What if you could increase community participation in programs and use of facilities by 15 percent by investing as little as 2-3 percent of your operating budget on X initiative?
What if, at the same time, you could obtain anywhere from $2 to $12 return on an investment for every $1 of your agency’s expenditures on X?
And, what if I told you that despite the clear gains of investing in X, the vast majority of park and recreation agencies still don’t do it adequately?
The X factor here is marketing and branding, two areas everyone thinks they know how to do well but few end up truly doing well.
So, how can agencies begin to have productive conversations about marketing and branding initiatives when their definitions are unclear and poorly defined?
The common mistake is that people often use the words “marketing” and “branding” interchangeably, and it’s important to differentiate between the two. For example, a website overhaul or a sporadic social media presence is considered marketing, while modifying a logo or color scheme is considered branding. In simple terms, marketing is what you do; branding is who you are.
Unlocking your agency’s full marketing and branding potential requires a multipronged approach and consistent execution over time. Following are five steps to give you a jump start:
1. Eliminate the ‘Oh, I didn’t know you offered that!’ Excuse
Over the course of hundreds of master plans, business and strategic plans nationwide, the one theme we consistently hear from community members is that there is a lack of awareness about park and recreation facilities and program offerings. According to national benchmark data by ETC Institute, the nation’s leading community-based market research firm, across park and recreation agencies, one out of every four (24 percent) respondents cited, “I do not know what is being offered,” as a reason for not using park and recreation facilities or participating in programs. This barrier is second only to, “We are too busy,” selected by 34 percent of respondents.
The silver lining here is that addressing a lack of awareness is a lot easier and is inexpensive compared to other concerns, like facilities are “too far from residence” (12 percent) or you “do not have the right equipment” (8 percent), which would require massive infrastructure overhaul.
The Moment of Zen: 'Control the controllable' — developing and implementing a marketing and branding strategy is a low-hanging fruit to impact participation.
2. Good Marketing = Storytelling with a Focus on the “Why.”
For all the wonderful work that park and recreation agencies do nationwide, we could certainly do a better job telling our own stories. Agencies are often limited by citywide or countywide communications departments pushing for a consistent voice and controlling messaging. While consistency is a good thing, it is imperative for agencies to educate communications at the 30,000-foot level of the need to differentiate park and recreation agencies from the others. Unlike police, fire or public works departments, park and recreation agencies compete with public or private entities or simply with Netflix binge-watching, Snapchat and video games for residents’ time. For residents, parks are a choice and our storytelling must be compelling enough for them to choose us.
Marketing is too often focused on simply providing information by telling people what is offered, where is it offered and how to participate. The key is to shift your storytelling from being informational to being inspirational.
Good storytelling highlights features and advantages of events programs, but great storytelling highlights their benefits for the participants. By the end of your story, your customers should have the answers to questions like:
- Why should I participate in that special event?
- Why should I send my kid to your summer camp?
- Why should I purchase a membership at your recreation center?
- Why should I enroll my kids in swimming lessons?
- Why should I support the upcoming bond referendum, levy or fee increase?
The Moment of Zen: Great marketing is about telling your story based on the “Why.”
3. Build a Brand that Reflects Your Values
Your brand identity plays a huge role in how people perceive your agency and trust what you do. A consistently narrated story that reflects your values and is aligned with your offerings is a start in building trust in your brand.
Agencies’ logos and branding often fail to reflect their personality or what they stand for. From logos to tag lines and external signage, agency branding often simply reflects what has been there and, thus, it persists.
In addition, while agencies are good at ensuring their own branding is consistent, many fail to monitor external offerings and/or partners’ co-branding with them. How many times have you gone online and found one of your partners using an old logo digitally or even in print? Inconsistent sizes, different fonts, or worse, digitally altering your logo and branding to ‘fit’ what the partner is doing can be a challenge to monitor, but it is critical that you do so.
Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton, Ohio, is an example of an agency that tells a good brand story and integrates it across its entire operations. It is focused on conservation leadership and connecting people with nature. So, starting with its brand story — the blue and green symbolizing the outdoors (the sky and the land) and the consistent integration of its brand in park signage, digital presence, partner events (the Adventure Summit in partnership with Wright State University), national events (National Bike to Work Day) — it ensures that every touch point and user interaction with its brand showcases a consistent look and feel.
The City of San José Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS) recently unveiled its new branding, focused on “Building Community Through Fun.” The underlying premise was to showcase the importance of what park and recreation agencies do nationwide — building a sense of community and bringing people together. The cherry on top: “We Have Fun” while we do the crucial tasks of building communities and changing lives.
The branding took off so well that the mayor of San José referred to the PRNS director as the “Director of Fun!” However, this department also has one of the best-known gang-prevention programs in America. It serves the toughest of neighborhoods and the poorest of the poor and truly impacts people’s lives, but the staff enjoys what it does and showcases its passion for serving the community in a fun, memorable way.
The Moment of Zen: Your brand is your reputation. Guard it zealously because it’s extremely hard to build and very easy to lose. A great example of this is United Airlines.
4. Invest in Resources
All the previously mentioned ideas would simply remain ideas on paper unless agencies prioritize spending on marketing and branding. Following are some important recommendations on this front:
- Develop an integrated marketing and branding plan that informs your action plan and spending priorities.
- Ensure dedicated staffing (even a part-time one if you are a small agency) for marketing.
- Create a college internship position for a social media manager to maximize your social media outreach.
- Build a brand guide that clearly articulates the way you do things for all aspects of your branding (i.e., logo and color scheme use, font and sizes, email signatures, tone and language, social media dos and don’ts).
- Invest in professional design and copywriting support. Too often, agencies have programmers design brochures, flyers, etc., without adequate training or specialization. There are resources that allow you to hire freelancers. Another option is to partner with local design schools or colleges to have students collaborate on projects with you.
- Provide ongoing staff training, starting with the onboarding orientation, to ensure all full-time, part-time and seasonal staff are aware of your storytelling and your brand promise.
- Lastly, ensure that your marketing team has a seat at the table in all key decision-making. During a recent master planning project with Gold Medal Agency, Elmhurst Park District (EPD), Illinois, it was encouraging to see their marketing staff present at every key meeting, from the hiring interview through to the final plan presentation. This ensured that the entire planning process consistently reflected the agency’s voice and every aspect of community engagement was influenced by its lens to maximize participation. It comes as no surprise then that when lack of awareness (“marketing”) is cited as a barrier to participation by 24 percent of respondents nationally, EPD had only 10 percent of its respondents make that statement — a testament to the effectiveness of its marketing team’s efforts and the importance accorded by the district to its marketing and branding efforts.
If you’re still hesitant about making the financial investment, keep this case study in mind: Genesee County Parks and Recreation, Michigan. This agency first conducted a marketing return on investment (ROI) analysis a few years ago by assessing its direct spending on all advertising for its Halloween event. It tracked total print and digital spending on Halloween ads by region and compared it to total visitors from those areas to this event.
The agency found that $31,000 in marketing and advertising spending resulted in more than 32,000 visitors, generating revenues of $424,000 through direct ticket sales, for an ROI of more than $13 in revenue for every marketing and advertising dollar spent. A similar assessment conducted across all its other events resulted in an ROI ranging from $2 to $12.71 in direct revenue generated per dollar spent on marketing/advertising.
The Moment of Zen: Marketing is not an optional “nice-to-have” amenity. It is a smart investment.
5. Embrace Change
Technology and marketing mediums are constantly evolving, and we hear how artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, autonomous driving, etc., will affect how we do things in the future. Invest in technology to enhance the user experience and maximize outreach in the digital age (e.g., responsive design websites, standalone apps and even separate social media accounts, if absolutely needed).
The Moment of Zen: You can choose to change or be forced to change, but change you will — so embrace it.
With ever-increasing choices and competition, dedicated and specialized marketing and branding is a critical tool to an agency’s survival. These strategies are meant to be a road map to help you tell a compelling story that inspires your community to participate, support and advocate for its park and recreation agencies.
Neelay Bhatt is Vice President of PROS Consulting Inc.