Feature Article - January 2012
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Likes, And Tweets, And Shares, Oh My!

Getting on Board With Social Media Marketing

By Dawn Klingensmith

Ryan Hegreness was scanning his Twitter newsfeed when one tweet out of dozens caught his eye and gave him an opportunity to provide heroic customer service in the eyes of a frazzled mom. She'd tweeted: "Totally sick that I messed up the boys swim lessons. That's a lot of money to lose and the boys are NOT happy w/me."

Having missed the start date of her kids' lessons, she ended her tweet with the hashtag #momfail. (Originally designed to categorize tweets and make them searchable, hashtags have also become a means of expressing comedic or ironic asides.)

Hegreness could have kept on scanning his newsfeed. But instead, the assistant programs director for Essex Junction Recreation and Parks, Vt., checked the department's records and discovered that the kids had registered with his department. He contacted the mom directly and fired off a tweet to let her know it was not too late to join the lessons, though they had already started.

Her next tweet: "Thank you SO much. I've regained some of my kids love and affection :)".

Later that day, she credited Twitter with helping her turn a bad situation around: "…Twitter, you're not a bad friend to have."

Of course, it would have been nice for Hegreness had she credited Essex Junction Recreation and Parks by name as well. Twitter is a potentially boundless public broadcasting system, and a specific shout-out would have been a public relations gain for the department.

But what matters most is that Hegreness went out of his way to ensure customer satisfaction, earning the loyalty and goodwill of a mom who broadcasts her experiences and views to hundreds of followers.

Among social media platforms used for marketing and outreach, Twitter is probably the least understood and arguably the least important. Notwithstanding the back-and-forth between Hegreness and the mom, Twitter is geared more to sharing and disseminating information and tends to be a one-way communication tool as opposed to a conversation starter.

Even after the positive interaction with the swim mom, "I wouldn't try to persuade parks and recreation that they ought to be using Twitter," Hegreness said.

But other forms of social media are a different story: "Most, if not all recreation departments, ought to be using Facebook."

Why Get Social?

The reasons for using social media are numerous. For starters, it's expected. Generation Y has always lived in a world with computers, cell phones and instant communication. As these folks start having children, they become a target market for the parks and recreation sector.

The Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation department started developing its social media program in 2009 because "we wanted to be up on the times," according to Public Information Officer Natalie Eggeman. "We didn't want to be left behind."

In today's digital world, "many recreation departments are already doing registration online, so there's a lot of interaction on the Internet already," Hegreness said.

"You have to meet people where they are," agreed Phil Ginsburg, general manager, San Francisco Recreation and Parks.

Within that digital landscape, social media "is all about developing relationships with customers," Hegreness explained.

Social media allow for conversation between you and your audience. As a public affairs tool, social media provides an easy way to deliver information such as race results, closures and cancellations due to weather, and construction progress reports. You can also post photos and videos, or link to relevant news articles.

Social media also enables your organization to respond rapidly when something newsworthy or controversial happens, as it did in Essex Junction. "In the past year, our department was caught up in a little bit of controversy (and) a battle over who oversees the recreation department—the village or the school district," Hegreness said.

Using its Web site and social media platforms, the department became the public's "go-to source of information," Hegreness said.

In fact, the department developed a section on its Web site devoted to the issue. Staff posted videos of public meetings to YouTube and Facebook, and consolidated relevant news articles on its sites.

Social media "made it easy for us to be transparent and for people to find out what's true," Hegreness said.