Colombian Birds Go Big: How our global storytelling agency created The Birders campaign
The Birders is an exquisite film. It captures perfectly the experience of birding in the neotropics, with amazing cinematography and a fascinating story. The National Audubon Society is proud to play a part in this documentary. It’s been a huge boost to our conservation and community projects in Colombia.
— Matthew Jeffery, International Director, National Audubon Society
Wanted: Dynamic and creative storytelling agency for amazing adventure in the world’s greatest birding destination...
In 2018, the Colombian Ministry of Tourism selected WhereNext as the perfect storytelling agency to produce their 2019 birding tourism campaign. A mixed private-and-public-sector selection committee unanimously awarded the contract to us over every major production and creative studio, both national and international, with offices in Colombia—including Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Fox Studios.
This cutting-edge integrated marketing campaign, which launched in early 2019, included five documentary films, film festival strategy, PR and influencer strategy, a fam/press trip, an original musical score and record for Spotify, negotiation of partnerships with the Audubon Society and Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, and development of an endless suite of digital-marketing still images and micro-videos.
Our audience exposure and distribution campaign broke the Colombian Ministry’s record (and perhaps any tourism ministry’s record) for organic likes and comments (more than 30 million) and successfully positioned the country as the world’s top birding destination.
WhereNext founder Gregg Bleakney remembers our approach to winning the The Birders tender. “None of us had any idea about birds,” says Bleakney. “So I knew it was a longshot. But I also knew that we, as a dynamic storytelling agency with a proven record of excellence, had a chance to win on passion—and by aligning ourselves with the world’s best biologists, guides, institutions, and natural history photographers to help execute the project.”
As the tender process went through multiple rounds of proposals and live pitches, it became clear that the scope of the project did not require a birding expert as the director. But it did necessitate someone who could build a progressive and integrated nature-themed campaign that would both change the perception of the country and increase the volume of inbound visitors. “The foundation of our successful pitch,” says Bleakney, “was our ability to connect with and enlist world-class organizations like the Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and eBird, as well as National Geographic videographers to advise us and join us in the field. That, combined with the fact that our agency is rooted in powerful storytelling, with 21st-century production chops—and a multicultural ability to market Colombia to foreign markets in their native language—is what ultimately won us the commission.”
Scouting Our Quest and Our Heroes
Following three weeks of field scouting trips throughout Colombia, we decided that biologist and expedition leader Diego Calderon and Emmy-nominated director of photography Keith Ladzinski were the ideal protagonists for the feature-length documentary film. Diego’s name resurfaced on multiple occasions during interviews with local birding advisors. He was legendary within the Colombian birding community. And Keith’s participation was a no-brainer. From their friendship, Gregg knew Keith brought a keen eye for composition, an adventurous character, and a passion for photographing birds in the wild.
The Sounds—and Soundtrack—of The Birders
As an experienced storytelling agency, WhereNext knew that we needed to sprinkle an extra layer of creativity on top of producing this immersive feature film about birding and ornithology culture in Colombia, so we combined the documentary aspect of the project with a musical one. We invited five renowned Colombian artists to create musical tracks based on birdsong recorded in the field during the shoot. Several of those artists also appeared in the final film. The Birders soundtrack (which can be found on Spotify here) brings an incredibly rich new dimension to the final project by combining Colombia’s remarkable bird diversity with the story of its rhythmic diversity. It also created a unique channel for our integrated marketing campaign: music.
Boots on the Ground, Lenses in the Air
Our campaign centerpiece, the final long-form documentary film The Birders, was filmed over 18 days in five different locations along the Northern Colombia Birding Trail. WhereNext head of video Julián Manrique remembers the ambitious filming schedule: “It seemed impossible at first,” he says. “It felt like madness to try and film this kind of documentary in such a short amount of time because of the extremity of the terrain and climate. One day we were at over 13,000 feet shivering in the rain while filming in a high-altitude moorland. The next we were sweating it out in a 100-plus-degree desert. And then in a thick tropical jungle. All while attempting to capture endemic and, in some cases, near-extinct neotropical birds in their natural habitat.”
For the regional documentary film series, we enlisted International League of Conservation Photographers storyteller Morgan Heim as our protagonist. As a passionate “science groupie” and a senior fellow with the ILCP, Morgan was the ideal personality to bring to life the excitement and wonder of birding in four distinct regions of Colombia.
Real-World Tweets: The (Very Painstaking and Meticulous) Edit
An expedited editing process followed immediately after field production. WhereNext was committed to making sure that every single detail in the 18 terabytes of project footage was beyond the reproach of birders, who are, it’s fair to say, a somewhat detail-oriented bunch. There’s nothing that annoys hardcore birders more than when a film uses inaccurate birdsong on its soundtrack. There are countless examples of movie and television soundtracks featuring geographically inaccurate birdsong. (That eastern screech owl calling during the opening scene of E.T. may have added a touch of mystery to the proceedings, but to birders the bigger mystery would be how an East Coast species found its way to California.)
We were keen to avoid any such audio errors, since passionate birders formed a core part of our intended audience. WhereNext audio engineer Daniel Murcia spent weeks in the studio with Diego Calderon checking and re-checking every single birdsong from the 100-plus birds that appear in the feature film. We wanted to make sure each song matched the subspecies, region, and habitat.
In addition to the documentary series, WhereNext also delivered a fully integrated campaign design, consisting of 24 different social media posts and 100 creative advertising pieces for both Facebook and Instagram.
Launching the Biggest Tourism Campaign in Colombia’s History
Partnering with Cornell
To coincide with the release of the film, we partnered with eBird—an app with 3.5 million users that integrates with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird-observation database—to bring the documentary directly to its intended audience through a laser-targeted digital campaign. Colombia has now taken the top spot of eBird’s annual Global Big Day birding contest for three years in a row. Since the goal of the project was to attract birders to Colombia, it was an ideal and forward-thinking partnership—the first of its kind in the travel industry—that also saved tens of thousands of dollars in digital ad spend.
Digital Birding with eBird
The eBird digital campaign featured an innovative creative approach: we organized a contest in which users were encouraged to “bird” via the eBird app while watching The Birders, after which they could submit a list of the three species that most captivated them. The prize was an all-inclusive birding adventure for two on the Northern Colombia Birding Trail. The competition page was viewed more than 34,000 times, and there were a total of 9,226 contest entries. The newsletter sent out by eBird to announce the competition reached 2.9 million people and received 828,000 interactions, while the reach of eBird’s various social media channels topped 290,000.
Influencers with Passionate Followings
In conjunction with the release of the film, we ran an influencer campaign with six world-famous National Geographic photographers and explorers, with a total following of almost 6.4 million. Shared posts about The Birders reached an audience of more than a million people and generated more than 2.1 million impressions.
“WhereNext Smashed It Out of the Ballpark”
Lots of Organic Love
Throughout both the feature film and regional film field schedules, our protagonists and the production crew posted to their social media feeds, generating buzz for the project in the form of 30 million organic likes across Instagram accounts targeting adventure and travel lifestyle audiences—a number that shattered the Colombian Ministry’s record for any publicity project.
Online, Off the Charts
Our campaigns hugely outperformed projected numbers set by the Ministry’s ad agency, Sancho BBDO. The target for clicks of the eBird newsletter was 200,000. Our results clocked in at 414% higher. Similarly, the documentary promotion (the social media channels connected to eBird) hit 301% of the target number of audience interactions, and the results of our influencer campaign came in 365% higher than projections. The Birders documentary series now has more than a million views.
Big Operator and Media Wins
WhereNext was tasked with promoting bird tourism in Colombia to foreign tour operators. In addition to the documentary series and our integrated social media and influencer campaign, we also organized a tour of the Northern Colombia Birding Trail for ten tourism operators and two international journalists. Each tour operator who committed to offering the Northern Colombia Birding Trail received an innovative media package designed by WhereNext and accessed via a password-protected web portal. In the end, every single operator on the fam trip committed to launching new tourism offerings in Colombia.
This trip also resulted in major media coverage. BBC Wildlife Magazine published a feature story, representing huge exposure for birding tourism in a region that was, until very recently, considered unsafe for travel. The late Bill Thompson III, legendary editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, also dedicated a two-part episode of his highly influential birding podcast to the campaign after having visited Colombia as part of our fam trip. The Birders also inspired an exhaustive and highly impactful article in Outside Magazine.
Peace and Prosperity in the Field
Many local birding operators have reported a sharp uptick in requests to explore the Northern Colombia Birding Trail. eBird’s annual Global Big Day birding contest generated an increased interest in visiting areas that, until recently, were mistakenly perceived as unsafe to visit. This is part of the positive economic impact that we’ve witnessed birding having on regions previously considered off-limits due to the now-ended Colombian conflict. Many former hot zones shelter remarkable biodiversity and have great potential for community-based tourism initiatives, not only for birders but also for herpetologists, orchid enthusiasts, and many others.
The Birders dispels a lot of myths about Colombia and promotes the country in such a natural and organic way. The film must have inspired untold numbers of birders to come and visit and get involved with these communities. WhereNext smashed it out of the ballpark.
— Juan Ortiz, Founder, The Colombian Project tour agency
Birds on the Brain
The success of The Birders campaign is a testament not only to the growing interest in birding tourism in Colombia but also to the critical work being done to position the country as a burgeoning, world-class tourism destination in the post-conflict period. Far from just a wildlife documentary series, The Birders campaign serves as an integrated tool in generating true economic alternatives in post-conflict Colombia across multiple markets.
At first, it felt as if they were making a feature film about my kid, and I just hoped it was good. The Birders turned out to be a beautiful tribute to the cultural and ecological milieu that is Colombia. It’s helping to drive business in the region as well: local and foreign operators are telling me that the Northern Colombia Birding Trail is selling like hotcakes. It's just awesome, and I love it, and I'm thankful to WhereNext.
— John Myers, pioneer of the Northern Colombia Birding Trail and co-author of “Peace Is Much More Than Doves: The economic benefits of bird-based tourism as a result of the peace treaty in Colombia”
Having a film like The Birders is important to Colombians in several ways. For starters, it helped to bring attention to Colombia as a developing tourism destination, especially birding tourism. But, more important, I feel that the film has empowered many Colombians and helped them to see how cool our country is—how diverse and interesting the birds, the landscapes, and the indigenous cultures are.
— Diego Calderon, Expedition Leader, The Birders
Our Favorite Takeaway
One of the most significant impacts of The Birders manifests in WhereNext’s Bogotá production offices. Most weekends you can find members of our team out on birding trips around Colombia. Over the production cycle, a group who’d never birded before fell in love with this fascinating and rewarding hobby. That alone sums up the importance of the film in general. The Birders is a film for everyone, from hardcore birders keeping lists on eBird to people who wouldn’t know a toucan from a hummingbird. All you need is the passion and curiosity to explore exciting new cultures through our world’s wonderful wildlife. And helping more people all over the globe find that passion is part of WhereNext’s mission.