If you build it, will anyone know?

There’s this guy that my kids watch on TV. He goes around to different places like farms and construction sites and play centers and talks about what he sees and does. Supposedly it helps build vocabulary and broadens kids’ view of the world. My kids love it. I don’t. He’s too Peewee Herman-like for me.

Image of Blippi
Image credit: www.blippi.com

But the guy is wildly popular. He started out on YouTube and has just shy of 13 million subscribers. His videos have been viewed nearly 10 billion times. Yes, billion.

I mention this because lately I’ve been thinking about how to do a better job at marketing. As an industry, parks and conservation are notoriously terrible at that. We have websites, which generally aren’t that great. We maybe have social media pages which we sometimes remember to update, and which have followers in the four, maybe five-digit numbers if we’re lucky. Some of us may have YouTube accounts but they’re certainly not what you’d call a “channel” by any means. 

Meanwhile, some 30-something dude in a bowtie and beanie has 13 million subscribers hawking vocabulary words to kids. And he’s making millions doing it, I’m sure.

While they watch him explore playgrounds on YouTube, our kids keep getting fatter, more depressed, and can’t pay attention longer than eight seconds because they’re glued to a screen when they should be playing outside.

But I digress. 

The other side of this coin is that public agencies like mine generally don’t view marketing as a core operational expense. And frankly, few of us went into this line of work to write press releases or to make viral videos. Personally, I went into the field of conservation specifically because I wanted to work mostly alone in nature. Yet here I sit in an office, typing on a computer about how we as an industry need to be better marketers. Or start YouTube channels maybe.

Here’s the (unfortunate, to some) truth. Nothing we do in the parks matters much if the world doesn’t know we did it. And the only way the world will know we did it is if we tell them. 

Did you know Lake Geode’s beach is finally open? Or the rest of its campground? Did you know we recently developed a master plan for Big Hollow Park that includes roughly $10 million worth of upgrades?

Point of clarification: Geode is not my park. It’s a state park, run by the Iowa DNR. I’m with county conservation, an entirely separate entity. But we’re in the same business, and it’s clearly not marketing. 

Earlier this year we held a series of hikes in several of our parks throughout the county. At nearly all of them, we had people tell us they had no idea those particular parks even existed. Which was kind of the point of the program, really. So, mission accomplished, I guess. 

But how do we help others find their great local parks? How do we inspire people to even want to look for them in the first place? Should we spend more on advertising and marketing? Should we make videos or focus on building our social media presence? Do we advertise on radio, in the newspaper, online, or all the above? And how much do we spend on each outlet? Is it even okay to spend public money on marketing? Some folks don’t think so. 

We had about ten people on average show up to those Hike-A-Park programs I just mentioned. If we had spent $1,000 on advertising, would 20 people have shown up? That’s basically buying attendees at $100 each. That seems like a lot to me. 

But if we were in the private sector, that would be a different story. A hundred bucks to earn a new customer would be a great deal in the eyes of many business owners. Especially when that customer runs home and brings friends and family back later. That’s a big return on investment. 

But parks and outdoor recreation aren’t a commodity. Not yet at least. We’re not gunning for sales. We just want more people outside. How do you put a price tag on that? And how do you “sell” the outdoors to people that are used to recreating in front of a screen? Think about all the brands you know well and think about how much they must spend on advertising, marketing, and brand building. But when was the last time you heard an ad or saw some online influencer promoting a local park? 

These aren’t questions I have answers to but they’re certainly worth asking. 

I’m probably not going to wear a beanie and sing songs in my parks for YouTube but I’d hold the camera for someone who wanted to. And I’d probably even let my kids watch it. 

After playing outside of course.