Building the Public’s Trust In Zoos & Aquariums

Building on existing research about zoos and aquariums, Knology researchers explore the criteria that the public prioritizes when deciding to trust these institutions.

by Joseph de la Torre DwyerJohn FraserJohn VoiklisUduak Grace Thomas
Sep 25, 2020

Key Findings

A new paper from Knology describes our research focused on the ways that people develop trust in zoos and aquariums. The research study organizes the US public into four categories, or groupings, and identifies the unique criteria that each group looks for before deciding to trust the authority of these institutions. Based on the groupings, we suggest strategies to help zoo and aquarium leaders leverage these trust categories when putting together messages that effectively promote conservation agendas.

This study, which was published in Zoo Biology, analyzed data from two surveys of the US general public conducted as part of two prior research studies. Additional details about the participants are described in the “About this Study” section below. The underlying hypothesis was that this group could be organized into distinct clusters that prioritize different things when deciding whether or not to trust zoos and aquariums. Although not tested in this study, we suspect that individuals in the different clusters would respond to different types of conservation advocacy and education.

The results of the analysis confirmed our hypothesis that members of the public do not trust zoos and aquariums for the same reasons. We identified four distinct groups of individuals, each with unique things that they prioritize when deciding whether or not to trust zoos and aquariums. The segments are nicknamed Experiencers, Conservationists, Loyalists, and Environmentalists. Our analysis found that the groups prioritize some of the same things. For example, each cluster felt that it was important for zoos and aquariums to provide animals staff, and visitors with proper care (acting with ethical integrity), as well as for institutions to share information about their conservation efforts (serving as an agent for wildlife care).

In terms of the characteristics of each category, the research revealed that each group prioritizes different things. Experiencers, representing about 35% percent of the respondents, care about the quality of experiences and attractions that the zoo or aquarium offers. It was less important for people in this group to hear about conservation topics, compared to other groups’ priorities. On the other hand, Conservationists, at 23% of the respondents, are not particularly interested in the quality of the attractions. Instead, they care most about the institution’s conservation commitments. For their part, Loyalists, 21% of the respondents, were more concerned about the reputation of their local institution rather than the quality of the experiences. Environmentalists, meanwhile, care about the zoo or aquarium’s efforts toward sustainable practices especially in the local environment, but are not as interested in receiving animal news from the zoo or aquarium.

Let’s Put It to Work

For zoo & aquarium leaders and communications teams: To continue to build trust with audiences, public-facing messages should focus primarily on the two factors that matter most to all audiences: the institutions’ care ethics and conservation efforts in the field. Additional messaging and communications can then be tailored to each visitor category:

  • Experiencers like what happens when they visit a zoo and aquarium. For example, they enjoy interactions with staff and animals. To best connect with individuals in this group, ask them what they want to do during their visit and offer these activities as options.
  • Conservationists are interested in details about the altruistic actions of zoos and aquariums in the conservation field. They want to know about on-the-ground work at these institutions and how their dollars and actions will support wildlife. This category of visitors will be frustrated by an emphasis on shows and exhibits if they don’t understand how these features are linked to conservation efforts. Messages should make explicit the connection between the zoo or aquarium’s work and on-the-ground conservation efforts.
  • Loyalists care greatly about their local zoo or aquarium, and will be interested in messaging that focuses on unique things about their local institution. For this group, provide clear messaging that they can use to advocate for their local institution with their communities and networks.
  • Environmentalists care a lot about zoos and aquariums’ commitment to the local environment, and would enjoy messaging about the impact of their sustainability efforts. Also, this group is interested primarily in information about ecosystems and their impact, rather than individual animals.

About this Study

The data used in this study come from two surveys administered online to representative samples of the US population. Survey 1 included 341 individuals and focused specifically on people who reported that they had visited a zoo or aquarium in the past, and who didn’t feel particularly favorably or unfavorably towards them -- the so-called “moderate middle” (Rank, Voiklis, Gupta, Fraser, & Flinner, 2018). Survey 2 included 1,329 individuals, without restrictions on having visited or on extreme feelings of (un)favorability (Dwyer, Fraser, Voiklis, & Thomas, 2020).

This study is a product of an Independent Research to Practice Collaborative Research Project for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums made possible through National Science Foundation Grants #1612729 and #1612699. This video, which was included in the 2020 STEM for all Showcase, describes the larger study on zoos and aquariums in detail.

Photo by goodmin on Flickr

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