15 Questions about Search Engine Marketing for Camps on the Web

Eric Stein
March 2018

In November 2012, my article, “Search Marketing on the Web — Drive New Camper Enrollment and Alternative Businesses,” appeared in Camping Magazine. Now, five-and-a-half years later, we revisit this topic for the first time. The 2012 article was a primer with basic strategies and some examples for camps. Based on my involvement with many camps from coast to coast over the past several years, following is a selection of updates that need addressing.

What has been happening in search marketing for camps?

It has become an increasingly integral and widespread component in the marketing toolkit. It’s difficult to estimate the participation level/increase for camps, but any search query will yield plentiful paid Google ads for all manner of summer programs. The number of summer camps and programs hasn’t exploded in the last five years, but you wouldn’t know it if you were searching on the web.

Because of increasing clutter, it is now more critical than five years ago to execute well to overcome this. If you have done so, you have not seen a significant rise in what you are paying on a per-click basis. In 2012, there was much more room for error as the competition was less ubiquitous and savvy. Those who haven’t kept up have had to greatly overspend to secure position and will continue to do so.

How has the world search marketing changed in the last five+ years? What is the paramount macro development?

Besides the steady and forecasted increase in volume, the continued migration to mobile devices, tablets, and laptops and away from desktops has been dramatic and had seismic consequences. In 2012, mobile devices probably accounted for just under 25 percent of total camp traffic; now they could be up to 50 percent in some cases.

As desktops have become less prevalent — also as a result of the growth in laptops and tablets — the Search Engine Results pages are now dominated by paid ads for camps. This has made search engine optimization (SEO) less important for camps relative to pay-per-click (PPC) marketing. It has forced more camps into paid search because organic placements have been pushed down the search results pages thereby generating fewer clicks.

Search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing, and social media platforms make their money from ads, and as screen space decreases, free content gets pushed down or out.

What is the best advice you could give someone managing paid search for camps?

Whether you do this yourself or outsource, you must continuously minimize waste by reducing off-target clicks. You must build up a strong and current negative keyword list. This is a list of search terms that a search engine may deem relevant that you’d better know so your ad will not be presented to the wrong searchers. Too many camps are presenting ads for terms such as “concentration,” “boot,” “nudist,” “packing list,” “fat,” “gear,” “supplies,” and other such terms which, when partnered with the term “camp” show and cause significant waste. I have seen camps squandering more than 25 percent of their budgets on these and numerous other irrelevant terms.

Additionally, camps will present their ads in geographic areas they can’t support. Running ads on proper keywords in proper areas is real low-hanging fruit to pick.

Speaking of low-hanging fruit, what else is out there to pick?

Very reasonable click costs can be had from about July 1 through November 30 nationally. The volume won’t be great but the cost will be very modest, so you can keep your sign illuminated on the web for five months at a low price. Because this time period is further away from the camp season for which you’ll be advertising, the breadcrumb trail will be more problematic as you may not be contacted for months, but, as noted, the investment will not be great.

There is still not very much advertising overseas for US summer camps, so even though the target market may not be great in number, the clicks are cheap in every foreign country I’ve participated in, excluding Canada. Many camps are looking for new beachheads, and it starts with a single camper. Even day camps in a few very large metro areas are getting more day campers summering in the US.

What about Yahoo/Bing as a supplement to Google?

This is an easy way to add a bit of volume for camps working a larger territory (i.e. not day camps). Yahoo/Bing (one entity here) has trouble in small, nuanced territories driving much volume. Activity from this platform can be tepid, but the cost per click is much less than Google (at least 33 percent less on average). You can copy your Google campaigns directly over, so the effort to add this platform is not onerous.

What kinds of camps have the greatest success on search?

There are a few sweet spots here:

  • Specialty camps/programs — these work well because they tend to be short duration without very strong retention. There are always many slots to fill, and the vetting process by parents and campers is just not as exhaustive, making tracking more straightforward.
  • Teen programs — these tend to have many campers who stay one to two years, and teens are used to searching and researching online.
  • Retreats — some camps over time have cultivated groups that return year after year and have been lucky enough to enjoy organic growth. That said, I’m not aware of any other method to drive the kind of volume necessary for growth other than paid search. The directory websites do not provide meaningful volume.

Should I do paid search myself or outsource?

As a business owner, there are many operating areas where you are faced with this choice. Unfortunately for do-it-yourself search advertisers, change on the platforms is rapid — not unlike trying to keep up with the tax code should you elect to do your own taxes. If you do this yourself you will have to compete with professionals who do this 24/7, so you need to be prepared to really dig in. If you keep this function in-house, remember this is a marketing function, not a technology one; the marketing skill set will serve you better.

If you handle this in-house, Google has terrific customer service very willing to work with you at their 800 number as often and as long as you wish. Unfortunately, as of this writing, Facebook offers very limited customer service and no telephone help line.

Must an outside contractor have experience doing search marketing for a camp?

It’s strictly a positive if someone has industry experience. If you were interviewing someone for a position of most any kind, those who went to camp or worked at a camp would likely have the advantage. I would not dismiss someone who hasn’t worked for a camp from doing this though. If someone is less knowledgeable you’ll have to do more hand-holding at the onset. That said, it really comes down to the level of dedication and interest, assuming someone has the requisite skills.

If you outsource, what kind of terms should you agree to, and what expectations should you have?

Expect a provider to genuinely take the time to understand what you do and not merely set things up and vanish after an initial ramping up and reporting period. Most complaints from camps seem to be about the former Yellow Pages companies turned web marketers. Their model seems to be fitting camp clients into templates with fairly identical campaign components for those in this space. Campaigns are set up and often almost no follow-up occurs as they move on to the next client.

There is seasonality at work here, but it usually takes 90 to 120 days to assess the quality of the individual with whom you’ve signed on. It is inadvisable to agree to a contract of longer than that duration. In that period you need not obtain dramatic results, but you must evaluate whether the outfit you are working with seems committed to your success. Most camps are little guys for marketing agencies, so you need to find someone who values your patronage. Often you will see concentrated effort and interest at the onset, but the real test is what occurs in the ongoing caring and feeding phase (you are paying a monthly management bill, so there ought to be “managing” occurring).

How does social media fit in here?

Social media is about increasing retention by keeping those in your online community engaged and closer to you. It is also about driving referrals. I’ve found, too, that it is leading to increases in alumni campers — at least at a few camps I’ve spoken with.

Search marketing helps find new families sometimes from outside your ecosystem, and then the task is bringing them closer to you via social media. As well we know, many folks like to do some of their own digging online even if they have solicited referrals, so your ability to be easily and reliably found puts and keeps you in the game. The earliest option is not always the deciding one on the part of a family, as many prefer to investigate a number of camps (and sometimes tour a few too). You’ll win sometimes when you are the B or C option.

I use Facebook for social media but I know it also has PPC advertising. What is the value of this?

Facebook advertising options have been evolving rapidly over the past five or more years. Their PPC ads can be useful for a few types of camps in particular, such as specialty camps. Being able to identify likes and interests can allow you to drill into a community of “like-interested” folks.

Nobody wakes up wanting to research summer camp and logs into Facebook. It’s not a search mechanism but a place for a camp to bump into parents or kids from a target market based on desired demographics. It is also a place you can remarket to those you have engaged with whom you may have unfinished business.

Certain types of camps are better served here than others. Note that advertising here can also get you onto Instagram, and you can send ads to those age 13 and over there and on Facebook. We know that teens have largely left Facebook and are on Instagram, but because their parents follow them there, they have been migrating to other platforms.

Are there some analytics metrics I should be using that could tangibly help me assess my online activity?

Search marketing cannot be effectively run without staying close to the analytics. This is essentially the instrument panel after the plane has taken off. A few indispensable metrics gleaned from analytics are average visit duration, bounce rate, and the exact words searchers who clicked on your ads used — this last piece of data is as if you are looking over your paid visitors’ shoulders to learn exactly what they want by seeing the exact sequence of words they have input.

How do I track what I’m receiving here, because buying camp is such a multi-attribute process over time?

This is a challenge varying widely by camp. A full-season, private summer camp has the most challenging process because, for some consumers, the buying process will start this spring for summer 2019. During that time, if a prospective camper is from an established geographical area and part of a community fitting your demographic, they will in almost all cases locate someone with a connection to your camp who will act as a referral. In other instances, when the buying process is quicker and the individual is clearly outside your community, if they used web search, it may be easier to discern.

For example, a Denver day camp where the sales process is less protracted will have leads coming more directly from a paid search. Vetting activities by parents will be less meticulous and time-consuming, so tracking more anecdotally is possible. (Having worked with a private Denver day camp for nine years, I can attest that tracking here is often cleaner. The director tends to read or hear quite often, “I found you on Google.”)

What I omitted in answer to this question are some of the technical and analytics processes involved in tracking, which in addition to a more robust and thoughtful discussion of the preceding, would make up an entire article.

Paint a high-level picture of a camp running search marketing using best practices?

That scenario might look like this:

A camp spending based on available inventory — raising and lowering as needed.

A camp constantly fine-tuning the components of its marketing campaigns — during busy times this means being in the account every few days.

If outsourcing, a camp reviewing at least a few times a year by phone or in person. Regular reports are received to ensure the components of the engagement are up to date. Costs are transparent as are key metrics agreed to be of value.

What does the future of camp search marketing look like?

The buying process will likely evolve, but searching hasn’t stopped growing, and there is no reason this shouldn’t continue.

What should change is technology and platforms. We’ve seen much more mobile activity over time in part because of improvements in these devices. We should see ever more sophisticated voice searching activity in the future and more artificial intelligence in ways that are likely unfathomable now. We’ll also see more automated machine (computers) handling of the search process.

Key Web Marketing Terms You Should Know

  • Search engine marketing (SEM) — a form of Internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) primarily through paid advertising (Wikipedia). This is also referred to as “search marketing” and “paid search."
  • Pay-per-click (PPC) marketing — also known as cost per click (CPC), is an Internet advertising model used to direct traffic to websites in which an advertiser pays a publisher when the ad is clicked (Wikipedia).
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) — is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results (Moz.com).
  • Remarketing — shows ads to people who’ve visited your website or used your mobile app. When people leave your website without buying anything, for example, remarketing helps you reconnect with them by showing relevant ads across their different devices (Google Adwords Help).
  • A bounce — a single-page session on your site.
  • Bounce rate — single-page sessions divided by all sessions, or the percentage of all sessions on your site in which users viewed only a single page and triggered only a single request to the analytics server (Google Analytics Support).

Eric Stein is the founder and president of Eswebmarketing, a provider of Internet marketing services focusing on paid search to small businesses. The company's clients include day, sleep away, and specialty camps nationwide. 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. Find him at Eswebmarketing.com or reach him at ericsteinwebads@gmail.com.