Partnership Profile: Niantic, Inc.

Two visitors standing at an overlook pointing towards a volcanic crater

Visitors take a self-guided tour using the NPS App at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

NPS Photo / B. Hayes

Sparking a Love for Outdoor Exploration in a Connected World

Niantic logo

Founded in 2010, Niantic, Inc. is the world’s leading augmented reality company, creating technologies that power real world gaming, new entertainment experiences and advanced robotics.  The company name was originally derived from the whaling vessel, Niantic, which came to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush of the 1800s. Much like its namesake, Niantic has been charting new waters over the last decade, helping people explore new possibilities. This focus has also served as the goal of Niantic’s partnership with the National Park Foundation (NPF): to spark a love of exploration of nature and the outdoors in a time when we spend more time connected to technology.

The Backstory

During a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times, John Hanke, chief executive of Niantic, almost predicted his company’s partnership with the National Park Foundation (NPF).

The goal of Niantic was always to get people outside and moving. John reflected: "that park near your house...what would happen if people actually used it? Would it get better? Would people volunteer to clean it up when the clean-up day comes around once a year?"

It was a year later when representatives of Niantic and NPF met after a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources on technology use in the national parks that the two organizations struck up a conversation about a partnership.  They shared a common desire: how to get people to the parks, especially lesser-known ones that are close to where people work and live.

Strategic Approach

The Niantic / NPF partnership started small. Following three guiding principles - real world social interactions, physical exercise, and exploration of the world - Niantic sought to connect players with a new kind of gameplay, looking to encourage positive impact and ensure people experience the world around them - a challenge as we all continue to spend more and more time using technology. Through partnership and these goals, together NPF and Niantic are inspiring gamers to become national park ambassadors.

Graphic that says "Each of us plays a vital role in protecting the earth" and lists ways to be more sustainable when visiting parks
  • Amplifying a Key Moment: Recognizing parks as a place of exploration, “the first thing we did was support National Park Week in April of 2017” explained Yennie Solheim, Director of Social Impact at Niantic. “We created maps that included our game locations of parks and monuments that don't generally get a lot of visitors,” said Yennie. “So, players got to visit art, sculptures and monuments that they hadn’t seen before.”  One important goal during this first effort was to manage the flow of players to these sites. “We didn’t want to send thousands of players to these sites at the same time,” said Yennie. “That's not what the parks are about. And that's not what Niantic is about either.”

  • Engaging Players to Explore and Give Back: The first activation laid the groundwork for larger efforts, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the National Trails and Wild & Scenic Rivers acts. As Niantic players were used to rewards when playing the game, Niantic offered an incentive. In exchange for mailing in a postcard sharing a river or trail hike, or posting on Instagram with the hashtags #ExploreWithNiantic and #FindYourWay and tagging Niantic, players received a handwritten note back with a special merit patch. Niantic also made a $5 donation to the National Park Foundation for every postcard and post it received. “Players loved the patch,” said Yennie. “It was a really coveted item that even our employees were scrambling to get their hands on. They also wanted to unlock the donation to NPF."

"Not everyone can drive an hour to visit a park. We wanted to make it as inclusive as possible by encouraging people to go out and explore their closest river or trail."

  • Exploring the Outdoors: In 2021, Niantic and NPF continued to inspire gamers to experience and enjoy the outdoors during National Park Week. Using Pokémon Go, the company featured NPF via a sponsored ad in five U.S. cities. Players could tap to see a special message, inviting them to celebrate our parks and donate to NPF. To provide additional incentive, Niantic matched gifts dollar for dollar, up to $10,000.

Our Results

NPF and Niantic have demonstrated the power for the parks as an inspiration to connect people to the outdoors. In the process, Niantic has helped to protect the parks for future generations, while strengthening its business and the important connections it has to its players. Among the key areas of success are:

  • Engagement and Impact: In total, Niantic and NPF campaigns raised close to $20,000 between consumer donations and matching gifts. The campaigns helped NPF reach new audiences. For example, during the geofenced billboard activation NPF received 1,575,000+ engaged views and most donors were new to the NPF family. Additionally, Niantic drove about 40 percent of all traffic NPF received during National Park Week, which was the single biggest traffic driver. The campaign demonstrated that players want to engage with social impact partner, serving as a proof point for future platform activations. 
Social media post from Niantic

Social media post amplifying Niantic's partnership with NPF

  • Corporate Brand Elevation: The best evidence of the campaign's success came directly from Niantic players. "We recieved a lot of great feedback from participants," said Yennie. "We knew we had their attention when players outside the United States began asking if they could play and earn the badge." Further evidence included social media engagement. “We measured social media engagement over time and across demographics and could see how the partnership corresponded with a positive boost in company perception among key audiences.” Working with NPF helped Niantic deepen its relationship with players around their shared commitment to being outside and enjoying nature. 

Yennie credits NPF for taking each of the campaigns from idea to reality. “There’s an approval process to go through for working with the parks,” she said. “NPF was a great intermediary between us and the National Park Service to ensure the activation was a success.”

While Niantic’s journey on becoming an NPF partner began with a prediction in 2016, the company does not need to predict what will happen next. Niantic is already brainstorming ideas for future campaigns, and ways that its platforms can drive greater excitement for exploration and impact in the parks.

"There's a big resurgence right now in re-connecting with nature and being more environmental," said Yennie. "Spending time in the parks makes you think about how you can run your business and even your life in a more sustainable way."

Insights from the Expert

Yennie shared the following thoughts on building impactful non-profit partnerships:

  • Collaborate and Leverage Best Practices: “The annual corporate summit is a great place to meet and talk with other NPF partners and to hear what they’re doing. By applying their insights, we can strengthen our partnership. Being in tech is a bit of a bubble, attending the summit in a national park, opens us to a different world.” 
  • Let the Parks Inspire Business Strategy: “There’s a big resurgence right now in re-connecting with nature and being more environmental,” said Yennie. “Spending time in the parks makes you think about how you can run your business and even your life in a more sustainable way.”
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