Expand Your Reach
Marketing in a Web 2.0 World
By Stacy St. Clair
It's one thing to be on Facebook and Twitter. It's something altogether different to be doing it right.
Together, the two social networking sites have more than 300 million users who can be reached at no charge with an intelligent, creative marketing plan. But simply registering on the various sites is not enough. You must engage fellow users, promote your agency without being overbearing and be willing to put in the time.
But don't take our word for it. We went out and found three agencies that are doing it right and reaping the rewards. The fact that all three represent State Park agencies—from Arkansas, South Carolina and Virginia— is no surprise. The various state park systems nationwide have carved out a niche in the social networking world, launching inspired plans to help promote their agencies and succeeding well beyond their expectations. They now network with each other, trading tips on how to attract followers and boost the effectiveness of their already well-received messages.
Virginia State Parks, for example, joined the Twitter universe on Dec. 11, 2008. Operations Director Nancy Heltman saw the success Barack Obama's presidential campaign had with social networking and she wanted to replicate it. Obama's staff took his grassroots campaign into the digital age by embracing Web 2.0 and making it an important weapon in his arsenal. From YouTube to Twitter to microblogs, they got their message out. He had more than 1.5 million friends on MySpace and Facebook, with another 45,000 people following on Twitter. The social media plan allowed the campaign to get its message out quickly and clearly, without a media filter or major overhead.
Heltman watched the phenomena lead to a historic presidential victory, and she wondered whether her agency couldn't benefit from the campaign's example. About five weeks after the election, she registered a Twitter account and began sending out 140-character messages, affectionately called "tweets."
More than 10,000 tweets and over 8,000 followers later, Heltman's experiment has proven wildly successful. She engages with her followers, offers insights about the park operations and makes the park system staff seem approachable, personable and helpful.
"It has been an incredible marketing tool," Heltman said. "It's been a great way to reach out to users. It's definitely made a difference."
Launched in August 2006, Twitter is a micro-blogging service that allows users to send quick, short messages of up to 140 characters. On one typical day this past November, Heltman tweeted about five upcoming events in the parks system, announced an award that one park won, reposted a link that someone else posted about the importance of park patrons, thanked people for becoming "fans" of the park on Facebook, made a joke about "National Talk Like A Pirate Day" and personally thanked someone for following @VaStateParks.
And that was all before noon.
"You have to spend time on it or it doesn't work," she said. "It needs to be an active site or people don't want to follow it."
Heltman spends about two hours on Twitter every day, though not all of it at work. She has set up an account so that it automatically links to an events calendar and posts info about upcoming programs in the parks systems. Some recreation agencies would consider the automated program enough of an effort in the social networking realm. Heltman knows better.
When she gets to work each morning, she logs on to Twitter and checks for any messages her followers have sent. Some have questions about operations, others may want to know about activities at a certain park. Every time it rains, one man messages her to see if the inclement weather has closed a specific park for the day. He could get the same information by simply calling the park, but Heltman happily answers anyway.
"It's important that they view me as another resource, another way for them to get information about Virginia Parks," she said. "I may not always know the answer, but I know someone who does. I never ignore a question."
She keeps the page open on her computer throughout the day, shooting a quick message if something arises or comes to mind. On a recent Friday, for example, she posted a link to the agency's blog, promoting a new entry that explains what insects do in the winter. An hour later, she forwarded—a process known to the Twitterati as retweeting—a link to photos of a park that another user posted.
When she gets home from work, she'll post messages as she watches television or checks her e-mail. It's not unusual to see her tweeting or answering her followers' questions after 10 p.m. Though it's a definite time commitment, Heltman doesn't want her account to seem like a boring bureaucratic site that only exists from 9 to 5. She wants it to be a live, organic endeavor.
"If you don't spend time on it, it doesn't work," she said. "It depends on how diligent you want to be. If you invest the time, it pays off."
Her tweets don't always promote Virginia Parks, either. She often retweets information from the state's tourism board because she believes her followers would have a natural interest in those topics. Given that her followers have an interest in nature, she forwards note-worthy messages from environmental groups, as well. She also participates in Twitter trends such as recommending people to follow every Friday.
And she occasionally tweets something completely unrelated to her job, just to personalize the account and make her followers feel a more human connection to her. She has encouraged people to send Christmas cards to injured soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital, for example. On Thanksgiving Day, she wrote several memes giving thanks for several things, including Virginia taxpayers, natural resources and the thousands of volunteers who support the state's parks. But at the day's end, she took a fun, frivolous tone with the following tweet: "Thankful for the Muppets—they help us keep from taking life too seriously."
"I really find it a lot of fun," Heltman said. "I'm a fairly introverted person, so it's much easier for me to do this as Virginia State Parks, even if it's just me doing it."
When she joined Twitter, Heltman started following people who expressed an interest in the outdoors either in their profiles or by the other users they followed. The majority of those people followed her back and her following blossomed from there. Soon, she didn't need to go hunting for followers. People found her, bringing her to one of the Twitter universe's biggest dilemmas: Should you follow everyone that follows you?
Social media experts are split on this question, and there really is no right answer. Heltman, for the most part, follows everyone who follows her. She believes it builds goodwill and lets potential parks patrons know that she considers their views important. She doesn't follow porn-related users and often removes followers who only want to spam her with marketing promotions.
"If you're Ashton Kutcher and you've got a million followers, you don't need to follow back," she said. "But that's not how most people build relationships. You build relationships by showing other people that you consider them interesting enough to follow."
In addition to finding an easy way to market the parks, Heltman has found another benefit of Twitter. On an almost daily basis, her account receives messages from people who love the parks and want to make them succeed. Given that her job includes overseeing customer service and listening to problems, it's nice to receive positive reinforcement.
"It lets me be involved with people who really like us on a daily basis," she said. "I receive positive feedback that I would never hear if I wasn't on Twitter."
For further proof of the importance of social networking, look no further than Arkansas State Parks' new advertising campaign. The television commercial begins with scenes of 1950s Arkansas with families camping with antiquated equipment and waterskiing in old-fashioned swimming trunks as campy documentary music plays in the background. Flash-forward 50 years and there are energetic, handsome people camping at modern facilities, kayaking challenging water courses, splashing in swimming pools and relaxing in bubbling hot tubs.
The message? These are not your grandparents' state parks. And to confirm it, the advertisement encourages people to find out more about the parks on Facebook. But sending folks to Facebook wasn't just an attempt at hipness. It was a sound marketing move. Arkansas State Parks have a huge following on the social networking site, with nearly 20,000 fans who serve as the agency's greatest cheerleaders.
"Our fan base is awesome," said Joe Jacobs, manager of marketing and revenue for Arkansas State Parks. "It has grown organically."
Jacobs joined Facebook on the agency's behalf in November 2008, when he was home recuperating from an operation. With time on his hands, he decided to tinker with the social networking site and created a presence for the parks there. Though he began with the standard friend page, he later migrated to a fan page that required users to declare their fanaticism for the parks rather than simply befriend it.
Jacobs initially worried people wouldn't follow him from the friend page to the fan page, but his concerns were unwarranted. In less than a year's time, nearly 17,000 people—including presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee—declared themselves fans, creating one of the biggest fan bases for any park system in the United States.
The site's popularity stems from Jacobs' dedication to keeping the page updated and interesting. He posts photographs, asks trivia questions and posts videos such as the aforementioned commercial.
"If you're not trying to engage everyone, then you're not going to be successful," Jacobs said.
The site also has made money for the park system. In concert with Arkansas State Tourism's Facebook page, Jacobs will post notes about available lodge rentals and other programs. Over the Independence Day weekend, for example, both pages alerted fans that Mount Magazine—a site known for its breathtaking views and highly coveted lodge rentals—had lodge openings. Within hours of the posting, the empty spaces were snatched up by people who were surprised (and grateful) to learn of the availability.
"It's all basically free advertising," said Dena Woerner, communications manager for Arkansas Parks and Tourism. "If it's done well and you pay attention, it will be successful."
Woerner, for example, has a rotating weekend staff that checks the page on Saturdays and Sundays to keep it fresh. She also leans on her four tourism writers, who are experts on the parks in their assigned regions, to answer questions—no matter how esoteric. On one occasion, a Facebook fan asked which park would be the best place to see a rare species of toad. Woerner's travel writers found the answer quickly and posted it.
Woerner also encourages the "fans" to post pictures of their state park adventures on the page. The photographs, in addition to being visually spectacular, serve as testaments to the beauty, opportunities and fun that can be found at the Natural State's parks.
"It's time-consuming," said Woerner, who dedicates one to two hours a day to social networking on behalf of Parks and Tourism. "But there is a reward. You're giving people an opportunity to share their park experiences and memories."
Jacobs also has expanded the park system's Web 2.0 presence to YouTube, where he posts commercials and other videos. He also has begun subscribing to other users who post video from Arkansas parks. Those people, in turn, subscribe to his account and are alerted when the newest videos are out.
"It's not costing the state anything but a little bit of my time," Jacobs said. "Everyone loves the response we've been getting."
The South Carolina State Parks waded into social networking with little fanfare in July 2009. The agency launched its page simply, by asking employees to become "fans" and asking them to make the same suggestion to their friends and family. Within a week, they had 1,000 fans—a great start, but even greater things were on the horizon.
"It just grew organically from there," said Gwen Davenport, the agency's sales and marketing manager, who oversees the page.
In August, the park system published a book in honor of its 75th anniversary called Beautiful Places: The Timeless Beauty of South Carolina State Parks, a coffee table piece with breathtaking photos and fascinating history. The book was going to be sold, among other places, at each of the state's 47 state parks. To promote the book, Davenport came up with a plan to personally deliver the books to each park and chronicle the journey on Facebook. The goal was clear: 47 parks in seven days.
The night before she left, Davenport posted a note on the Facebook page explaining the trip and posting Day 1's itinerary. She invited the public to join them and promised parks-related gifts to the first three people who took pictures of the van and posted them on Facebook. The first 10 people who met them along the journey and bought the book were given a free state park passport, which was valid for one-year's admission to all 47 parks. Children received special prizes, too, and anyone who purchased a book was put in a drawing for prizes that included a state park cabin vacation, camping vacation, golf rounds and special state park experiences, among other things.
"Some awesome stuff!" Davenport wrote in her note. "It's a tough job—but somebody's gotta do it. We love our state parks and hope that you can come out to see us and enjoy them too!"
As they drove from site to site in a cargo van, Davenport and her partner Kenneth Reed, the agency's retail manager, posted status updates on their Blackberries. At each stop, they posted pictures and videotaped interviews from the previous park on their itinerary. A few days into their journey, they noticed something incredible happening. Not only was their Facebook fan base growing, but followers were showing up at the parks to greet them.
"We actually had people following us," Davenport said, laughing at the happy memory. "We had groupies."
Despite the turnout at larger parks, Davenport didn't realize how popular Gwen & Ken's excellent adventure had become until they arrived at Woods Bay, a small park in the middle of nowhere. When they pulled into the tiny park—which features a 1,150-foot boardwalk along a cypress-tupelo swamp—they found a group waiting for them in the rain.
"Are you Gwen and Ken?" they asked. "We've been following you on Facebook."
Their page's following grew to more than 4,000 fans during this period, as the public shared memories of the various parks and participated in trivia questions that Davenport posted. Some forged a personal connection with the pair, shooting them messages to ask how many miles out they were from a particular site or chatting about how Davenport resembled Lucy Lawless, the actress who played "Xena: Warrior Princess."
"We sold some books, met some great people, made some new friends, but most importantly we hope we introduced YOU to the fantastic state parks of the Palmetto State," Davenport wrote in her last entry from their trip. "Many of you along the way have told us your goal is to visit all 47, and that's awesome, but we simply challenge each of you to try to visit at least one new SC State Park by the end of the year—you won't be disappointed….Here's Gwen and Ken signing off -for now. Thank you for your support and we hope to see you in a SC State Park real soon!"
The trip proved so popular, Reed and Davenport took another road trip in September to promote the best spots to see the fall colors in the state. They also have continued to post pictures of the scenic parks, hold trivia contests and interact with their fans on a daily basis. "It's their (the fans') page, we just try to facilitate it," Davenport said.
Davenport spends a couple of hours on the page every day, making sure she answers followers' questions and keeps the conversation going. She posts updates frequently, but not so often that it annoys people. The page now has nearly 8,000 fans, an impressive number given it's only eight months old.
"It's probably the best resource we have in terms of reaching the public," she said. "It does take a considerable amount of time, but it's so worth it."
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