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The Case of the Missing Cobra: Making News Compelling Through Story

Twitter feed @bronxzooscobra shows the power of story in a participatory culture

The Bronx Zoo misplaced an Egyptian cobra. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) I read about it in the LA Times. This isn’t the first errant zoo animal, so why would a west coast paper carry news about an east coast zoo faux pas? Because it became a story.

Shortly after the snake disappeared, a mysterious Twitterer posing as the snake @BronxZoosCobra began journaling his adventure through the big apple. (You can follow on your own Twitter account or get an RSS feed.) It’s a perfect example of the power of story in a participatory culture.

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First, there is the iconic meta-story of escaping to freedom against tremendous odds. The snake's story is right up there in a long list of examples, such as Steve McQueen and the Great Escape or Michael York and Logan’s Run. The Twitter stream allowed people to follow along with the snake through New York City—in effect, to experience it along side the snake and to live the snake's narrative.

The very humorous snake commentary attracted readers and spread good feelings that come from humor (happiness is contagious, you know), but the Twitter platform let readers engage and participate in multiple ways, through sites, tastes, and sounds of the city, interacting with the snake and become a player in the narrative, and sharing the phenomenon with friends. For example, a brilliant way to enter your brand into a narrative is the Tweet from Hilton New York (third one below), although my personal favorite is the "snakes on a PLAIN." 

This also works to promote individual brands, like the iPhone or, for a celebrity. For example, the snake allegedly hacked @RyanSeacrest.

 

The cobra has over 10,000 followers and has accomplished several things that no amount of traditional advertising could:

  1. Reminding tourists everywhere as well as NY locals of the zoo as an interesting destination
  2. Potentially raising awareness about danger of venomous snakes and wildlife as pets--or at least provides a good entry point for discussion by parents and teachers.
  3. Creating active interest in the continued well-being of the snake (even now that he’s back in the slammer)

This rather erudite and adventurous snake was found, of course, never having left the snake house, lured by the smell of mice and wood shavings. The impact, however, is dramatic—as a good story should be—and should prove to be a windfall to zoo attendance and, presumably, the sales at the Bronz Zoo merchandise shop.

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and teaches media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and UCLA Extension. more...

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