National Aquarium in Baltimore

National tourist attraction integrates social and mobile marketing to transform visitor experience, increase Facebook fans by 17%.
National Aquarium

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Though many may see the National Aquarium as a tourist attraction, the aquarium is above all else, a global leader in aquatic conservation. Their goals are to inspire people to enjoy, respect and protect the aquatic world. The leading attraction in Maryland and DC, part of their conservation goes beyond protecting animals by looking for areas to be more efficient, like using less paper.

Jonathan Sullivan and Tracy McCreary of the National Aquarium in Baltimore discuss how Bronto solutions improved their email marketing campaigns.

The marketing department’s communication strategy for the aquarium involves bringing visitors into the aquarium community. Through various channels they aim to convert aquarium attendees to newsletter subscribers, members, or donors. This story will review how email marketing plays a key role in the aquarium’s communication strategy throughout the entire lifecycle, using a mix of promotional models with some examples of specific campaign success.

Aquamail, the primary newsletter, is the foundation of their communication strategy and the most established vehicle for messaging all of the activities at the aquarium. The monthly publication highlights exhibits, upcoming events, and educates readers on various topics from animals to exotic locations.

Get Them While They're Hot

Capturing an Attentive Audience

The aquarium knows that attendees are most attentive while viewing exhibits and engaging with the animals, so they integrated kiosks and texting programs as a way to capture email addresses on site.


Visitors to the Baltimore location can subscribe to Aquamail at specific kiosks through a personalized call-to-action based on the exhibit. Currently, they have a dolphin themed and a jellyfish themed kiosk with messaging to stay in touch with these animals through a newsletter. After subscribing, the visitor is sent a welcome message that is personalized to the exact kiosk – jellies or dolphins. This message serves as a reminder for where the visitor submitted their information and sets expectations for what they will receive from the aquarium.


During dolphin shows at the Baltimore location, the staff hold quizzes and contests and use text messaging to capture answers and visitor information. Through this process, visitors are invited to subscribe to Aquamail and when they opt-in, receive a similar welcome message personalized around the dolphin show.

The welcome message is critical to setting the stage for future communications. For one, it serves as a reminder to the guest that they subscribed while at the aquarium. Secondly, it includes a call-to-action to update their profile with more information so that they receive the most personalized messages possible. Judging by the 42% conversion rate and the fact that 2% of the Aquamail list is from a mobile source, the double opt-in process hasn’t slowed the list growth.

Integrating Social Media with Email Marketing

The aquarium is always looking to improve results, grow the list and communicate with members. To that end, they have begun to integrate social media into various promotions. With each promotion they learn more and adopt for the next campaign.

Top 10 Deals Campaign

For the 2009 holiday season the marketing team created a “Holiday Gift Deals” campaign to drive traffic to their social networking sites. Special offers were given to Facebook fans and Twitter followers each day for a 10 day period during the holiday season. The campaign was introduced to newsletter subscribers and members in late November and was featured in the December newsletter, promoting the “10 days of gifts” with the catch that the deals were only available via Facebook and Twitter.

As a result of limiting the promotions to fans and followers, the aquarium saw a 17% increase in fans and an additional 200 followers on Twitter.

Holiday Give Campaign

In addition to the top 10 deals, the holiday message was particularly successful at generating new fans and followers. Sent in mid December, the message included a video summarizing the year’s activities that led to a landing page with an appeal to donate. The email footer contained links to Facebook and Twitter, but to watch the video you had to be taken to the landing page. The video was also posted to the social properties and overall generated more than 5000 impressions.

The combination of social media with their planned email campaigns produced double the results of the previous period, so they took the concept and tweaked it for the most recent campaign.

Meltdown – Escape the Blizzard

The first few months of 2010 brought more than two feet of snow to the DC area. Not something that locals are used to having to contend with! Needless to say, attendance at the aquarium was dismal for several weeks. Once the marketing team was able to rally, they created a campaign in just three days to stimulate ticket sales to make up for the lost time.

Learning from their holiday campaigns, they decided to offer a discount on ticket prices, but only to those who provided their email address. While social media fans and followers are great, an email address is tied to an individual that can be tracked and a history of activity associated with over time.

The offer was $20.10 off the regular ticket price and it was promoted on the website and all social properties. To get the actual coupon, users had to give their email address and the coupon was emailed to them.

In a two week period with only three days to build the promotion, the team saw ticket sales of $15,000 and added 443 emails to their list.

The average conversion rate for their website for ticket sales is around 8%. This short promotion generated a 24% conversion rate!

Automating Renewals

Members are a crucial piece of the National Aquarium because their support allows for more conservation, which in turn attracts more visitors, which broadens the pool for additional support. The challenge with membership is to maintain the same level of participation each year. Prior to their use of Bronto, the aquarium’s ticketing system had all sorts of data but they weren’t able to take advantage of it without manual procedures. Because the process was cumbersome, renewal emails were only sent once a month and weren’t relevant or timely. Using the API, now the data sharing is automated.

Leveraging this integration and to improve the chances of renewal, the aquarium set up email reminders that are automated based on the renewal date. Members receive notices at 90, 15, and 5 days prior to renewal. The emails are coordinated with the direct mail pieces and the fact that they are automated helps streamline the process into a more cost effective and measurable project. Not to mention the savings on paper.

As a result of the reminders, using codes to track success, there has been a 72% increase in renewals. The aquarium is just now gaining visibility for renewals and is looking forward to even better results.

Translating Marketing Activities To Dollars

Additional funding for the aquarium comes from donors and sponsors. Online giving is still new at the aquarium and they are currently kicking off micro-donorship campaigns and integrating with other programs like mobile and social media. The ability to track all online activity in addition to the growing membership base has increased the value of their sponsorship packages.

Looking Forward

The marketing team is looking to build on the existing email marketing program by taking advantage of even more sophisticated automation using the available data. Currently, they send a thank you message within 30 days of a visit, which is a manual process. Building on the thank you message, they plan to create a follow up series that would send out personalized messages at different intervals after a visit, including other touches that encourage people to come back. This will allow for more timely and relevant messages that can drive a closer relationship with the aquarium and help increase visitation and memberships.

Additionally, working with their Email Marketing Strategist, they are planning ahead for more automated messages based on the data in their ticketing system that will enable them to send birthday or event reminders and even contact those who haven’t purchased in a certain amount of time. Other plans include more segmentation, surveys, and cleaning out those contacts that have not engaged in any of the recent communications.

Eventually the team hopes to have all electronic communication go through their Bronto account so that they can convey one crisp and clear brand image to all audiences.

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