The Wildlife Center of Virginia’s animal cameras show the adorable antics of bear cubs, eagles, and adult bears. Viewers can watch the cubs navigate cargo nets and tires or check out the birds in their nests. It can be funny, peaceful, and interesting by turns, but it’s undeniably entertaining, and the center counts on the cams to drive traffic and increase awareness.
Yet, the center’s Vice President for Outreach and Engagement, Amanda Nicholson, knows that while the animal cams draw crowds, it’s moderated nature chats that keep them on the page. So, when the chat service the center was previously using shut down, and prices increased under the new ownership, Nicholson needed to find a new tool to use -- fast!
She worried, though, that her loyal audience members might be resistant to a change in the platform for the center’s nature chat. “I worried about that because if you change one thing it’s like, ‘Oh my God, it’s different. I hate it.’” Still, going without a moderated live chat was not an option. “Because we’re an educational facility, we wanted to make sure that discussions would stay on topic about wildlife. We needed to be able to guide the discussion,” she said.
Then the research began. “I launched a deep investigation and went down many different wormholes, and really JotCast is the only one we found that was what we wanted. Nothing else fit what we needed for our site -- they relied more on message boards or weren’t moderated. We were in a bit of a panic.”
Using moderated nature chats not only allows the Wildlife Center of Virginia to educate viewers but also helps to cement bonds of friendship between the center’s supporters. “Without that moderated discussion, I don't think we’d be nearly as successful,” Nicholson continued. “We have supporters that come to the site every single day to see what’s going on. It’s a part of their day to scroll back and read what happened since they signed off last to catch up. It’s an important part of their day because they’re in this community that they love. They're really there because they’re a community.”
That community, self-named Critter Nation, often bonds over uploading sweet screenshots of the animals’ comic antics. The change in moderated chat platforms went over well, partly because Critter Nation could now upload photos to the nature chat themselves. This was a way for the Wildlife Center of Virginia to make their readers more involved while allowing the staff to save time.
“In the olden days we would notoriously get emails from people with photos that we would have to upload and I didn’t have a ton of time to do that,” Nicholson said. “Now they can do it so it makes them feel more involved and more engaged. They can also take a photo of a bird and ask what kind it is and it makes it more of a back and forth educational component as well.”
Nicholson also said that the educational programming the moderated nature chat offers is just as important as the sense of community it fosters. Sometimes that takes the form of a targeted event -- “We’ll say, ‘Join us Tuesday at 2 and we’ll talk about spiders with Marley,’” she explained -- and other times, it takes shape as a book club.
Every other month, the group discusses wildlife or environment-focused work. “It’s text-based, but there could be 40 people in that discussion, and that’s a large book club,” Nicholson said. “We organize people’s comments into themes and then we’ll have a guided discussion for our book club. That window to be an educational experience and have a truly back-and-forth conversation with people is big for us.”
Moreover, the nature chat is sometimes used to mobilize Critter Nation when the Wildlife Center of Virginia needs money for repairs or programs. “We’ll have a targeted fundraiser on [the moderated chat] and say ‘Hey, this is the problem we’re facing, so it’s going to cost X amount and if you’d like to help us that’d be great,’” Nicholson said, “and we’ll have a fundraising update at a certain time to announce the total amount given. People see this happen on the [nature] chat and they alert their friends and let them know.” Nicholson specifically remembered when Critter Nation raised thousands of dollars to replace a broken camera within a day.
These days, Nicholson says she’d recommend JotCast to anyone looking for a way to reach out to their audience. “I’d definitely say having a moderated discussion is a key part of communicating and engaging with supporters. In the nonprofit world this is incredibly important, and [JotCast] is a fantastic way to do it.”