We live in an era of experiences and community. What does that mean? Camp directors and staff just spent the past months creating memorable experiences for their campers, ensuring that every child felt welcome, engaged, safe, and inspired at camp. Parents were reassured that their children were having fun and were well cared for — and they were entertained during visiting days. Relationships were forged, and memories were made.
Now, as the last car, bus, train, or plane has departed, the time comes to focus on keeping those experiences and communities alive and thriving, and to ensure that every camper wants to return next summer and tell his friends about the wonderful times he had. You hope that every parent recommends your program to friends, neighbors, and relatives. Keeping the experiences and community alive and thriving is easier than ever before. Social media and e-communications present a wide range of ways for you to engage your camp families 24/7/365, long after the final campfire has died out.
As Don Draper, the fictional ad man in the popular television show Mad Men once said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” Your camp families are much like these clients. Every minute of every day can be seen as an opportunity to “wow” or to disappoint (and eventually disengage) a camper or parent. The superpower of social media can help ensure that the positive aspects of your camp experience reach millions of people.
“At Liberty Lake, our mission for social media is to literally extend the season and extend the experience of our camp across all twelve months of the year,” says Andy Pritikin, director of a New Jersey day camp. He does it with photos, trivia, fun facts, and anything interactive. His aim is to give people “that sense of warmth, friendship, love, goofiness, and community that they yearn to return to.”
More Than 900 Million Consumers Rule the “Airwaves”
Camp reunions and paper newsletters are still valuable, but are you using all the tools at your disposal to ensure that campers come back season after season? More than 900 million consumers are now using Facebook, sharing photos, stories, and impressions (Facebook, 2012). As many as 3 billion hours of YouTube videos are viewed each month (YouTube, 2012), and on a busy day, Twitter sees more than 340 million tweets (Twitter, 2012). Pinterest, the fastest-growing social media application in history, now boasts close to 18 million users (CNET, 2012). And review sites like Yelp give consumers an easy way to post reviews (both good and bad). According to Gordon Josey, owner/director of Camp Twin Creeks, a two-week overnight camp in West Virginia, the letter and phone call have been replaced by the e-mail. Says Josey, “We receive virtually no calls, but dozens and dozens of e-mails from before 6:00 a.m. to as late as midnight and beyond, as parents can ask questions any time they wish.”
Pritikin has also observed this trend, especially as it relates to communicating with new camp families. “Moms are not sitting home twiddling their thumbs, calling camps. They are e-mailing me from work, or at 10:00 p.m. from their couches. The model of how we ‘roll out the red carpet’ for our new families has changed, too.” This may seem to be just a bunch of “chatter,” but your campers and their parents are also using these far-reaching media to share their experiences and to connect (or disconnect) with other people. In fact, one study indicates that 90 percent of consumers today trust reviews from friends and “virtual friends” (NielsenWire, 2009). Social media has transformed word-ofmouth recommendations into a powerful system of worldwide communication.
Says Wendi Caplan-Carroll, senior regional director of Constant Contact, the leading online engagement marketing company, “Close to a billion people worldwide are using Facebook and other applications as their primary forms of staying in touch with friends and family. The key elements of engaging those people are the same as they are in the ‘real world.’ Know who your audience is. Then, be genuine . . . be relevant . . . and be interesting!”
Building Your Virtual Community
Community, in simple terms, is “a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage” (Dictionary.com, 2012). Camp communities are special and inclusive. Consider how you can use images and words to share the spirit of your community with the millions of people who view your camp online.
During camp season, be sure to post videos, blogs, and photos of your campers connecting with each other and enjoying activities. Encourage your campers and staff to share their experiences as well. Build a team of “cub reporters” whose responsibilities include sharing the special moments of each day with online viewers. Utilize an e-marketing system to send out regular “postcards from camp,” broadcasting stories and videos of collaboration and team building to camp parents and prospects for next year.
Do not feel compelled to use all your content during camp season. Save some of your pictures, stories, and videos for posting throughout the year. (See “The Four Seasons of Community-Building” sidebar below.)
Your content should be compelling and interactive. As you post camp moments, encourage comments by asking questions, tell families to look for their children in photos (being mindful of privacy concerns and discouraging “tagging” of photos), and promote specific times of day for families to dial in for “live broadcasts” from camp.
During visiting days and via parent communications, ask your camp parents to post reviews on Yelp and include a link in your correspondence to your Facebook page and review sites where you can be found. Many camp mothers also write blogs, and they can be a great way to build “positive buzz” about your program. Fewer consumers these days — 25 percent of the population — trust advertisements; but 70 percent believe consumer opinions (OxRun, 2012).
After camp ends, build a sense of excitement and let parents and campers know that they should watch your Facebook page, Web site, or e-newsletters for updates about off-season activities and reunions. Create the feeling that campers are now a member of a special “club” that lives on long after the summer has ended. Destination Science, a day camp with locations across the U.S., produces a monthly e-newsletter that includes science-related activities that parents can do with their children throughout the year. Director Kathy Heraghty says, “We are able to track ‘engagement’ and note that our camp families are clicking on videos, recommended reading, and science-related facts. We are in our families’ hearts, minds, and kitchens year-round, so that when we start asking for sign-ups, parents have a positive impression of our program and what it offers their kids.”
Kevin Gordon of Camp Kupugani, a multicultural overnight camp outside Chicago, regularly posts pictures on his camp’s Facebook page and encourages viewers to comment on their favorites. His engagement has steadily increased over time, as campers reminisce about their own memories. Reflecting on shared experiences is an important part of community building!
Pritikin says, “Parents, just as much as the campers (and staff), love social media. The things we teach at Liberty Lake — friendship, independence, teamwork, inspiration, and integrity — reassure parents, too, and we give out snippets of it through e-mail, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc. Parents expect it now!”
Your Social Community Checklist
Many “digital immigrants” (those of us born long before the invention of the Internet) may be confused by the array of options for building online communities. Here is a simple overview of the platforms. As you develop your 2013 marketing plans, make sure you are including them in your communications activities. If you are not certain where to begin, consider engaging an experienced company (like ours) to help you through the process and train your staff.
- Your Web site: Think of it as your “camp location” in the virtual world. Many sites today are being built on platforms like WordPress, enabling visitors to interact with you directly from your site. Be sure that your social sites are easy to find from your Web site. WordPress sites are generally less expensive than other types of sites, and you can easily update them yourselves. Many “plug-ins” (apps) are now available, enabling you to add bells and whistles at a minimal cost.
- Facebook: A “place” where you and your visitors can share photos, engage in conversations, and connect with new prospects and camp families. Each person on Facebook has an average of 200+ friends. When a camp family mentions your camp, you are getting that many more “touches” free of charge!
- Twitter: Think of it as your camp’s radio station. You can post timely, short messages and interact with the media.
- YouTube: It can become your camp’s TV channel. Be sure to keep content fresh year-round with footage from reunions, new construction at camp, off-season rental activities, etc. Consider posting interviews with some of the “unsung heroes” of your camp — the nurse, the maintenance staff, etc. Keep videos short and fun!
- Pinterest: It’s like scrapbooking on steroids! Consider it your camp “museum,” and keep it fresh with fun photos, videos, and inspirational quotes.
- Blogs: In addition to publishing your own (or assigning the responsibility to a senior staff person or camper), consider commenting on other bloggers’ posts. It’s a great way to showcase your camp name and let your voice and experience be heard (and can help with Search Engine Optimization [widely known as SEO]).
- Yelp and other review sites: Consumers post the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly here. Make sure your reviews stay on the positive side.
- FourSquare: This “location-based” application enables you to “check-in” from various places you visit. Consider checking in from the American Camp Association’s national conference or a regional conference, from your camp off-season (as you prepare for the next season), and even your favorite restaurants. Camp families are often curious about what camp directors do in the off-season!
- e-Marketing: Be sure you are e-mailing camp families and prospects at least once a month in the off-season, and be sure to use camp fairs and reunions as a way to build your database. Your e-communications should also include links to other places readers can find your “community” (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.).
Do you have to engage in all of these communities? The short answer is “probably.” That’s where your campers and their parents are these days, and by having a presence in all these places, you increase your chances of being found by the search engines. These apps do not take the place of traditional marketing and PR, but can be great, cost-effective additions to your marketing mix.
Monitor and Join the Conversation
Set up a Google Alert (www.google.com/alerts ) for your camp to stay abreast of what campers and parents are posting about your program. Use a simple tool like Nutshell Mail (http://nutshellmail.com ), which aggregates the activity on your social media sites and makes responding to posts easier and more efficient.
When people post on your Facebook page or Tweet about your camp, be sure to respond on a timely basis and give “shout-outs” to vendors and families that have done great things. As a director, you are very much a part of your community, and you need to let parents and campers know that you care about them and are accessible and connected. If you happen to get negative reviews, approach the critic directly and honestly, calling or e-mailing the disgruntled parent and letting your online community know that you are concerned about the issue and are addressing it. (Do not start debating or responding to negative comments in public; that could potentially result in a public display of defensiveness.)
Social media sites are meant for conversation and sharing. Only about 20 percent of your content should be promotional. Do not use your sites to sell. Just be genuine, chatty, insightful, approachable, and engaging.
Don’t Forget the “Real World!”
Although Josey has built a robust Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, blog, and Web site presence and sends out monthly e-newsletters, he also invests about $10,000 a year in “live” reunions and displays at consumer events. He even put up a “red carpet” in a New York area shopping mall to promote FashionCampNYC, and he held a give-away drawing to capture new leads for his database. These face-to-face moments not only provide new fodder for social media posts, they create opportunities for in-person interaction and help you expand your community.
We all know that the true value of camp comes from the live experience. However, using the powerful tools and reach of social media enables you to bring that experience — that spirit of fun, inclusion, tradition, and inspiration — to an audience of millions, and ultimately, bring more kids and parents into your “real world” next season!
Editor’s note: Statistics in this article current as of July 2012.
The Four Seasons of Community Building
CNET. (2012, 21 March). ComScore: Google still top site, Pinterest continues to soar. Retrieved from http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57401809-93/comscore-google-still-top-site-pinterest-continues-to-soar/ 
Dictionary.com. (2012). Community. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/community 
Facebook. (2012). Newsroom. Retrieved from http://newsroom.fb.com/content/default.aspx?NewsAreaId=22 
Twitter. (2012). What is Twitter? Retrieved from https://business.twitter.com/basics/what-is-twitter/ 
NielsenWire. (2009). Global advertising: Consumers trust real friends and virtual strangers the most. Retrieved from http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/global-advertising-consumers-trust-real-friends-and-virtual-strangers-the-most/ 
OxRun. (2012, April 6). How word-of-mouth, customer reviews are changing the marketing world. Retrieved from www.oxrun.com/blog/how-word-of-mouth-customer-reviews-are-changing-the-marketing-world/ 
YouTube. (2012). Statistics. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/t/press_statistics/ 
Nancy A. Shenker is founder/CEO of theONswitch, a boutique marketing company that combines traditional and social media. theONswitch works with a wide variety of camps, summer programs, and education businesses on developing marketing plans that include social media and creates Web sites and social media presence. Nancy is also a regular speaker at ACA’s national and tri-state conferences, and runs educational webinars, workshops, and one-on-one social media training. (And she is a former “camp mother!”) She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org , via www.facebook.com/theonswitch2012  and www.theonswitch.com . Or call her at 914.969.2900.
Originally published in the September/October 2012 Camping Magazine.