How @NatlParkService fosters a virtual parks community

By Jenny Bakos
National Park Service badge

The National Park Service (@NatlParkService) is an agency of the U.S. federal government with a 100-year-old history of managing national parks and monuments. Guided by the support of volunteers, partners, and rangers, the National Park Service (NPS), safeguards these historic landmarks with more than 318 million visitors every year.

In between visits, people turn to the National Park Service’s Twitter account for timely park updates, humorous educational content, and wildlife photos that bring these iconic parks online and make them more accessible than ever. We chatted with Matt Turner, a Social Media Specialist with the National Park Service, about his strategies for leveraging Twitter to build this virtual community.

Your iconic organization

Tell us about the National Park Service.

Since 1916, the National Park Service has been entrusted with the care of our national parks, which includes 423 areas covering more than 85 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

These include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and even the White House.

As a government body, how do you utilize Twitter?

We use Twitter to keep visitors updated on everything from park news, upcoming events, weather, openings and closures, when bear cams go live, and of course, tips for fun and safe travel.

Tell us about your role within the organization. What is it like to represent a wide variety of parks and rangers on Twitter?

As a social media specialist within the NPS Office of Communications, I manage the agency’s flagship social media accounts, offer guidance, and push out messaging to the field. With over 400 parks, there are countless opportunities to share amazing stories as well as iconic landscapes and historic sites. My prior experience working in parks continues to influence my social media. It’s interpretation, but instead of being the park ranger standing in front of visitors outdoors, we’re sharing these stories and experiences virtually.

Quote from Matt Turner, National Park Service social media specialist
Compared to other platforms, why does Twitter work for you and your organization?

Twitter allows us to share information quickly and concisely —especially when informing the public about specific events or important park updates. We can also invite conversations, respond to questions, and bring people together who are interested in visiting parks or just want to learn more about exploring the great outdoors.

Quality Tweets and creatives

What makes a good Tweet? Where do you find your inspiration?

For us, a good Tweet is usually a mix of the educational and entertaining. Inspiration then comes from the 400+ parks that share amazing stories and places. Along the way, visitors often tag or mention us as they share their travels and experiences. Inspiration also comes from the world around us. What’s trending today, and how does the National Park Service fit in? Oh, we don’t fit in today. See you tomorrow!

What kind of imagery works best for you on Twitter?

Must be easy because the National Park Service has soooo many great pictures, right? Yes. We do. We’re fortunate to have access to visuals from parks across the country. But we do spend a lot of time searching for just the right image or deciding on the best visual for every Tweet. Natural landscapes and wildlife pics always do well. #FatBearWeek, anyone? We also include a mix of graphics, video, and the occasional homemade meme. 

How do you connect parks, people, and wildlife into topics that resonate most with your followers?

For the most part, we're looking to communicate important information: don’t get too close to wildlife, be aware of surroundings, respect the resource, as well as offer travel tips and news.

We could share these messages in a straightforward, no-nonsense way, but if we can get the message out using some humor, and throw in some personality, we’ve often seen those Tweets, and their messages, really resonate.

Especially for a government agency—which people understandably think of as being staid—the use of “edutainment” has gotten lots of positive feedback, while maybe catching others by surprise.

National parks regularly generate buzzy moments between bear crossings and environmental phenomenons. How does your brand tap into buzzy moments?

We’re fortunate to have access to unique content, whether it’s webcams where people can watch bears fish in Alaska, a time-lapse of the aurora borealis, or a camping tent that goes airborne.

If we’re not creating the “buzzy” moment (buzzy moments are perfect for #PollinatorWeek!), we're always watching what’s trending, and ways that make sense for us to latch on or join the conversation in a meaningful way. 

Any tips for sharing creative that gets good engagement?

We find infusing a bit of fun and friendly banter goes a long way. Anything with a call-to-action also helps generate good engagement. From asking questions about the parks people are visiting to generating conversations about memorable family vacations, inviting conversation can really help build connections and grow engagement.

What tools do you use in your Twitter strategy?

We use Twitter Analytics to learn more about our audience and what clicks. We’ve also used TweetDeck to assist in scheduling Tweets.

Your account does an excellent job of showcasing the people behind your brand, while prompting questions to your audience for them to jump in and join the conversation. How has that strategy worked for your Twitter account?

A lot of people think of the National Park Service as just rangers in the back country pointing at things, but there are many different types of people with different skills, interests, and backgrounds who help make our parks what they are. Anytime we pull back the curtain and showcase the different careers or projects going on within the organization allows the public a better understanding of who we are and what we do.

How do you keep track of timely events that compliment your brand (like #GreatOutdoorsMonth) and cater your Twitter content around them?

Each year, we organize a series of service-wide messaging themes to highlight the more than 400 parks and dozens of NPS programs at work. The themes, like #GreatOutdoorsMonth, are designed to engage parks, programs, partners, and the public in shared messages. Internally, we also develop editorial calendars and keep track of important anniversary dates or events. You can check out August’s theme at: August Monthly Themes - Partnerships (U.S. National Park Service).

During #NationalParkWeek, you hosted a series using a custom hashtag called #sParkConnections that was a huge success. How do branded hashtags and live Twitter conversations create a tighter-knit community for @NatlParkService?

Every April, we celebrate #NationalParkWeek. This year’s theme focused on “sparking” connections with parks. We hosted an annual Twitter chat, and participated in a couple of others – that helped kick off the week by starting conversations about each day’s individual themes and ways the public could participate or follow along. In previous years, we also utilized a park ranger hashtag with a custom emoji to help generate buzz around parks during the week.

How does the creation of branded hashtags like #sParkConnections, #FindYourPark, and #RecreateResponsibily help you connect with your audience on Twitter and inform your Twitter content strategy?

The use of branded hashtags like #FindYourPark and #RecreateResponsibly, which is used by a coalition of public land partners, help us stay connected with parks, programs, and partners in sharing up-to-date safety guidance, tips, and resources. When we can all join in the same conversation or collaborate on similar messaging focused on one goal or campaign, everyone can engage.

Your account is regularly Retweeting the more than 400 national parks from across the country. How does your national handle engage with these accounts to build community?

Beyond the flagship NPS account, each park, and many programs, use Twitter to share and engage with the public on topics specific to their park or program. We’re still one big park family, but each site can offer another opportunity to tell unique stories and invite the public to learn more. We Retweet and elevate those Tweets on the national account, which may add a few more eyeballs, but also may encourage the public to check out those accounts too.

Sharing the love

Any tips for small businesses looking to grow their Twitter following?

I think it’s important to stay consistent with your Tweeting and always keep true to your brand or organization. If possible, look for ways to collaborate with similar brands or organizations.

Any other small businesses or organizations on Twitter you’d like to give a shout out to?

We’re big fans of our fellow public land organizations @Interior and @USFWS!

Interested in running campaigns on Twitter? Our team of Twitter Ads specialists is waiting to talk to you about how you can achieve your marketing goals by getting involved in the conversation on Twitter. Get in touch today.

Need help with your campaign?