Art and Science: The Digital Opportunity for Public Lands Advocacy

Rob Bole

The sophisticated tools of data science are merging with compelling storytelling to create powerful messages in support of public lands.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted Americans to increase their activities in the outdoors by exploring their local hiking trails, going for bike rides, and visiting their local state and national forests and parks. A March 2020 study by Civic Science found that 43 percent of Americans above the age of 13 said “they would be doing more outdoor activities due to COVID-19 social distancing rules.”
 
As people hit the trails and bike paths, they are taking their digital world with them via their smartphones and connected devices to take meetings, record their activities, listen to podcasts, and connect with friends. The combination of access and outdoors is providing public lands advocates expanding opportunities to connect with and activate a new group of supporters.
 
Public lands organizations have access to sophisticated data tools that allow them to target these emerging outdoor enthusiasts. The digital data ecosystem has rapidly developed to enable linkages between a wide range of publicly available datasets, such as consumer preference, demographics, location, and voter files. Public lands organizations can work with organizations like Signal to create useful profiles (i.e. such as an avid biker, a young advocate) to develop advocacy for specific legislation, demonstrate grassroots support and build engaged communities.
 
With these digital tools, public lands organizations can develop effective and powerful campaigns that are contextually relevant.
 
A contextually relevant campaign has three dimensions. The first is creating messaging that is tailored to the interests and experiences of the audience. For public lands organizations, this means analyzing available user data to create messaging that informs, educates, and delights. One example is Potomac Conservancy that creates social and digital campaigns that highlight natural resources and what an individual can do to help support the trails or parks they visit most frequently.
 
A second dimension is delivering that content at the right place. The most direct way is ‘geo-fencing’ parks, hiking trails and bike paths to deliver content to audiences when their digital device is detected in that location. In this scenario, groups could create geo-targets along key trails, interest points and historical markers, to display an ad or engage visitors with a piece of content relevant to that location. Public lands organizations can also utilize increasingly sophisticated algorithmic targeting to further contextualize their messaging, targeting devices by frequency of visits to that location, assessing movement speeds (i.e. indicating walking vs. biking) and travel patterns to provide highly relevant messaging.
 
The final dimension is the delivery of content at the right time. We have all received ads for cars, coffee tables or smartphones well past our time of interest. For consumer items we expect this kind of bombardment and most times shrug it off with no ill effects on the perception of the product or brand. For public lands advocates the line between positive and negative interactions is quite a bit thinner. Luckily, highly sophisticated data modeling and targeting is becoming increasingly accessible to public lands organizations, large and small. Techniques to model and test the best times to engage with audiences – on, before or after the trail – can result in increased attention and engagement.
 
These three dimensions – contextually relevant content, delivered at the right place and time – are built on data targeting, an emerging tool set that is now in reach of small and medium-sized organizations. However, technology prowess must be paired with sophisticated messaging and creative vision.
 
Outdoor recreation companies understand that beautiful vistas, active lifestyles, and a bit of adventure make for compelling content. In the arena of advocacy, we often do not see that same sense of savvy and style in telling the story of or advancing the cause for natural resources or public lands. The default are dry statistics, and complex policy implications. At Signal, we merge strong advocacy messages that advance economic impact, public health, and equity with the rich visual style of outdoor recreational marketing.
 
Whether the audience is an elected official or an outdoor enthusiast looking to support their public lands, at its core, the goal is a positive response to a compelling story. These stories are told with beautiful images, personal stories, historical details, and compelling insights into how public lands are woven into our country, community, and personal lives. It is fact and vision. It is logic and adventure.
 
There is a role for data and digital storytelling. The data helps us understand how audiences respond to content. Do they linger over this paragraph or that image? Do they share the content more often when it is about natural resources or how communities utilize their public lands? And most importantly, what pulls that audience member deeper into the issue, such as clicking on a page, opening an email, sharing a story, or signing up for more information?
 
The message that wins is the one that can weave the data, the content, and the pathway together into a compelling journey that results in a new member, a passed piece of legislation, or vocal support for a future plan. At Signal, we bring that all to the table for our clients. We have deep policy expertise, the ability to create compelling stories and the data and digital savvy to create the outcomes our public lands need and deserve.
 
Robert Bole leads the Digital Practice Group at Signal. His career has led him to senior roles at The New York Times, The Atlantic, CityLab, the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He is an avid user of public lands and has consulted on digital and communication strategy at The National Forest Foundation, Sustainable Northwest, Anacostia Watershed Society, and Potomac Conservancy.

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