by Stephen Branstetter
So you've got a Web site? Perhaps you send out a few e-mails to announce that you're accepting registrations for summer. Maybe you even do some advertising. But how could you do this more effectively? And what are some similar initiatives you could launch to be more effective with your online marketing efforts? With all the technical lingo surrounding Internet marketing, it can seem confusing and overwhelming. There are simple ways camps can execute effective marketing plans through some of the latest tools and techniques.
Social networking sites and online communities such as MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube demonstrate some of the simple yet powerful ways the Internet allows people to share experiences and develop personal relationships with each other. Let's examine some of the online tools that camps can use to improve camp retention and enhance relationships with campers and parents.
Blogs and online news postings are excellent ways to keep your camp families informed. Typically written in an informal and personal style, blogs are like online journals and serve as an excellent way to display a camp's true personality. Make sure the author includes his or her name (or camp nickname) to personalize the message.
While snail mail has its place, e-mail marketing is a "greener" and much more affordable tool that can be used in a variety of ways to retain customers. Use the following ideas to create an e-mail campaign that coordinates with the timing, message, and style of your overall marketing plan:
- Newsletters E-mail newsletters (which should also be posted on your camp's Web site) are great ways to keep the community up-to-date with information about improvements that have been made, tips for campers, and other interesting news about your camp and staff.
- E-mail Cycle It's important to plan out an e-mail campaign that reaches your distribution list at strategic times during the season. You should send an early e-mail as soon as registration opens, a follow-up reminder, a "last chance to sign-up" e-mail, and a post-camp e-mail after the season ends.
- Special Promotions Advertise your special offers and promotions on the day they are made available, at the midpoint, and shortly before the promotions end.
- Birthday E-mails Use your database management system to send birthday greetings to customers as a way to stay in touch. It's a simple but effective way to show that you care.
Like blog entries, keep e-mails short using a friendly and personal style, and make sure to provide a link back to your Web site for more in-depth information. If registration is open, include a link to your online registration page. Additionally, camps should always offer the ability to opt out if customers are not interested in being on a distribution list for promotional and news items to comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.
Online Photo Galleries
Say it with pictures. Beautiful pictures of camp landscapes aren't half as interesting to parents as seeing a photo that includes their child's smiling face. Implement an online photo system to post new pictures from camp each night (behind a password protected site, of course, to comply with the Child Protection Act). There is no better way to help parents relate to their child's experience than by allowing them to see pictures or video clips from camp on a daily basis.
Other online relationship building tools to consider are message boards, parent-tochild e-mail tools, and Podcasting.
When the world searches, it uses Google. Parents seeking camps online are no exception. Google is so synonymous with search that it has become a verb (i.e., "I Googled it"). The key to reaching prospects on Google is to get listed on the first page, and there are a number of practices to increase camp visibility.
Search Engine Optimization
It is important to present information on your Web site in such a way that search engines can easily read and index your site. By implementing some basic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) principles, you can improve your chances of being ranked well for your most important searches.
Here are some easy SEO techniques you can implement on your existing site:
- Update site content frequently with key search terms including the type of camp, various names for the region, and other camp descriptors that you think would be used in a typical camp search.
- Make sure important keywords are in your title tags, H1 tags, and text links (ask your Webmaster).
- Encourage other sites to link to you, including counselors that may have Facebook or MySpace accounts.
Additionally, Google recently released a tool to help developers find problems on their Web sites and help optimize them. Do a Google search for "Google Content Analysis" to learn more.
Portals and Directories
Regardless of how well you've implemented SEO techniques, camp portals and directories will come up higher than most individual camps in a typical search. But how do you decide whether it's worth becoming a "Featured" listing on any of them? One of the best ways to test the value of camp directories is to simply act like a parent. Try some searches that you think parents would use and see which directories are ranked most highly. If your camp isn't included in the directory, contact the site to sign up for a free listing.
If you are considering advertising on an online camp directory or portal, a good tip is to reference Alexa.com. Alexa is a ranking site that allows you to compare traffic statistics from a sample population to see who's getting the most visits. (It's also fun to compare your site's hits against those of the camp next door).
Pay Per Click
Online advertising is a popular and effective way to allow more people to find you. Offered by each of the major search engines, paid advertisements appear only when people search for the keywords you sponsor, and you only pay when someone clicks on your ad.
When implementing a Pay Per Click campaign, it is important to continually track results and implement conversion tracking to ensure the campaign is profitable.
User-Friendly Web Site
The prospect's experience does not end when they find your links listed in a search engine or click on an ad. Your Web site must easily provide the information the camp seekers are looking for.
A Web site provides parents with their first glance into the essence of a camp. The feeling it portrays, along with the message, the information, and the resources it lists on the site should provide the same information a parent would receive if they were to show up in person for a tour. A good exercise is to look at your site with fresh eyes and put yourself in the shoes of a potential parent. What's your first impression of the camp based on the Web site? If you had a question, would you know who to e-mail or where to get the information? If you were interested in registering, would you know how?
It should never take more than one click to answer any of these questions. The best sites have a clean and simple look, but also find a way to answer each of these inquiries effectively from the homepage.
Friendly Online Registration
The ability to sign up online quickly and easily is imperative. The last thing you want is to push away an interested parent because of an intimidating registration process. If registration is difficult for a parent in year one, how excited will they be to register again next year? With a simple, step-by-step online application process, you ensure applicants can sign up and pay easily. Online accounts for parents also make future registrations even simpler because their information can be automatically filled in. In short, you want the registration process to be as easy as possible for parents while still collecting the data you need.
While reading an article online about a nonprofit called Karno Kids, I saw a banner ad for a local half-marathon hosted by the founder of Karno Kids, Dean Karnaze. After registering for the race, I immediately received a registration confirmation which also reminded me to invite a friend. I sent a quick e-mail challenging two co-workers to join me and before I knew it, five co-workers and spouses had signed up. Word of mouth testimonials are nothing new to the camp industry, but here are some ways you can take advantage of this old technique using Internet tools.
Include an invite-a-friend feature as part of online registration and as an option on your Web site. Many camps also include reminder text in their registration confirmation e-mails. (Example: Spots are filling up quickly, so remind your friends and requested cabin mates to sign up today!).
As a final pre-summer push, send a mass e-mail to registered camp families announcing remaining availability with the suggestion to invite friends to sign up today.
YouTube's massive online traffic has been generated by users e-mailing video links to friends. Providing ways for campers to share their experiences is an excellent way to build loyalty and help spread the word. This can be done by enabling camp families to invite friends and family members to view your photo site, providing a link to e-mail your newsletter to a friend, or by encouraging social network bookmarking.
This is really just an extension of Pay Per Click discussed above, but in addition to leveraging search engines, find sites that share your demographic and advertise at strategic times. These could include parenting pages of a local or regional newspaper or sites that can reach specific target demographics like eteamz.com, CitySearch, or even something like a free Craigslist listing in the "community" section.
Camps can also purchase targeted e-mail lists to reach desired audiences. You will obviously have a list of campers from previous years but what about new prospects? In order to continually build your list, offer visitors to your Web site the ability to sign up for special offers and newsletters.
The concept behind all of these initiatives is to utilize new technologies to improve the same tried-and-true camp marketing efforts that you've always used. Pick and choose the techniques that would work best for your camp to help fill those final beds or day camp slots.
Online Marketing Lingo: A Glossary
Stephen Branstetter, general manager for CampRegister, part of The Active Network, has worked in the camp industry for over seven years consulting with camp staff and families on how to improve the camp experience through technology. For more information about CampRegister, call 877-996-2267, or visit CampRegister.com.
Originally published in the 2008 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.