Kevin Fraser knows his way around a tarp.
The 31-year-old, who works as an outdoor educator and wilderness guide in Ontario's Algonquin Park, was showing off that skill on Instagram last week. He posted a picture of his tent and tarp cover, set up in a serene and sun-dappled forest. Friends and followers on the photo-sharing service clicked "like" on the image, and in the comments, one friend complimented the colour combination.
Then, a stranger commented, with an unsolicited history lesson. "Algonquin Park is the location of the Brent crater, an impact crater first studied by the Geological Survey of Canada and the Dominion Observatory in 1951. It's estimated that the meteorite slammed into earth about 450 million years ago, releasing energy equal to 250 megatons of TNT. It's much more peaceful these days," an account called @geostories wrote.
The account is popping up sporadically across Instagram, acting as a kind of digital docent to the history under the feet of social media users.
GeoStories is run by Ottawa-based ad agency McMillan, on behalf of a small group of retirees from the Geological Survey of Canada, who have formed a history committee for the GSC. In a very crowded year for Canadiana, the committee was looking for a low-cost way to celebrate the GSC's 175th anniversary. (The committee is run on a volunteer basis, with no official government funding.)
"Older people are already generally interested in history, they're already convinced to go visit a museum or watch a Heritage Minute. There are, obviously, some older people on Instagram too. But we wanted to focus on how we could inspire the younger generation using the language they are already using," said Michael McDonald-Beraskow, strategist at McMillan, which is working on the project pro bono.
With the historical committee's knowledge and research help, the agency wrote 250 tidbits of geological history for points across Canada. And then staffers combed Instagram for photos geo-tagged to places where that history applies, and jumped into the conversation.
In the first two weeks, it has posted more than 2,000 comments. A person who photographed a bison in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan received a tip that the bones of a hadrosaurian "duck-billed" dinosaur were once discovered nearby. On Bylot Island in Nunavut, another person who posted a photo of the moon above a snowy expanse learned about a 7.3-magnitude earthquake that hit offshore in 1933.
The agency is working on more comments to provide an even wider variety of tidbits on the different regions.
The account also posts its own photos with facts for those who want to follow it, and links to the GSC's Wikipedia page – updated by the committee so that its information is reliable. The campaign has also created individual Instagram accounts for influential (and deceased) Canadian geologists Sir William Edmond Logan, Alfred Richard Cecil Selwyn, Alice Wilson, Joseph Tyrrell, and George Mercer Dawson, with collages of black-and-white photo of each and links to their updated Wikipedia pages. Those accounts are tagged in GeoStories comments that mention their work.
The GSC is also organizing its own celebrations this year, including doors-open events, a website and a series of tweets telling the geological history of Canada through objects such as a wheel odometer, a bush plane, magnometers and more.
"We thought it was just so great to have our retirees decide on their own to do something to raise the awareness of Canadians on Canada's geological heritage," said Andrée Bolduc, director of the Geological Survey of Canada in Quebec. "It doesn't happen very often, does it?"
Surprisingly, the nerdy know-it-all intruding on people's personal photos has not elicited many negative reactions.
"I did find it to be very interesting," said Mr. Fraser, the Algonquin guide. "I love to learn as much as I can about the highlands as they are the most significant feature of Central Ontario."
It helps that the geological retirees have nothing to sell. But there may still be a lesson for marketers in its warm reception: none of the posts are automated, as so much of digital marketing is for efficiency reasons. McMillan staff find posts tagged in the right areas, but then look at them and apply human judgment on whether it's appropriate to comment. For example, someone might tag a photo of their late mother in Lake Louise to share a cherished memory. That person does not need to hear about geology.
"We wouldn't want to hit someone who would be less receptive," Mr. McDonald-Beraskow said.
This matters because many marketers are trying to become more personalized and targeted in their digital communications – and because they are trying to do it on a grand scale, they often automate some of the systems that spread those messages. In a survey conducted by Forbes Insights and Gap International late last year that measured global technology trends that companies are using to meet customers' needs, personalized marketing was the most common priority with 65 per cent of respondents indicating they are working on that.
But it takes careful judgment to know when and where a message should appear, and to make sure it will provide some value, not just promote a brand.
"As long as there is a proper exchange of value, I think you could replicate something like this as an advertiser," Mr. McDonald-Beraskow said. "But it has to enhance people's experience. It can't just be self-serving."