Take it Personally

One of the principal components of the nationwide parks and recreation Benefits campaign was the explicit emphasis placed on “bragging” about success, a proposed behavior that made many recreation managers feel ambivalent, if not uncomfortable. It’s not that they weren’t proud of their accomplishments, it just “didn’t seem right” to toot their own horns. Didn’t everyone already know in their hearts about the good work performed by recreation organizations?

The problem, then and now, is that the entrepreneurial environment within which all sectors operate (public, nonprofit and private alike) mandates that managers either quantify--and “crow”--about their worthy achievements, or they will be “eating crow” as participants are drawn away to competitors’ programs. Given this stark contrast, a savvy manager insures that the good word saturates the market by creating a balance among five promotional options.

Five Promotional Options

Essentially, a thorough campaign combines paid (“dollars”) and unpaid (“common sense”) initiatives involving personal or impersonal contact with existing and potential participants or stakeholders (See Figure 1). The distinction between paid and unpaid is simple: If money is spent from your budget, it’s paid. If someone else invests resources on your behalf, it’s unpaid. Similarly, personal refers to real-time, face-to-face encounters, while impersonal is mediated by a go-between; you don’t really know who--if anyone--is receiving your message because you and your intended audience are separated by a third party, and not in the same place at the same time.

1. Advertising --The lower-left quadrant in Figure 1 depicts the paid/impersonal option, entitled “Advertising.” You spend money from your budget to purchase newspaper space, for example, but you’re not certain who will buy or read the newspaper that day, or even whether they will notice your ad. This tactic relies on “broadcasting” your information in the hope that enough people will receive your message to justify the cost of sending it.

2. Personal Selling --A more targeted version of this method is shown in the upper-left quadrant, representing the paid/personal option, also known as “Personal Selling.” In this case, you hire someone--a marketing consultant, for example--to meet with individuals or groups of people in person. In this instance, dialogue is initiated, allowing a meaningful conversation to take place during which your message is effectively delivered.

3. Publicity --In the lower-right quadrant is “Publicity,” an unpaid/impersonal option involving someone outside your organization--say, a magazine reporter--writing an article featuring your program. In effect, the magazine is footing the bill, and you are receiving “free” promotion.

4. Personal Recommendation --The unpaid/personal option, located in the upper-right quadrant, is the “Personal Recommendation” garnered when your participants are so pleased with your programs that they venture forth to tell the world about your wonderful organization. As a combination of satisfaction and advocacy, this testimony truly is “priceless.”

5. Special Promotions --In the middle of the diagram is an area called “Special Promotions,” which are short-term initiatives designed to increase participation, at least temporarily. A coupon valid for one month, printed as part of a newspaper ad, would be an example of a special promotion using the paid/impersonal option. Hiring a clown to mingle with the crowd for an hour typifies a special promotion within the paid/personal option.

In a time of tight budgets (has it ever been otherwise), what can a manager do to brag about the benefits without breaking the budget? The “Publicity” option seems the most obvious, given that it requires no out-of-pocket expenditure while reaching a potentially large audience in a short period of time. However, holding the bottom line steady may be offset by a manager’s inability to control the message reported. Can any amount of advertising overcome the negative influence of a negative news story?

Conversely, the distinct advantage of the paid half of the equation (the left two quadrants in Figure 1) is that you control the message; a newspaper ad contains all and only the content you want it to, and the clown is hand-picked to deliver the shtick and goodies per your instructions. The “golden rule” in this case is, those with the gold (you and your budget) make the rules (ad copy).

Make It Personal

The real key to balanced promotion is to take it personally.

Although developing relationships is a time-intensive investment, the “personal” half of the equation (the upper two quadrants in Figure 1) pays the most dividends in the long run. First, establish a reciprocal rapport with media representatives by providing them with unbiased, interesting and timely content, and by making yourself available for comment and follow-up. Strengthen your relationships by participating in events sponsored by those media outlets, and by partaking of their services. Does your organization--and you personally--subscribe to your local newspapers and magazines?

Second, and most important, is your relationship with individual participants. Attention paid to fulfilling individuals’ wants and sincere expressions of gratitude for their participation in your programs are proven strategies for achieving satisfaction. And although enthusiastic recommendations take time to transmit from one person to another--and then to the next--the credibility underlying those intimate exchanges cannot be matched by any other method. Even a trusted reporter writing for a reputable medium will not have the same influence over the readers’ (participants’) behavior.

So, a dollars and common sense approach to promotion allows managers to fill in the short-term gaps in news coverage with advertising and special promotions, while the good news about benefits spreads--slowly but surely--person to person.

Kim Uhlik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he coordinates the Leadership and Administration emphasis. He can be reached via e-mail at kuhlik@casa.sjsu.edu.