“It’s the Story, Stupid”

When summer is over, some of your campers will ask their parents to sign them up again for next year’s session. And some of them won’t. What’s the difference? Some parents tell all of the friends about your camps, and others don’t. Why?

It’s easy if it’s because the kids just didn’t like your camp, or their parents were put-off by your staff being unprofessional or your bathrooms being filthy. But if not that, what?

Did you see any of the TV news reports about college kids giving up their spring breaks and spending the week along the gulf coast doing hot and dirty work repairing ruined homes? They all said it was the best spring break they’d ever spent; they’d learned more than a whole year at school.

My son overheard me talking about what camp memories are the most likely to stick, “You know dad, one of the best camp memories I have is when it rained on our cabin’s overnight campout and we all ‘rescued’ each other!” His memory, and the story, was still strong six years after the fact.

Our best vacations are the ones that give us stories to tell our friends when we get home. The midnight chocolate buffet on the cruise ship that “was over 80 feet long!” The local family we met that was so amazingly friendly. The lost luggage, crazy drivers, and narrow roads that lead to… “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Great vacations are an adventure, whether it was to a beach, a city, or a mountain. Adventures, unlike theme-park rides, are relived in our imagination again and again. But they really come to life in the retelling.

What is Your Story?

“It’s the story, stupid.” That’s the message of Seth Godin (author of the best-selling marketing book of the last 10 years, Purple Cow). In his new book, All Marketers are Liars, he focuses on the mechanics of word-of-mouth marketing.

“You have to start with a good product,” Godin says. Customers may be talked into trying something once, but they won’t tell their friends about it if they don’t think it’s of value. Nobody recommends an “average” movie to a friend, or steers them toward a “so-so” restaurant. In order to be worthy of telling our friends, there has to be a story to tell.

You don’t see a lot of advertising for Starbucks Coffee. You don’t have to because lots of people who have been there have enjoyed more than just the coffee. They’ve enjoyed the whole experience of getting served. So much so they tell their friends, even urge them to join them. Dunkin Donuts makes a darn good cup of coffee, too, but you don’t see the kind of word-of-mouth that you hear for Starbucks.

How does this relate to camps? Do we need to serve better coffee? (In my opinion, yes, but that’s a different story.)

Those camps that have a high return rate give their parents and campers experience’s that translate into stories. Stories that can be told to mom on the way home in the car, that can be told to grandma on the phone, that are repeated at recess at school, that are embellished in the produce aisle at the grocer store.

Storytelling Done Right

To start with, most camp web sites and brochures don’t look like the jumping-off point for an adventure. They look like playgrounds full of smiling kids in the middle of a “hugfest”. Smiling unsupervised kids in most of the photos. No action, no story. Go look at the best web sites for vacation destinations. They invite you into the plot line. There’s an empty lounge chair looking out at the view, a balcony waiting for you, a buffet with people loading their plates, and people creating memories… doing things you don’t do at home, things you could be telling your neighbors about.

Most of us give kids a great experience at camp, but we leave mom and dad out of the fun. They assume they won’t hear from their kids, and we oblige. But they would love to be able to peak in through a one-way mirror and watch, just like they do at swim lessons or karate class. Smart camps give parents ways to participate, through post cards home from counselors and web sites with updated storylines each day.

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