A Child's-Eye View
Expanding Your Audience to the Younger Set
By Kellye Whitney
All of these things share a common thread—none of them require a child to leave his or her house or interact face-to-face with another person. All activities can be done alone or interactively in "cyber" groups, and while there are tons of messages floating in the media to encourage healthy snacking and pointing out how to read the labels of this product or that one to make healthy choices, none of these activities has been proven to work well as a method of exercise or nutritional instruction.
So, how can more traditional parks, sports facilities and health clubs compete with that techie mentality and get kids onto ballfields and into rec centers to participate in team sports and other activities?
The short answer is to learn how to market to your audience. The modern child's brain moves quickly. They've grown used to processing many multimedia messages at one time, and as a result their attention span has shortened accordingly. Marketing efforts must adopt a whole new approach to appeal to younger generations, and sports, fitness and recreation directors have to evolve their marketing techniques in order to compete.
When you're marketing a program to small children, for example, often the right person to market to isn't the child, it's the parent. Younger children are still quick to get excited at the thought of doing something new like joining a sports team or a weekend swimming program. Parents, however, may have to be convinced that the investment of their time to chauffer and potentially join in on program activities is worthwhile.
One clever way to get the parents involved is to work in conjunction with schools, where parental consent is de rigeur. Through events and handouts, you can present activities and distribute programming schedules.
"A lot of times we have rallies and get the kids and the parents together," said Cordell Hopkins, former district director of the Chicago Calumet Council of the Boy Scouts of America. "We might go to the schools and talk to the kids first, but then we'll invite them to an outing where we actually do the signup and things like that. At that point we get the parents. The kids were already excited. We got them in school. That's why he's here at this meeting with his parent. But now we get the parents excited about why they need to be involved. We need their involvement as much as the kids' involvement because of the volunteerism and how scouting works in that particular case. Once you get the kids, you've got to get the parents. Once you get the parents, the program will take off."
When considering how to market youth programs, the age range of a potential audience can be fairly broad. In scouting, for example, it ranges from 7 to 18. In order to capture the attention of the tween and teen audience, the marketing approach should shift to target the child personally. Hopkins said the marketing appeal is basically the same across ages, except that older kids will need less parental buy-in. Instead, marketing efforts should center on things that will attract teenagers.
"You have to find out what drives them," Hopkins said. "Teenagers like to do things. They like to be out and about. They like girls or they like boys, so when you do a teen program you look to make things specific. A lot of times in teen programs you can make them co-ed because one draws the other—girls draw boys, and boys draw girls. A lot of times people forget that, but that's a big reason why teenagers join programs—for social reasons, and for fun. It's a social outlet to meet people."
Teens and tweens are their own audience with their own preferences. And while parents may be the target for marketed programs for younger children, that doesn't negate a small child's preferences. Diane Landsman, president of Ideas That Work, a marketing and corporate communications company, said that in her experience as a mother and as a marketer, if you sell the kid, often you sell the mother.
"You always want to position your pitch as something that would be of interest to the child," Landsman explained. "Gone are the good old days when mom made the decisions. The real consumers in the family are the children. You want to make it something that resonates with the child especially if you're selling a program that even smacks of anything that might be good for them. You have to be especially careful that you don't undermine the fun in the interest of the benefit, whether it's health, nutrition, education, whatever."
When crafting marketing messages, don't talk down to kids. Instead, Landsman said you should try to remember what it was like to be a kid, yet recognize that today's children are a lot more sophisticated and aware. They can understand something that's a bit more sophisticated than you might think, but be careful not to over-promise. Kids are smart. If you lure them in with a colorful invitation and they get there and there's no program to back it up, you've shot yourself in the foot.
"Make sure your programs are as good as your marketing," Landsman suggested. "If they aren't, take a look at that first. Word-of-mouth will be huge if you've got a good program. In recreation, with park districts and that kind of thing, kids talk. Moms talk. That will be your biggest marketing success story, word-of-mouth."
Marketing for kids is based on the same principle as any other demographic—to create awareness, said Ola Mobolade, a director at the Greenfield Consulting Group, a marketing research firm. Recreation program supervisors and others responsible for youth programming must ensure their marketing efforts reflect what's important to kids. Essentially, understand what drives their interest and then focus on those things, such as fun.
"Kids have limited time for fun and play," Mobolade said. "Programs are an opportunity to interact with other kids. Maybe that's a key benefit. Understand barriers to participation. If kids don't know about it or it's not familiar or visible, then marketing is key—it's a main step to be taken. If kids do know about it, and there are other issues that contribute to low participation, marketing can help in some instances. Programs might not be well aligned to kids' interest, and it may require revising the program."
How the information is presented, what materials you produce and distribute to inform or remind about program activities, whether you use bright colors, trendy, pop-culture-inspired themes or even some element of online interactivity, consider how your marketing strategy promotes activities so that programs are well received and well attended.
"We talk to the kids," Hopkins said. "We try to get in front of the kids and talk to them, sell them on the benefits and why they should do this. That tends to work better, being right in their face, as opposed to giving them something to take home like a flyer introducing a program. We go classroom to classroom and visit the schools and have actual conversations with the kids on why this is cool, and what the advantages are."
However you execute a marketing strategy, efforts must be ongoing. Just as it takes months or even years to firmly establish a consumer brand, it takes time to market recreational programming, and establish good word-of-mouth and, ultimately, repeat participation in popular activities. Once programs are up and running, Hopkins said you still must market and sell the kids on up-and-coming programs that you will be sponsoring this week, next week, next summer.
"Marketing is constant because the goal is to keep their attention," Hopkins explained. "Once you lose that, it's hard to get people back. You strive to keep finding those things that keep them hungry. It's like dangling the carrot. You have to keep dangling that carrot in front of them to keep them coming back."
Determining what marketing strategy to follow may vary by location as well as by participants' age. At the City and County of Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, all classes, programs and events throughout the year incorporate physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health benefits, and culture is key.
"We offer traditional sports such as basketball, volleyball, tennis and swimming and of course Hawaiiana," said Jaysun Chun, who runs the Hoomana Project in Waipahu, a low-income, high-risk area. "Hawaiiana classes consist of all aspects of the Hawaiian culture such as music, dance, games, arts and crafts."
Youth programs often fail when marketing efforts simply don't generate interest at the right time or use the right tools. Hopkins said in urban areas, it's often a lot tougher to sell kids on park and recreation programs because the interests are different, and traditional marketing efforts may not work.
Non-traditional marketing efforts incorporating elements of pop culture can work well to appeal to tweens and teens, whereas more traditional marketing may work well for younger kids.
"Send a really cool postcard or a cutout, paper doll or coloring page that they can put on the refrigerator and talk about with mom," Landsman said. "If you can have some kind of interactivity on your Web site, great, but most programs don't have a lot of money to spend on marketing, and I really don't think under the age of 10 the bells and whistles make that much difference. It's color and creativity, it's getting the kids excited."
She added, "For the older kids you might want to consider conducting a survey online or somehow getting them engaged in an interactive way or via text message or something, but again it depends on your budget."
Mindy Carey, marketing manager for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) for Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation said past marketing efforts done in conjunction with schools produced flyers that often didn't make it home because the marketing tool was inappropriate for the medium.
"I don't even know if they're always given out," Carey said. "Now for a big program or family activity, we publish a very nice print piece called a rack card. We stopped doing flyers for the schools. Instead we get enrollment numbers at schools and send the appropriate number of rack cards, and they do make it home with the student to the parent. Once a month we put out a printed piece, which is also available on our Web site, called 'In Any Event.' That is a monthly calendar that goes chronologically of mostly one-day or two-day programs."
The M-NCPPC, a large public agency that serves Prince George's County and Montgomery County, also makes use of the Web in its marketing efforts. In the past, a program guide was direct-mailed to every household. Unfortunately, many wound up being recycled or tossed, and Carey said the public affairs and marketing office used to receive quite a few calls asking, Where's the book? Where's that guide with the list of classes?
"We implemented a new system that we call SMARTlink," Carey said. "Anyone can get a free SMARTlink account. They're given a PIN number and a bar code, and using that they can log on and register for courses. They can use a touch-tone phone, they can still use mail-in registration and walk-in registration if they have to, but SMARTlink gave us a database, and the guide is direct-mailed only to every household with a SMARTlink account. The information in terms of classes is always online. Our Web site has been more and more popular since we first began using it."
The M-NCPPC also puts out a 50-page brochure for camps, playgrounds, teen centers and specialized day camps such as arts, musical, basketball, computer animation and culinary camps. Roadside marquees are used outside facilities to appeal to parents driving by and inform them of the new program activities.
Giveaways are another popular way to create interest and to inform. Carey said the M-NCPPC gives out pencils when staffers speak at elementary or middle schools, as well as mugs and key chains with the park's Web address on them.
If your marketing budget allows for it, it can be helpful to pay and advertise in relevant periodicals or on school posters alongside sports game schedules. These posters are often put up in local grocery stores, and may even sell advertising slots.
More high-tech marketing tools such as commercials and TV ads are effective and interactive ways to generate interest and participation. M-NCPPC has aired commercials through Comcast to recruit lifeguards. The ads air on stations such as MTV where research suggested viewership would be greatest for kids in the age group most likely to swing by for lifeguard applications, Carey said.
"For programming that falls specifically under my jurisdiction, we have created a 2-minute commercial that is played throughout the middle school during morning announcements," Chun of Honolulu said. "We also work closely with school faculty that make referrals to the program that directly address issues of youth gang involvement. Being visibly on campus has also helped to promote programs that are available for the youth within our community."
If marketing is done right, and considers the audience's age, their motivation as well as which tools are available and most suitable to promote activities and program messaging, it can make all the difference in the world, Landsman said.
"If you can generate excitement and a level of engagement before they even walk in the door, then you're going to get that much more once they're there and actively participating," she said. "I've seen it happen so many times where something that's presented well, like a safari program that you've given a theme, made it colorful, made it exciting, beating the drums a little bit beforehand. It's like inviting a child to a birthday party. If they get an interesting invitation, they're excited about going to the party, and it's the same with a program at a Y or at a park district."
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