Feature Article - March 2010
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Expand Your Reach

Marketing in a Web 2.0 World

By Stacy St. Clair

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."