Some aspects of camp management are almost automatic. You need food, you call your food service. You need shirts, you e-mail your outfitter. You have a question about risk management, you contact your insurance agent. You need campers, you . . . hmmmm.
Some tasks in camp management are less than automatic, and occasionally you feel like responding, "Listen, I'm not good at that. And, besides, I never got into the camp profession to have to do things like . . ."
That last sentence often ends with the dreaded M word: marketing. When it comes to marketing, there is bad news and there is good news. The bad: Everyone has her or his own definition of what marketing means, but marketing is indeed more complex than "shopping for groceries." The good news: It is not as mysterious as many think, and it often begins with simply applying common sense.
Good marketing frequently comes from people who were never formally trained as promotional professionals; and bad marketing often comes from the highest-paid corners of Madison Avenue. You can easily see examples of the latter when you turn away from a Super Bowl commercial and say "What????" That slice of bad marketing is compounded when you awake the next morning to remember the strange scenario from the commercial but have no recall of the sponsor.
Even without the benefit of an MBA, or similar preparation, you can easily conquer many marketing issues simply by stepping back, squinting at the problem, and taking the sensible approach. The best place to start is that all-important first encounter:
Common Sense Rules of Initial Contact
Operate your Web site like your camp.
If prospects' first exposure to your camp is your home page, everything that happens right then and there and as a result of the next series of clicks should mirror the professionalism of your camp operation. In short, the navigability of your site represents the organization of your camp.
Be there for them.
Your Web site should provide all the information that is expected to be there. I recently visited the Web site of a large nonprofit agency that operates multiple day camp programs. No matter where I looked, session dates and fees were nowhere to be found. Somewhat frustrated, I resigned myself to "Contact Us."
Be there when they "Contact Us."
Continuing the previous incident, I called the agency in quest of those rates and dates. The operator asked me for the age of my child. When I said "four," she transferred me to the appropriate person, but only to encounter voicemail. This was 3 p.m., in the prime of the workday, in the active camp enrollment month of April. I hung up, and proceeded to find another camp in the area.
Answer the phone with a "camp voice."
The greeting a caller receives is often the very first person-to-person contact with your camp. If there is cheer and exuberance, you are indeed a camp worth getting to know. After all, you have begun to fulfill the person's perceptions of camp as a fun place. If, however, the caller hears a sort of downbeat or perhaps even sullen voice, it will be that much harder to overcome a negative first impression. Anyone who doesn't have a real "camp voice" must let the phone ring and wait for voicemail to do the job. Better yet—because voicemail is always a disappointment to the caller—train those who tend the phone.
Record your voicemail message with a "camp voice."
You get it by now . . . .
Use your URL as your e-mail address.
Nothing makes you look more like an amateur than continuing to use addresses such as AOL, Comcast, Hotmail and many more. These are great e-mail services for interpersonal communications, but you must look like "a player" if you are to be taken seriously. You must be firstname.lastname@example.org
By now you may have realized that no advanced degree in marketing is necessary to reach these kinds of conclusions. What does form a solid foundation for good marketing decision-making is simply to take a moment, figuratively stand back, and think about the marketing issue at hand with the good sense and logic you possess. Yet how many times is a first-time caller greeted by a rushed or even gruff or perhaps surly voice in the camp office? How often does a Web surfer become frustrated with the navigation on a camp Web site and immediately defect for another option?
Recognizing the importance of easy navigation, friendly phone contact, and an e-mail address that makes you and your camp look established are all conclusions based on common sense, no MBA required.
So for now, on to . . .
Common Sense Rules of Message Creation
Perform a brand identity alignment.
You have never seen the golden arches rendered in green, nor have you seen the name Coca-Cola® rendered in an Old English font. Yet many camps choose a font and a visual setting for their name (a logo), then proceed to type that name in a variety of fonts and styles. You might even call it "font du jour," relying on whatever happens to be in use by the word processor when the next bulletin or fact sheet needs a header. The result is an easily detectable lack of consistency, and this translates into perceptions of carelessness. (And, to some parents, careless camps lose campers in the woods.)
Make your accreditation credible.
You worked hard to earn your ACA accreditation, yet that important symbol communicates very little on your Web site or brochure unless parents understand its significance. Until our accreditation is as universally understood as is the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, you need to explain its importance, in terms of meeting and exceeding a comprehensive collection of standards. It's a sales-inducing story; somebody's got to tell it; and that somebody is every single accredited camp.
Don't deliver everyone else's message.
If everyone is saying the same thing, and a family is reviewing these similar or near-identical messages, the end result for your prospects is confusion. If, however, you choose to deliver the different message—or even just the uniquely stated version of what everyone else is saying—you stand a much better chance of careful consideration. Some examples of same-old-same-old: lifelong memories, counselor-to-camper ratios, number of nurses on site—and that automatic severing of believability—"the best possible camp experience anywhere."
Cancel the helicopter and stop panning pine trees.
Aerial photography is wasteful, if you agree with that last rule about not delivering everyone else's message. From the air, your pine trees, waterfront, baseball diamonds, and buildings look like those of all other camps. This message goes for many more photos that are indistinguishable from many others when brochures are laid edge to edge on a coffee table—and that's what happens during the decision period.
Don't be cute.
Although parents do like to view photos of cute kids, it is only common sense that they prefer to see their cute kids. If you use all the photo "real estate" in your brochure or on your Web site for shots of campers just mugging at the camera in "say cheese" poses, you bypass the opportunity to show what really happens at camp. Parents and children are much more interested in seeing what campers actually do at camp—the activities.
Tidy up your print materials.
If your envelope is filled with bulletins, calendars, enrollment forms, health forms, and more that all look like they have been run over and smudged by a truck, you will create an instant impression of disorganization and amateurism. Today it is no longer acceptable for anyone – even a very traditional summer camp—to appear "back-woods," because consumers understand how easy it is for everyone to look consistent and professional.
Camps often go to great lengths to boast that most of the staff are educators during the school year. Then some of those same camps produce marketing messages with poor grammar, usage, punctuation, capitalization, and misspelled words. Common sense says that this is not evidence of the work of educators. Though camp may be back-to-basics to some, and even "laid back" to others, the summer lifestyle does not permit typographical chaos. It is worthwhile to have your materials proofread by professionals once the writing is complete, and this service is easily and economically available online.
Prove that you're in a kid business.
Camps tell parents that everything done is ultimately for the safety, fun, and development of the camper. Yet how many marketing campaigns address the child directly? If a child is part of the decision process, and we know that children's role in choosing is steadily growing, then should we not be communicating with them? No, not blatant selling in their faces, but letting them perceive that we know they are out there. Even if the child in a family does not pour over our special message to him or her, the parent sees that we have put our money where our mouth is about being child-centered.
Common Sense Rules of Message Delivery
Get in their face.
Just like you see most products' TV commercials multiple times, your message needs to be seen more than once. That means more than a single isolated advertisement, and it certainly calls for assertive follow-up after a family makes an initial contact. Once an interested party receives your brochure and perhaps a video, a next mail piece—perhaps only one or two colors—should talk about FAQ's and selling points worthy of repetition.
Capture the data.
Make sure to record complete contact information from every prospect. Then build a database for future mailings and e-mailings. When people ultimately turn you down, find out why. You will learn more from these rejecters than might be gained from talking to loyal supporters.
Keep the site in sight.
Set aside time one day per month to visit your own Web site, confirm that everything is working, and update any outdated information. Never use the words 'Under Construction' anywhere on your site; if something is not ready, remove the button. (You wouldn't print a brochure with pages 7 and 8 'Under Construction' would you?)
Stay the course.
Too often camp directors press the marketing accelerator when enrollments slip a bit, but coast along when they are sold out or nearly so. Because marketing is built on achieving a permanent position in people's minds, it is a task that must be continuous. You have no control over when prospects begin thinking about camp, so you must be there at any conceivable time that their process begins.
The Other 49 Percent
Having presented the case for common sense as 51 percent of marketing . . . a few words about the other 49 percent:
Common sense is the first step toward sound marketing strategy. However, strategy is not simply the application of common sense. It is an orderly process of thinking about your market, your target audience, and your competition. It is not something that just happens by itself as you publish the annual details of each camp season. Rather, it is the determination of your "big story"—what makes your camp experience different and better, for the camper and for the family.
Remember that rule cited above, the one about not delivering everyone else's message? The strategic development of your marketing message will help you to prevent this all-too-prevalent me-too-ism.
The rest of the remaining 49 percent of the equation leads to the need for creativity.
Too often camp professionals look at other advertising in the marketplace and respond, "Too cute. Too hokey. Too commercial. Definitely not camp-like." However, it becomes more evident every year that camp is being purchased like many other products and services. In the 21st century, purchasers expect to be "sold" the things that they will buy. They want to be marketed to. In our increasingly commercial marketplace, fewer and fewer products and services retain a special status where consumers excuse them from competing.
Perhaps there was a time when all camp had to do was publish the annual rates and dates, and the enrollment floodgates would open. In some communities and/or for some individual camps, that situation might still exist. For most, however, you need to assertively vie for attention, interest, desire, and action on the part of the purchasing family.
The first step is attention. There is no better way to turn someone's head in your direction than to do something creative. For example, consider a simple print advertisement. A crisp layout can help your message to outperform the other same-old-same-old messages on the page.
The headline shares the job of attracting attention with the layout, then it goes on to create interest. The name of your camp is not a headline, and should not appear as the most prominent words in the space. Instead, a short and intriguing sentence functions to draw the reader in. The name of your camp belongs somewhere at the bottom. The same rule applies to your Web site home page and the cover of your brochure. Translated to video, this makes a good case for showing something surprisingly different in the very first scene.
Once you gain attention and take prospects to the next step of interest, it is time to create desire. This is where you match the camp experience you offer with the needs of your target audience. What do you do differently and better than other camps being considered? More important, is this perceivable difference something that your market values?
To turn desire into action, offer reasons to act now. Announcement of rapidly mounting enrollments, early bird discounts, and special incentives put urgency into the selling process.
Your prospects approach you asking, "Why should I choose YOU?" If you do not attempt to successfully answer that question, be prepared to lose to your competitors. While common sense can drive many marketing decisions successfully, there is no substitute for inspired creativity to attract the attention you deserve for the camp experience you create every summer.
Steve Cony is a marketing consultant who assists children's camps with the development of strategic plans and the execution of marketing materials. Camp directors may contact him at 914-271-8482.
Originally published in the 2006 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.