The quiet, final weeks of August find camp directors exhaling and peering out over empty fields — luckier ones are on a beach somewhere preparing meticulously crafted reenrollment letters. Agonizing over price increases to the tenths of a percent, directors know that other than a handful of summer sign-ups, many camps actually have no enrollment for the coming year. That dilemma may be resolved within days for some, but others, especially those serving teens and many nonprofit camps, must start from scratch every fall.

After dropping off postal bins full of reenrollment letters, it is time to plot how to reconnect with recently departed families and find new families to replace those who will not return. Social media helps camps reconnect and carry on a continuing conversation with their online community, supporting reenrollment and the manna of referrals.

Search marketing helps locate the new families needed for the next decade, uncover new markets, and maybe even broaden a camp’s lines of business. Search and social marketing fuel the annual renewal so the next summer can again be the best ever.

What Search Marketing Does for Camps

Search helps prospective new clients find you so you can become an option. Searchers use keyword phrases on search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing and are presented with ads by advertisers seeking to drive them to their Web sites based on those desirable words. Once ads are clicked on, the searcher is taken to the appropriate place in the advertiser’s Web site.

Families investigating camp may fit into some combination of the following:

  • First-time campers
  • Children who’ve aged out of local programs
  • Children changing camps
  • Families new to an area and less connected to your community or that of another camp
  • Families increasingly accustomed to doing their own investigating to assess alternatives
    • In 2012, 88.1 percent of U.S. Web users fourteen or older browsed or researched products online (eMarketer, 2012).

Search drives Web searchers to your Web site, where it is up to you to meaningfully engage those visitors and move them to some of the following actions:

  • Spending an appreciable amount of time on your Web site — getting to know the camp often in multiple visits by family members • Consulting others and reaching out for references
  • Filling out a form requesting information
  • Making a phone call to you

There may be a series of Web site visits while some of the above actions occur over what could be a period of some months. The buying process for some camps commences more than twelve months before the planned summer as families evaluate alternatives for summer site visits. So search marketing done well drives the right folks to your site; but once there, it’s up to you to make the sale.

How Search Marketing Can Be Used to Quickly Test Alternative Camp Programming

Search marketing allows you to test out alternative camp programming and site usages affordably and quickly to greater leverage your site and online community. Potential ventures may likely appeal to many not already in your “social community” who have a particular need of this service. It can be as easy as adding a page to your existing Web site to promote this. After doing so, you can instantly launch an accompanying paid search initiative to find interested searchers — they demonstrate interest by their keywords — and bring them to that page. At 17 billion searches in May 2012 in the U.S. — up 5 percent from the previous month — this is a pretty robust test market (comScore, 2012b). You can adequately test market your new offerings to gauge immediate viability without committing greater resources until you are more confident to proceed.

Case Study: Marketing to Teens

Passport NYC at 92nd Street Y, a nonprofit camp, operates five residential, specialty teen camp programs in Manhattan. Molly Hott, Passport NYC’s director, says, “Based on the specialties, the ages of our teens, and uniqueness of our camp program, camper retention differs from that of a traditional camp — less than 15 percent. Each fall, we start from scratch, trying to fill each camp’s fixed number of spaces and fixed bed spaces by gender. We’re on Google Search more than ten months of the year connecting with parents and teens. We’re there because that’s where people are looking for alternative summer opportunities, and we know that a steady lead flow is assured. Marketing to teens means reaching both the teen and their parent. Paid search plays a vital role — sign-ups where a Google paid click was identified as a ‘found us through’ accounted for at least 18 percent of enrollment.”


How the Web Changes the Buying Process — What Search Hath Wrought

Traditionally, camp has been predominantly a referral business. The secret sauce is not so secret — if you invest in and run a really good program, families will not only come back, but they will tell their friends. Camps that own their properties of ten have poured money into facilities and programming that support the camp and wow visitors. The “oohs” and “aahs” from touring families validate firsthand that this investment is what pays off and where resources should f low. On those same tours, camp directors — many of whom may enlist search marketing techniques — are unlikely to hear a family describe in detail a Google search that started the process or put that camp on the radar screen. Many directors consequently may be assuming that this isn’t where much of their marketing investment needs to be. Historically, marketing budgets are spent on new brochures, videos, and reunions.

For the last fifteen years, Web sites have evolved into the go-to spot for year-round communication and for encouraging a dialogue with prospective families. Yes, many camps are still heavily referral based, but parents are now doing more of their own digging because it is so easy and they are now so used to doing this with other products and services. And some of that referral feedback is online where they can read it themselves; they’ve become accustomed to doing that. In fact, 70 percent of worldwide consumers trust online consumer reviews, making it the second most-trusted form of advertising (Nielsen, 2012).

There are mixed signals that make referral seem no less ensconced. The sequence and steps in the buying process can be murky because parents may find you originally through a search, but once they vet you and locate your clients and alumni, you may never know that all this started from a late night Google search. Prospective camp parents are more likely to reference the clients/alumni they’ve met when asked how they found you. A concerned parent, when asked, prefers to say she found you from an existing client or alumni referral rather than a Google search.

Buying habits change, and camps have to recognize that increasing numbers of their potential clients aren’t just blindly following their friends and neighbors. The percentage of clients that make up their own minds and how quickly this is proliferating varies based on:

  • Type of camp
  • Duration of program
  • Camp’s brand awareness
  • Cost
  • Location
  • Niche

The Two Components of Search Marketing

PPC (Pay Per Click)

Popularized by the market leader Google. Web searchers see ads based on relevant search keywords they use and are brought to advertisers’ Web sites when they click.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

The process of improving the placement of a Web site or a Web page in a search engine’s unpaid/organic search results page. The higher the ranking, the more free clicks your ad will obtain.

  • Searches performed on the major keywords relating to camp will yield a search engine results page dominated by paid ads (PPC), especially on mobile and laptop devices with smaller screens.
  • Obtaining free clicks (SEO) on many of the general and frequently used search keywords is frustrating as you are competing for placement with an entire universe of summer camp Web sites.

This article focuses on PPC only, which can put you in the game instantly and at a budget level you choose.


Search Platforms: The Major Search Engines and Facebook

Google Paid Search

Google paid search represents about 66 percent of the U.S. search market, and a presence there gets you in front of much of your target market, while Yahoo and Bing combined are close to 30 percent at present (comScore, 2012a). Ninety-two percent of Web users use a search engine, and the main reasons are to obtain information, research products/services, and explore alternatives toward making a purchase (Pew Internet, 2011). So, here you can expect folks in some stage of “ready, willing, and able to buy” by virtue of the search keywords they use. These words often indicate how far along in the buying process they are. A searcher for “boys’ camp in Wisconsin” is likely further along than a searcher for “children summer camp.” So you can expect to pay more for a click from the former, which shows a more advanced stage in the buying process (i.e., the searcher might be more likely to spend their money). You pay based on clicks obtained, and can set geographic territories and your daily budget.


Facebook allows you to target users based on their self-reported demographics, “likes,” and “interests.” As with the search engines, you present ads — but rather than basing them on search keywords, you base them on the aforementioned characteristics you choose to target.

Facebook members may or may not be actively engaged in searching for your service, but their profiles identify them as part of your target market, so you are willing to present them with an ad and hope they click, only if interested. This is a payper- click model, so you just pay for clicks and set a daily budget of your choosing. At present, Facebook clicks are cheaper for camps than Google clicks.

All these platforms allow for extreme speed and flexibility, as campaigns can be live in a matter of minutes. All campaign aspects and budgets can be adjusted instantly based on feedback, data, and realtime analytics. Minimal lead times, lower printing costs, an ability to try new things, and an ease to change details about the program as needed can all boost chances for success. With paid clicks proliferating on Google at a rate of 42 percent year after year worldwide (Google, 2012), and Facebook, the second most trafficked site in the U.S. (Alexa, 2012), you are right in the center of the action.

Case Study: Facebook Advertising

At Passport NYC at 92nd Street Y (see page 43), several camps fill up by May, but some spaces remain for boys in the Music Industry Camp. Their Facebook ad campaign targets boys ages fourteen to seventeen in twelve U.S. states that, based on their Facebook profiles, have an active interest in the music industry or one of fifteen record labels or music companies. Facebook returns a target population of 67,000+ who meet the criteria to receive the camp’s ads. The initiative runs for more than two weeks, and almost 50 percent of this group is reached, receiving the ad an average of thirty-one times each. Slightly more than 1 percent of those reached click on the ad at $0.57 per click to Passport NYC. Director Molly Hott says, “Our marketing needs to be dynamic and resources need to be reallocated instantly to where we have spaces, especially at the last minute.”


How Much to Spend and How to Judge the Effectiveness of Search

Spending follows the same parameters you would use for any marketing investment:

  • What is the lifetime value of a new client?
  • How important is search in the marketing process relative to the other marketing inputs?
  • Is my Web site getting more traffic from prospective clients, and does it appear that it is playing a larger and more positive role in purchasing decisions?

How important search is in helping folks find you and tracing activity back to search are always the questions you are seeking to answer. Properly assessing the success of your search initiatives involves engaging with new families to understand their buying process — and finding out to what degree, if any, search was involved. You also need to drill into your Web site analytics to understand the quality of the Web site traffic that came from your paid search clicks to ensure your initiative is worthwhile. You want paid visitors from proven locales who will engage meaningfully on your site, and you can discern this from some of the following metrics:

  • What towns were searchers from? Are they historically the right ones?
  • How long did these visitors stay on your site on an average visit?
  • What specific content did they look at? Certain content will be viewed by prospective, as opposed to existing, families.

This information is actionable because it tells you what to change in your Web site. It is now the task to align your Web site content to visitors’ interests — and provide them with more of what they are interested in and vice versa.

Case Study: Instant Advertising

Coastal Sports of Hauppauge, New York, is an indoor sports complex that runs day camps all summer in various sports. Usually the camps don’t take shape until early May, which years ago would have been almost fatal for a for-profit entity. Some aren’t solidified until early June. The day a camp is finalized, a Web page is created, uploaded onto the site, and a Google search campaign goes up later that same day. While most of the camps operate, a few per summer will be cancelled, with Coastal only having committed some small advertising dollars. “Our marketing is instant to a more than thirty-mile territory with a population of more than 2 million through our Web site and Google search. We do nothing that requires much lead time or substantial investment. If a program doesn’t go, we try to fill our facility with another event — all promoted quickly and affordably online,” says Coastal Sports General Manager Nick Nowakowski.


Getting Started

Search is a marketing activity, so hand it to your marketing group, not your technology group or technology provider. It is easier to figure out the “technical” aspects of Google and Facebook search than it is to teach your Webmaster marketing and the camp business. Many camps run search advertising campaigns during a part of the year that corresponds to when they believe parents’ checkbooks are in closest proximity. This may overlap with when enrollment is behind and panic is reaching more advanced stages. Americans live on the Web, so they are searching all seasons! Therefore, click rates on valuable camp search keywords may be more cost effective at seemingly “less sexy” times of the year when there is less clutter.

Additional Resources


Alexa. (2012). Retrieved from

comScore. (2012a). comScore releases April 2012 U.S. search engine rankings. Retrieved from

comScore. (2012b). comScore releases May 2012 U.S. search engine rankings.

eMarketer. (2012). US Digital Media Usage Report. Google. (2012). Google Inc. announces second quarter 2012 financial results. Retrieved from

Nielsen. (2012). Global trust in advertising and brand messages. Retrieved from

Pew Internet. (2011). Search and email remain the top online activities. Retrieved from

Eric Stein is the founder and president of Eswebmarketing, a provider of Internet marketing services focusing on paid search to small businesses. The company works with over ten day, sleep-away, and specialty camps nationwide, some of which do yearround retreats as well. Eric is also a regular speaker at ACA’s National and Tri-State conferences. He grew up at a summer camp in the Adirondacks started by his grandparents and currently run by his family. He can be found at or reached at