As the chief marketing officer for the American Camp Association (ACA), I get to serve the field of camp and camp professionals who, in turn, empower the lives of children and youth in countless ways. I really love my job, in large part because of my own years spent at camp. From 1986 to 1999 I spent my summers at Van Buren Youth Camp (VBYC) in Bloomingdale, Michigan. At camp I learned how to folk dance, make pottery, overcome stage fright via mealtime skits, and marvel at the scope of the universe while singing beloved songs around a campfire under millions of sparkling stars. Camp is where I met kids who came from different neighborhoods and from different kinds of families, traditions, faiths, races, and socioeconomic classes. That exposure to kids who were different from me allowed me to consider opportunities beyond the scope of my own experiences — and how under the right circumstances, one plus one can equal three.
My camp experiences led me to marketing — the science of understanding what motivates people to engage with or buy a product, idea, or brand. If the mind is the muscle of the soul, marketing in its truest form should answer the question, “What feeds our soul?”
Over the last 20 years, I’ve gained valuable insight and experience in understanding what motivates people to engage with or subscribe to a few high-profile brands, including Patagonia and Chaco. At Patagonia, the strategy was using business to implement solutions to the environmental crisis. While customers purchased products for a wide variety of reasons, on some level, they bought into the idea that a puffy coat or a fleece made from recycled plastic bottles was moving the universe toward a better future — where more of us cared about more than ourselves. Chaco believed and conveyed that travel and adventure, when paired with good friends and community, opened the door to exploring a meaningful or purposefully led life. Understanding what motivated people to engage with either brand produced work I’m deeply proud of.
Today, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what motivates Gen X and Millennial parents to sign their children up for summer camp. The reasons are varied and sometimes as simple as essential childcare, but the parents who really buy in to the positive outcomes of camp experiences understand that they are providing their children with an advantage in life; the opportunity to widen the scope of what’s possible for their children to achieve. This is not necessarily tied to any specific skill learned at camp, but an amalgamation of the camp experiences with the unique factors involved in producing those experiences:
- Time away from technology
- The positive influence of near-peer young adults, such as counselors modeling healthy decision-making
- Opportunities to make microdecisions that lead to success
- Opportunities to make microdecisions that lead to failure
And all of this within a safe and supportive environment where kids understand that they belong — that the opportunities for challenges and fun are built on the shared understanding that camp was built specifically for them.
Laurie Browne, PhD, ACA’s director of research, likes to point out to me that this group of parents have fully bought into everything about the camp experience. They’ve probably read GRIT by Angela Duckworth (angeladuckworth.com/grit-book/) and had a great camp experience when they were kids.
If this is our pipeline for campers, we’ve built a mildly sustainable consumer for our product, for our idea that camp is unique, amazing, and one of the best ways to invest in their success and happiness later in life. However, if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that every child deserves and needs access to that special camp experience. So how do we connect with parents who didn’t go to camp and may not see camp as culturally relevant, parents outside the scope of our existing influence, or parents who see proximity to their children as the only means of keeping them truly safe?
In the brand marketing world, we might call this exploring new audiences or diversifying our product line to meet the needs of evolving consumer values. We can point to Blockbuster, Kodak, and Tower Records as brands that didn’t pivot or forecast cultural trends accurately. And we marvel at Netflix, Instagram, and Spotify as the true disrupters and game changers we now know these brands to be.
In considering innovation in marketing for the field of camp, we must ask ourselves, “Are we Tower Records or Spotify?” What are we doing to connect with and engage parents and families outside the scope of those we have always served? Are we committed to the process of understanding new consumer groups, what they are motivated by, and their perceptions of the camp experience? Is it possible that innovation in how we market camp experiences will require us to take a long hard look at the language we use, the culture we embrace and project, and the way we frame the advantage of providing children with camp experiences? Change often happens either gradually, at a pace that feels painfully slow, or suddenly, by upending our world and challenging convention.
Real innovation in camp marketing at this juncture in time is going to require us to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We need to take this opportunity to ask ourselves if we have the skill set required to market to families who think about camp differently than our current families do — or to those who don’t think about camp at all. In the event that we do not have this capability within our existing staff, we need to acknowledge this challenge is both urgent and a threat to our future success.
Think about the history of communities adapting kindergarten in the United States. It’s funny to consider that there was a time before 1960 when access to free kindergarten was the exception. Today the exception would be parents choosing to forgo kindergarten for their children. Early childhood education and access to early reader programs have become common in every community. What we need now is a similar call to action around enrolling every child in camp programming. If parents can understand the value in kindergarten, they should be able to understand the value in summer camp.
How Do You Settle on Your Pitch?
So, how do we pitch camp as a fundamental opportunity for every child and the developmental advantage it provides to the campers enrolled? Start with this universal marketing truth: if you’re trying to connect everyone, you’re not connecting to anyone.
The next step is to segment your audience into three groups:
- Existing engaged parents and families
- Look-alike parents and families
- Parents and families who are different than those identified in groups one and two
Next, build out your three groups with segmentation:
- Demographic segmentation: level of education, marital status, race, faith, socioeconomic status
- Psychological segmentation: culture, beliefs, interests, lifestyle, camp experiences as a child
- Behavioral segmentation: purchasing or spending habits, user status, brand loyalties, and brand tendencies
- Geographic segmentation: neighborhood, area code, city, state, region, country, and proximity to camp
Finally, build out consumer panels for each group — with real humans.
- Group one: the easiest group to fill. Just email existing highly engaged parents and build a group with five individuals who represent the broadest segmentation while maintaining their core identity of engaged camp parents.
- Group two: while a challenging group to find, they are fairly easy to identify. They look and act a great deal like group one — they simply have never sent their children to your camp and they currently have very little information on your program.
- Group three: identify trusted partners and leverage your network — school administrator, local business leader, nonprofit director, community organizer, etc. — to connect with individuals who can help you reach this group of parents.
With all three groups, be sure to offer meaningful reasons why parents would benefit from engaging with you and your market research initiative. This could involve discounts on enrollment, gift cards, or outright payment for their time.
Gather a baseline for each group.
- Give your current “why you should enroll your children in programming at our camp” pitch to all three groups. Keep the pitch consistent; give the same pitch word for word — using the same handouts, PowerPoint slides, and/or videos with all three groups.
- Ask for feedback, asking the same questions from all three groups.
- Did the pitch work? What kinds of questions do you have about our program?
- Knowing what you know about our camp right now, would you enroll your child in programming at our camp? If yes, why? If not, why not?
- At this moment, can you imagine what it would look like to drop your child off at our camp and come back in two weeks to pick them up? What would that look like or feel like for you as a parent? If you can’t imagine dropping your child off at our camp, is there a specific reason why?
- What was missing? What information would help you make a decision to send your child to our camp?
- What would motivate you to enroll your child at our camp?
- What types of programs have you previously enrolled your child in, and what motivated you to enroll your child in that program?
- Are there barriers to enrolling your child at our camp that we’ve not covered in the questions we’ve already asked?
- What role does your family’s financial health play in making the decision to enroll a child in summer programs?
- When you consider the advantage of enrolling your child in summer programming, what are the pros and cons of choosing this program over another program?
- Give members from all three groups an opportunity to provide additional feedback or perspective through a follow-up survey one week later. Sometimes consumer panels result in feedback individuals did not necessarily feel comfortable sharing in person.
Now it’s time to compare and contrast the responses from all three groups. How do the feedback and insights of the three groups differ? Where the responses overlap among groups often is where you find universal truths or key takeaways.
At this point in the process, consider drawing/mapping all the responses and insights you’ve received on a giant whiteboard over the course of a day. This exercise of reflecting on what you’ve learned from your sample consumer groups often helps to distinguish the true insights from the fluff. Talking through the feedback and insights with individuals from outside your organization may also be helpful — sometimes we’re so close to our programs, we’re unable to see the challenges clearly. Individuals from outside your organization can provide clarity when needed and encouragement when you’re headed in the right direction.
Based on the feedback and insight gained from the three model groups, start building an effect-based model. To do this, don’t model the product or the service — model the effect you’re looking to achieve. Then reverse engineer the effect through products and services to support that effect in tangible and measurable outcomes.
Examples of an effect you’re looking to achieve could be:
- Enroll 20 new families and first-time campers.
- Increase diversity of gender, race, and social class among families attending family camp.
- Increase the number of campers age 12–14 enrolled in summer programming by 10 percent.
Examples of reverse engineering products and services to achieve the preceding examples include:
- Referral programs and discounts for referring new campers and families.
- Developing a grant (scholarship) program for new campers from target schools to be awarded by teachers for outstanding students and/or highly engaged parent volunteers.
- Inviting influential mommy bloggers to come take a tour of the camp and interview a youth development expert highlighting the important role camp plays in the lives of 12- to 14-year-old youth.
A solid marketing plan takes time to develop and implement. However, connecting with new families and increasing awareness of the benefits and advantages of camp experiences for every child is at the core of our collective mission as youth development and camp professionals. Every parent who understands the value of kindergarten should understand the value of a camp experience. Every parent who enrolls their child in kindergarten should enroll their child in camp. Understanding their perspectives and needs through focused market research and honing your pitch can help make that happen. Onward!
Photo courtesy of Camp Sloane YMCA, Lakeville, Connecticut.
Kelley Freridge is the American Camp Association’s chief marketing officer.