Marketing Parks

By Hilda McShane

A few years ago, we at the Genesee County Parks in Flint, Mich., realized that the citizens didn’t know nearly as much about the parks as we thought they did, and some of what they said they knew wasn’t accurate.


Our general advertising simply wasn’t having an impact, so we took a leap and contracted with a marketing firm to help create a brand and campaign—print ads, radio ads, billboards, and a website.

People remember the message now. The difference is huge—like the difference between remembering Nike’s “Just Do It” and remembering nothing about a generic shoe. We also tied into the highly successful “Pure Michigan” campaign, and partnered with the state’s website.

Residents can now use the parks more effectively, too, because they know more about specific programming.

The key to successful marketing in parks is starting small and following through. Initial success begins with determining what to do with customer surveys. To glean information that can actually be used, one must learn to ask the right questions.

Effective surveys, diligent compiling of data, and good analysis of the responses can help to get the marketing ball rolling.

Start With A Survey
First, one has to learn what to ask. Genesee’s parks department developed a customized survey for several facilities, asking specific questions, such as how the visitor learned about the facility, who made the decision to come to the facility that day, and how the visitor preferred to learn about special rates and discounts.

Additional questions, such as how a reservation was made, whether it was the visitor’s first time at the park, and the gender and age of any children who came with them, also are helpful.

Finding out how far in advance they plan trips to the park, where they look for park information, whether their recreation plans change because of current economic conditions, and what family programs interest them is all beneficial information.

Then information about residents’ use of social media and their name, address, and ZIP code can be gathered.

Design the majority of the questions as simple check-offs, so the survey can be completed in a few minutes. Don’t ask vague questions, like whether they had a good time; assume they did and if they didn’t—you’ll hear about it!

Do both paper and electronic surveys. Here’s what to do with that information:

  • ZIP codes identify where visitors come from. They inform decisions about where to advertise and where to add or decrease programming. And they help measure economic impact (more about that later).

  • Email addresses are a gold mine. Compile them into a database in order to send email blasts with messages about upcoming programs, and anchor links to lead readers to specific areas on the website. Blend traditional and digital communication by hyperlinking TV commercials, digital newspaper ads, and radio ads.

  • Personal information, including gender, ages of children, and preference for programming, helps to develop what customers want. That is tremendously cost-effective. Don’t waste time and money trying to figure out what people want—let them tell you in the surveys.

Here’s what else you can do with the surveys:

  • Use negative comments to help address concerns. Email the visitor, give a phone number, and invite a conversation.

  • Learn the age of participants to drive program development and focus advertising to send out email blasts.

  • Determine how far in advance patrons make reservations to guide decisions for the timing of advertisements.

Promotional Tools
As traditional media become less effective for promoting parks, websites, email blasts, and digital communication are becoming more useful. We know this because our customers tell us those are the places where they prefer to obtain information. Additionally, those areas help to broaden an audience.

For instance, there are many free diagnostic tools that help to determine when people are most likely to use social media. You can determine when customers are most likely to visit a website and what time of day they are most likely to open emails.

Google Alerts indicate when an article about an organization will appear in the media. It also allows you to see what your competition is doing.

ZIP codes offer the ability to direct advertising dollars and measure a return on investment. For example, if 30 percent of survey respondents reside in Genesee County and 20 percent in Oakland County, the advertising budget can be allocated accordingly.

The relationship between ticket sales and the amount spent on advertising also can be assessed.

Expenses for utilizing email addresses and ZIP codes include labor to input the information, to write the messages sent by email, and to assess where survey respondents live.

Linking commercials to email blasts also saves money, and supplies more value from commercials. The cost-per-hit also is reduced because they are seen more often and the audience broadens to email recipients who live outside the viewing or listening area.

This year, Genesee County parks subscribed to Customer Relations Management software (CRM). It enables us to send specific, strategic email campaigns to customers, track results, and measure outcomes.

We first used CRM to promote Day Out With Thomas, and we’re just now measuring the results. What we do know already is that the cost to promote the event was recovered through ticket sales. Cost of the CRM package was $5,000 for a 1-year subscription.

Selling Demographics
Having information from surveys and the analysis of that information makes our parks a good partner with for-profit businesses.

For example, when we market the use of The Mounds ORV Park to companies such as John Deere and General Motors, I can indicate exactly who uses the off-road vehicle park, the ages of those people, the distance they drive to get there, what they like, and other valuable information.

The vendor, in turn, can see that the targeted market is the same as our customers at The Mounds. There is no guesswork.

Our parks are now being rented by filmmakers, vendors, manufacturers, and for national and international events because we can show how our demographics match their market.

Public Support
Genesee County Parks is supported, in large part, by millage, which means we need to be able to tell residents exactly what the parks offer and how they and the local economy benefit.

To do that, the county parks and recreation commission has been conducting an economic-impact analysis every year since 2005. Using the RIMS model developed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, the analysis is customized by region and is believed to be the most accurate reporting method.

Typically, we assess regular business initiatives plus tourism at specific parks, annual special events, such as the Warrior Dash and Day Out With Thomas, and one-time occurrences, such as the production of a feature-length film shot at Crossroads Village.

The studies reveal the impact of all the parks’ expenditures plus the dollars spent by visitors. The numbers are staggering.

For example, the a study showed that having filmmakers at Crossroads Village for several weeks in 2010 as they made Alleged put roughly $5 million into the county’s economy. In the past 7 years, county parks have generated well over $70 million for the region.

In a nutshell, here’s how we do it. We market the multiple uses of 11,000 spectacular acres and historic resources. We know our visitors, and we communicate with them frequently. We have great teamwork, solid partnerships, and bright ideas. We measure the results of our work, and we report back to the community and our funders.

It all adds up!

Hilda McShane is the marketing specialist for the Genesee County Parks. Reach her at