Roughly five years worth of marketing and applied research conducted by Responsive Management for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW or the Department) has begun to yield dramatic increases in fishing participation in the state. A targeted marketing approach, based on an analysis of license sales and demographic trends as well as the findings of several scientific telephone surveys and focus groups, has helped WDFW create enough anglers to increase sales of its freshwater fishing licenses by 9%, its temporary licenses by 16%, and its combination licenses by 28%. Overall revenue from fishing license sales in Washington is up $1.7 million.1 These encouraging results demonstrate that, when implemented correctly, high-quality, scientific state-specific research helps agencies not only to better understand and serve constituents but to bolster the stability of the organization as well.

In 2009, Responsive Management partnered with WDFW and established a long-term goal of increasing freshwater fishing participation in the state. The initial step in the process was the creation of a comprehensive marketing plan, which identified the opportunities and challenges then facing the WDFW Fish Program.

One of the chief purposes of the plan was to determine how to market fishing to the needs and desires of Washington residents–this meant exploring demographic trends within key target markets (first-time buyers, urban residents, sporadic license buyers, women, youth, etc.) to assist WDFW in better understanding its constituencies. In addition to the analysis of state demographic trends, the initial marketing plan provided an in-depth assessment of historical fishing participation and license sales in the state. The plan also incorporated research examining the impact of changes in license fees on fishing participation and the results of previously implemented marketing and promotional efforts focusing on fishing. The marketing plan resulted in a series of communications strategies and outreach recommendations for increasing freshwater fishing participation and related license sales in WashingtonState.

In 2011, Responsive Management worked with Jodi Valenta of Mile Creek Communications to further build on the recommendations in the 2009 plan by developing a larger-scale effort to provide strategic direction to WDFW’s Inland Fisheries Program. During this phase, Responsive Management conducted various marketing workshops with WDFW personnel, reviewed research offering insights into successful elements of WDFW’s past communications efforts, related challenges and barriers, and best practices for future outreach and marketing. Responsive Management also conducted personal interviews with inland fisheries biologists, marketing personnel, and license sales representatives to explore methods used to identify target audiences and the impact of such methods on fishing participation and license sales. This research helped to establish data regarding marketing messages and themes with proven success in earlier efforts.

The marketing plan set a goal of increasing fishing participation among specific target markets within active, occasional, and lapsed angler groups. In addition, one of the most important recommendations to come out of the 2011 phase of research was a strategy to focus WDFW freshwater fishing communications and outreach efforts on other outdoor recreation groups. For example, a 2007 survey conducted as part of the Washington State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan found that only 26% of Washington campers and 38% of Washington hunters participated in freshwater fishing. At the same time, the data also indicated that those with a preexisting interest in relevant outdoor recreation (such as camping and hunting) would be among the most likely groups to begin participating in freshwater fishing.

Following this strategy, the plan identified nine specific markets to begin targeting, including intermittent anglers, saltwater anglers, game fish anglers without a two-pole endorsement, boaters, hunters, campers, state park visitors, urban adventure seekers, and non-resident game fish anglers. To build on the concept of engaging outdoor recreationists who were not active freshwater anglers, the researchers recommended a marketing theme based on the message, “Fish Washington–Expand Your Outdoor Experience.”

Chris Donley, WDFW inland fish program manager, described some of the steps the agency took following the marketing research. “To put it in context, our fishing license sales were flat in 2009 and 2010. We implemented some changes with the way we stocked fish and then promoted it through the marketing plan that Responsive Management developed, targeting the right audiences: intermittent anglers, boaters, campers, hunters. There were a number of different promotions: stocking fish and promoting it over Father’s Day, doing splash landing pages and targeted emails to intermittent anglers, and reaching out to nontraditional media outlets instead of just the sportsmen’s magazines.”

According to Donley, early license sales indicators were promising. “Our revenue in 2012, which is the first year that’s measurable after implementation of a lot of the marketing things, was up 5.9%. In 2013, revenue is up 15.2%.”

As WDFW began incorporating the “Fish Washington” marketing materials in outreach and on its website, Responsive Management conducted two additional studies as part of the overall research that provided the Department with additional data on its constituents.

A 2013 telephone survey of Washington freshwater anglers determined their typical fishing behaviors (including the species for which they most commonly fished) and their opinions on various fishing regulations. The 2013 survey followed a similar version conducted by Responsive Management in 2008, thereby providing the Department with important data measuring trends in fishing locations, methods of fishing, participation levels and avidity, motivations for and constraints to fishing, opinions on Department priorities and efforts, activities that compete with fishing, and sources of information on fishing in Washington. The survey also explored differences between avid, intermittent, and past-year-only anglers (i.e., those who had fished only in the year prior to the survey).

Donley notes that the freshwater angler survey helped WDFW gauge satisfaction among its current customers. “From the retention perspective, we look at the current angler survey to see if we’re missing changing trends in our anglers, and whether we have the fisheries that appeal to them. You want to retain your current user group. The angler survey gives us the information to see if we’re hitting the mark, and we are–our anglers are who we thought they were.”

A second Responsive Management study entailed a series of focus groups with non-anglers in Washington. The groups, conducted in Spokane (a location representing eastern Washington) and Seattle (representing the western portion of the state), helped to better understand the reasons why non-anglers do not fish and the strategies and actions that could encourage them to do so. A Responsive Management moderator led each structured, two-hour focus group discussion by probing participants on any exposure to fishing they may have had, aspects of fishing they particularly enjoyed or disliked (for those who had fished at some point), the reasons for their current lack of interest in the activity, and the other activities in which they commonly engaged. Some of the most important findings of the focus groups concerned the importance of social support and family/friend invitations to new or non-anglers, as well as insights into their perceptions of the fishing process (selecting gear, finding locations, fishing for specific species) and costs associated with the sport.

“The non-angler focus groups feed into the same information that we’ll get from campers and boaters who don’t fish,” says Donley. “It’s putting all this information together to understand how we can be appealing, and what information do those folks need to get them interested? Responsive Management did a great job identifying who our target markets are; now we have to figure out what to do to focus on them. We just launched a family vacation planner targeting campers and other users that breaks down 14 really good fishing and camping opportunities across the state. It’s our first shot at trying to get campers involved.”  

As with the earlier data, each new component of research allowed WDFW to continue refining and enhancing its freshwater fishing marketing and outreach. The long-term nature of the study was also instrumental to the subsequent growth in freshwater fishing license sales, as the timeline allowed the researchers to build on previous findings and test the results of concepts implemented at earlier periods. Today, thanks in part to the marketing and outreach recommendations outlined in the plan, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has experienced notable increases in its freshwater fishing license sales, again reinforcing the importance of basing such initiatives on a solid foundation of data developed through an ongoing collaboration between the agency and researchers. Says Donley about WDFW’s recent increases in license revenue: “That’s not just having a good salmon run. We’ve had good salmon runs in the past and not seen that. There’s something there.”

Image courtesy Responsive Management

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