The Banff Crasher Squirrel

This is a story of preparation triumphing over planning.

When the Banff Crasher Squirrel popped up out of nowhere and became an overnight internet sensation, the story could have ended any one of three ways:

      • It could become a flash in the pan and disappear before we could mobilize;
      • The Crasher Squirrel could lose its connection to Banff; or
      • We could try to clumsily capitalize on the Squirrel and reap only a backlash for our efforts.

We quickly assembled our social media team and set three objectives:

      • Insert ourselves into the story, to capture as much of the Squirrel’s attention as possible and redirect it toward Banff as a travel destination;
      • Extend the news cycle to stretch out the Squirrel’s 15 minutes of fame; and
      • Don’t try to control the story. Simply go where the Squirrel leads us, and add value along the way.

Let’s look at how we inserted ourselves into the story.

Although we didn’t plan for the Squirrel to happen, we were prepared for it to happen.

Since 2007, Banff Lake Louise Tourism has managed one of the tourism industry’s most progressive social media programs. We are active on Facebook and Twitter and our blog is featured prominently on our website. We are an official YouTube partner and our library of more than 140 travel videos has earned over 800,000 views.

Without this prior investment in social media, we wouldn’t have had the expertise, processes, channels or content to play a meaningful role in the Crasher Squirrel story. When the Crasher Squirrel suddenly appeared, we simply took what we already had and redirected the team’s efforts toward the phenomenon.

We claimed our stake in the Crasher Squirrel saga by adding value to the story. We created the Banff Crasher Squirrel Facebook Fan page to give the online community of Crasher Squirrel fans a place to gather. We gave the Squirrel a voice by creating the @Banff_Squirrel Twitter account and reached out to everyone tweeting about the Crasher Squirrel. We launched a Google adwords campaign to direct anyone searching for the Crasher Squirrel to the BLLT website.

And while hundreds of people were photo-shopping pictures of the Squirrel, we realized that no video existed of the curious rodent. In just a few hours, we created “Banff Crasher Squirrel: The Movie” by tapping into our library of travel footage from Banff National Park. By leveraging interest in the Squirrel, we were able to expose the world to a three-minute montage of extraordinary Banff National Park travel experiences.

The video got picked up on CNN, by Fox news affiliates throughout the USA, was selected as one of Mashable’s Top 10 Crasher Squirrel mash-ups, was featured on CTV news’ best of the Web column, and made its way into countless blogs and Tweets.

In everything we did, we directed people back to the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website. And when they arrived at our website, we rewarded them with a Crasher Squirrel takeover of BLLT. Our home page featured the Squirrel and our blog acted as an ongoing journal of the story.

We mobilized our members, giving them the tools to “photobomb” their own websites and we featured special Banff Crasher Squirrel offers and experiences developed by our members.

Our video was featured in a segment by Jeanne Moos on CNN that aired six times over the course of two days.

Now you may have noticed that Jeanne Moos said Banff British Columbia, rather than Banff Alberta. And that brings us to the second part of our strategy: extending the news cycle.

If Jeanne Moos had got her geography right, we never would have had the opportunity to correct her, and in so doing, create a second wave of traditional and social media coverage – this time, focused squarely on Banff National Park. A few tweets from the Banff_Squirrel Twitter account was all it took to set off this second wave of conversations.

On our Twitter account, we focused our efforts on reaching the media to extend the news cycle. We identified news outlets and leading blogs that hadn’t yet covered the Banff Crasher Squirrel story.

And then we did what any photobombing Squirrel would do: we “crashed” their websites. Using a freely available online application, we created a customized Crasher Squirrel website overlay, then tweeted a link to the owner’s Twitter ID.

Using this technique, we garnered attention from media around the world, including National Geographic, MSNBC, New York’s Channel 5 News, and the Twitter Report.

Eventually, the website photobombs took on a life of their own, with even Tourism Malaysia joining in the fun, crashing their own website with the Banff Crasher Squirrel.

By focusing on media and travel bloggers, we built up a valuable audience for the @Banff_Squirrel Twitter ID. We interacted directly with CNN, MSNBC, The Toronto Star, Global News, National Geographic, and Twitter users with huge followings including Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List and Melissa Rivers, host of the Oscars Red Carpet Pre-show.

Over the course of almost 1,000 tweets, we used the Crasher Squirrel to expand people’s understanding and awareness of Banff National Park – using our existing content library to tell stories of the Park through the eyes of its most famous rodent resident.

We further extended the news cycle by issuing a press release talking about our Banff Crasher Squirrel program. And that generated a third wave of media coverage.

We then issued a video featuring Banff Mayor John Stutz naming the Banff Crasher Squirrel an honorary citizen, creating yet another wave in the news and social media cycle.

When a software developer in Poland launched the Crasher Squirrel iPhone app, we immediately contacted them and arranged to have the app link directly back to the BLLT website in exchange for some promotional mentions on our website and Twitter feeds. We then used the iPhone app to take pictures of visitors to Lake Minnewanka (where our story began) so that they could send them to their friends back home.

We also brought the Squirrel to life closer to home, crashing our own outdoor billboard and creating bumper stickers that showed up in the most amazing places. All of this activity was fed back into our social media channels to keep the buzz going.

And when MSNBC’s Jane Wells wondered whether anyone could make money from the Crasher Squirrel phenomenon, we Tweeted her the answer, resulting in another news piece on MSNBC.

In other words, we followed where the Squirrel led us, and added value along the way.

In all, we estimate that the Banff Crasher Squirrel resulted in over 86 million impressions for Banff Lake Louise. Our investment in leveraging this opportunity was less than $5,000.

But our third objective was to create a lasting legacy from the Banff Crasher Squirrel phenomenon.

Today, the Banff_Squirrel Twitter ID has more than 3,000 followers and is, by some measures, the most influential tourism industry Twitter account in Canada. Most importantly, the account is followed by hundreds of media, travel bloggers and freelance travel journalists, giving BLLT a direct link to this very important audience.

We have successfully transitioned the Squirrel’s FaceBook fan page and Twitter accounts from a focus on photobombing to an ongoing discussion about Banff National Park.

And the curious photo-bombing Squirrel continues to reap rewards for Banff National Park.

When Google Streetview launched its Banff content, Crasher Squirrel was there to ride the wave of Streetview interest. When Oregon launched Seski the Sasquatch as the official mascot of the Oregon Sesquicentennial, the Banff Squirrel engaged in a little cross-border diplomacy.

And this past Winter, when Travelocity pitted Banff against Whistler in a contest to win a visit from the Roaming Gnome, we were able to quickly mobilize the Banff Squirrel community to win handily with over 60% of the online vote.

What does the future hold for the Banff Crasher Squirrel? We don’t know. But as we continue to plan and execute the parts of our social media program that we can control, we know we’ll be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities we can’t.

“He’s become a tourism mascot for Banff.” – Jeanne Moos, CNN

“Crasher Squirrel boosts Banff.” – Jane Wells, CNBC

“A small organization like @Banff_Squirrel so far ahead of many so-called sophisticated co’s on Twitter. Amazing!” – Don Nadeau

“Quick, cheap (and good) … kudos to the Town of Banff and their excellent use of social media.” – uclucas

“Absolutely brilliant viral campaign by @Banff_Squirrel.” – jrmorris

“Brilliant use of social media by Banff Lake Louise Tourism.” – Justin Archer

“Banff makes hay while the Ground Squirrel is hot.” – Vancouver Sun

“An amazingly quick response by Banff Lake Louise Tourism.” – Joanne Steele