Marketing Matters: Expert Testimony

by Steve Cony

Research shows that word of mouth is the most important factor influencing parents’ decisions to send their children to camp. When parents are sending their children off for supervised recreation and learning, often for the first time, reassurance from someone who has been there is a natural desire.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could direct that word-of-mouth process and have it support a decision to send children to your camp? Perhaps the closest you can get to that kind of intervention is to replicate the process. In your marketing package, you have many opportunities to give prospective families an endorsement of your camp from people they can trust. These opportunities are called testimonials.

Write Down Compliments

The opportunity to include testimonials in your marketing package begins the moment you receive a compliment from a parent or child about a positive experience at your camp. When these kudos come in the form of a written note, be sure to file it carefully. When campers send you pictures, poems, and stories about camp, make sure to place them in that same easily accessible file. Having all your testimonials in one place will be critically important in the future. Also, be sure to attach a note to each of these with the address and phone number of the writer or artist.

If the compliment comes in a face-to-face conversation or phone call, do not hesitate to encourage the parent or camper to write you a note. You need a written record of all kinds of thoughts. If people are great supporters of your camp, yet just can’t seem to get around to putting it in writing, offer to discuss their positive feelings and then draft a written quote for them. Ask for their agreement that the written statement accurately represents their feelings. Now you have a usable testimonial. This is acceptable. Many people simply cannot bring themselves to write and are actually relieved when someone does the job for them. Just make sure to get the person’s approval and permission to use the quote.

Before your staff departs at season’s end, suggest that some of the most highly motivated staff members record their own perceptions of camp. Encourage counselors to reflect on their most memorable moments of the season.

Testimonials in Your Camp Video

When it comes time for a new promotional video, plan carefully for testimonials to take a prominent role in telling your camp’s story. That means taping parents, campers, and staffers and prompting them with questions designed to elicit responses that go beyond a simple “yes” or “great.” If you ask someone, “Did you have a great time?”, a perfectly honest answer could be “yes.” Of course, that is not enough. You need to use open-ended questions, like “What was the best activity?” or “Describe for me your favorite experience.”

Also, carefully consider the physical image that a staffer presents before counting on his appearance in a video. The riding instructor may be the most beloved person around camp, but if he has a prominent tattoo or if she has a nose ring, you must protect your camp image in the minds of the most conservative prospective families.

One of the most effective ways to establish good communication is eye contact. Too often, however, campers, staffers, and parents included in camp videos are shown responding to someone who seems to be somewhere off to the side. Perhaps it is an interviewer, but the person viewing the tape never sees or hears the other participant during the video. A better idea is to have the respondent look directly into the camera. This usually requires the questioner to stand behind the camera operator rather than to the side. The result is a more direct link between those who offer testimonials and the viewers, and thus a stronger level of believability.

Kudos on Audiocassette

Another excellent medium for testimonials is an audiocassette. Several camps have used this low-cost technique to help share parents’ positive camp experiences and to diffuse potential negatives after an admittedly bleak-looking, midwinter tour of the facilities. They hand the cassette to the family members and suggest that they listen to it on the way home.

Make Your Testimonials Meaningful

Some camp directors report difficulty in getting potential testifiers to open up. For a child, this is rarely a problem. However, just to elicit responses such as “had a lot of fun” or “made a lot of friends” does not tell a sufficiently meaningful story to future campers and their parents. Current campers should be encouraged to tell stories about their favorite activities, what they learned, and what they accomplished.

Staffers can be easily motivated to tell about themselves — for most people, that is a favorite topic. Few counselors are reluctant to recount their most memorable accomplishment of a summer. Many senior staffers can talk about how the camp has evolved and improved over the years.

Camp directors should include testimonial messages from themselves as part of their marketing packages. Parents look to directors as their surrogates and want to see and hear them. Brochures should contain a letter from the director or owner, accompanied by a high-quality photo.

Prepare a Mini-brochure

Many camp directors show prospects an album of testimonial letters during a camp tour or home visit. This technique does not give the reader or viewer time to really study what others have said. A preferable method is to print a mini-brochure with letters and quotes.

After a prospective family absorbs your testimonials, direct their attention to a headline or tagline with a challenge similar to the following: Wouldn’t you like to be able to write a letter like this at the end of next summer?

In today’s perpetual-motion marketplace, parents are connecting less and less with other parents. They want to hear others’ recommendations, but they seldom have the opportunity. Meaningful, preplanned testimonials are powerful tools to help prospects relate to other parents, campers, and staff members who have already encountered your camp experience in a positive way.

Steve Cony is a marketing consultant who assists children's camps with the development of strategic plans and the execution of marketing materials. Camp directors may contact him at 914-271-8482.

Originally published in the 1998 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.