Is It Time to Put Digital First? Breaking Free From the Parks Program Guide

First Published on LinkedIN

As a marketing manager, one is frequently faced with challenges of positioning the product portfolio in an ever changing and expanding market. Frequently, these challenges start off with a simple question, “Are we giving our customers what they want when they need it?”

For years, our parks and recreation department has struggled with a print program guide. The costs of designing and printing a 84+ page catalog three or four times  annually in quantities large enough to reach our 25,000 person core user group and attract new customers from our 800,000 citizen base became unsustainable about three years ago. We moved to publishing a digital guide and publishing a short run to fill the needs of those in the technology gap.

After updating our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system in late 2015 to a modern cloud system with a public portal; we began to see the power of the digital channel. A weekly e-newsletter was developed that features a single, less than 100 words, article and a list of featured programs with links back to dynamic program & activity lists or single programs. The return has been strong with sales reaching two to three times the other day’s averages.

This led to the “Are we giving our customers what they want when they need it” question as it relates to how we offer new programs. Historically, new programs became available to consumer three or four times a year. This led to three to four month lulls in new product offerings while our print guide did its work. Now that we have followed the trend to digital, the principals of digital content should have taken over naturally – but it did not.

What we were doing was the same as posting four months of Facebook messages, and telling the customers every week, “Hey look at our great content (that has been here and you likely have already seen.)” This provided little benefit to our customers. What we should be saying is “Hey look, we have new stuff; great new stuff you haven’t seen yet (give me your money)!” It became obvious, it is time to ditch the structure of the program guide and the “Registration Now Open for” pick your season mindset for the “Always Open for Registration, Always Something New, Always Something Great, ” mindset.

In addition to providing a stream of new content, we believe that this model will provide park programmers with new added flexibility to adapt to new fads in recreation & leisure. Where under the “seasons” model, a programmer may have to wait almost five months to release a new program, under the rolling model; we will cut lead time to 30-45 days. This reduction in lead time may be the difference between being a market leader or laggard.

There are some challenges to be met; mostly related to the digital divide. How do we provide equity to those who live in the digital divide while moving to rolling programs?  Our answer, we are encouraging our staff to have programs in the CRM at least 45 days prior to start so marketing can export a short run of monthly guides that are text based with boilerplate promotional material. These will be distributed to our library system along with park centers and other receptive outlets for reference viewing. The same short run guides can be requested via our customer service department for mailing. The second leg of bridging the digital gap lies with our customer service team who is available to speak to a citizen and match their needs to our portfolio.

We are excited to see how this strategy plays out in our future. It is always a challenge to break with tradition. So, when the moment comes where you find yourself questioning “Are we giving our customers what they want when they need it?” and you think the answer is no; it is time to explore your options. It is never a bad idea to challenge the process your agency has used since before you arrived.