Your Camp is not its Jet Skis

Your Camp is not its Jet Skis

So why are you marketing it that way?

Whenever I talk to a camp person, we wind up talking about what hooked us on summer camp. And it seems like we all have basically the same feelings on the subject.

“Camp was the first place I could really be myself.”

“The friends I made at summer camp just weren’t like anybody I had ever met.”

“I had this one amazing counselor who…”

“It was the place I became my best self.”

You get the idea.

I’ve literally never heard anyone reflect back and say something like, “They had this insane rock wall there,” or “You’ll never believe the jet skis they had at my camp!”

Now, this isn’t totally fair, because I’m mostly talking to summer camp die-hards. These people found something so much bigger than jet skis, or rock walls, or color wars, and this is why they’ve dedicated their lives to summer camp.

But I think we can all agree that those first set of quotes are the things about summer camp that we really care about. The things that we love to hear back from parents regarding their kids’ experience at our camp. The objectives we’re putting forth during staff training.

I started thinking, as I was making my promotional materials in 2012 – if that’s what is actually important about summer camp, why did my marketing materials brag about all that other stuff?

A promotional video I helped work on spent 7 minutes showing “fun stuff” and less than 3 discussing why camp was so important. My own summer camp brochure had pictures of kids smiling, sure, but it was essentially a list of cool things to do at camp.

And I’m pretty sure that many parents who read our brochure set it down, and said, “Who cares?”

Parents who first encounter information about your camp are not looking for activities, whether they realize it or not. They’re looking for a place to entrust the care of the most important person in the world. Now they might see your awesome jet skis and say, “Wow, Darren loves jet skiing!” But you haven’t gotten to the heart of what they want, and this is a critical marketing issue.

You see, marketing summer camp is just like marketing anything else, and successful marketing has a pretty basic formula.

What I learned from late night infomercials

So, you’re watching late night TV. A charismatic, middle-aged man comes on screen, and begins talking to you. He is talking about a problem. Let’s say he’s talking about the problem of being out of shape. He’s probably talking about something even more specific, though. Hmm. He’s probably talking about being out of shape AND getting into shape without working out 3 hours a day. He’s going further – he’s talking about being in shape while juggling all of your other responsibilities in just 8 minutes a day.

Essentially, he’s communicating that a problem exists, and you may very well have it. Once he finds you nodding along that it would be nice to solve said problem, he continues.

He explains how he has something that solves this problem. “In this box,” he might say, “I have an 8 minute abs video (or a home gym, or a pull up bar, or a knife that cuts through a shoe, or whatever). By using this for just 8 minutes a day, you can look like this:”

And he’ll point to a picture of a person that has the problem in question solved.

He’ll suggest that you, too, can solve this problem if you buy what’s in the box.

If you’re still watching at this point, the price he asks for the box is almost irrelevant. If he’s done his job, he’s made a proposition that will be hard to ignore: buy this box, and your problem goes away.

And this is all marketing is. It’s why every piece of marketing you encounter follows this pattern:

1) Present a problem a potential customer might have
2) Display a box with the solution inside
3) Give people the opportunity to get that box and solve their problem.

For years, I ignored this formula. The camps where I’ve worked were trying to solve a problems like, “Your child needs more confidence – We can help her find it.” But our marketing would communicate something like, “Your child might want to go on a canoe ride/play soccer/make an art project, this is a place he can do those activities.”

Putting the marketing formula into practice for summer camps

I’ll go through the process I went through in designing this website. First, I made a tagline:

“Grow your camp. Change more lives.”

My guess is that people arriving at this site are here because they want information on how to make their summer camp even better. I assume that they want to do this because they think that if a kid is doing anything this summer, it should be attending their camp. They believe it would be a good thing if more kids came to their camp, because more young lives would be changed for the better. They believe improving their camp would be a good thing, because the kids who already come would have a better experience, and because those same kids would go on to tell even more kids about camp, and the world would keep getting better and better as a result.

My tagline intends to communicate that if you want to grow your camp, and change more lives, you should keep reading.

So now let’s think again about your camp, and your camper families. When they arrive at your web site, what’s their desire? If you sat with parents long enough, and asked them “Why?” enough times (“Why do you want to find a camp with jet skis?”), you’d eventually distill their motivations down to something like the following:

“I think summer camp will make my child’s life better.”

“I want my child to have the same opportunity I had as a kid – to be in nature, make good friends, and feel loved by her counselors.”

“I want him to have a week where he doesn’t have to worry about anything else.”

“I want her to grow in confidence and character.”

And so on.

So if this is what parents really want, we need to communicate that that is what we’re offering. We need to communicate directly to that distilled “why” of why parents are looking for a camp for their child right away. Now, helping kids have fun is likely one of the tactics you employ in order to accomplish the real goals of your summer camp – so we definitely want to communicate that kids will have fun at our camps.

But those jet skis and the rock wall? Those are the setting, not the story.

The story is kids hugging other kids, a counselor on one knee looking a child in the eye, a kid helping another child up after he’s fallen down. A group of kids and counselors laughing hysterically. A group of kids dressed so crazily that you know they aren’t worried about what everyone else thinks of them. Sometimes this takes place on the jet skis, but it doesn’t have to.

So when you make your next set of promotional materials, or your next blog post to your website, or your next Facebook post, or your next elevator speech – please, tell your story. Tell people the “why” of your camp. Tell a story that illustrates an example of a kid becoming her best self, or an unlikely friendship that formed, or the anxious kid who absolutely brought the house down at the talent show.

But please, don’t make the mistake I did. Don’t mention your jet skis.

Already developed some awesome marketing materials? Check out the next post in this series, which will tell you how to What to do to get the right sets of eyes on your marketing materials.

Are you ready to grow your camp and change more lives?

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