Marketing has changed drastically over the last few years. We are now in an era where brands are expected to be online — listening and engaging with their customers. There are so many avenues open to camps to get their message out to consumers. Where should you start? How did we get here? In this article, we look at how we arrived at this time of heightened consumer engagement and review the top five social marketing tools camps can employ to get their message out to prospective parents and campers. Brochures and registration forms used to be the bread and butter of summer camp enrollment. As connection speeds improved, the Internet became the way to promote the camp experience. “Do you have a Web site?” was a question camps were now being asked. Camps moved their marketing materials online and their brochure took the form of a Web site. The Web sites were no more interactive than that paper brochure, but at least they were online. (Some camps are still stuck in this phase.) As e-mail became popular, camps began offering that as a means of communication. Then registrations were being accepted online. It was a lot of work, but camps kept pace with technology. It didn’t all hit at once.
When the social Web took off in 2004 with Myspace, followed on its heels by Facebook in 2006, many camps began to see control of their brand slip away as staff members began posting their party photos online, creating “fan” groups in the name of the camp, and having conversations about the camp without a director in sight! Then came the popularity of blogs, online review sites, and video.
In the past, you controlled the message your customers saw about your camp. The ubiquitous and popular nature of social media has ushered in a shift whereby your customers have some control over your message. As camp professionals, we are past the days of pretending Facebook is a fad and only the kids are on YouTube. Regardless of the Web site, the era of user engagement is here. The real question is what can camps do to take advantage of it? Let’s talk about four areas a camp should consider when using the social Web to spread the message of camp. (Note: This assumes the camp already has developed a clear marketing plan and is looking to better integrate it with the social Web.)
Your customers trust each other more than they trust you. Camps have always known the power of the “mommy grapevine.” It is time to start thinking of that grapevine as it lives out on the social Web. How can you integrate all the pieces together and utilize these features from the beginning of the marketing cycle, when parents are first becoming aware of your camp, to the advocacy stage, when they are eager to share their experiences with their friends?
When someone visits your Web site or Facebook page, do they have the opportunity to give you their e-mail address? When a parent does this, they are basically saying, “I want to hear more from you.” If you have a Web site or Facebook page, you should offer visitors an opportunity to opt-in to messages from you. Collect their first name, e-mail address, and zip code to make sign-up quick. You can often get a lot of demographic data from a zip code, and having a first name allows you to personalize messages and newsletters.
However, it still comes back to sending your subscribers content that has value. It also provides you an avenue to send out discount codes and registration information, or good e-mail newsletters or marketing pieces that solve a problem for your customer. New marketing is about engagement and developing a relationship with your subscribers. E-mail is no different. An e-mail service provider will make this a simple task and turn e-mail into a valuable social marketing tool. Many e-mail service providers offer discounts for nonprofits, and some even offer a large number of subscribers for free. An e-mail service provider will increase your deliverability, provide statistics on campaigns, give you forms for easy sign-up, and make sure you are in compliance with the laws regarding e-mail marketing. Most services will also embed a sharing feature in the e-mail marketing campaigns and newsletters that encourage the subscriber to “forward to a friend.” This takes advantage of social sharing and the digital mommy-grapevine.
Many camps still send mass e-mails on their own, without using a service. If this is you, I implore you to stop. It is hurting your business. An e-mail list is something you own and have full control over — you can be reasonably assured that your message is reaching your contacts. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are important to send messages over, but you do not have as much control of your messages as you do with e-mail. So send e-mails the professional way through a service.
Camps have understood the power of video for a long time. I have been fortunate to work with David Betz, president of CAMP TV, as we have developed a series of workshops to help camps transition to the online video space. Having been in the camp video business for over twenty years, David has seen it change as new technology comes into the fold. He tells of the time when, because of the high cost of VHS tapes, camps produced only four or five copies of their camp video. They would send them out with a postage-paid return envelope that the family would use to return the video after they had watched it. When DVD came out, as David recalls, camps were able to print and send more copies of their long-form promotional videos.
With the advent of online video, camps simply converted their long-form DVD strategy to the Internet. However, as David points out, the YouTube audience is different than the in-home DVD audience. In the past, you could take time to build up to the action and content, whereas the YouTube audience is expecting a message within the first fifteen seconds. Long panoramic shots of your lake and facility at the beginning of a DVD video will not be successful in an online video.
YouTube is where your camp needs to be because it offers social sharing features and is the second largest search engine. In order for you to use YouTube effectively, David Betz and I have assembled our top five essential steps to ensure your message is reaching the desired audience.
- Make sure your channel is set up properly, which includes a channel name that represents your camp. Fill out the descriptive data and informational links on the channel page, and set up the colors and logo to match your brand. Upload video in the highest quality format possible in segments that are two to three minutes in length. Videos that are too short may be perceived as not having value, and videos that are too long may demand a time commitment someone is unwilling to make for a promotional camp video. A mom is not going to watch your nine-minute promotional video, but she just might watch three videos that run three minutes each. YouTube provides statistics on each video so you can see how long people are watching and when they leave.
- As with your channel page, make sure your video has the appropriate title and descriptions that include relevant keywords. “CampVideo09.MOV” is not a good title for a video: It’s not descriptive and might not show up in important search results. A much more effective title might be ”Camp Balcones Springs — Christian Summer Camps in Austin & Marble Falls, Texas.” Make sure your video has a description and it includes a link to your camp Web site in the very first sentence in the description area. This can bring you valuable inbound traffic. Also, make sure you fill out any other data for the video, like keywords and tags. These are words and terms that people might use to search for your camp.
- Once your video is uploaded, your work has only just begun. YouTube rewards channel owners who log into YouTube regularly and interact with users. Similar to Facebook, YouTube is a social network. While we don’t know exactly how YouTube’s algorithm works, we do know that getting seen there is influenced by the number of Likes, Comments, and Favorites. YouTube keeps track of all these actions — that’s how they decide what videos appear higher in searches and on the suggested videos sidebar. Make sure you’re keeping your page active by logging in when you surf, and ask your community to engage with your channel and videos.
- In addition to posting the traditional promotional video, you may want to consider other types of video content you would be able to produce. How-to videos are very popular in search, and camp directors have a large repertoire of experts. For example, it may be very easy for camp directors to make a video on “How to know if your child is ready for a sleepaway camp” or “How to pick the best camp for your active child.” All these videos provide content for the search engines and establish yourself and your camp as an expert and a trusted source on youth development and the camp experience. Engagement with those videos helps your promotional videos see the light of day. New marketing is about being a content producer, so think about what content you have to offer.
A blog is a Web site or part of a Web site where a camp can post information on a regular basis. It is typically served chrono¬logically and people can subscribe to it with a blog reader or even via e-mail. Many blogs have features that allow comments and reader engagement. Camps started blogging when they heard it would help their Web sites’ “findability” in search engines and continued when they saw that parents liked to see quality content regularly. Some camps post photos and short snippets, whereas other camps post articles and happenings at camp. Either way, the most important tip when starting to blog is to make sure you host the blog on your own Web site. I still see camps with blogs at “campname.blogspot.com,” and this approach will deplete the benefits blogging brings to Web site traffic. Jeff Cheley from Cheley Colorado Camps says that they post an article every few days for their parents during the summer and focus on topics like the value of camp, tips for parents, etc. They have been posting articles for many years and find their parents are most interested in reading the blog during the summer.
Facebook has become as ubiquitous as e-mail. Many camps are rushing to build out their Facebook business page and are struggling to gain more followers. Facebook pages are a feature that allows a business to have a presence on Facebook, and people can “like” their page. When they do this, they have the opportunity to see messages from the page in their personal newsfeed.
What is surprising to most people is that Facebook decides when and if your page’s messages appear in your fan’s newsfeed. Just because someone “Likes” your page doesn’t mean they will ever see your messages. Facebook has a system that determines who your message reaches based on their level of engagement with your page. This now forces camp to think about Facebook as more than a place to push out a marketing message. It is a place to engage people who are loyal to your camp.
Here are a few tips to improve your engagement on Facebook.
- Post content that elicits active engagement rather than passive browsing. Instead of using it to announce when registration is, use it to ask questions like “Which logo should be on the camp T-shirt this year?” or “What caption goes best with this photo?” You can also post a relevant article, provide a brief commentary, and ask your fans a question about which they can comment. Being a curator of content is going to be an increasingly valuable service you can offer as people get inundated with content and are looking for “experts” to help them sort it out.
- People talk with others on Facebook, so make sure your camp’s page not only has a camp identity, but also one that lets fans know who is commenting and posting. This can easily be accomplished by letting everyone know who uses Facebook for your camp and then signing the post or comments. You can appoint numerous people to administer your page, just be sure you trust them to speak for your camp.
- Fill out the profile data on the information tab within your page. This data is searchable, so consider the keywords people use to find your camp. This includes making sure your page is named for your camp, and once you reach twenty-five fans, you can secure a custom URL. Visit facebook.com/username to claim your URL.
- Facebook offers numerous social plugins, which allow Facebook users to share content from your Web site with their friends. This allows you to harness the power of a friend’s endorsement and tie it into your site. I recommend including elements on your Web site that allow for engagement and keep traffic on your Web site. Too many camps are putting Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube buttons on their site, which has the opposite impact — they entice the visitor to click and leave your site. Through embedding and social plugins, you can bring more of the conversation to your Web site.
New Principles of Marketing Are Here to Stay
Parents of our campers are very engaged in technology. While there are new sites coming online every day, the new principles of marketing are here to stay. Camps who are successful in this space are those that stay focused on providing consistent content relevant to their customer base while also engaging around those various forms of content: e-mail newsletters, videos, blog articles, questions on Facebook, discussing news and topical information, etc. It is no longer about mailing out a brochure or DVD and hoping for that registration. It is about getting local mommy bloggers to talk about you at an upcoming camp fair, or running chat nights on Facebook where people can come by to ask camp questions. This does take time and is a new commitment. This is a responsibility that is better shared by many in your organization rather than just one person. Decide what elements are within your reach and in what areas you want and need more training. Set twenty minutes a day to work on this area of your marketing and connect with other camp directors to stay engaged in what people are doing that has been successful.
More Social Marketing Resources
“Why Camp Marketing Isn’t Seasonal,”  by Phillip Gilbreth
“Top Eight Marketing Strategies for 2011,”  by Eric Naftulin
Marketing Essentials for the New Economy  (Three part e-Institute series)
Jennifer H. Selke, Ph.D., is a school psychologist, summer camp director, and a faculty member at UC Berkeley. She blogs at thecampdirector.com and teaches online social media classes.
Originally published in the 2012 November/December Camping Magazine.