In 2009, the budget hammer came down hard on the city aquatics program in Mesa, Ariz. One of the biggest casualties was the printed program guide, which was axed after years of being distributed via mail and libraries. Without the guide, attendance slipped dramatically.

“We were just struggling to find something to reach those people again,” says Mark Foote, the city’s recreation coordinator. “It became critical to get where they were.”

So Foote did just that with a targeted social media campaign aimed at moms and kids that not only boosted attendance, but also gave him a powerful new tool to manage and engage staff members.

Social media “is so much more of a tool than a lot of people realize,” Foote says. “It’s super scalable, and you can use it as much or a little as you want.”

Maybe. But for many aquatics managers, who must deal with training, management, maintenance, budgeting and general problem-solving, social media often is the last thing on their minds. At the same time, it’s not uncommon for skittish municipalities to forbid aquatics managers from having their own social media accounts. As a result, the bulk of aquatics facilities miss out on an all-but-free and wildly effective way to reach their core audience — and even manage lifeguards, experts say.

“You don’t have time not to do social media,” says Pat O’Toole, principal with GreenPlay, LLC, in Lawrence, Kan., who has worked with more than 100 facilities nationwide. “It’s just so effective at the right facilities to reach the younger crowd. And it’s such a cost-effective way of doing it.”

Getting started

Sending images on Snapchat, known for the 10-second shelf life it gives to sent images, can prove a fun way to remind people about your offerings.
Sending images on Snapchat, known for the 10-second shelf life it gives to sent images, can prove a fun way to remind people about your offerings.

Social media provide a powerful way to reach younger audiences — whether as patrons through public pages or staff members through closed accounts. But just because kids are on social media doesn’t mean they’ll automatically come to your pool if you have a Facebook account. With all social media efforts, the key is engagement. Pictures and videos provide the best path to engagement on most platforms.

“You’re wasting your time if you just type in text,” Foote says. “You have to catch them with something visual.”

While photos and videos make for a good — and necessary — start, you can't just post anything. These components must get people talking, says Nichole Bohner, Austin’s aquatics division recreation program coordinator, who has one of the of the most successful social media channels in the industry. Her first step: Build a quality photo library.

“I was shocked at how few photos we had of everything,” she says. “You have to photograph everything you do. If you have an event at your pool, have three good photos you can post to Facebook.”

Experts agree that managers should work with their cities to set clear (and realistic) photo-posting guidelines.

Facilities with active social media accounts often ask lifeguard managers to regularly take photos for social media, too. The East Bay Regional Park District is doing that, issuing cameras to all head lifeguards. Those guards are tasked with shooting pictures and videos during trainings and uploading them to a central server each week. “We want to show how great an agency we are and how cool our programs are, and pictures speak a thousand words,” says Katy Hornbeck, the district’s aquatic supervisor.

Foote is building a social media library for his posts, with 30-second videos about activities such as swim team and features such as his FlowRider. “So when we’re doing our posts, we have those in our back pocket,” he says.

But when it comes to photos and videos, you don’t have to overthink things, Bohner says. “My phone is my best friend,” she says. “When I’m on the go, I’m always taking photos with my phone. It doesn’t have to be this huge undertaking. You could just take photo booth photos on your phone and upload them immediately.”

Divide and conquer

Just as the task of shooting photos and video footage can be divided among your managers, so can social media posting duties. The key is to make sure that you have final authority on what gets posted, and that you can take down anything that you deem inappropriate.

For example, Bohner used this approach to gain national attention on the television program "Good Morning America." Seeing that the program was sponsoring a lifeguard “Surf and Turf” video contest, she got one of her guards who was skilled at video editing to film an entry— and ended up one of the show’s top three finalists. “That was huge for us,” Bohner says.

Foote turns all of his Facebook pages over to his management staff during summer and tracks how each page is doing through weekly meetings with the management team. Now, he says, a promoted event typically gains 30 percent more attendance than non-promoted events.

But he always keeps close tabs on what his staff is posting — and nothing gets posted without approval. “I’m putting this into the hands of 18-year-olds, so we keep a pretty close eye on what gets posted,” he says.

Relying on managers is just one way to build your social media presence through staff members. While lifeguards aren’t typically entrusted with such responsibilities, they can serve as a valuable tool for spreading your message. You simply need to make sure they’re tagged in the posts that are about them, says Bohner.

For example, at a holiday party for guards, she set up a photo booth containing a banner with the program’s logo along with some fun props. Those photos went onto the Facebook page and guards in the photos were tagged — an identification process that connects faces with names — so they would be alerted. “They love getting tagged,” Bohner says. “It’s a recognition thing and a camaraderie thing. Pretty soon they’re sharing it, and their moms are sharing it. And it’s only bringing more validity to our program.”

Foote took that approach one step further by talking to patrons about which groups they use on Facebook. For example, he discovered that many swim team moms were part of a private yard sale group on Facebook where private swim instructors were advertising. Because these are closed groups, Foote had to be invited in to share his posts. But he found it well worth the effort. “When I can get onto those other sites, they have 30,000 to 40,000 followers at the drop of a hat,” he says. “They have so many more followers than I will ever have.”

The result? Foote found new swim lesson customers who previously didn’t even know the city offered the service, at a much lower cost than private lessons. “Our pools are hidden,” Foote says. “You can drive by seven times without knowing there’s a pool there.”

Even more basic than partnering with other groups, just asking staff members to like and follow your social media pages can have a huge impact, especially at places that employ hundreds of people, O’Toole says.

Selling social media
Of course, one of the hardest parts about social media may be convincing your city to allow you to do it. But once again, social media itself can be your best weapon.

Experts advise showing city leaders successful social media channels from other programs — and driving home their cost effectiveness. “For us the biggest seller is that it’s basically free,” Foote says. “That should be your No. 1 sell to whoever you have to sell it to.”

Making that sale might entail taking a hard look at where marketing dollars currently are being spent. For example, cities can spend upwards of $40,000 on printed program guides, which often are no longer effective. In fact, surveys have shown that as few as 8 percent say they heard about a program in a printed guide. Instead, word of mouth and social media are the No. 1 drivers for most programs today, O’Toole says. “You can redirect that money to where the majority of folks in this day and age are hearing about these programs,” he says.

“Those who don’t are really missing out on a huge part of the market.”