Twenty years ago, sportsmen and women had to buy a physical hunting and fishing license from a designated license agent, such as gas stations and sporting goods stores. The agent stored physical licenses and stamps in their license book and gave them to paying customers upon request. If the agent was out of stock of a particular license or stamp, the customer was out of luck. It wasn’t customer-friendly, nor was it efficient for state agencies.
Now, customers can purchase licenses electronically and show conservation officers a digital copy of their license to prove they’re recreating legally. Folks in some states can even electronically “check” their game after it’s harvested instead of visiting a physical check station to let a wildlife technician or biologist tag the animal.
The online licensing system helps customers more easily and efficiently buy their licenses. It also gives them immediate access to recreational activities, meaning they can accept last-minute invitations and purchase a license on the way to hunt or fish. The system helps state agencies sell more licenses, boost their conservation efforts, and collect more data to improve their marketing techniques. So, how did the online system come about, how does it work, and why don’t all states offer it?
To find out, we spoke to Dan Forster, ATA’s vice president and chief conservation officer; Richard Wise, president of Brandt Information Services; and Jenifer Wisniewski, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s outreach and communication chief.
Apps make it easy for bowhunters to buy a license and report their harvest. Photo Credit: Georgia Outdoors App
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 96% of Americans own a cell phone, with 81% of people owning a smartphone. Additionally, nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults own a desktop or laptop computer, and roughly half own a tablet. As technology plays a more prominent role in human lives, businesses and organizations strive to provide online offerings.
State wildlife agencies are no different. Forster said states are working to make the digital switch, but it’s a slow transition because there are many working parts.
For example, if a state agency wants to go digital, they have to:
- change laws and/or regulations,
- get a budget approved,
- purchase and distribute software and devices to staff members so they can access the technology,
- get biologists and law enforcement officers trained on the process,
- and gain public acceptance and support.
“It’s a slog, but states are getting there and making great progress,” Forster said. “State agencies are focused on customer service like never before. They’re all trying to improve license availability and purchasing options through real-time electronic systems. However, states must often overcome significant administrative obstacles to be successful and customers have to be patient and understanding.”
Additionally, Wisniewski said state governments struggle to hire IT professionals, because they can’t offer pay that’s competitive with the IT industry standard.
For these reasons, states are in several different stages of license offerings. For example, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management became the last state to enter the world of digital hunting licenses just two years ago. They sell licenses online, but still require residents to carry a printed license and tag their big-game animals with a paper tag. Meanwhile, other state wildlife agencies, like the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and TWRA, have been fully electronic for several years. They allow customers to do everything from acquiring a license to completing all the requirements of a harvest online.
Forster said most states want to become 100% electronic, but they’re facing both internal and external challenges. It’s like driving. Each state is going to the same destination, but some hit road construction, some get into accidents, and others go through small towns with slow speed limits and detours. They’re all traveling toward the same place, but some states will arrive quicker than others.
Georgia and Tennessee are leading the way. Agency staff from both states worked with Wise and his team at Brandt, a nationally-recognized company focused on hunting, fishing and camping software, to create an app for their customers. Wise said the app helps users get the permissions they need to recreate legally – and quickly.
“The regulations [like needing a license or registering a harvest] will always be there, so we wanted to create a product that helps consumers easily comply with regulations,” Wise said.
Tennessee also offers a mobile way to buy licenses, find public hunting land and report your harvest. Photo Credit: TWRA
Apps are the future for state agencies, and they give customers a lot of power.
Wise said the app can be customized to meet a state agency’s regulations and requirements – regardless of where they are on the go. Potential and current app features allow users to:
- Purchase licenses with a few clicks
- Auto-renew license purchases
- Store and view licenses without cell service
- Report harvested game without cell service
- Access real-time harvest reporting results
- Use geo-location features and other cool tools
- Determine sunset/sunrise times based on GPS location
- Access maps to easily find places to hunt and fish
- Receive push notifications
- Save a credit card or bank account number to their file
- Make a financial donation to the state wildlife agency
- Access hunting and fishing regulations, as well as season and bag limit information
- Stay connected to state agency news and information through its social media outlets
- Round up their purchase price to include a small donation for the agency
Wise said the app is critical for customers, because it removes barriers to participation by making hunting and fishing licenses more accessible. Meanwhile, it’s also critical for state agencies, because more licenses sold means more financial contributions to improve hunting, shooting and wildlife-associated recreation.
“The majority of these agencies are self-funded, meaning they rely almost exclusively on license revenue, and it’s leveraging value to obtain federal excise tax dollars to accomplish their mission,” Wise said. “They need that one-more-license to preserve one-more-acre or create one-more-camp for kids, and we wanted to help them do that.”
The TWRA made the switch to selling online in 1999 and pumped up its online efforts in 2017 by creating a mobile friendly site. It started offering the app in 2014 and made a huge upgrade in 2018. Wisniewski said it was a slow, painful process, but they did it to please hunters and anglers, especially the younger generation. So far, it’s paid off. More than 75% of hunting and fishing licenses sold in Tennessee are obtained online using a computer or mobile device.
“If I told a 20-year-old they had to go to a store to purchase a license, I don’t know if they would,” Wisniewski said. “If they can’t get it online, then it doesn’t exist. The system overhaul made it more convenient for current hunters and anglers [to get their licenses], but also made us relevant to the upcoming generations.”
The online transition helped the TWRA:
- Generate more revenue. Wisniewski said people spend more money when they buy their license online because they often make impulsive buying decisions, like upgrading to the durable collectible license card or buying hats, stickers and water bottles. In fact, the average dollar sale for each transaction increased by $5 when people buy online. The state’s license revenue increased by 15% from 2018 to 2019. Wisniewski also said more than 62,000 customers signed up to auto-renew their license sale purchase, which generates a steady revenue stream for the agency.
- Collect better data. When people fill out their own information online, Wisniewski said, they give correctaddress, phone number and other personal details. Allowing people to complete forms themselves eliminates miscommunications between customers and license agents who fill out the customer’s data over the counter or phone. The online system also links a customer’s hunter education information with their profile, which creates a more robust database.
- Fine-tune their marketing efforts. With more accurate customer data and information, TWRA staff could take a more targeted approach to their marketing and R3 efforts. The R3 movement strives to “recruit, retain and reactivate” hunters. The agency sends specific messages to customers based on their demographics and license-buying habits, which helps improve retention.
Wisniewski said there was little resistance to the online transition. Some residents voiced their desire for paper licenses, but they were among a “dwindling minority.” The agency still allows people to buy licenses through other channels, including over the phone or through a designated licensing agent. Wisniewski doesn’t foresee the agency cutting those options because it wants everyone to feel comfortable buying a license, even if that means using an old-school method. Regardless, providing online opportunities allowed the agency to grow.
“Going online was ultimately a smart transition for us,” Wisniewski said. “It allows us to make more money and boost our R3 efforts to keep more people in the outdoor industry, so it was worth the time, effort and challenges. Plus, it made our customers very happy.”
Forster said state agencies are headed in the right direction, but offerings still vary nationwide. He encourages ATA members and consumers to become familiar with licensing requirements and regulations in their state, so they can comply and encourage customers to comply. Wisniewski encourages folks to call their state agency staff for clarity if the rules are confusing or hard to find.
“If your state offers an online option, embrace it,” Forster said. “Use it, recommend it to friends and take full advantage of it, because the more you use it, the better data states can collect.”
Questions? Contact Dan Forster at (866) 266-2776, ext. 128, or email@example.com.
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