Collaboration tools saved 5 state parks, can it help your business or agency?

I was impressed when I read Nancy’s post on GovLoop detailing how social media saved five state parks in Virginia, a cost of $500,000 per year (https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/how-social-media-helped-save?xg_source=activity). I was so impressed with what I read that I wanted to follow-up with Nancy to better understand the original thinking behind these social efforts, the cost, and ultimately the return (more than $500,000, not bad).

Q. Nancy, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule. What prompted you to begin your social media efforts, what were your goals?
A. Whether you liked the results of the 2008 Presidential elections, it taught me that social media was a force to be reckoned with. Our goal was to increase awareness of what Virginia State Parks have to offer. There are still Virginians that have never been to a state park and don’t know what we are all about. We also don’t spend a lot of money on advertising outside of Virginia so this was a way to reach more out of state potential visitors.

Q. How does social media fit into your job, into the job done by the park department?
A. I am the Operations Director. State Parks is actually part of a larger agency, the Department of Conservation and Recreation. We have a public communications office but their staffing is limited so several of us take on various aspects of marketing and promoting state parks. As Operations Director, I am responsible for our reservation center, sign shop, logistics center, volunteerism, and serve as liaison between our parks operations and the centralized support dvisions in administration and finance. We don’t have a big central office so many of us wear extra hats. Since I was originally hired as Reservation Center Manager, I worked with our webmaster on our website within the first few years of my tenure. So I became a subject matter expert on what our parks had to offer the general public. I am interested in technology so you might say I just volunteered to add the social media to the rest of my job.

Q. How many people are involved in your social media efforts today?
A. I coordinate the efforts. We actually have 26 registered bloggers (although a few have not yet blogged and some folks blog more than others). I moderate all of the posts and comments. We are averaging about ten a week. I think that will jump significantly this spring and summer. I am the person behind the Twitter account @vastateparks. I must mention that several of our park staff with Twitter accounts do a nice job of supporting with retweets and blog posts. Michael Salotti is our Facebook guru and I post there some as well. Don Byrne is our enewsletter editor. The enewsletter has been around longer than all of our other efforts. The blog, Twitter and Facebook efforts were all established in December 2008.

Q. What tools are you leveraging?
A. I pretty much addressed the tools in the last question. We have tried to be smart though. Blog posts automatically get tweeted and are posted on Facebook using Networked Blogs. Facebook status updates are also posted on Twitter. We have an events database for listing programs and special events at various parks. We have had these available for query on our website for a number of years. Don Byrne, my IT guy and enewsletter editor worked out a way to have them automatically post to Twitter ten days out. We duplicate a lot of content on our enewsletter and blog since they reach different audiences. A lot of the blog posts are program announcements or press releases repackaged for the blog.

Q. What is the yearly cost of your social media efforts?
A. That’s a tough one. When you don’t hire folks dedicated to do only social media and have just squeezed those duties into the rest of what they do it is hard to say. Since I worked more than a 40 hour week before I took on the social media, I guess you could say I’m volunteering. We do use Compendium Blogware for our blog hosting and SEO optimization. We aren’t paying for any other tools. I’d say the overall cost is under $20,000.

Q. What other social media success stories have you had?
A. We started posting on Facebook on Thursday the parks that had cabins available for the weekend. This generated a lot of interest so we offered a 25% discount for last minute cabin reservations. The weather has been so bad it has been hard to tell how successful this is but we do know that a number of people have taken advantage of the discount. Normally these are cabins that would have sat empty so this has been great. While I do not have a good measure of the success, I know that we have increased awareness for our routine programs offered in the parks. For years staff were content to just cater to folks who happened to be in the park anyway. But we have some wonderful programs and a lot of effort goes into them. Now we have a way to push that information out to the public.

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