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Feature Article - November 2018
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Spread the Word

Boost Program Participation With Savvy Marketing

By Joe Bush

For the grand opening there was an open house with short sample classes that were free to the public all day long. Interspersed with Zumba classes were classes like ballroom dance and Tae Kwon Do, and throughout the day there were drawings for free shirts and tank tops that collected e-mail addresses for future marketing efforts.

The shirts matched the branding of the facility, website and advertising materials, and were provided to Zumba instructors at no charge for free advertising; many of them taught at multiple studios and had a loyal following.

"Additionally, we wanted to reduce every barrier to entry," said Hegreness. "You could participate in any class for the first time at no charge. All you had to do was complete a slip of paper with your contact information and one or two simple questions. We were so thorough with the targeted advertising that it was impossible for people not to be aware of the studio opening.

"In fact, in response to the survey question, 'How did you hear about us?' a few people made comments to the effect of, 'How could anyone not have heard?'"

Phillip Rogers, the marketing and enterprise development manager for the Arlington (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department, said digital media is perfect for lower budgets because of its nature. Rogers worked with Hegreness in Arlington, where Hegreness held the same post.

"The beauty of digital marketing is its ability to scale," said Rogers. "It's becoming tougher and tougher to reach your audience organically through Facebook. Many people assume that 26,000 Facebook followers means 26,000 people will see the post, and that simply isn't the case anymore.

"Having said that, the targeting opportunities within Facebook and the ability to target a finite audience with a specific message is still extremely valuable. I think those that aren't currently utilizing Facebook ads or Google AdWords would be surprised at how many more people they could reach by allocating a percentage of their marketing budget to digital ads."

Tactics must be measurable, said Rogers, and one of the benefits of social media and digital tools and strategy is the data they produce. Rogers said his department's general marketing goals are related to participation rates, online registration percentages, website sessions, social media impressions and brand awareness.

Rogers said his department's website is one of the most-visited sites within the city of Arlington, with nearly half a million sessions annually. His five-person team is active on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, the primary feed of which has more than 26,000 likes. In search of new target audiences, they have started using SnapChat geofilters, creating custom photo frames for some special events.

His team uses Google AdWords for digital advertising, sends a weekly e-blast to a 26,000-person subscriber base, uses Nextdoor for targeted city-wide and neighborhood postings, produces an assortment of photography and videography spotlights for use on internal city channels and for radio and TV spots. It also uses software such as Sprout Social and Fanpage Karma for social media scheduling and analytics on both internal accounts and for peer review.

"An indirect goal includes being as responsive to our residents as possible by regularly populating our social media feeds with relevant content, and creating an accessible website that is both user-friendly and easily navigable on a smartphone or tablet device," he said. "While rec centers and admin offices close for the night, the website and social media feeds are the 24/7 doorstep to our department and need to be treated as such."

Clearly, Rogers' team has the benefit of a substantial budget, yet those tactics don't need that much funding, just time and knowhow. Both of those are still challenges for most departments, however.

The education aspect has been addressed above, with plenty of free advice and sharing and seminars and certification programming available. But even one well-educated marketer can be overwhelmed in a role that may include other duties because of staffing constraints.

"One of the biggest pitfalls that I faced myself is capacity," said Carusona. "I can't tell you how many times departments I've talked to said, 'Oh we're going to open a Twitter account and a Snapchat account and they don't necessarily have a policy, a procedure, and strategy to match it.

"You can have an account for every community center, an account for every program, but if you don't have the people to manage it and don't have an effective strategy behind it, you're hurting your brand. When I started here and thought about how I wanted to market to our members across the state I had a lot of bold and exciting ideas but had to come back to realize that I'm one person and we're a small team and I can't have all these accounts sitting out there but not engaged with them."

Don't overextend is Carusona's message. Make sure you have the ability to manage what you start.

"Sometimes individuals get in over their head," he said. "Just because you run your own Instagram or Snapchat doesn't mean you know how to run one for an organization. Next thing they know, there's a firestorm on social media because there's trash in the park or something's not closed and the city is not responding and the city is expected to respond 24/7.

"When you open up all these channels of communication you need to understand that, one, it's public record and, two, you're expected to respond. A lot of times departments aren't investing in marketing and social media, and a lot of times it's a full time job."

Carusona recommended starting a marketing strategy by gathering as much information as possible on the community you serve. For example, he's conducted a survey on how the target audience uses social media, how often it reads promotional e-mails or if it even wants to receive them, how does it view parks and rec, etc.

"This survey has really changed how we do both our communications and our programs," he said. "Not being afraid to ask, 'What do you want and what can we do for you?'"