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Engaging New Audiences: A Pokémon GO Example

December 13, 2016

TBG is an international hit! The following article, written by Parker Strand appeared in Journal of the American Public Gardens Association Vol. 31, Issue 4, 2016. TBG and Executive Director Karen Ranney Wolkins were featured in the article. Read below, or view the publication on the American Public Gardens Association website.

On July 6, Niantic, Inc., released Pokémon GO, an app based on the popular Nintendo video game series. Within nineteen days, the game had been downloaded more than fifty million times worldwide; 78 percent of players are between ages eighteen and thirty-four. Even the game itself tells players, “Pokémon can be found in every corner of the earth.”

In a world dominated by instant communication and connectivity, popular trends and social phenomena, such as Pokémon GO, become widespread at an astonishingly fast rate. Younger audiences in particular are early adopters of new technology and trends, as can be seen through the success of apps such as Instagram and Twitter, which have five hundred million and three hundred million active users, respectively. Many of these trends develop rapidly, and some public gardens find it challenging to take advantage of them. Pokémon GO, which acquired an alarming amount of popularity this past summer, is a prime example.

The creators of Pokémon GO based their app on the popular Pokémon series and used the camera provided on phones and virtual reality simulators to give players the illusion that they are catching Pokémon located around them. This merging of reality with virtual characters is called “augmented reality” and uses the physical environment as an aspect of the game. The app also includes Pokéstops and Pokémon Gyms existing at prominent locations throughout the world, which eventually led public gardens to become noticed as potential locations to catch Pokémon. For example, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, located in Wilmington, Delaware, became the home of three Pokémon gyms, eighteen Pokéstops, and countless Pokémon, and as a result became a popular location for local trainers to play. Another example is the Idaho Botanic Garden, which saw its average attendance double on Wednesdays during the summer as a result of Pokémon GO. However, it is in the Midwest that one of the most successful institutional adoptions of Pokémon GO took place—Toledo Botanical Garden in Ohio quickly embraced the game and their newfound relevance, and reaped the benefits. This garden’s willingness to adapt to and take advantage of modern social trends and remain aware of current popular activities paid off in a large way for the garden and the visitors who attended.

On August 2, Toledo Botanical Garden hosted its first official Pokémon GO event in the garden and received outstanding results. While the event was primarily catered towards fans of the popular game, the garden covered its bases by providing an event details sheet to every group that entered the garden with information about game play and informed visitors of the thirty-two Pokéstops and four gyms located throughout the garden. Over four hundred copies of the sheet were handed out. The event attracted a flurry of visitors ranging from garden lovers to trainers looking to investigate the garden, which serves as the largest concentration of Pokéstops in the immediate area. However, the most important aspect of the event for Toledo was the exposure to new audiences who otherwise would not have visited the institution. Karen Ranney Wolkins, Executive Director, reported that unlike what happens at other events in the garden, visitors were exploring the entirety of the property since their location’s Pokéstops were spread throughout the majority of the garden. She also proclaimed that the most encouraging part of the event was the fact that visitors and their families were not just glued to their phones; they were examining flowers, interacting with wildlife, posing for pictures, and taking in all of the surrounding beauty. The visitors’ clear interest in the garden was able to effectively assuage any fears the garden staff had about visitors spending the entire day looking down at their cellular devices. Thanks to the game, Toledo Botanical Garden served as a location for both Pokémon trainers to play the game and new visitors, of a largely different demographic, to explore the garden and potentially return for future visits.

One of the most surprising, yet promising aspects of Toledo Botanical Garden’s event is the fact that it was so effective despite its simplicity. While the garden provided information for visitors and incentives to search the grounds, it was mostly just advertising itself as a potential location to play Pokémon GO. It was Karen Ranney Wolkins who had the idea for a Pokémon GO event after witnessing large numbers of young adults playing the game. After contacting her garden’s Marketing Director, their staff was able to create the event in under a month. Another interesting aspect of the garden’s event is the fact that it was only promoted outside of the garden via Facebook, which is another somewhat modern trend. Toledo spent only ten dollars on Facebook advertising but was able to reach over ten thousand people. Many of these new visitors also expressed an interest in coming back to explore the grounds, and the institution plans on contacting them through information the visitors provided for its database.

As is the case with many other modern trends, it is unlikely that Pokémon GO will remain as popular and relevant as it was during the summer of 2016. However, it is representative of an overlying pattern that is the constantly shifting interests of popular culture. Pokémon GO is able to serve as a lesson to public gardens to act fast if they want to take advantage of the usually short-lived popularity of such phenomena. Toledo Botanical Garden was able to act quickly and effectively and, as a result, successfully take advantage of Pokémon GO’s relevance and large following to introduce its garden to an entirely different audience. Other public gardens can learn from Toledo Botanical Garden’s success which stemmed from the realization that remaining in touch with current trends is important and beneficial. Whether through creating a social media presence, providing events focused around trending games, or simply promoting themselves in different ways, public gardens must use multiple strategies to appeal to different demographics if they seek to achieve continued success and further expand their audiences. If they do, when the next Pokémon GO reaches the national stage, they will be prepared to use it to their benefit.

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