This article first appeared in the journal Exhibition (Fall 2021) Vol. 40 No. 2 and is reproduced with permission. www.name-aam.org.
Cultural institutions have been building bespoke digital exhibitions for decades. They are often costly to create, hard to sustain, and require robust marketing efforts to be discovered by their intended audiences. When its doors closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19, the Monterey Bay Aquarium – like so many visitor-serving institutions – was faced with the challenge of keeping people aware of and engaged in our mission without the benefit of access to our physical exhibitions. Rather than build a stand-alone digital exhibition – which could take months to design and code, as well require a concerted effort and budget to attract an audience – the aquarium team dove into an existing
ecosystem of video games and shared our game play live on the fastgrowing livestream platform Twitch.
One of the aquarium’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) is trust in us to protect and conserve the ocean. Building empathy with marine animals and developing a personal connection to our experts are critical features of the aquarium’s approach to inspiring people to care about, and to take action for, ocean conservation. In our social media communications strategy, we lead with a giftgiving mentality: each post and livestream is an opportunity to bring joy and spark curiosity in our followers’ daily lives. Over time, this strategy has primed a receptive social audience that is 3.5 million people strong and growing – and ensures that when we ask our fans to take meaningful conservation action (e.g., to contact their legislators), they act. During COVID, livestreaming – including
video game streaming Animal Crossing– helped us deepen relationships with and among our audiences, ocean animals, and experts across our social media accounts. We continued to stream on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube as well as expanded to newer platforms like Twitch and TikTok.
Like YouTube, Twitch attracts fans to the live video broadcasts of individual content creators. Twitch is best known for gaming, where individual streamers share their video-game screens with viewers, who can hear and watch them play live (as well as engage with the Twitch community via chat). Through livestreaming on Twitch, we were able to reach a young (73 percent of users are under 35) and highly engaged audience (daily active users spend an average of 95 minutes on the platform). In the process, we learned a lot about the power of offering live interpretation from within virtual games and expanded our ability to engage young people in a deep, sustained (and fun!) way around complex topics like climate change and plastic pollution.