Feature Article - May 2007
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A Child's-Eye View

Expanding Your Audience to the Younger Set

By Kellye Whitney

Choose your tools

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."