Little Penguins, Big Drama: Lessons on How to Go Viral from the National Aquarium of New Zealand

It’s always helpful to get inspiration and learn from other organizations in your industry. I learned early in my career that you don’t always have to start from scratch; it can be just as effective to see what others are doing and put your own spin on it. When I joined the Blackbaud Arts and Cultural Solutions team, I stumbled across social posts from the National Aquarium of New Zealand and have been following them ever since. These amusing, quirky and just plain fun posts immediately drew me in. I remember the first post I read about the naughty penguin of the month – he was chosen because he stole fish out of his blind girlfriend’s mouth! I found this so amusing that I immediately shared with a colleague who commented that he didn’t realize he needed penguin drama in his life until he heard about this. I look forward to the posts each month and have talked about these little penguins at many a dinner party and everyone is always amused.


There’s no doubt that whenever I’m in that part of the world, I will be visiting this aquarium. I reached out and connected with Felicity Kibble, the aquarium’s Visitor Experience Marketing Adviser, to learn more about their social program that has me and loads of people around the world enthralled.


Helen: Tell me about the Penguin of the Month Program

Felicity: For over 2 years, keepers from the National Aquarium of New Zealand (located in Napier, Hawke’s Bay) have voted on the good and naughty penguin of the month.

Timmy and Betty were the winners in June 2017 and when we posted on Facebook for the first time, the whole world took notice. Timmy as naughty penguin of the month especially captured special interest.  Timmy was voted naughty penguin of the month as he’s a bit of a bully and always tries to steal fish and knock other penguins out of the way to get to the food. He also has a reputation for flicking sand everywhere – in the food, and into the keepers’ eyes. Timmy came to the National Aquarium after being found on a local beach with a spinal injury. He couldn’t walk and dragged himself around with his beak and flippers. He’s had chiropractic work because of his spinal injury, and can now walk, a little wobbly on his feet but so much better than he was. Due to his injury he now has a permanent home at the National Aquarium.  Even two years on from Timmy’s fame, followers regularly request update reports on Timmy and if his behaviour has improved!

The National Aquarium posts its Naughty and Good Penguin of the month on our Facebook and Instagram pages at the beginning of each month – with many of our followers eagerly waiting and messaging to ask when they will be named.


Helen: How did you come up with the idea of picking a good and naughty penguin of the month? 

Felicity: The penguin keepers at the National Aquarium of New Zealand heard of this idea being used internally at another facility. They felt it would work on an external platform as an engaging way to update our regular visitors/members about our penguins – our keepers are rather attached to our little penguin residents.


Helen: When you launched the program, what was the goal?

Felicity: The key goal was to enhance the visitor experience for our members (Friends of the Aquarium), so they could learn more about the different characters of the Little Penguins in our care.  This was also a unique way of highlighting to visitors the challenges Little Penguins face in the wild and how they can be protected.  Visitors can connect with the good and naughty penguin of the month and learn more about how the penguins came to be at the National Aquarium (majority through human impact).  After our first ‘Penguin of the Month’ was announced on the sign next to the habitat, we received a number of positive comments that gave us confidence to take it to the next level by sharing through our social media channels.


Helen: Did you achieve the goal? Did your goals change as the program matured?

Felicity: We definitely achieved our initial goal. Not only with the positive feedback when the first of Penguin of the Month was announced next to their habitat, but when we started sharing this on social media.  The first time we shared the post online, we were contacted by media outlets from around the world asking for more information. Popular social media channels such as Reddit, BoredPanda and BuzzFeed shared our posts and it was even covered on news channels across the US. This first online post had a reach of over 2 million people and we saw our followers increase dramatically.

Following the success of the Penguin of the Month program, we raised the bar higher to engage with our online followers from around the world by giving them the opportunity to vote for their favourite with our Penguin of the Year. This month-long campaign was launched in October 2018 on social media and our website, driving people from around the world to our website for the first phase of voting (voting for their finalist), giving us the opportunity to get additional brand exposure.  With regular posts throughout the month (including profiles of each of the Little Penguins and how they were injured etc, along with facts about the species), we were able to create awareness of the challenges they face in the wild and how we can all make a difference to protect them.  Our followers got to pick one of two finalists to win the overall title ‘Penguin of the Year’.  Timmy was a clear winner, with other resident ‘bad boy’ Mo in second.  We got national television coverage with the announcement of the winner live on our national TV breakfast show – all including the stories of the Little Penguins and why they were at the National Aquarium. Over 10,000 votes were received during this campaign.

We continue to run our Penguin of the Month posts, and in October 2019 we repeated our Penguin of the Year online campaign. Votes increased from the previous year reaching over 12,000. We received votes from all over the world including Iceland, Estonia, Israel, Germany, Poland, Chile, England, Brazil and Australia, with the most international votes coming from the United States.  Draco won, closely followed by Mo, again!  We now have a power couple with Draco being Timmy’s girlfriend.

In our Penguin of the Month posts we elaborate on the stories of each bird to raise conservation awareness.  These Little Penguins face the same challenges in the wild that many other animals and species do.


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Helen: How does this program align with the overall aquarium mission?

Felicity: Providing leadership across our community in marine conservation action and education is at the core of the National Aquarium of New Zealand.  We have been able to highlight the plight of the Little Penguins to our community (originally nationally and now internationally) through an engaging campaign.


Helen: What is it that makes the program so successful?

Felicity: Our fun, authentic and informal ‘tone’ across social media connects with a wide audience.  The Little Penguins are relatable to our audience and all have their own personalities which our keepers enjoy sharing with our followers. The penguins’ characteristics and habits are similar to humans, so our followers can truly relate. They don’t hesitate to comment on their thoughts and feelings in our posts.  Our job is also made easier by how delightful these penguins are and how much character and personality they have. Perhaps a bit of ‘kiwi (New Zealand) humour’ has helped!