These days just about everybody uses social media in some form, be it Facebook, Twitter, photo sharing sites or blogs. It’s a great way to keep up with family and friends, or to find the best deals from your favorite brands, right? But what can social media do for parks and recreation?

Why use social media? … the four E’s
Engagement: People are finding more reasons to use social media, not less. A January 2010 report from The Nielsen Company showed a huge increase (82 percent to be exact) in time spent on social networking sites. Multiple studies show that usage is up within all age groups from the teenagers to grandparents.

By utilizing social media as a tool, parks and recreation departments can literally take their message to the masses and in a format with which most people are most comfortable communicating. Social media provides a ready and listening audience for your message, and it gives people the chance to interact with your department. People find their overall experience to be enhanced when they can interact with the department and each other.

Economics: Using social media will ultimately save parks and recreation departments money by reducing printing costs and allowing for more focused awareness campaigns. The tools themselves are free but they do cost in manpower to properly manage. There’s good news about that! The need for manpower means that social media creates the opportunity for job generation. Whereas most printing and other advertising jobs are outsourced, someone can be hired by the department to focus on managing social media networks. Through using analytics (looking at the numbers involved with the sites, including how many people use them and how), parks and recreation departments will be able to determine a direct return on investment for the grant and tax dollars spent funding the position.

Environment: By reducing the need for printed materials, using social media means departments can have less of a negative impact on the environment. Less paper being produced also means less trash to clutter the pretty parks and other recreation facilities.

Education: Social media offers growing opportunities to tell your story. Parks can educate audiences on many subjects including what the parks and recreation department offers, new programs, how to rent the parks and recreation facilities, tips on how to get the best experience out of using the department’s services…to name a few. Announcements can also be easily made and subsequently shared by users on social media. This lets your message be spread rapidly and effectively.

Best practices for using social media
Parks and recreation department managers may realize they need to use social media, but aren’t sure where to start or how to get the most out of each site.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Take ownership Place using social media among your department’s priorities, not as an afterthought. Have an established group of people who are in charge of making sure information is updated regularly and accurately. These people would also be responsible for replying to comments in an efficient way. Never let comments or questions go unacknowledged! It’s also important to have people who are able to update at the last minute, when necessary. For example, if games have to be rescheduled on a weekend because of bad weather, this needs to be broadcast immediately on social media channels.

Make time Make sure to allow employees enough time to manage social media sites as part of their regular duties. Ever feel like you need more than 24 hours in a day? One way you can literally “make” time is to use scheduling programs such as Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, which let users schedule content for multiple social media sites. This is useful when you know what information will need to be shared and when, such as deadlines for signing up for teams, programs, etc. Creating scheduled updates in one sitting will save having to remember to do it later.

Link everything An important aspect of being social is to link all your online resources together. This means having links on the department website to all social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and using these platforms to link back to the department’s site or blog for more information.

Encourage involvement There are lots of ways to foster involvement with the department! Offer photo contests; ask for input on naming new facilities (make it a contest!); post pictures of events, locations and the people involved with your department. Social media is about being … social.

Two (sites) are better than one Or how about three? Don’t put all your proverbial social media eggs in one basket. There’s Facebook, Twitter, media sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr and of course, blogs. We suggest using a hybrid because each has a unique purpose—and audience.

And that leads us to…

Here are a few ways you can use some of the major social media tools. (Don’t worry! You aren’t limited to these ideas.):
Facebook is a social networking site that lets users, businesses and organizations interact with each other in numerous ways including photo sharing and status updates.
Use Facebook to:

Announce events, contests and programs (including registration or cancellation information)
Offer links to blogs, other online sources of information
Share photos of events, projects, facilities (before and after are great, so are live action shots!)
Foster discussions about what people would like to see offered by their parks and recreation department
Twitter is what is called a micro-blogging site that allows users to provide updates that are no more than 140 characters long. Hashtags (#) let users search for specific topics and content.
Use Twitter to:

Announce information, especially last minute closings or registration deadlines for programs
Share links to other online information including Flickr, YouTube or your website
Connect with the people in your community
Flickr is a popular photo-sharing site that allows users to create slideshows and other easily-shared photo projects. YouTube is a site where you can upload videos that are up to about 10 minutes long. (Under certain conditions, this limit can be raised).
Use Flickr/YouTube to:

Share instructional videos about facilities or other processes users might need to do like registration, etc.
Share photos of events, projects and other department activities
Offer contests for users to upload their own content to the site or submit via email and have a staff member post the content
Blogs let users share written content such as program information, advice and other necessary announcements. It also creates an ongoing place where information can be stored and therefore linked to from other social media sites. We suggest having a blog created within your website’s domain instead of utilizing one of the many free, web-based blogging sites. This helps promote your program’s brand and provides added security for your content.
Use a blog to:

Tell your story.
Share extended information about a program or coming event.
Offer information pertaining to the department’s services including advice on how to get the best experience possible
Location-based services
Location-based services like Foursquare let users “check in” and share with their friends that they were at a given location or event. The check-ins are often cross posted to a user’s Facebook and Twitter account, thus further advertising your programs.
Use Location-based services to:

Gauge what events and programs are most popular
Offer specials for loyal visitors
QR Codes
Ever seen a tiny black and white box that looks like an abstract drawing or just squiggles? That’s actually a high-tech message called a QR Code. Smartphone users can scan that image and go directly to encoded information such as a website, social media site or other sources of information.
Use QR Codes to:

Provide information at points of interest in parks about the location
Provide additional information in a printed brochure about an event, program or location.
If all this sounds overwhelming, consider outsourcing all the setup and focus your time or the time of your staff on learning how to use the technology. Proper setup allows you to jump in and ensure everything is configured correctly the first time.

Also consider choosing one tool to start with then add other tools as you get comfortable with the first tool. Consider local colleges for interns to execute a well-defined plan. As park and recreation leadership you have learned the importance of planning then delegating. Social media is no different than other initiatives.

The Belford Group is a full service marketing agency offering services to clients in all industries including government agencies in the areas of website development, marketing, social media setup and management, online registration services, membership management software and volunteer scheduling software in Fayetteville, AR.

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