You've Got ... Tweets: Email Is So Yesterday. Here's How Social Media Is Now Driving Innovative Parks and Recreation Marketing Communication

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In the arena of technology, more than half of what college freshman learn today will be obsolete by the time they graduate. Futurist and innovation expert Jim Carroll made this comment last October in his keynote speech at NRPA's 2009 Congress. His assessment made me think of my own technology transformation from my college days in the 1980s when "social media" amounted to saving a favorite joke on a 5 1/4-inch floppy disk and giving it to a friend so the next time he or she went to the computer lab (no one had their own PCs) they could pop it in and laugh at it ... to the blogging, tweeting, web-surfing technogeek I'm proud to be today.

Today's social media is certainly more than just having the technology to email that favorite joke and have your friend instantly receive it and even send back a quick "LOL" all in a matter of seconds. Instead, it's a buffet of digital opportunities to connect with people around the world in real time. "Social media" itself has changed so rapidly since the phrase was coined in 2004 that the original Wikipedia definition posted in July 2006 has had more than 500 revisions.

So, What is Social Media?

The description I like best comes from Brian Solis, author of The Future of Communications--A Manifesto for Integrating Social Media into Marketing.

"Social Media is, at its most basic sense, a shift in how people discover, read, and share news and information and content," Solis wrote. "It's a fusion of sociology and technology, transforming monologue (one to many) into dialog (many to many.)"

In the park and recreation community, the social media vehicles of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and blogging top the list in popularity--all accompanied by a comprehensive website to tie them together, of course. Why not just create a website that does all that? You have to meet people where they are to bring them to where you want them. You can't just stand in the middle of your shiny, new digital Island and ask, "Huh? Why isn't everyone here with me?" You need to build a bridge and a create a motive to cross over to the island. That's where social media comes in.

Building the Bridge

There are many social media tools out there and it's important use the right ones to accomplish your goals. That raises the question: What are your goals? Driving members to your services? Driving citizens to your events? Connecting people with your community? Collecting a pool of professionals to use as a resource? Collecting a pool of advocates to mobilize?

It's important to choose the right tool for the job. Up until five years ago, email was virtually the only "bridge" available to drive people to your website--10 years ago, it was considered cutting edge to send emails with hyperlinks to your customers/ members--but now, with everyone experiencing "email overload" at home and work, it's critical we change our approach.

"It's moved beyond simply being a tactic or a novelty--today, it is expected that your agency has a Facebook and/or Twitter presence," says Scott Carpenter, Director of Public Relations at Metroparks of the Toledo [Ohio]Area. "For most college students (including my daughter), it has replaced email as a primary form of communications."

It's more than communication. There's a business impact as well.

"We were losing [program participants] by relying solely on email to contact them," says Kathy Worrell, Recreation Coordinator for the Town of Fountain Hills, Arizona.

Jon Reiter, Communications Coordinator for Louisville Metro Parks reports solid traffic on his agency's website (approximately 150,000 hits per month), but still he believes "Those sort of traditional ways of communicating with the public [phone calls and email], particularly with park and recreation users, might not go far enough."

There's a clear consensus that Facebook and Twitter are "must haves" in building your social media bridge, followed closely by LinkedIn and blogs and each reaches a different audience for different purposes. …