The Growing Importance of Virtual Programming
By Brian Stapleton
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced the world to virtual yoga, online happy hours, digital birthday parties and even live-streamed weddings. Now, citizens of every generation and technology experience level are learning to embrace virtual engagement opportunities. For parks and recreation departments, virtual programing means additional revenue potential with minimal overhead. As with everything new, growing citizen participation in virtual offerings means showcasing the value of online engagement and using a diverse marketing communication strategy.
The Trend Toward Virtual Activity Engagement During COVID-19
According to the Pew Research Center, Americans of all ages have participated in a variety of virtual activities and events over the past few months during the pandemic's safer-at-home mandate. Thirty-two percent of U.S. adults have hosted a virtual social gathering during the COVID-19 crisis. Consider the following virtual socialization percentages based on age:
- Ages 18 to 29 (48%)
- Ages 30 and 49 (38%)
- Ages 50 and 64 (22%)
- Ages 65+ (20%)
Also, 18% of U.S. adults have participated in an online fitness class or online workout video at home. Again, consider participation by age band:
- Ages 18 to 29 (30%)
- Ages 30 and 49 (22%)
- Ages 50 and 64 (12%)
- Ages 65+ (8%)
What the data above reveals is that citizens across age groups are experimenting with online offerings. Even one-fifth of seniors—a demographic many mistakenly believe do not readily engage with digital technology—have hosted a virtual social event over the past few months, and 8% have taken an online fitness class. Such data should indicate to parks and recreation leaders that they have an opportunity to engage a broad segment of their population in virtual activities, including older citizens who might have limited mobility and transportation capabilities, or who might be immunocompromised and unable to attend in-person events until scientists create a vaccine or cure for the COVID-19 virus.
Also, while it may be no surprise that the youngest adult generation has been most engaged with virtual classes and activities, social scientists predict that the COVID-19 outbreak will change us as a society and how we perceive virtual interactions, particularly in areas such as education. Younger generations of citizens will continue to expect online class opportunities both in the short and long term, and recreation activity directors should plan to continue incorporating such options into seasonal offerings.
Battling a Social Recession
Over the next several months, citizens will be looking to virtual engagement opportunities as safer-at-home mandates end, not only because virtual offerings have proven to be safe and convenient, but because many Americans are feeling isolated and battling depression and loneliness and are still desperate to connect to others. Some analysts believe the COVID-19 crisis is launching our nation into a period of "social recession," an epidemic of isolation and loneliness stemming from months of not being able to interact in person with friends, family, co-workers and neighbors. The social recession is expected to have the greatest impact on seniors, adults living with a disability and those living alone—three groups that are already vulnerable to depression and other physical and mental health risks.
Even though communities are starting to lessen restrictions on public social interactions and are allowing some retail stores and services to resume under specific precautions, it is likely to be months before citizens can gather in large groups, such as at concerts, sporting events and other community groups. Given these ongoing restrictions and the needs for all populations—including our most vulnerable—to connect, citizens will continue to need open, convenient and affordable virtual engagement opportunities, and will look to their municipalities to provide them safe virtual spaces to connect.
How to Promote Online Virtual Offerings
To generate awareness and participation in virtual activity offerings across demographics, parks and rec departments should plan to use a multi-channel communication strategy that aligns with many of its traditional event and activity marketing tactics, including the following.
Reach citizens likely to participate in online activities where they are already spending time: in front of a computer or mobile device screen. Use your parks and rec department's social media accounts to promote online offerings. Create a dedicated hashtag that you and your citizens can leverage to draw attention to this new engagement model and further encourage participation, such as #virtualcommunityname or #communitynameonline. Encourage event participants to take a selfie while participating in an online class or event and share it online, tagging your profile and using your hashtag.
Update Your Online Course Catalog
Create a new section in your activity catalog to promote your virtual offerings. Give the area prominence so that citizens cannot help but notice new offerings. By placing your virtual offerings in your seasonal catalog, you will draw the attention of traditionally engaged citizens who look to your department throughout the year for classes and events.
Offer Discounts for First-Time Participants
While you will need to pay your instructors and potentially cover the costs of your video streaming technology tool, your overhead for online classes and activities will likely be lower than in-person courses, which means you can afford to offer incentivizing discounts. Encourage first-time participants a reduction in registration costs as motivation to experience the convenience and connection of online classes and events.
Share News of Your Virtual Initiatives
Citizens are turning to local media outlets for news and updates about the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on their communities. Submit a press release to local journalists to inform them about your department's commitment to virtual programming. Any stories about your initiative that run in your local media reports will gain high visibility and help you gain registrants.
Eliminate Barriers to Technology
Three hundred million people have used the Zoom video conferencing tool during the COVID-19 crisis. While millions of Americans have gained familiarity with digital technology, there are still many for whom such software poses a barrier to engagement. Offer reference materials, video tutorials and even phone consultations as guidance on using virtual engagement technology for those who want to connect but do not feel confident with the tech they need to do so.
Work with Local Influencers
Identify those citizens with strong social media followings and invite them to participate in your programs and share their experiences with their network. For influencers with thousands, or even millions of followers, they have incredible power to generate awareness and motivate peers who respect their opinions to take their advice on products, services and entertainment opportunities.
Involve Elected Officials
Some of the most important influencers in your community are your elected officials. When your citizens see their mayor participating in online yoga, or they can learn to paint in the same class as their town clerk, they will feel connected to their community in a powerful and meaningful way.
With concerns of a social recession, putting our citizens at risk of depression, anxiety and other physical and mental health risks, people need their recreation departments more than ever. As you begin to reopen your facilities, do not deemphasize the continued need for virtual engagement opportunities for vulnerable and tech-minded populations. By using a variety of communication methods to promote your offerings, you can boost engagement and revenue, and move a step closer to your goal of keeping your community healthy and safe.
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