Small Communities Better Than Big Cities at Promoting Parks on Facebook

Cities, counties, states and other municipal entities don’t want to be left out of the Facebook rush. They’ve begun to create Facebook Pages for everything from their parks to their police departments to their city councils. Inside Facebook has covered governmental efforts on Facebook before, so this week we thought it’d be interesting to see how cities are using the social network to promote everybody’s favorite public service: public parks.

One surprise was that many of the parks Pages we perused had recently started, something one official we spoke to said was the result of an industry trend towards social media. Most Pages we saw tended to concentrate most strongly on the Wall and photos, a few used notes and none heavily utilized the discussion functions.

The vast majority of governmental entities we found on Facebook were cities, however, there were also some counties and states. Briefly, it’s interesting to note that larger entities — such as New York City, Los Angeles County and the State of Oregon — tended to be less successful at creating a unique Facebook community than others, small towns in particular. This is probably because small communities are already tight-knit and so it’s easier to transfer that closeness to Facebook; case in point, some smaller parks used a photo of staff or a local attraction as a profile picture whereas larger entities almost always used an official logo.

Monterey Park Recreation Superintendent Dan Costley said the idea behind his city’s Recreation and Parks Facebook Page is to create a sense of community apart from the L.A. metropolitan area and to do more with less — as is the norm in California these days. Since January 14 the Page has gathered 222 fans and the city’s population is 61,000. Costley tells us that the parks department went ahead with the Facebook Page after seeing multiple queries about it on industry list serves — going to Facebook is a hot topic in his professional circle, he tells us. And in the face of his state and city’s budget crises, Costley says using Facebook for marketing is a free alternative to fliers or press conferences.

“Literally we were told, ‘If you can borrow something from another department, cut back.’ You can look at something like Facebook and say, ‘Nobody is charging us for this,’” Costley tells us. “So if it helps us save money and send the message to the right people, that’s always going to help us.”

Plans for the Facebook Page revolve around creating a community around the Monterey Park community, such as reporting local swim team results, posting pictures of community events or previewing fireworks for the Fourth of July, posting status updates with city facts (Did you know that Monterey Park is 7.73 square miles in size?) or announcing the 2010 Chinese New Year Festival, he said. Costley wants Facebook to become part of the park department’s marketing strategy and, so far, at least many local politicians have taken note and joined as fans.

Perhaps because creating a sense of community becomes increasingly difficult with more people, larger parks entities have struggled to do so on Facebook.

Los Angeles County’s Department of Parks and Recreation on Facebook went up in March of 2009, but only has 55 fans in a county of almost 10 million people, not surprising given that the Page directs traffic to other web sites. There’s information about the county’s YouTube channel, but no phone number, no information about the parks and most links go to other county sites.

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation didn’t fare much better, with 2,058 fans in a city of more than 8 million, most links leading to external sites and no information about parks on the Page. There were local status updates about weather, lots of events and a MyFlickr tab, however. The State of Oregon has under 4 million people but 755 fans and is also still figuring out how to best use Facebook. Case in point, the Parks and Recreation Department recently debuted an online newsletter “Your Parks Go Guide” on a WordPress blog, directing fans to the blog but didn’t link it the Page’s notes.

These Pages have great information to share – Oregon, for example, offers all sorts of discounted rates to their parks quite often — but have yet to figure out the most effective way to do so; the Inside Facebook Marketing Bible details an array of tools to help organizations do this.

New Orleans’ City Park is the exception to the rule. With nearly 5,000 fans in a city of about 312,000, the Page sees a lot of activity from fans, includes maps of some park areas and frequent status updates of park happenings. This may be due, in part, to a tangential Friends of City Park organization and their efforts on Facebook (with 1,400 fans) to extend their offline mission of preserving the city’s parks.

Nashville (Arkansas) City Park’s Facebook Page is exemplary of how very small communities can take advantage to create an online community around parks. Here what matters is quality, not quantity. This Page has 459 fans in a town of about 4,800 (almost 10% of the population), features a group photo of staff, includes intimate status updates such as “What a BEAUTIFUL DAY to be out in your city park! Come on out and join us!” and has contact information right on the homepage, as well as the Info tab. As a result, the Page has frequent interaction between staff and fans, albeit they probably know each other personally in real life, too.

Other ways to engage fans is to include local content like photos, as evidenced by Dobbs Ferry Recreation Department’s Page (where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg grew up, by the way). This Facebook Page serves a New York community of 11,000 people, 246 of whom are fans, and features a collection of photo albums from the Valentine’s Day festivities at the senior center to the recent 5K to children’s summer camp. The University City Dog Park in Missouri is a membership-based non-profit quasi-public park with 500 member dogs and 109 fans on the Facebook Page. Because this is a very specific community, interaction on the Page is very personal and conversational, lots of discussions take place on the Wall and events/announcements receive a good number of comments.

One final way Indiana’s Valparaiso Department of Parks and Recreation attempts to engage its 411 fans is by utilizing a park-specific poll and an application. The poll asks about park visits and the application on the Create A Parks Profile links to an external web site to keep users informed of parks activities they might like. Unfortunately these extras won’t work unless users are engaged: no one had voted in the poll, although it was unclear how many profiles had been created via the app.

It’s up to each community to figure out the best way to use Pages to promote their parks. Clearly, from what we see, focusing on personal touches for small populations is what’s working best so far.