A headshot featuring Alyssa Rodriguez, Education Specialist, Oklahoma Aquarium

Perspectives is a series uncovering routines, inspiration, and insights by brand leaders shaping the future of marketing around the globe.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Alyssa Rodriguez is the Education Specialist at the Oklahoma Aquarium. In her words, Alyssa shares her perspective on:

  • The importance of becoming a user of each platform 
  • How she gained 1+ million views on a TikTok video
  • Creating engaging content and learning from failure

What do you do for a living? What does your typical day look like?

I run the education department at the Oklahoma Aquarium and that entails things like running field trips for K-12 students, creating programs for the public out on the floor, behind the scenes tourist and animal encounters, reaching audiences online with our web content, and running our Instagram and TikTok pages.

Who is the one who’s coming up with the content on TikTok? 

Our marketing department’s one person and I have another educator who works with me to collaborate on ideas, but it’s primarily me. 

Where do you get your inspiration for this content? 

Honestly, just from being a user of TikTok myself. 

I sit there and scroll endlessly just like anyone else – especially when we were closed due to quarantine or the pandemic. I had nothing better to do than watch what was coming up on my For You page and thought, wouldn’t it be funny if we took this from the aquarium’s perspective? 

What’s something interesting that you’ve learned in the last year?

I think people respond really well to content that seems like it was made by their friend. When we’re participating in trends that aren’t specific to the zoo and aquarium industry, it’s often when we get the biggest response.

So, our one TikTok video that reached 1.6 million viewers was just a video that I based on another format I’d seen in other videos. We took on that same format for our toadfish video and it got so many views. 

I think it did really well because it was really unexpected for a brand to one: make a joke about your fish being ugly as an aquarium, but two: participate in a meme at all. As a brand, that’s funny for people.

What do you think people on social media should stop doing? 

Stop writing long captions – or stop doing anything that requires me to invest a lot of time… unless it’s super engaging. 

I’m probably not going to sit there and look at a single post for a really long time, so I try to abide by that rule myself – the exception being our #FakeFactFriday on Instagram. We like to do a thing where we post three facts and one of them is fake, and people have to guess.

It requires a little more reading, but I like to keep things short and engaging.

What do you think marketers should start doing more of? 

Taking your brand less seriously… and sound like a real person. Sound like any other user otherwise, you’re going to stick out as looking like an ad – and if it feels like an ad, people automatically won’t want to engage. 

I have an advantage as an aquarium because the content we share is adorable… like how do you compete with an Otter? But also, I have the education side of things where I’m not necessarily always trying to sell something.

Sometimes we just want to get our mission across and really educate folks. So, I have an advantage in saying things like, let’s start posting things that are a little bit more light and fun – but I think the more brands can do that, the better. 

Why do you think user-generated content is so valuable for brands?

It’s a way of saying that you’re listening to your customers. People want to know that their opinions and voices are being heard. 

When you participate in trends on TikTok and make attentive choices, it says we understand you, we’re listening, and this is a two-way street

As a mission-oriented brand, we want people to visit the aquarium to feel welcome and feel like they are capable of making a change in this world for the better, too. It’s not just the aquarium alone carrying out this mission of education and conservation; we want to empower our guests to do the same. 

User-generated content really creates a level playing field for us to say we’re with you – not above you.

What is a common marketing belief that you disagree with? 

In marketing, it’s really common to do what everyone else around you is doing… like so-and-so posts three times a day or they post this type of content – and brands try to keep up with competitors by copying them.

For us in the zoo and aquarium industry, you’ll see a lot of zoos and aquariums posting the same type of content, where their “keeper talks” will have a very consistent format in the way they’re talking – but we really like to say, we want it to look like user-generated content.

We want it to feel like we’re talking for our friends – not here’s the Latin name of this animal and he eats X, Y, and Z because if you have a question about that, you can leave it in the comments and we get to talk about it.

It really comes down to tone. I think a common belief is that businesses have to take on a really formal tone, but I don’t think that’s true. 

Wendy’s is my favorite – and they’re a lot of people’s favorite. Why are so many millions of people following this fast food place? It’s because they’re funny. It’s because they talk to their followers like they talk to their friends. 

Is there anything else that you think brands need to be doing more of?

I really like when brands stick up for their mission – particularly places like zoos and aquariums or non-profits.

It’s important to make sure that at the end of the day, throughout whatever jokes, whatever you’re selling, everyone is aware of what your mission is and what your brand’s values are – because that’s the other piece of connecting with your audience. It’s not just about having a silly tone and feeling like you’re friends, but also being aware of people’s values.

What do you value from a brand?  

I value a brand who is consistent in their message, but I’m particularly drawn to brands that have evidence of their own equity and inclusion. And conservation and sustainability are personally very important to me. 

So, when I see brands who are claiming those things, I like seeing their content to show evidence of those things. 

What do you think the future of marketing is going to look like? 

I think that we are going to see a lot more user-generated content.

Influencer marketing is really growing and I think it is going to reach a point where almost everyone’s an influencer – where there’s not going to be “influencer marketing” anymore. It’ll just be individual-based, where almost everyone gets some kind of kickback at the end of the day.

Do you have a book or podcast or a person, event that shaped your career? 

In terms of brands and creating content, one of my biggest inspirations was the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They always have so much fun on their platforms.

Their Twitter is hilarious. They joined Twitch to play Animal Crossing with people, and started hitting them about the fish you could catch in the video game – and I thought that was so creative and fun. So, they definitely influenced my creative process.

And then my former boss was all over social for Travel at National Geographic. She had a lot of great insights and really helped me get involved in social media because I didn’t run any of our pages until the pandemic hit. I had a lot to learn in a very short amount of time, and she had so much trust. 

Where do you get your inspiration, in general?

Honestly, just from my love of animals. I have a really deep desire to make everyone care about them just as much as I do. And that’s really kind of what drove my interest in being an educator, and it’s kind of how I see science communication. 

Before I was at the aquarium, I worked in an Ornithology lab at Cornell, and I ended up loving telling people about my research just as much as I enjoyed doing the research. Arguably more, because I didn’t have to sit behind a computer crying over code, but I think I’d be really good at a position where I’m just teaching people, and social media makes that really easy to do because things spread like wildfire. 

So if you can just find something really interesting and focus on that one interesting fact, it’ll spread organically. 

My inspiration just comes from the animals and the knowledge of science and wanting to share that with other people, like an excited little kid. 

What’s your favorite animal? 

I have so many at the aquarium, but I’ll say my favorite is probably the Giant Pacific Octopus.

My degree is in neurobiology and animal behavior, so I am predisposed to love brain things, but the Giant Pacific – and all octopuses for that matter – have nine brains, so they just have so much brainpower. They’re very intelligent creatures, but they are invertebrates, which are generally regarded as “kind of dumb.”

They’re difficult to keep in a container and get bored if you don’t give them puzzles. They have 2,000 suckers on their arms and they can each taste, touch, and smell.

From a computational neuroscience perspective, that’s a lot of information to handle – they put our iPhones to shame.

What advice do you have for other creatives who look up to you?

I think that my best advice would be to continue listening to your voice and continue creating content. Even if it fails, learn from your failures, but don’t stop. Keep making content because my first and my third, and my 10th TikTok did not have over one million views – nothing like that.

It was just trial and error. So, do what you think is best to realize what your audience wants to engage with, but don’t sacrifice your voice. 

Sometimes people around you will not support it but if you believe that your voice is wanting to be heard, I’m sure you’re probably right. So don’t let some old guy who doesn’t have a TikTok tell you what to do.

How do you wind down from a long day of work? 

Outside of work, I love playing soccer.

I’m on a soccer team locally and play indoor and that’s kind of my stress reliever. I play outside mid or sometimes I’ll play forward as well. 

What are you looking forward to or excited about? 

I am really excited for the day to come that we’re all vaccinated and safe to be in large groups again. ‘Cause man, I want to go to a concert. 

It’s hard to look back and think that was ever normal. And it’s hard to imagine in the future, that feeling of normal and safe again.

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