Virtual Visitors: Facebook Users and National Parks


  • Zachary D. Miller University of Montana
  • Wayne Freimund University of Montana



social media, national parks, virtual visitors, Facebook


Social media is ubiquitous in society today and shows no signs of slowing down. Many organizations have been trying to benefit from the large number of people using this communication tool. The National Park Service (NPS) is no exception to this. For the NPS, social media is a tool that can be used to engage, interpret, and communicate with people. However, we know next to nothing about the people who “like” national park Facebook pages, who are called “virtual visitors.” This research begins to uncover the characteristics, motivations, and preferences of these virtual visitors. Additionally, comparisons are made between younger “millennial” and nonmillennial virtual visitors to evaluate how social media may be impacting different audiences. A survey conducted on Yellowstone National Park’s Facebook virtual visitors is used as a case study in this research. Results from this research indicate that virtual visitors are very similar to in-park visitors in regard to demographic variables, and the vast majority of them had visited Yellowstone National Park previously. Virtual visitors were motivated to “like” the Facebook page for education and entertainment, social, and affective reasons. Two different types of engagement were also revealed: passive and active, with passive engagement being more frequently participated in. Lastly, virtual visitors preferred communication scenarios where the park was highly engaged and interactive and users could build content. They were less supportive of solely user-driven scenarios, as well as solely park generated content scenarios. Comparisons between millennials and nonmillennials showed that millennials had different motivations, levels of engagement, and preferences for communication scenarios as well. Managers can use the information in this research to help develop more effective social media plans. Suggestions are provided for how to better fulfill the purposes of social media in the NPS by using the data from this research. This includes how to better engage users, as well as potentially reach users who are currently not as engaged. Several suggestions are also provided that focus on future research avenues, including continuing to refine and develop information on virtual visitors, trying to improve outreach via social media to underserved or desirable populations, and merging past research and management techniques with social media efforts.Subscribe to JPRA





Regular Papers