Feature Article - November 2018
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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.