– Community parks are positioned somewhere between for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations; which presents strategic challenges.
– Parks agencies should be thinking like a retail brand when developing communications and engagement strategies.
– Marketing doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective.
– Build relationships through ongoing efforts, not one-time projects.
Retail brands have customers, sports teams have fans, doctors have patients, and gyms have members.
You might be thinking, “Yeah, duh.” But there’s a reason I want to start by pointing out the obvious – and that’s to establish a model as we move into the less obvious.
When we think about a provider offering a user experience, we typically envision a commercial entity operating for profit; the retail brands, sports teams, doctors, and gyms. On the other end of the spectrum there are charity groups who provide goods and services but rather than profit or revenue, they operate based on donations. Somewhere in the middle between for-profit and non-profit organizations are community services; and those are the less obvious entities I referred to at the beginning.
Community services need to think like a for-profit, but act like a non-profit. They have direct competitors, but aren’t competing in the traditional consumer market. They need to attract users, but don’t typically generate revenue. This disparity can be confusing for those on the outside looking in, and it can be equally confusing for those on the inside trying to make operational decisions.
I’m interested in discussing these topics because the current consumer environment is significantly different than it was just a few months ago. For-profit businesses are going in-and-out of operation based on government regulations, and consumer behaviors are changing as a result.
As more and more consumers are looking for safe and reliably available entertainment, outdoor recreation is becoming an increasingly popular option. People are able to interact with others, but remain socially distanced. They get to escape their home environment, but stay conveniently local. A common example of outdoor recreation is the community park.
This less obvious entity, sitting somewhere between the for-profit and non-profit sectors, has somewhat of an identity crisis. Parks agencies need people to regularly visit the community facilities, but that’s in order to justify receiving government funding – not to generate revenue. Parks agencies need to position themselves as a competitor among for-profit entertainment options even if they don’t fit within that category.
Having such disparity in who they are presents a significant challenge in determining how they position themselves. In fact, the 2018 Park and Recreation Inclusion Report (NRPA) highlights the need for strategic support as 79% of agencies said they’re looking for guidance on communication and community engagement.
With that in mind, here are a few strategic recommendations for parks agencies in need of guidance and best practices:
Start with an Awareness Campaign.
Just a few weeks ago I was on a bike ride and came across an amazing park less than a mile from my house. It had baseball fields, basketball courts, walking trails, a skate park, and a lot more that I didn’t have a chance to explore. I’ve lived in the same area for years, but I had no idea this park existed. The only reason I know now is because I happened upon the park during a bike ride. Now that I know it’s there, I’ve visited several times and always enjoy the experience.
The general population is aware of community parks as a whole, but they might not be aware of their local community park. Just as a retail brand needs to announce its presence in order to be found by consumers, so must a community park make residents aware of its existence in order to attract visitors. Don’t assume residents follow city development projects. Be proactive in announcing your presence and do this regularly to remind the local community of the wonderful features they have readily available to them.
While government funded agencies aren’t bursting at the seams with a marketing budget, it doesn’t take much for a local awareness campaign to be successful. Especially since the primary target audience is the surrounding community, not the entire city population. Leveraging social media, community newsletters, or other digital communication channels is a cost-effective way to spread the word.
Engage with residents to understand what they think and what they want from their local parks.
Like many other families, I need to get mine out of the house every once in a while. Especially with COVID restrictions limiting our entertainment options, the local park is a great way to enjoy being outside and expend pent up energy. Since visiting the park more frequently than in the past, I’ve been thinking more about the facilities and overall park makeup. Then I realized… I’ve never been asked what I think about our local park. I’ve never been asked what I’d want to see as more parks are built. Decisions are made, infrastructure is built, and I just accept that as part of community development. But as a tax paying resident, isn’t it fair of me to want to have a voice in the matter?
Exploring resident perception and preference regarding community parks offers valuable insight and strengthens relationships. A Resident Perception study would uncover the why and why not behind visitation decisions. It would equip parks agencies with the information needed to make upgrades and address key issues that are preventing public facilities from being regularly used.
Furthermore, listening to resident feedback in this way would also establish a list of preferred features and facilities that residents would like to see added. Resident input could be used to build a guiding framework for new park development. Rather than the parks agency making guesses or hoping for the best, they would be equipped with data-driven insights to make informed decisions and produce something that would add value to the community.
Create resident profiles and craft segmented marketing messages that speak directly to a target audience.
Every community is different. So, it’s important to understand not only the demographic makeup but also the psychographic details that make each area unique. This can be accomplished through the aforementioned Resident Perception phase if feedback results are properly analyzed through segmentation methodology.
Community parks are intended to be used by anyone and everyone. So the point isn’t to build something specific to one group. Rather, it’s to identify what each resident group thinks is most important, what they want, and how they currently perceive their community. These insights will help craft messaging focused on the individual; delivering information that is relevant to them and highlighting features they actually care about.
Treat community engagement and resident feedback as an ongoing process; not a one-time project.
It takes time and energy to reach a target audience and open communication channels. Why do all that work just to close the door as quickly as it was opened?
Community engagement is most powerful when it’s built into an overarching strategy. Resident feedback is most valuable when it’s a regular practice. These efforts are about building a foundation and continually expanding a knowledge base in order to have a data-bank for reference when making decisions.
Thinking long-term, this ongoing process will provide the information needed to identify community trends, highlight shifting demographics, and strengthen a sense of togetherness. When people feel a part of their surroundings, there’s an increased sense of belonging and responsibility. These intangible benefits are what make a community special, and it can be as easy as listening to what they have to say.
Parks agencies operate in the public sector, but there’s a lot to gain by thinking more like a private retail brand. Focus on awareness, understand perception, and regularly gather feedback. These strategic elements will take communication and engagement to the next level.
For the past 35 years, we’ve refined our approach to leveraging data-driven insights in support of strategic action. These practices are as relevant to public parks as they are to retail brands. So, let’s explore how we can empower your parks agency with the insights needed to reach new heights.