TikTok Conundrum and Retention Research Spotlighted at the 2023 RBFF State Marketing Workshop


March 1, 2023—HOUSTON—The conversations began at breakfast. As the final day of the RBFF State Marketing Workshop kicked off, agency officials from Texas to Florida to Louisiana and Montana grappled with a burgeoning marketing conundrum: TikTok, the preferred social media platform of Gen Z, is showing much promise in connecting with new outdoor enthusiasts. However, across the table, TikTok is banned by several state governments.


Many state agencies are not allowed to use or download TikTok (or even have the app downloaded on a device connected to a state agency Wi-Fi network). This presents a challenge for state agencies hoping to reach the platform’s base of 113 million American users, primarily Gen Z and millennials. To address that issue, the RBFF State Marketing Workshop hosted a morning panel with a trio of TikTok experts in front of a gallery of some 200 state wildlife agency officials.


“We don’t put any budget into it,” said Sarah Southerland, Social Media Coordinator for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Southerland said her department started their TikTok account in 2021 but was directed to shut it down on state-owned devices last week. Southerland said the app offered her agency a new platform with a new algorithm based on artificial intelligence. Additionally, it helped the department target TikTok’s majority female user base, a vital growth audience in sportfishing and the outdoors.


“All of our growth there is organic, so it was hard to let that go. We’re looking for young, Gen Z and millennial females. The software itself did the work without us struggling through it.” Southerland sees TikTok as a forerunner of the future of social media and anticipates more AI-based technology to play a factor in recruiting future boaters and anglers. 


“Other platforms are now aged,” added content creator Allie D’Andrea. Instagram is now one of the old kids on the block and TikTok is a hot new app that people are using, particularly younger folks. But the demographics aren’t just Gen Z. It goes beyond that to include millennials and older generations. It’s an excellent platform to capture a unique audience.” 


Katie Grant, Communications Director for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said her agency was also directed to remove TikTok from state-affiliated devices. For Wisconsin, that means shifting lessons learned on TikTok to Instagram Reels, though the platforms feature some notable differences. “We just wanted to reach Gen Z now,” said Grant. “They are going to be voters someday. We want them to care about us early and now. They might not be buying their licenses yet, but they will.” 


According to Grant, Instagram is a more aesthetic-focused algorithm, which rose to popularity with millennials in 2014, a completely different social era. “TikTok gained popularity when people were at home making tie-dyed jumpsuits during the pandemic,” she added. “Something pretty or overproduced is less likely to succeed. Human connections are deeper than influencer culture on Instagram.” 


Retention is a New Hot Button Issue 


After a decade spent focusing heavily on recruitment, industry experts are shifting gears to put a greater emphasis on fishing and boating participant retention. RBFF Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Stephanie Vatalaro said RBFF has traditionally been charged with recruiting new people to get out on the water. “We see success in recruitment, but we are also seeing some concerning numbers in retention.”


License sales are at a 10-year peak with growth among youth, female, Hispanic and non-traditional audiences in the sport. Vatalaro says fishing is losing participants at rates often higher than the number of recruited anglers. In 2021, the sport gained 11.6 million anglers but lost 14 million anglers. Fishing participation from 2010 to 2021 rose from about 45 million to 52.4 million. 


However, according to RBFF data, 25-33 percent of fishing license purchasers do not renew their licenses the following year. Additionally, 40-50 percent of boat owners do not continue to own a boat after five years. “We gained five million anglers in one year and now things are beginning to soften slightly,” added Vatalaro.


Lack of time, access, skills, and knowledge all factor in retention. RBFF plans to learn more about the psychology of church, identify retention opportunities and build programs and training for the industry.

Workshop Wraps Up 


On Wednesday, as some 200 state agency representatives from across the U.S. began to filter out of the conference area at Houston’s Royal Sonesta hotel, many were left with new solutions to lingering questions to return to their teams at home. From social media marketing to angler retention, inclusiveness in the sport and key growth areas, this week’s data will help inform future decisions across America’s fisheries. 


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