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Point Defiance Zoo Lets Analytics Out Of The Cage

Zoos aren’t generally regarded as a hotbed for business analytics solutions. But, like other businesses, zoos also have to build revenue and manage resources effectively. Such was the case with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden which in 2010 installed a business analytics suite from IBM (installed by IBM partner BrightStar Partners). Its success inspired Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium (PDZA) to do the same; in the summer of 2012 BrightStar began installing IBM’s analytics suite, which went live in January 2013.

“The idea is to empower [businesses] with analytics [and] to be able to understand what information is available to them, from point-of-sales, social data, and memberships, and to be able to make good business decisions, and to make them quickly,” says Rod Smith, IBM Fellow, and VP of Emerging Technologies.

This was precisely PDZA’s goal in working with IBM and BrightStar; while the zoo had seen a 700% increase in online sales over the past two years, the newer analytics component “help[ed] me understand those numbers better,” says Donna Powell, business and administrative service manager at PDZA.

Not everyone at PDZA initially felt this was important and Powell acknowledges that some of her colleagues initially greeted the prospective project with thinly-veiled skepticism. Some harbored doubts about the versatility of analytics; most saw the benefits of using analytics to project revenue streams and attendance, but not much more.

Powell worked to install a “culture driven by questions”—one in which analytics are a crucial part in getting answers. She’s worked to acclimatize her co-workers to PDZA’s analytics component by holding frequent meetings with her team, encouraging them to ask questions, and using analytics to derive answers. In addition, she made the solution available on iPad, a move that “really made a difference,” according to IBM’s Smith. No longer intimidated by technology, PDZA staff learned to embrace analytics, and use it to continuously improve marketing ROI, resource management, and visitor experiences.

Understanding the Numbers

Part of “understanding the numbers” requires insight into which marketing campaigns are most effective and why. Analytics helped Powell expose the flaws in her email strategy. Last April, PDZA blasted 554 households, whose memberships were expiring, reminding them to renew. The email offered a 15% discount on membership, redeemable at any time. Its performance was lackluster and Powell tried something different. Upon examining ticket sales data, Powell discovered that, surprisingly, 32% of online sales occur between 6am and 6pm. Armed with this knowledge, Powell scheduled the blast to hit the recipients’ inboxes at 4am – and made the discount valid until midnight of the same day. The last batch of emails got 43% open rates, and 6% renewed their memberships.

“The analytics process is helping us understand when the customer is going to pay attention to us,” Powell explains. Moreover, analytics enable Powell to fine tune the promotional emails to produce the best results, down to determining precisely the amount of discount that gets people to click.

“Is it 10%, 15%, or do we have to go to 20%? Based on the data collected over the past year, analytics enable us to track the return on different promotions, and to refine the ways we get people to respond to our requests to renew their memberships earlier.”

Empowered by analytics, Powell is experimenting with marketing on social media. Last week, PDZA celebrated fifty thousand Facebook fans by posting a keyword, mentioning which got loyal followers a $2.50 discount on admission. The number of discounts redeemed was tracked, and, while the promotion didn’t receive the response Powell anticipated, she considers it a valuable learning experience.

“IBM Big Data analytics is helping us identify what factors, such as timing, day of week, amount of the discount, etc. to make it work for us,” says Powell. Dissecting the factors responsible for successes and failures of each campaign ex post facto, and making the necessary adjustments will hopefully ensure the success of future campaigns.

Smarter Planning

Powell uses analytics to manage resources more wisely: the PDZA team numbers 80 people, which means that quite a few multitask. Using attendance predictions that analytics generate, based on weather forecasts, and past attendance, Powell shuffles her staff to enrich her visitors’ experiences, and to keep them coming back for more. For instance, Powell arranges for her staff to do more animal encounters with the public, where keepers bring animals, such as lizards and anteaters, so that zoo-goers can appreciate them in a more intimate manner.

Unlike businesses that sell products or services, zoos sell experiences. Maintaining that experience and engagement is key to PDZA’s continued success. Analytics allow businesses to “have a close touch with [their] customers,” says IBM’s Smith. PDZA might not be the first of its kind to install a business analytics solution, but it certainly won’t be the last—especially as businesses develop data-centric cultures, and as analytics become more accessible.

 “You don’t have to be an analytics expert to use it,” Says IBM’s Smith. He’s not surprised to see more companies cross the chasm with technologies that just a few years ago would have been too complex or arcane for mass adoption.

“Best practices are going to be copied, and that’s a good thing,” he says.

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