary philosophy with Spark is to use it for our bigger online packages that incorporate big photos and videos, which is something that can’t easily be done with our current website.
Spark not only gives us a beautiful presentation on desktop, but also ensures it translates well to mobile, where more than half of our audience resides.
Being able to easily incorporate Creative Commons-licensed photos is an additional great feature and helps streamline the publishing process. While we have an extensive photo library, we sometimes need to look elsewhere for that great shot to supplement the package.
What was your most successful Spark page? Why do you think it worked well?
While they all perform well, we’ve had two that clearly rose above the rest. We were able to immediately suck people into our #Batweek post, thanks to a great full-screen photo, and showcased some nice photos and videos we’ve done on bats in our preserves. We capitalized on the #Batweek hashtag, and we hit it hard on social media to keep recirculating it throughout the week with various bat facts. People also ate up our “10 nutty things you probably didn’t know about squirrels” for #SquirrelAppreciationDay, with much of this being fueled by social media. In fact, it was our most popular tweet of all time. For these, it definitely helps to use the screenshot of the initial load on the Spark page as the visual on Twitter, especially if it’s a strong headline and photo that forces someone to stop and look while scrolling through their feed.
— WillCoForestPreserve (@WillCoForests) January 21, 2017
What advice would you offer similar organizations looking to expand their reach or generate public interest via content creation and social media?
Don’t be afraid to take chances, have a little fun and, most importantly, engage with the public. You’ll only get as much out of social media as you’re willing to put into it. Some organizations simply maintain a social media account out of obligation, sharing links to events or press releases, and don’t take it any further. Their social media page gives few people a reason to follow them or engage with their content. We try to get creative, especially on posts that normally would not get much of a reaction, such as a link to our trails page or a post about preserves opening late. Some text and a GIF can go a long way.
On any given day, you may find posts from us about programs, a cool drone video, a photo submitted from the public, a goofy GIF or even a meme of a dog scooping up his business and urging people with dogs to “do your duty, pick up the doodie” in our preserves. Also, organizations shouldn’t limit themselves to only posting things about themselves. We routinely share items that aren’t directly associated with us, but are of interest to people following us. It helps us diversify our content but drive engagement. For example, our Facebook page went bonkers when we shared a link to a story about a snowy owl photobombing a traffic camera.
We put a lot of thought into what we think will resonate with our audience before posting, whether that’s a story we’re interested in writing for our site or any kind of post on social media.
Do we miss the mark sometimes? Yes. But we track all of the data and use it to guide our efforts in the future.
What projects can we look forward to?
Longer term, we have a nice historical piece on Keepataw Preserve, which is the site of an old quarry, and will be showcasing the preserve via drone photos and video we’ll be shooting once the weather gets a bit nicer. We’re fortunate enough to have a wealth of interesting preserves and programs to draw from, and nature is definitely never boring.
Do you have a Spark success story? Are you killin’ the social media game? We want to hear about it! Tag your Sparks with #AdobeSpark on social.