I recently visited McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary in West Palm Beach, Florida (map
). It’s somewhat like a zoo, but it’s a little smaller and more intimate. The animals are privately owned, the hours are different, and you don’t roam on your own – you join predefined small tours. It’s a great way to meet and see the animals up close and personally. We thought it was a great tour, as do most people on TripAdvisor, where we learned about them, via UGC-based advertising.
Advertising in Effect: Popularity Drives Visits
Speaking of TripAdvisor, you’d be hard-pressed to miss McCarthy’s if you’re in the area looking for something to do:
Take that in for a moment: almost 1,950 ratings… where only zero-point-six percent (0.6%) – twelve! – were neither ‘very good’ nor ‘excellent’. Put another way, 99% (literally, not just figuratively) of the people leaving ratings rated it ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’, with a majority of just those two groups (96%) being ‘excellent’, TripAdvisor’s highest rating.
“Incredible!” I thought. I wondered how prominent that was in their advertising. It turns out it’s their only form. Really. The only one.
Eggs, Meet Basket
At the end of the tour, we were led into the (surprise!) gift shop. Purchases made there directly help and care for the animals (they are a non-profit 501-(c)-3-wildlife rehabilitation facility). While perusing, the tour guide thanked us for being such polite and respectful guests, encouraged us to help support the sanctuary through either direct donations, or through gift shop purchase, and then let us know that they’d really appreciate a review of us online, specifically at TripAdvisor.
No suggestion of Yelp! (5/5 stars, 59 reviews) , Google Reviews (4.9/5.0 rating, 78 reviews), or anywhere else. They specifically and only suggested TripAdvisor.
“Trip Advisor is our only form, really, of advertising. We don’t spend any money anywhere else.”
– a paraphrase from our tour guide Brie (“as in the cheese” she said to us a few times)
“Wow,” I thought. Nowhere else. They only relied on word-of-mouth and user-generated content, all on a third-party site over which they have no control. For zero dollars per year.
Now take that in for a moment…
A quick browser search didn’t show me any paid ads for ‘McCarthy’s Animal Sanctuary’. I don’t know if they are doing anything offline, like billboards, taxi signs, paper/flyer or other. For the time being, let’s take our guide’s statement as fact.
Balancing An Advertising Budget is Easy When It’s $0
They aren’t spending any money to advertise. They are politely asking patrons to review them online (and even handing out business card-like cards with a URL to remind them to go do so) specifically at TripAdvisor. Doing so has netted them the number one thing to do in West Palm Beach when searching Trip Advisor. And due to TripAdvisor’s SEO strength, it’s one of the first non-paid results that show up – see below, in this incognito search I performed for “things to do in West Palm Beach” – you’ll see McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary nestled among TripAdvisor’s Top 10 things:
Is it wise to put all of your eggs in one basket? What if TripAdvisor was found running awry of a Google search update (let me be clear: I have no reason to think this; I’m postulating it for discussion only)? What if TripAdvisor’s servers went down, or if TripAdvisor their business model? Is this perhaps too much a reliance (100%, according to our guide) on a third-party entity?
Mitch Joel and others caution us to avoid building a business on rented land, since we ultimately can’t control what happens. But when you’re a non-profit business, you often have limited funding to spend on marketing in general, and advertising in specific. Furthermore, advertising might not be your strong suit.
Do you spend money on a whim, hoping it might work, and not entirely sure if you have a measurement plan in place to tell you? Or do you double-down on something that you know works?