Getting your Campers and their Families to do (some of) Your Marketing for You
If you are in a position to make summer camp marketing decisions, you’ve heard the term “word of mouth marketing” more times than you can remember. If you were playing camp marketing bingo, “word of mouth marketing” would be the center square.
The big mistake I made when I took on the responsibility of making marketing decisions for a summer camp? I assumed this whole “word of mouth” thing would take care of itself. And it does, to some degree… but relying on it taking care of itself was causing us to miss out on a ton of word of mouth good will. I’ll explain where I was, and what I discovered.
By the way – if you want to take a break and check out Travis Allison’s definitive slide-show on word of mouth marketing from his 2014 Tristate ACA conference, I couldn’t blame you. I learned a ton there, and much of what he covers is NOT covered below.
The first step in developing a word of mouth “buzz”
The big idea I had at the time was to create singular, memorable events at camp. Big events, with lots of pomp and circumstance. My guess was (and still is) that kids rarely go home and tell their friends about playing soccer, but they WILL tell them about building a raft from scratch in order to cross a lake. Now, I stand by the idea that we shouldn’t actively market our camps based on these big events alone.
After all, Your Camp is Not its Jet Skis. But when kids want to verbalize their camp experience to others, they definitely mention this sort of thing. While they likely come back to your camp each year for things a lot more important than activities, they may not understand your why as well as you do, so it really helps to give them some big memories to point to, specifically, when sharing the story of your camp with others.
But giving you a tip like “Have a really fun and memorable camp” seems like a cop out, so I’m not even counting that as part of the list of 11 ways to enhance your word of mouth summer camp marketing. Call it a bonus 🙂
On to the list!
Leveraging your web presence to enhance your word of mouth marketing campaign.3h>
Tips 1-4 are ways we’ve seen to leverage word of mouth marketing concepts online.
1) Gather and share camper and parent testimonials.
Here is our page at Vanderkamp. This isn’t classic “word of mouth marketing” in that people aren’t talking to each other directly, but it provides “social proof” (more on that in the web design articles coming up at a later date) – showing that real people have had terrific experiences at our camp. We’ll link to these from our Facebook page, references them in e-newsletters, and so on.
2) Encourage people to share things digitally
If you’re going to all that work connecting with people online, why not ask them to pass that information along to others? It helps to have universally interesting content (pictures of kids doing interesting things, as opposed to just text), but often times just asking people to share things will do the trick. Basically, you remind them how great your camp is, and ask them to tell others. A camp mother sharing your summer camp registration link is WAY more powerful than you sharing your own link. And she loves camp anyway, so she’s usually happy to help!
3) Properly targeted Facebook advertisements.
Facebook advertising is extremely powerful because it can be targeted with wild specificity. You can target the exact demographic, down to gender, zip code, and interests, that you want to. You can make ads that appear right in people’s news feed. Even more interesting, Facebook ads will ALSO show which of a person’s friends like your camp! So if you’ve built up a following on your Facebook page, your ads will also include inherent testimonials! “Oh, Sally Smith likes this Vanderkamp? Let me check it out…”
Things we can do during the camp session to increase the likelihood of kids spreading the word away from camp
4) Do something really, REALLY noteworthy for a particular child
This sounds a bit like my non-listed tip from earlier, but let me give a few examples of what I mean. I got a letter from a church that helped send a child to camp. She had written them a letter thanking them for sending her to camp. She included exactly 1 specific memory from her time at camp. “James, the new director, covered his face and hair in pudding and ran through the lodge. It was funny and disgusting.” Now I didn’t do that so she would go home and tell her friends. But it did make me think!
I asked a camper in 2013 how she heard about camp, and she told me her friend had invited her. When I asked her what her friend had told her to convince her to come, she said, “Because I heard you can have ice cream in the morning here.” I recalled a time the previous summer when some counselors responded to a joking request for ice cream by walking into the kitchen and coming out with buckets of ice cream at 10 am. I felt very grateful in that moment!
5) Involve campers in decision making to increase their buy-in
From: marketing.about.com comes some terrific advice:
“Involve them, ask their opinion and then listen. Make them feel like their feedback and opinion matters.”
One of my major goals at Vanderkamp is that I don’t want people to think of us as “Vanderkamp,” I want to just be “camp” to them. The only camp. And when they think of themselves, I want them to self-identify as a Vanderkamp Camper. Checking in with kids, frequently, makes a big difference. We create our schedules on a day by day basis, and we have counselors get feedback from kids on what they want to do the following day every day. We attempt to accommodate every single request, if not the next day, at some point later in the week.
We also remind kids that they are part of something important when they come to camp – an experimental, love centered community that is trying to set an example of what the world could be like if everyone treated each other with kindness. When kids see that we are telling the truth, I believe they are excited to share this thing they’ve had a hand in creating with others.
6) Give away a camp t-shirt.
I was skeptical of this one at first. It seemed like a big waste of money. But Vanderkamp was giving away t-shirts when I got here, so we stuck with it as to avoid not living up to campers’ expectations. Boy, am I glad we did! An attractive t-shirt turns your campers into little walking billboards – and gives them a built-in conversation starter about something they love. “What’s Vanderkamp?” people ask. And then they can give their pitch! It also helps them further identify as a Vanderkamp Camper. I’ll get parents telling me all the time how their kids wear their t-shirts all the time. And giving them away means EVERY kid can wear one, not just the kids whose parents have the extra disposable income.
Things I’ve seen to help boost word of marketing reach in the off-season
7) Give incentives for referrals
There are 100 ways to do this, the most common being, “Bring a friend, get $X off.” Or you can give family discounts, or discounts for multiple kids from the same group (i.e. a church or synagogue that sends a group of kids), or a special “spread the word” merit badge than can only be gained when you bring a friend to camp. You get the idea. Some people are motivated by incentives like these, so it doesn’t hurt to throw them out there.
8) Send multiple brochures in the mail to each camper family
I heard this idea at a camping conference, and I loved it. This one director (sorry I can’t remember your name!) told me he sends 4 or 5 brochures to each family, and tells them to take $5 off (honesty policy) their camper fee for every brochure they give to a potential camper. Pretty neat, if you ask me!
Also, from Jessi Carver on the Camp Pros facebook page: “Each of our brochures contain 2 registration forms. One that can be torn out of the brochure and a loose insert page that says “invite a friend” on it.”
Similar idea, but cool execution!
9) Ask your biggest fans to spread the word via a home party
Kudos to Executive Director Bill Hinton of Camp Flaming Arrow for sharing the idea of “home parties” with me. Essentially, he calls a camp family and offers to throw a party at their house. They invite their friends, and he brings some summer staff to run their best camp games. While the games are being played, he chats with the parents. The hosting family, I believe, gets some discount… you’d have to ask him for all the details 🙂 But it’s a GREAT way to create a win-win situation. Your camp families love your camp, and they want more of their kids’ friends to come to camp. And if they get a discount and a great day out of it? Why not?
10) Go to places where your campers already are and interact with them
When I remembered my summer campers were doing things with other kids, kids that had *gasp* never heard of my camp, I realized I needed to go out and meet them where they were. I booked speaking engagement at churches that they attend, went to their schools’ family fun days, supported their bake sales, and so on. All I’d ask is the ability to set up a display, and if appropriate, speak for a second.
The key to doing outreach where your campers already are is that it gives them an opportunity to follow up with people after you leave. I can’t emphasize how valuable this was for us. You see, my first intuition was that I should go to places that had never heard of Vanderkamp and spread the word there. But PCCCA consultant Brian Frick told me I had it backwards – I needed to go where people already knew me, where social proof for Vanderkamp’s benefits already existed, so the families that already loved us could build upon my brief meeting with later follow up. “If Vanderkamp is good enough for Susie’s kids…” When I started focusing on going where people already knew about us, we had tremendous results with the word of mouth that followed.
11) Allow kids to stay with as many friends as they want at camp.
Unpopular opinion alert! But I had to stick it in here, because it’s made a huge difference for us. I honestly don’t have much insight into what is common at most camps, but many I have looked into allow kids to come with 1 or 2 other friends, not guaranteeing that they can bunk with more than that. The thinking is that you don’t want cliques to form, and that you want kids to branch out and meet other people. I think this makes sense if you run a summer camp based on small group camping, where kids interact with essentially the same kids all day long. But for camps like ours that allow for more decision making, I highly recommend letting kids come in as big a group as they’d like. We had a week where more than 20 of our 80 campers were from the same church group, and heard essentially no complaints. And this was a group that only considered all coming together because we told them they could room together with as many other friends as they’d like. 2 years later, almost all of those campers still come back.. and many of them now come during separate weeks. They’ve built up to the comfort level they needed to come on their own organically, and it’s been a beautiful thing.
Whew! Lots of ideas on word of mouth marketing. I really believe that it’s our most powerful tool… but I’m always on the look out for new ideas to leverage this tool more efficiently. So tell me – what’s something you’ve seen that leads to campers spreading the word more actively? A silly activity, a cute reminder, an interesting incentive? Help us all spread the word more effectively!by