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Spread the Word

Boost Program Participation With Savvy Marketing

By Joe Bush

What good are great facilities, dedicated recreation professionals, and unique and comprehensive programming if no one knows about them?

Marketing your facilities and staff and what they teach and coach helps ensure the community can take advantage and maximizes the revenue needed to keep the good times rolling.

It can be intimidating to do what's necessary to reach the masses, or the right portion of the masses: Who will do it? How much time and money will it take to come up with ideas and execute them? How do you find the best tools and tactics to maximize efficiency?

Some parks and rec departments have enough resources for a dedicated marketing staff, but more don't. The ones that do can help the ones who don't with simple tips to start or boost marketing efforts that won't cost too much time or money.

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) at its annual conference offers marketing seminars with titles like "Kick It Up a Notch: Developing and Implementing an Engaging Brand Message," "Marketing Your Park—25 Easy, Zero Budget Tips on Increasing Awareness Through the Internet," and "A New Division of Parks and Recreation: Community Engagement."

You can use resources closer to home as well, said Matt Carusona, program and communications director for the North Carolina Recreation & Park Association (NCRPA). Carusona started a marketing program when he worked as an assistant supervisor of festivals and community celebrations for the city of Chapel Hill, N.C., and said you're not alone when trying to build or improve your marketing efforts.

He suggests making use of the knowledge of marketing people in other parks and rec departments, as well as that of state associations.

"One of the nice things about our field is they're not competitors," Carusona said. "Most people in this field are not concerned with big dollars or recognition—they're concerned with their communities and more than willing to share what they do. Collaborating is huge."

In addition, said Carusona, members of the community you serve can be a resource, and not just the ones who work in marketing in their own careers. The digital age has allowed regular people to become stars on YouTube and Instagram using nothing more than their ingenuity and web or phone camera.

"There's so many people out there who love parks and outdoor space and the programs you do," he said. "Creating ways for them to be your content creators takes a lot of the stress off the marketers and parks and recreation communication professionals, and not only that, it creates more engagement. It gets people excited, it gives them ownership."

Asking users of your services and facilities to share pictures on a dedicated social media platform is the easiest form of this. At NCRPA, Carusona borrowed a social media idea called "batoning"—an organization lets people use its social media platform for a day—and every day each July NCRPA lets a different parks and rec department across the state post pictures of its community, staff and facilities on the NCRPA Instagram account.

Carusona said there is a waiting list each year for the feature.

"They post pictures about why they love their community, why they love their job and why they love what they do," said Carusona. "It has threefold success: It gives our members a trial run of a new medium, to get comfortable with it and get used to it without necessarily having to go through the challenges of creating a policy and getting approval from their (Public Information Officer); it creates exposure for some of these smaller departments, so a small town that doesn't have a huge department and huge population is able to show off some of the neat things they have; and third, it promotes the NCRPA.

"I know Instagram takeovers are not new, but it was when we started it, and it's been really successful."

Use of social media is a must in marketing, but pros warn that simply opening an account on Facebook or Instagram or YouTube will not do the job.

"I think it is easy to get too caught up in marketing tools and fail to put enough time into learning effective tactics," said Ryan Hegreness, operations manager for Westminster (Colo.) Parks, Recreation & Libraries. "I see a lot of park and recreation professionals chasing the latest platform or tool, thinking that adding yet another social media platform or using a clever image filter tool or Boomerang video equates to improved marketing.

"Over the last decade I've become less interested in the specific tools and much more interested in strategy. I'm really drawn to the subjects of psychology, behavioral economics, and anything that has to do with how to more effectively communicate and spur people to action. Tools are temporary, but tactics transcend tools and time because they are rooted in human behavior."

Being skilled at social media for your own personal purposes is not the same as using it to promote, raise awareness and drive action, said Hegreness. It is merely one piece of what should be a well-planned strategy encompassing employee buy-in and engagement, digital and social media, and print.

Hegreness uses as an example a campaign he was a part of when he was the assistant director of programs for the Chittendon Central Supervisory Union in Essex Junction, Vt.

The department ran group fitness classes out of half of a multipurpose room with tile floors. Zumba was taking Vermont by storm at the time, said Hegreness, and there was a lot of demand for more group fitness programming and a better facility. The department rented a commercial space nearby and converted it into a fitness studio, and because the Zumba crowd was the target audience, all the colors used for walls and decorations and equipment were vibrant.

It created a stand-alone website for the studio and put together a digital advertising campaign and search engine marketing campaign targeted to people looking for group fitness classes. The pricing model was simple and competitive, incentivizing people to commit to a full session or buy a multi-day punch card.

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?'"

Hegreness has his own suggestions for marketing on a budget:

  • Before you spend a lot of money, are you doing your best with what you have?
  • Are there things you can stop doing to free up resources?
  • Educating yourself and your staff is cheap and impactful.

"You can take small steps like simply writing better program descriptions, improving copy on your website, or implementing some improved customer service tactics," Hegreness said. "Do customer surveys or focus groups to see what your citizens want or how best to communicate with them. Begin educating your leadership on the opportunities and benefits of improved marketing. Put together a plan that outlines how investing in marketing will generate a return on the investment."

He has another example of how marketing can be strengthened with just some inexpensive tweaks. Westminster has for several years offered a free fitness week at the start of each new year. The facilities were open free of charge to encourage people starting their New Year resolutions to check out them out.

Hegreness said the program was successful in creating a spike in attendance and getting new people in the door, but even though the attendance numbers were strong, revenues were flat, even in years when significantly more people took advantage of free fitness week.

"In 2016 we made one very simple change to this program that took our sales for the week from an average of $15,000 to more than $185,000," said Hegreness. "What was this change? A simple call to action and incentive to enroll. It seems so obvious, but for years the call to action was, 'Check out our facility for free,' and that is what people did.

"By simply adding 'Limited Time Offer on Fitness Passes! Valid Only During Free Fitness Week,' we had an unprecedented number of new guests buy memberships. No, this wasn't a one-time fluke. For the past three years we've seen similar results, even when changing the promotional offer."

Hegreness emphasized that that example is not witchcraft, nor does it require special training. Earlier this year a parks and rec staff member who had seen Hegreness and one of his colleagues, marketing supervisor Rich Neumann, present at a national conference replicated the free fitness week with the special promotional offer.

"They saw 1,000 new customers and did over $100,000 in sales that week, an $80,000 increase from the previous year," Hegreness claimed. "What I love about this example is that this is purely tactical. It isn't a new platform or tool, it is simply understanding your objective—new memberships, not just more visitors—and applying proven strategies of communication and persuasion, such as scarcity, commitment and ownership.

"This is one of my favorite examples, not just because of how successful it was, but how such a simple change in advertising can make such a profound difference—and anyone can do it!"



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