The Dallas Zoo's comms head on why that video of the dancing gorilla went viral

The zoo's senior director of marketing and communications, Kari Streiber, shared why the video took the internet by storm and how her lean team has handled the zoo's response.

DALLAS: Funny animal videos are a dime a dozen on YouTube, so the Dallas Zoo wasn’t 100% sure a video of one of its gorillas break-dancing in a kiddie pool would take the internet by storm last week. However, Kari Streiber, the zoo’s senior director of marketing and communications, had an inkling it might catch some eyes.

Streiber, who previously worked at Current Marketing as a VP, recalled that clients used to routinely approach her and ask if the firm could create a viral video. Her advice: easier said than done; viral videos need to happen organically.

Yet Streiber pinpointed several reasons why the stats aligned to make the video of Zola, a 14-year-old western lowland gorilla, uncommonly popular.

"It was one of those things where we had engaging content, it was the first day of summer, and we were heading into the weekend," said Streiber. "It was a timely video that connected with a lot of people."

The video was first uploaded to YouTube and included in a post on the zoo’s blog last Tuesday. Penned by Ashley Orr, the Dallas Zoo’s primate keeper, the post explained what the gorilla’s behavior means and how the zoo meets its animals’ needs by "providing opportunities for species-appropriate actions and choices."

"Zola actually had a video go viral in 2011 when he was at the Calgary Zoo in Canada; he did something similar," said Streiber. "So he is a world famous, viral sensation. We knew when we got this video that it was something special."

The team accompanied the video with a blog post because it was an "opportunity to help educate," Streiber said.  

The zoo received its first media call about Zola’s video from the Houston Chronicle last Wednesday evening. The next morning, a Dallas Morning News entertainment reporter called.

"It was not abnormal or unusual that local or regional folks might pick up the news about our video," Streiber said. "But Thursday afternoon and evening is when it started picking up and we saw the video circulating on social media and people started adding their own soundtracks over the video."

Streiber said she knew the video was truly going viral when people with verified Twitter accounts were sharing it. Social media users and even some brands created GIFs of the video, as well.

The zoo’s marketing and comms team, which consists of four people, was on the case from the get-go. No PR firm assisted it with the response.

"We have been keeping an eye on what is happening, monitoring our incoming comms, such as Facebook messages, people requesting permission to use the video, phone calls, and emails coming into our media inbox and zoo info inbox," she said. "We have also been looking for places that might be altering the content and using it out of context."

In terms of an earned media push, the zoo mostly let the video and blog post speak for themselves.

"It has done a lot of the hard work itself because of the great content," said Streiber.

Orr and Keith Zdrojewski, a mammal curator at the zoo, have also been doing media interviews on behalf of the zoo.

The Washington Post got in touch with the zoo on Friday about criticism of the video, questioning whether the gorilla’s behavior was a sign of joyful play or distress.

"[Zdrojewski] gave background on behavior Zola was displaying, signs of play, how the personalities of gorillas like this evolve throughout their life, and how Zola is a goofball and joyful animal," said Streiber. "Other experts told The Washington Post the same thing. That article was a nice validation from the zoo staff and external experts who could lend credibility to the behavior being consistent with play and joy."

National and foreign outlets have covered the video, including CNN, Esquire, Daily Mail, Quartz, Fox News, NPR, Good Morning America, and Thrillist. The zoo’s comms team is responding to media inquiries, but is not doing anything to further capitalize on the viral video.  

"We were pleased to see in outlets where it could have just been a fun video posted how much pull through there was on that [educational] piece," said Strieber. "It’s a great video to watch but it’s important to know this is something the gorilla enjoys."

The zoo had strong weekend attendance, said Streiber, who was unable to share exact numbers. She noted, however, that visitors were asking at the front gate where to see Zola.

"Social numbers-wise, we're looking at about seven-times the number of Facebook likes since last Tuesday over a normal week," she said. "We also added four- to five-times as many Instagram followers as a normal week, more than 500 YouTube channel subscribers, and we're up to 2.2 million views in one week's time."

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