1. Zoos

Northumberland Zoo
set to transform audience engagement

“I believe this platform will be a game changer for the industry,” says Maxine Bradley, Founder and Zoo Curator, Northumberland Country Zoo, who chats to Dot Blake about the audience engagement platform and app that is transforming the attraction and visitor experience sector.

Zoo keeping is not romantic and it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s stressful, and takes an extraordinary amount of dedication and determination, as well as a deep and abiding love of the animal kingdom and the environment, to enter this industry. It also takes a very special person to take on the mantle and often thankless task of curator and custodian, so who in their right mind would choose to set up a zoo from scratch and in the wilds of Northumberland?

That person would be Maxine Bradley, who, she tells us, always wanted to be a zookeeper, but never envisaged that her parents’ burgeoning animal collection would result in the formal establishment of the Northumberland Country Zoo in 2015.

More than just a day out, the zoo industry is all about making the right impact on visitors and shifting their behaviour, by inculcating a sense of conservation in people and generations to come. Without an understanding of the role humans play in the preservation of the natural world, the world will simply continue to say farewell to species after species.

Consequently, ongoing research and measurement as to what visitors take away with them from a visit to their local zoo, safari park, or wildlife sanctuary, is critical.

Helping to deliver on this mandate, Northumberland Zoo has partnered with SaaS (software as a service) developers and audience engagement specialists, n-gage.io, who are in the process of refining and launching an advanced audience engagement platform (AEP) and mobile app for the visitor attraction sector and wider experience economy.

Currently, much of the visitor experience industry relies on exhaustive man hours, clipboards, stop watches etc to undertake the necessary market research, and the surveys required to measure engagement and changes in attitudes and behaviour, that can help to continually evaluate and improve the experience.

For Maxine Bradley, the advent of the n-gage.io audience engagement app (AEP), is a radical advancement not just for her zoo, but for the entire sector.

“Our duty is to continuously research, test and discover what knowledge people are taking away with them when they visit our establishments. With this technology, the more I work with the n-gage.io team, the more I begin to realise what we can use it for,” says Bradley.

“Dwell time is a big thing for this sector. Now, if visitors have downloaded our app powered by the n-gage.io platform, then through dwell time monitoring, heat mapping and content triggering, we will instantly be able to see which displays are getting the most attention. Because of the enormous real time data gathering, we will then be in the position to send visitors specific questionnaires or surveys to elicit insights, as the platform can segment data and send personalised communication, which is also essential in building long-term relationships with our fans.”

Bradley believes that technology such as n-gage.io, will also assist her and the zoo/aquarium sector, in strategizing the development of the zoo itself from the valuable data analysis the cloud-hosted platform can deliver.

Talks and events can be instantly tracked, with targeted information sent to only the people who watched that talk on a given day at a specific time. For example, they could be asked to star-rate a keeper talk or presentation, or comment on the content. This will help to inform future efforts in this regard by testing different formats in real time to find out what resonates with the audience, rather than continuing down a path that may not be optimal.

This functionality is also a great help for marketing too, freeing up valuable resources, as this function can to some extent, be automated. All that is required is to enter a set of predetermined criteria based on marketing insights into the simple to use dashboard, and hey presto.

Playing to the growing rewards and redemption culture for achievement, Bradley is excited about developing a range of off-line and online tools that can encourage ongoing interaction with her zoo. Other attractions might offer collectible badges for attendance, but Northumberland Zoo’s rewards could be linked to certain milestones the visitor achieves through their journey at the zoo or even at home. Rewards can be more unlockable content and media, one-off collectables, discount vouchers or offers - anything the zoo decides to implement.

In discussions with Bradley and Northumberland Zoo’s education officer, Sarah Nicholson, n-gage.io has also built-in an education portal to the platform to manage the task of school visits and the delivery of lessons, which will come standard with the fully customisable software package. This means each school has a dedicated area of the platform with secure logins to manage their respective activities and modules that have been pre-loaded, and which teachers can then access through their tablet or smartphone.

Schools can access the material both on and off site to extend the learning experience, which keeps the zoo top of mind even when they are not there, especially as the platform allows for the zoo to unlock bonus materials at any time or at any stage.

For Bradley and Nicholson, the ability to keep the conversation going is essential for their conservation message. But it’s not just students and their teachers who can access additional content or remain connected with the zoo. The platform can reach all visitors who have downloaded the audience experience app linked to the zoo’s platform and carry-on delivering information or keep them in the loop of upcoming events etc, as the app has a built-in event planner too.

There are apps and then there’s n-gage.io
“No other zoo has this kind of technology,” says Bradley, who has been working closely with the team at n-gage.io to enhance the platform. Most current apps in the sector are basically digital maps, which have bolted on a ticketing, wallet, or pre-order API. “None of them have the deep learning capability or enhanced audience experience functionality that n-gage.io offers,” commented Bradley, “I believe this app will be a gamechanger for the industry.”

The platform transforms the audience journey through the zoo whilst also collecting valuable engagement and data insights along the way. From beacon or object triggered enriched content experiences, to quizzes, trails and tours, and capture your day functionality, the platform has a wide variety of capabilities to enhance and enrich the physical zoo experience.

As n-gage.io is developer friendly, it too can bolt on ticketing and payment methods etc but as Bradley so rightly points out, it does so much more. Of particular interest to Bradley, who is also the zoo’s chief marketing officer, is the fact that she can send push notifications both on and off site – pre-programmed or at will, along with emails and messages - without ongoing third party costs for other messaging systems. The team also have the capability to post live keeper updates and notes through a mobile optimised version of the operator platform - allowing them to react and respond to the ever changing nature of animal behaviour during a day at the zoo for the benefit of the audience via the platform app, in real-time.

She believes the AEP will fundamentally shift how engagement, marketing and research will happen in this sector going forward.

There is revenue potential here too, through a more personalised experience based on newly found captured knowledge of audience behaviour. “Just having an app on someone’s phone that we send personalised messages and reminders to, say every 6-months or so, to let them know we are still here or that we have a new attraction, or the snow leopards have had cubs etc, means we can hopefully attract them back.”

Whilst it’s not all about the money for Bradley and her team, funds are of course necessary to carry on their conservation and education mission, and to keep the zoo at the standard it needs to be. Incorporating a membership system into the platform will be a huge help, as it negates the requirement for other expensive software programmes that can scan photos and permit entry to the zoo (or any other visitor attraction).

Because the membership channel on the n-gage.io AEP is digital and linked to a specific mobile device, this helps to out the potential abuse or shortcutting of ‘shared’ membership cards amongst friends and family members, which ultimately deprives the animals of the much-needed income.

For Bradley though, this move to digital (a necessary paradox for the zoo sector), paves the way for an always on, thoroughly engaged worldwide audience. Her aim is to fully integrate the audience engagement platform and app with the likes of her other digital channels such as TikTok (the zoo already has 165,000 followers), and YouTube, to continuously track and measure audience reaction and grow income, whilst educating.

Northumberland Zoo will be launching the app and audience experience soon and watch this space for updates.

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