Feature Article - March 2010
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Expand Your Reach

Marketing in a Web 2.0 World

By Stacy St. Clair

Tweeting From Virginia

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.