Research Summary

Social media communication preferences of national park visitors

Investigating social media preferences to improve national park communications

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) protects nationally significant landscapes for educational and recreational use for future generations. National park managers have long desired better communication with potential visitors and the rise of social media has created a new avenue for public outreach. NPS has encouraged parks to use social media to reach both new and existing audiences, but little research exists on which parks can build their social media strategy. This study investigated the social media use and preferences of visitors at Crater Lake National Park. The purpose of this study was to determine which types of information visitors would prefer on certain social media platforms, in order to improve communication.

The study took place in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, in July and August of 2014. The authors developed a survey that asked about social media use and preferences. The survey asked how frequently visitors used five platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Flickr. Survey questions asked about content desired on each social media platform, park-specific information on various platforms, whether participants used social media in planning their trip to the park, and if they trust the information found on the various platforms. The researchers recruited participants at two sites in the park and recruited every other visitor to participate. A total of 580 visitors completed the survey during a 23-day data collection period. Participants had an evenly distributed age, there were slightly more males than females, majority white and highly educated (at higher rates than the general population). The authors used statistics to analyzes the results.

Overall, the authors found that Facebook was the most popular platform among participants, followed by YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter (Flicker was not frequently used). Over three-quarters of participants were active on social media and over half were active on multiple social media platforms. Participants reported using the different social media platforms to view different types of content, and that they wanted to see varying types of content on each platform. The authors found that social media was not often used to plan trips to the park and that visitors relied more on close friends and official park publications.

About half of participants reported that they use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube primarily to find and share information. The authors found that park visitors who were active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram would want to see content about current weather and trail conditions. For platforms like Instagram and YouTube, participants would want to see animals found in the park. Participants are also interested in YouTube content focused on the park-specific natural and cultural history. Lastly, the authors found that Twitter users were least interested in park-specific content, while Facebook users were most interested in park-specific content.

While online information is prevalent, the authors found that three-quarters of participants are cautious about trusting information from non-news platforms. Alternatively, three-quarters of participants reported that they always trust their close friends and official NPS publications.

The authors acknowledge limitations to this study. Additional research is needed to understand whether social media preferences vary at different parks or over time. Although social media changes quickly, the authors feel that the general findings will be stable and applicable over time. The study only surveyed people currently at Crater Lake and did not investigate the social media preferences of those who had visited before or those who had never visited the park. More research is needed to understand how social media may extend the reach of national parks. The study did not investigate which messages were more impactful, instead it focused solely on platform and content preferences.

The authors recommend that national parks strategically use social media to communicate with visitors. Park managers should distribute different types of content on the appropriate, most used, and most trusted social media platforms. The authors recommend that park managers focus first on the social media platforms with the largest reach; at Crater Lake, this was Facebook, followed by YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. The authors recommend posting information about weather and trail conditions on Facebook and Instagram, and to emphasize park wildlife on the Instagram. YouTube is mostly used for entertainment, so the authors suggest that content on YouTube should focus on the park’s history and wildlife. Due to the high credibility of the US NPS publications, the authors suggest linking the NPS publications to social media content to increase legitimacy.

The Bottom Line

This study investigated the social media preferences of visitors at Crater Lake National Park to help park managers tailor communication to the needs of their visitors. Based on the results of a survey, the authors suggest using strategic social media communication, by posting targeted information on specific platforms. The authors found that Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter were the most popular social media platforms, but that users wanted to see varying content on each platform.