(Photo by Mohan Moolepetlu on Unsplash)
Like most people, I had never heard of Carole Baskin or Big Cat Rescue until two weeks ago, when Netflix’s “Tiger King” became the escape I needed from the global COVID-19 pandemic. And while most of my friends are obsessed with whether this so-called “Mother Theresa of Cats” fed her husband to the tigers (I will let Carole defend herself on that one), I was fascinated by how her nonprofit organization used digital and social media to expand its reach, raise money, attract visitors, and lobby Congress well before most of us had ever heard of it. In fact, I found myself wondering, “Is Carole Baskin actually a marketing genius?”
Let’s start with a bit of background. The nonprofit Big Cat Rescue is “an accredited sanctuary dedicated to providing a permanent home for rescued big cats.” Under the leadership of Carole Baskin, it has grown from a humble 4,208 visitors in 1998 to more than 30,000 visitors last year. The jump in physical visitors alone is impressive, but tells only part of the story. Over this time, BCR has amassed an enviable digital presence:
- 504 million cumulative YouTube views
- 1.16 million YouTube subscribers
- 2.6 million Facebook followers
- 2.3 million website visitors*
- 330,000 Twitter followers
- 79,000 email subscribers*
- 40,000 print newsletter subscribers (source)
Looking at these numbers would make many nonprofit leaders lick their lips. So, how did a little-known animal sanctuary in the Sunshine State capture the attention of so many? Here are some digital strategy lessons we can learn from Big Cat Rescue.
Be first to join the pack
Big Cat Rescue began staking out its digital territory before many of its competitors had even ventured outside their own dens. Cat videos were always among the viral hits on the Internet, so it’s no surprise that big cats also drive people wild. One of BCR’s early forays into reaching way more people than could ever visit its Tampa headquarters was joining YouTube on August 15, 2006. To give some context, this is before Google bought YouTube and before the American Red Cross even had a channel. Accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms followed. BCR was an early adopter—not only signing up for the platforms but also experimenting with their different features—and it has paid off.
Did you know you can upload a video to your Facebook cover photo? Your marketing director didn’t. Carole Baskin did.
Does your favorite nonprofit have a TikTok strategy? Carole Baskin and her tigers do—1.5 million likes and counting.
Intercept your prey
Just as big cats hunt animals as large as elephants and as small as rodents, Big Cat Rescue has a constant need for volunteers and interns, donors and advocates, and of course, park visitors. The best way to reach many of these people is to capture their attention while they are on a search of their own. Carole Baskin manages a literal ecosystem of related websites, in addition to her homepage, including ZooCollege.com (“the only online, virtual training center, where you can test your skills against real life animal care challenges”), CubPet.com (“Get the Real Truth About Cub Petting”), and 911AnimalAbuse.com (“Find out who the bad guys really are” featuring “Joe Exotic”). Having multiple websites and domain names can help to improve search engine optimization (SEO). For example, when a young person Googles “zoo college” the top organic search result is ZooCollege.com, which Baskin uses to educate the public and perhaps, create a pipeline for her unpaid volunteer program.
The Big Cat Rescue homepage stands out for its stellar SEO. Nearly all of its traffic comes from organic search, with more than 2,300 unique search keywords generating about $260,000 in estimated monthly SEO value for free, according to SpyFu.com.
Google “Big cat” and you get Carole.
“Bobcat facts”? Carole.
“What is a Tigon”? There’s Carole, again.
But what good are millions of website visitors when only 30,000 people can visit your park each year? Every healthy pride needs a reliable source of protein. The Big Cat Rescue website captures people’s information in a variety of ways—including an enticing quiz to find out “Which Wildcat Am I?” Of course, finding out requires you to give up your name and email address. With 70,000 email addresses and counting, this herd becomes a stable source of nutrition for future fundraising campaigns.
So if you are looking for information about big cats, you basically can’t avoid BCR and Carole Baskin. It may have been this SEO prowess and Google envy that led Joe Exotic to—SPOILER ALERT—adopt the “Big Cat Rescue” brand for his own traveling show, leading to the lawsuit and guilty pleasure you have likely indulged in if you made it this far.
Let them hear you roar
World Wildlife Fund’s YouTube Channel has 5 million cumulative views. Impressive, right? Not when you compare it to Big Cat Rescue. Carole Baskin in Tampa, Florida, has 100 times more views than WWF. “But that’s not fair, they don’t have an animal sanctuary I can visit,” you may be thinking. Well, how about this: The San Diego Zoo is literally the No. 1 zoo in the world. Do you know how many more views and subscribers they have? Trick question—they don’t! On the Internet, Carole makes that zoo look like a shopping mall pet store. They don’t even have one-fifth the number of video views or one-tenth the number of subscribers. (Oh yeah, and they also joined YouTube after she did.)
This success was no accident. Carole understands that content is king of the jungle. Most days, when she and her multi-level volunteer team are spending their days hanging out with tigers and panthers, the rest of us are sitting at computers reading spam emails. Who wouldn’t want a little escape? With just a few clicks, we find ourselves in another world, learning about Flint the Bobcat’s first birthday or Zimba the Serval’s check-up with Dr. Justin, all thanks to the magic of green screen and the Big Cat Rescue Daily YouTube Channel.
Carole knows how to give those “cool cats and kittens” what they want. Big Cat Rescue has posted more than 4,000 original videos on its YouTube channels. You want to know how many the World Wildlife Fund, with over 6,000 employees, has posted? Only 144. “Wait, but they are professionally produced videos,” you say! “But does it matter,” I ask?
Just like her sanctuary, or the Great State of Florida, Carole’s videos aren’t what one would call “polished.” The green screen is detectable, the audio muffled, and the colors a bit oversaturated. But, just like Florida, people don’t care about the rough edges. It’s real, it’s authentic, and that’s good enough for us—at least for spring break.
And her content proliferates without being a copycat. Live cams generate endless streams of content, and videos are expertly reposted across channels, including Big Cat Vets videos on Facebook Watch. Carole is not only a master at creating a seemingly endless stream of new material, but also in repurposing it across multiple channels to produce an ongoing cacophony of BCC: Big Cat Carole. Search for “big cat videos” and the top result is BCR’s Top 12 Silliest Big Cats, followed by the BBC.
BBC, zero. BCC, 4,001.
Pay to prey
Lions and tigers expend a lot of energy on a hunt, so when they make a catch, they don’t let any morsel go to waste. The same goes for Carole. Those 500 million cumulative video views are more than just vanity metrics: they are a meal ticket for BCR. Videos like Tiger Surgery and A Big Cat Thanksgiving have racked up more than 28 million views each. Those eyeballs convert to dollars, driving visitors to Big Cat Rescue’s e-commerce platforms. It turns out, you never knew you needed a “Peace, Love and Big Cat Rescue” coffee mug, or a “Big Cat Rescue iPhone 11 Pro – XS Max Case,” did you? Personally, the “Drink Wine and Rescue Bobcats” tank top is more my style this quarantine season.
This is one reason why Big Cat Rescue generates a budget surplus of roughly $1 million each year with an operating budget of only about $3 million. Most nonprofits I know would kill for those fat cat margins. Er, not literally!
But BCR isn’t afraid to use bait to lure in its next victim. According to the BCR Facebook Ad library, the advertising strategy follows best practices by testing different imagery and messages to see what resonates with potential supporters.
So what did we learn?
Carole Baskin was an early adopter of social media. She uses an ecosystem of digital channels to draw her target audiences to her. She has grown her following to be among the most visible organizations in her industry. She produces more original content than a surveillance camera (or seven—literally!). She converts her viewers and followers into donors, which has resulted in a budget surplus that most nonprofits would envy.
While many others may question what happened to her husband, there’s no doubt: Carole Baskin is killing it in marketing.