Hello and welcome to this interview with Travis Allison and myself, Duncan Robinson. For those who don’t know, Travis is an award-winning summer camp marketing expert and consults with a lot of camps, mainly in the States and Canada. We’re going to be focusing mainly on the importance of having a marketing strategy in place to maximize camper numbers. So thanks a lot Travis for joining us and sharing all your knowledge, your years of experience.
I’m happy to do it Duncan. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I first realized the importance of a strategy and it was when I started directing camps in Switzerland and I knew literally nothing about marketing. It was my first kind of job – directing camps and marketing camps. And then I realized like I was just learning by trial and error and it is really stressful. We’re crossing our fingers and it was really, really difficult. I felt difficult and it was only when we started working with a consultant, it just made things so much better and easier and less stressful and had a massive effect on our numbers as well. You never had two really good years working with it, with a consultant and it had a massive, massive impact. So Travis, when you go to camps, when you consult with them, how do you put the stress in place? What things do you look for to start with and what’s your starting point basically?
So I think for me the starting point is a bit of a mindset shift, Duncan. That I think the people think that the goal of marketing, the primary goal of marketing should be getting new campers to set up, to sign up. And I think that’s kind of the finished goal, it’s not the first goal. I think that’s logical. It’s of course that’s the goal. But I think that people who, when they set their goals for what marketing is they like, you know, I get a new camper or get X number of new campers and I always try to get them to break things down into smaller, more manageable pieces because acquiring a new camper out of thin air is really hard work and it’s expensive. And even those camps that can afford it don’t necessarily have the time to do all that strategically.
So, I say the number one goal is always to get the email address of a family who’s interested or has kids the right age. And I think camps that can focus all of their marketing on getting more email addresses, that gives them more power to reach more families. And the reason why I distinguished between getting a new camper versus getting a new email address is that the process of building trust up, to get a new camper is intense. It’s intentional. It has to be strategic. And the first step in that is to get an email address so you can communicate with the family. I’m so frustrated with people who buy ads that just send people to the front page of a website because it’s not measurable. It hasn’t have any way of you knowing who those people are that came to your site from an ad and you have no way of following up with people. And so first goal always is figure out what strategies we can work on to acquire more email addresses of families with kids the right age. And then we build everything from there. So if every marketing goal is get more emails, then the part after that is much easier for camps because that’s building trust, that’s having those families understand who we are, making sure that their values align. All that can happen so much easier when you have this first step, getting an email address from families.
Cool. And which strategies have you used to do that, have seen which are most effective? So you talk about running ads, so not running out to the main homepage, but where would you run those ads? What sort of campaign would you put together? What sort of campaigns have you seen really good results with?
Well, I think that it varies and it certainly varies by the camps audience and where the families that they match that are naturally drawn to them because their values line up the same because they are times convenient, you know, if that fits the family’s childcare needs, all of those different things. But it’s different. But I think the things that are most effective are some form of free giveaway to families that you can deliver digitally. So that is a free download, it’s a link to a video. It is a ticket to an online event, which I think is happening a lot more for camps these days. But in order to get that free thing, you need to give us your email address so we can send it to you. And once you have the email address and the free thing, then there’s tons of software that makes all of that really easy for you. You can use a free online mail service like MailChimp as a common example that will allow you to automate the steps in between. You don’t have to wait for someone to email you or request says, would you please send us your free guide to Saturday afternoon events in New York City for families. And you have to wait for them to email you. You don’t have to copy and paste that file, the email system does it all. So instead of just camps buying ads that you know that their keywords that they’re buying are summer camp, summer camp Western Europe and horseback riding or archery or something. We’ve got a few key keywords in there. Instead of that ad says, basically download our free guide to things to do with your family in New York City. Download this ticket quiz to see what kind of camper your kid would be and would allow the camp to learn a little bit about their kids. All of those things work really well as a free, you know, in the business world, people call that a lead magnet lead being a lead, someone that you can sell to and a magnet and just draw those people in. So there are lots of different options, but I think that the smart camps are really focusing on acquiring new email leads so that they can go through this slow process. One of the things I think it’s most important to take away, people never see your ad for summer camp in Western Canada and by camp that day. It just doesn’t happen. You want to control the process between them looking for a camp in your area or looking for a camp with this kind of specific program and buying. There’s a ton of space and time there. And if you have the email address, you can control for that. Not just, you know, big businesses like Coca Cola and Amex can throw money at projects as branding, but camps can’t afford that. And can’t afford the time or the money. So it gives a bit of focus.
Yeah. And we had a really good case that way. We had a lovely website, loads of different pages and then we start talking about running traffic to it. It was just like, we have no way of tracking this. So then we stripped loads of stuff out and then just use that brochure as the free download and like instantly we got loads of email addresses, we got people we could follow up with and it would take, taking a lot of information off the website actually really helped us in getting a proper relationship with that family and really helped with enrollment. So that’s definitely a good way to go.
And I think that’s the interesting thing is that every parent, every family is overwhelmed with information. They’re overwhelmed with their current schedule for their kids, let alone trying to add in something else that requires a lot of work in filling out forms and coordinating rides and meeting a bus and all of those things. So we can simplify things by getting them small pieces of information in the order that they need. And we can do that when we have their email address versus a website, which most people is just a dump of everything I ever learned about my summer camp. I’m hereby putting on the web. If we can focus on it, then we can control and make it easier for them.
And then I suppose that’s talking about advertising for an established camp who have a decent budget to put towards that. And then I suppose there are lots of different situations come through and I suppose look to think about it. Maybe a new camp or like a camp trying to establish themselves against some of the bigger camps. What would you say is sort of a strategy for them would be like, would you go straight to advertising or what’s the process to go through for them?
Well, if I was starting a new camp in a new area, if I were starting a new camp, my first move would be to find partners who already have those families connected to them. So that might be ski schools or karate clubs or gymnastics, whatever my specialty is. It may be a local library who’s doing a steam projects and has 3D printers that kids can use. Any of those things that line up with whatever my specialty is a camp is I’m going to find those people as partners and I’m going to be working at developing those relationships so that I can promote what they’re doing to our audiences and they can promote us. Advertising to get new campers is the hardest way to get new campers. If you have an unlimited budget, then feel free to throw money at that, but 95% of camps don’t. And so we need to figure out good effective shortcuts. And always the easiest way to get more kids for the summer is to get last year’s kids to come back, get them to bring their friends and then go to partners. And I suppose alumni and people who already know your program if you have some history but not in a new program obviously, but ads are way down the list in terms of effectiveness and how easy just for you.
And then I suppose a lot of it is about making a campus as referable as possible. What strategies have you used? What do you go through with camps to kind of find out how referable they are or how to improve their referrability the camp? Do you also have process for doing that?
Well, I’ve got pieces that I’ve pulled from lots of different places. I think the number one thing is that your product has to be good, meaning you have to have a great camp that families love. And there are lots of good tools to do that. I mean, a perfect example of this marketing strategy that we’re talking about, Joanna Warren Smith and I partnered on a program for this. She calls it her own G form. It was because that was camp director’s revelation when they saw how their programs should be evaluated as leadership. And their reaction was something I got. And so Joanna created that form. And so she and I have been offering that for free as a way. Like, here’s a tool to really get into real evaluation of how your program is running for a lot of camp pros because it’s why we’re in the business. Because we like it, might go into a program area and say, Oh, I liked that the instructor is spending time with each kid and then each kid leaves the smile on their face. Versus Joanne is much more intense. Like, does this start on time? Are their kids sitting off to the side? Are the counselors engaged as well as the instructor? And so much more detailed. So that’s the first thing is the product has to be top-notch. And then in terms of referrals, I think every camp will have a small, every camp that is doing camp well, will have a small group of families who are already referring you. And so you need to track that and talk to Duncan about how to track that stuff. But you need to figure out who’s already referring you. And then you need to encourage them to do more. And then you have to give families the tools that you know, that match back up. And obviously what you do is a great tool to do that, to keep track of what family refers who. And also encouraging new families to refer you, who haven’t referred you in the past. Didn’t wanted to do an ad for you guys. But I think it’s a really smart system. I think that anybody could do this kind of thing that you are just through small kind and intentional ways of encouraging families to refer more, more of their friends.
Yeah. And that’s been interesting and we were looking a lot at the moment about how come some can make themselves more referable. It’s kind of like just making sure that the product is really wired. Families know it’s all about all the values are in line and then you know, you’re much more likely to get the referrals and then. Given the tools after that.
I think that getting the, to expand on some of lining up with what you just said, expanding on some of those other things that I’ve said before. I think we have to make camp easy to talk about cause those families can send their kids to us, but they would still have friends who think it’s stupid that they send their kids away to summer camp or they send their kids away , every day to a summer camp. And so we have to give our families the tools to talk about camp in a nice and simple easy way to understand. Sometimes that just means saying things like, you know, when you hear one of your friends say, you know, I just wish that my, my daughter had a place where she fit in and she’s just doesn’t feel like she fits in and school or whatever. Then we train our families to say, Oh, your daughter might really like our camp because that’s such a hugely important part of the mission. So it gives families some ideas and ways to bring camp into the conversation and to talk about the benefit of camp on the campus behalf without it being kind of a weird thing between them and their friends.
Yeah. And have you seen any particular good examples when you’ve worked with camps of, I suppose like simple easy ways, they’ve got how the camp shared in the community? Like just sort of quick simple things camps could do just to get families talking.
Well, I think right now as we’re recording this, the first week of May in 2020, we’re seeing a lot of camps doing things that families would talk about. There are a lot of camps are running good innovative online programs. I think that where it gets a little, where I think it could work a little better as a long-term marketing strategy is that those camps that are running free programs right now online could be asking their families to bring their friends into that room. I can’t seem to say, you know, we did look after our kids and our campers, but they’re maybe not taking that next step of what’s bringing more kids that don’t know us. Let’s use this as a tool to build trust with families. And I think those camps that are giving families, and again an easy way to talk about their current programs as well as they’re in summer programs make it easier to bring more, more families into the fold and help them understand about the value of what those camps have to offer.
Yeah. That’s a good point. And then I suppose that in looking forward to next year when you know it’s difficult. Some of this year obviously comes through really need to get things going as much as possible for next year. Have the biggest year yet to software, lost ground. So what advice would you be giving them at the moment to prepare for that? Get ready for it and you know, launch strong in September?
Definitely. Like incorporating this, pulling together all of the stuff I’ve said, if you’re running stuff right now that is free or you know, sort of a teaser for what your virtual programs are, then make sure families that are not your current families are giving you their email address so that you know how to reach up with them afterwards. I think that there are opportunities right now for camps to make those connections with new families. So anything that you could do to add more emails into your email list so that you can reach more families for next year, do that. So do anything you can right now to make that work. And then I think what’s going to have to happen in the next. So now for a North America and Northern hemisphere summer. Really you’re thinking about what’s going to happen over the next 16 months, nine months maybe, but let’s call it nine months, because that would get you into the selling season after really think about communicating with families. Camps have done great at communicating with their families about the changes in their programs. You know, this, the stress of this is affecting us as well. I think camps need to make that a practice going forward. And our camp director is going to get on Instagram for five minutes once a week every week to just talk to our families and all of those things will build the trust required to get kids back to camp and also build connections with those families that may not yet know you as long as you’re offering. I would say that my overarching marketing philosophy is be useful to the people that you want to have it near, who want to have their kids at your community. If you can be useful to them and get to know them, what’s useful then that gives you lots of opportunity to talk to them and have them begin to trust you.
Yeah, that’s all good. And then I suppose we’ve spoken a lot about advertising already and it starts to get into a, I suppose a bit of a minefield with lots of different channels, lots of complications, tracking all this stuff and for camps looking to get digital marketing strategies in place. What would you advise with that and where would you start?
Well, I think that is an interesting opportunity for camps because ads are cheap right now. And so in the next six months probably they’ll still stay fairly cheap. But again, strategy-wise it is, give them something that they need in exchange for their email so we can follow up with them. Every digital ad I do with clients, I always try to get them to make the goal of it, is to use to get new emails.
Sure. And in terms of channels at the moment, like are you seeing Facebook, social. Which channels to focus on or is it too general to say that depends on the area that whether people are hanging out with? How would you advise camps to choose the right channel to self-focus on the right thing?
Yeah, I think smart camps are definitely asking that question. I think that as part of the surveys that go out after programs, one of the questions I always ask camp to ask is what’s the first app that you reached for in the morning? What’s the first thing that you see? Because I think the answer to that is different. Regionally it’s different based on the needs of your community. It’s, it really does vary. So you have to find out from your families and you have to find out on two levels. Client number one being the camper, what are the campers using and client number two being the parents, you have to figure what the parents are using. Probably different tools, different social media networks that people are using than their kids. But it’s good to know both of those things because they both influence each other. Client number one influences number two and the reverse obviously. But kids have different influences on that. So I think it comes down to finding a representational group within your current families and asking them what social media they use or where they turn to for parenting advice or you might be surprised. Inside the United States, you might be really effective on nextdoor.com. Well, that’s a network that’s just limited to the States. And others might find Instagram or Tiktok or you know. People often ask me, should I be doing Instagram or should I be doing Tiktok? And my answer is I have no way of knowing. The only way I will know is to talk to those families that I want to serve or that I currently served and see what they’re using.
Yeah, sure. Cool. And is there anything that I haven’t asked which you’d like me to ask it about strategy?
No, I don’t think so. I think that having a strategy is important just because it allows you to focus, because it gives you some themes to follow on instead of just, “Oh, let’s try this today, let’s try that tomorrow, and let’s try this thing next week”. Being strategic and changing your goal to be getting new emails, that’s your number one goal. It makes a huge difference in terms of how effective you can be how confident you can feel about how your programs are going to fill. I think it makes a big difference.
Sure. Awesome. Well thanks very much Travis, and thanks a lot for all your help with the community in helping them think through it. It’s been exceptional.
Right up. My pleasure. Thanks Duncan.