Municipal parks and recreation departments may be in the business of providing fun and relaxation resources for visitors, but doing so successfully means getting serious about the business of recreation. It means developing strategic marketing plans so that each city knows exactly who is using its resources and creating ways to bring in more users to increase revenues.
In today’s economy, when many municipal budgets are shrinking, parks departments have had to rely more on outside sources to fund programs and “specialty” parks — like skate parks or dog parks, for example — within their systems.
Because needs can differ significantly from one town to its next-door neighbor, compiling data about your city’s resources and what residents want should be a big part of that plan.
Lauren Hoffman, National Recreation and Park Association director of marketing and communications, shared some of the strategies being employed by members.
“At the National Recreation and Park Association we have been seeing a noticeable shift among public park and recreation agencies to improve and update their marketing and communications strategies,” Hoffman said. “Agencies now have increased responsibility to drive revenues and stay competitive — especially as many continue to rely less on taxes and city budgets. This means that marketing and communications functions have become critical to success and driving business objectives.”
Know your audience and tailor messages appropriately
This is among the strategies the NRPA is seeing.
“To market successfully, park and recreation agencies are doing more research and analysis to better understand their audiences. It is critical to know who it is you want to reach and with what information or messages will work best,” Hoffman said.
Some agencies are delving deeper into the data they already have and are creating audience profiles to help them hone in on specific characteristics, behaviors and preferences. This type of customer profile is used in many businesses. Among other things, it gives insight to know how to appropriately communicate and through which methods.
Hoffman gave the example of an agency in Virginia that understands that the local senior population prefers to receive information through direct mail, so in order to reach that key audience, it continues to invest in direct mail pieces to successfully communicate.
Embracing and applying digital technology methods
Although direct mail works for the seniors in that Virginia area, more and more park and recreation agencies are using email, blogging, mobile technologies and other electronic communication.
They’re also using social media to communicate news and relevant information, reach out to new audiences and gain analytics to help measure their efforts. NRPA member agencies use multiple social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube — and are becoming more experienced in the use of each.
“Agencies are getting creative with content and visuals, as well as implementing contests and other engagement strategies that help them build a following and get their messages seen by a wider audience. They’re also employing the advertising and targeting tools that social media platforms offer,” Hoffman said.
Email marketing is a long-term strategy in which many departments are fluent, while mobile marketing, such as putting seasonal program guides on mobile-app type responsive platforms, is growing.
“Some agencies are even implementing mobile into the experience of visiting parks, with apps that provide guided tours, hiking trail maps, park finding features based on amenities offered and more,” she added.
“Social media platforms have become invaluable to park and recreation professionals’ marketing mix because of the affordability. Most platforms have no cost associated so that factor alone can make a difference for departments that are working with extremely limited budgets.”
Hoffman noted that agencies are also making use of the advertising tools social media platforms provide, which might have been out of their reach before.
Another interesting digital strategy being explored is crowdfunding, which is used by some agencies not only to raise funds to make up for budget gaps but also to raise awareness of and gain visibility for community projects or programs and generate local support online. “Fund Your Park” is the first park and recreation-specific crowdfunding platform, and it was launched by the NRPA. Build relationships with community influencers in new ways
Th e operative term is “new ways,” as most park and recreation agencies have historically reached out to those in the community who would be willing to off er support. Hoffman said several NRPA member agencies are identifying new approaches to interacting with community influencers. Some have identified opportunities to work with local “mom” or “lifestyle” bloggers, who often write about parks and recreation and have huge social media followings.
“By working together and sharing content and information, agencies are finding they are able to reach specific audiences that may not be aware of the programs or services they offer,” she said.
Another example would be agencies that partner with local news outlets, from parent magazines to the weekly or daily news publications.
“Some agencies have a standing weekly or monthly column that they submit to their local news publication. This gives them an opportunity to talk about certain programs, or to provide interesting information that the community needs to know, while helping the publication with its goal of having good articles and information for their readers,” Hoff man said.
One NRPA member agency works with a local parenting magazine by contributing a regular article to the magazine’s blog. Not only does the agency get to reach the audience it wants — local young parents — but the magazine cross-promotes the blog article on its social media platforms, which helps to populate its multiple content streams. Meanwhile, the park and recreation department gets even more exposure.