Get Something For Nothing (Or Very Little)

By Zach Mural

No matter what types of programs you offer for youth, parents are the best marketing tools. Whether at the grocery store, on the sidelines, or on social media, parents listen to other parents when it comes to choosing activities for their children.

With that in mind, what are parents saying about you and your programs, and what are you doing to influence their opinion? Certainly the first step in shaping their opinion is to offer good youth programs. However, in many areas, there are multiple providers of quality programs. In cases like these, the programs that garner the most vocal parent support are the ones that actively facilitate, and at times, reward parents for singing their praises.

So, what are some of the approaches that will encourage and assist parents in helping to market programs? Fortunately, there are many relatively easy, low-cost initiatives that will amplify the voices of the most satisfied parents (and their children)!

Referral Incentives
One tried-and-true approach to encourage parent referrals is to offer monetary incentives, which can include free or reduced registration/enrollment fees, free uniforms or supplies, or a percentage discount. Choosing the incentive that works best for a program depends on two factors. The first is to identify what appeals to the majority of parents. In some cases, avoiding an additional upfront registration fee is more attractive than a percentage discount. In other cases, receiving a free jersey or uniform is perceived as more valuable because it reduces ancillary expenses. The second consideration is to weigh where a program stands the most to gain or lose. If you get a good deal on uniforms, then offering them as a referral incentive can be cost-effective. On the other hand, if you pay a premium for gear, then it may make more sense to discount or eliminate the one-time sign-up fee.

Events For Families And Kids
Another way to encourage parents is to engage them in family-friendly events and activities. Hosting an open house, ice-cream social, or other family-focused event is a great way to get parents and their children (both current and prospective participants) in the door and excited to talk about programs. However, it’s important to remember that, if you want to really maximize an event’s impact, plan ahead, widely publicize the event, and utilize social media and other platforms to share the highlights and remind everyone of the fun they had.

Social Media And Watermarks Are Your Friend
Speaking of social media, if you are not actively (and I truly mean actively—as in multiple times a week) utilizing free social media to highlight programs and share accomplishments, then you are leaving an incredibly valuable tool on the shelf. Using social media goes beyond just posting events and pictures. The most successful programs and departments encourage (and frequently incentivize) parents to connect and engage on a regular basis. Sharing pictures and information with parents (of course, with proper photo/video releases) to post on their personal page is definitely helpful and a good place to start, but actively “liking” and commenting on or responding to a parent’s comments can really set you apart from competitors. Additionally, whenever possible, use a program or vendor that adds a watermark of a program or department logo before sharing photos with parents to post on their personal social media. This is a great way to increase brand recognition.

Testimonials From Kids Too
While parents are the best marketers and the ones who ultimately are the custodians of a family’s financial resources, don’t overlook the power of kids’ voices and opinions. If parents listen to other parents first, a close second in terms of influence are kids’ opinions of their programs.  Not only do kids influence their own parents, but they hold powerful sway over their peers as well. As a parent, I can attest to just how difficult it is to say no if your own child asks to participate in an activity with a friend. By highlighting youth participants’ thoughts about programs in marketing materials, on displays, and during live events, you can engender loyalty from current participants and attract new youth to programs.

Sometimes You Just Have To Ask
Regardless of the number or type of youth programs you offer, getting the word out about what is happening and what is coming is a never-ending project. Search engines prioritize sites with frequent updates and new material. Most people visit their social media pages multiple times per day. As a result, the most successful programs are relentless in distributing information across as many media as possible.

Another key point is that sometimes you just need to ask people to speak up on your behalf. Not everyone is comfortable voicing an opinion in every forum, so being sensitive about when and how to ask for an endorsement or testimonial is important. Check in with participants using various forms (informal conversations, surveys, etc.), and when someone has something positive to say, use it as an opportunity to ask if the person is comfortable with you sharing. It is important to note that some online sites have systems in place that will remove reviews if too many are posted in a given time frame, so asking all parents to go online and review programs at the same time may not be beneficial.

Everyone Loves Free Stuff
Finally, it is no surprise that freebies, swag, or anything else you can give to parents or participants that feature your department or program can be very helpful in getting the word out about youth offerings. After all, who wouldn’t want a new Frisbee, stress ball, or T-shirt? Obviously, cost can be prohibitive, but if you are able to buy in bulk and provide a small token of thanks to participants, it can go a long way in promoting all the great things you do for children.

One final note on the previous suggestions is that programs need to deliver high-quality experiences for each and every participant if these approaches are going to yield positive results. If you offer great youth programs, following these relatively easy and low-cost ideas will only increase your department’s and program’s recognition and appeal to a larger audience!

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit