Commentary

What A Camp Counselor Can Teach You about Social Media

One of the hardest jobs I ever had was working as a day camp counselor, spending eight summers straight at Beth El Summer Session in New Rochelle, NY. While it's been a few years since I wore a T-shirt and swimsuit to work every day, seeing all the kids home from camp swarming around Madison Square Park this week brought back a few memories. It also made me realize how relevant a lot of what I learned in that job is to what I'm doing now.

Here are some of the lessons I still carry with me. They should be especially relevant to social marketing practitioners today.

1)   Don't feed your campers soggy chips. This is more or less a direct quote from Jack Gruenberg, who ran the Counselor in Training program with his wife Sandy when I worked at the camp. The literal meaning was to avoid giving campers anything that you wouldn't want to eat yourself. I'd amend this today to "Don't feed your clients soggy chips." Think of yourself in their situation with their specific goals and needs. You should only present them with ideas and work product that you'd in turn be happy with. And just as kids know when they're getting a raw deal, clients can smell a dud right away. In both circumstances, you risk hurting your credibility.

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2)   Plan ahead. Before the summer started, counselors and parents received group schedules that had a plan for every day of the week and an overview of what the entire summer would look like. So much of social media feels reactive to the point where plans get lost too easily, but developing editorial calendars can be so helpful for just about any content-rich program you're running, whether it's a Facebook Page, Twitter, blog, video production or syndication program, or digital word-of-mouth marketing.

3)   Keep a rainy-day schedule handy. Rainy-day schedules and backup indoor activities were always on-hand. Some days schedules shifted indoors due to heat advisories (though those days, as a bonus, they served delicious fruit punch that my five-year-old campers called "blood"). It's hard to tell when New Yorkers should carry umbrellas, and it's hard to tell what brands will come under fire. Really, did you ever think that Whole Foods' CEO, a hippie who started his company in Austin, would irk liberals so much that they'd stage a boycott against his company? And the poor Domino's Pizza CEO had to publicly apologize for a brand hijack by two of his own employees, something that could happen to any business owner. As a counselor, especially when I became group leader, I had to put those rainy-day plans into action FAST -- if you've worked with a group of 20 kindergarteners, mommy bloggers seem tame by comparison. You have to have a plan for those days to make sure you can execute on it if you have to. Know who's in charge, who can respond, and what communication channels you have available.

4)   Run headcounts often. If I had 20 kids in my group, I'd probably count to 20 a hundred times a day (after a few days I got pretty good at it). What marketers need to keep track of is their assets they can use for social marketing, what 360i's Social Marketing Playbook refers to as a brand's arsenal. Know what you have to work with inside and out -- then you'll get a pretty good idea of what you can do with it.

5)   Get down to eye level. During staff orientation, Julie Rockowitz, who ran the program when I was there and still does so today, urged all counselors to get down to eye level with the children. Someone who's five-foot-something looks pretty distant and imposing to someone who's three-foot-something, but crouching down and talking eye to eye eliminates that issue. The same is true when communicating with others through social media, whether it's a customer or an influencer. You can still use your own voice and be yourself, but you need to use them in the way that's appropriate to the platform you're using, eliminating any barriers between you and your audience.

6)   Get wet. Counselors had to wear their swimsuits every day, even days that started out rainy. This rule was made partially for safety reasons, but also to encourage counselors to swim with their campers and share their experiences. Marketers and agencies similarly need to swim where their customers swim. You might not always feel like swimming and sometimes the water will be freezing, but the only way to really develop a meaningful experience is to know what it's like firsthand. Most of the time you'll find it's more fun hanging out in the pool rather than sitting on your towel.

7)   Have fun. There were so many rules and regulations as a counselor that it was easy to complain. But the job meant getting paid to run around outdoors, hang out with a bunch of mostly pretty entertaining kids, and work decent hours. Now the hours are much longer, the pay's a bit better, and some clients are every bit as demanding as the most attention-hogging campers, but it's still a fun way to make a living. Anyone who's in this field has to take a second to remember that every day, no matter how hectic it is.

Thank you Julie, Jack, Sandy, the hundreds of other staff I had the pleasure of working with, and the children in the Barracudas, Whales, Sunfish, Blue Jays, All-Stars, and Batmen. You all taught me far more than I could ever capture here.

9 comments about "What A Camp Counselor Can Teach You about Social Media".
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  1. Amy Oliver, August 25, 2009 at 2:09 p.m.

    David,

    Thank you for this piece of insight. I sit in my desk at Utah Foster Care Foundation every day trying to dream up the best ways of explaining social media--its importance, its rules, how it can still be fun even after they're done applying all of the rules--to coworkers more than twice my age.

    It's always nice to have backup.

    And that's what I would call your article here. BACKUP. Backup for every social media marketer who has had a Marketing Director or PR professional say, "Well I've been in the field of ---- longer than you've been alive, so I think I know better than you do what will work and what won't". Backup for every social media marketer who has to go the road alone or teach people who are completely unteachable. Backup...so when the excuses start flying there's someone to turn to. Someone outside the monkey cage. Someone else who gets it. And while they often argue with me, they certainly don't argue with YOU.

    So thank you, David. Because this is an EXCELLENT metaphor for someone like me to share with people who just don't get it.

  2. Joan Curtis from Total Communications Coaching, August 25, 2009 at 4:43 p.m.

    David,

    I appreciate your comparison of camp counseling and dealing with the social media. I'm currently under contract for a book examining sales and social media. We are looking at many angles. I will definitely quote excerpts from this post, particularly regarding "getting down on eye level." We have talked a lot about finding your voice and developing a strategy that will make best use of the social media.

    Thank you for a great post. I'll look forward to seeing others.

    The blog attached to our new book is http://TheNewHandshake.com We'd love to see you there!

  3. Mary beth Smith from AlphaGraphics - Park Cities|North Dallas|SMU, August 25, 2009 at 5:05 p.m.

    Loved this, David! Never hurts to remind ourselves of the basics.

    Although...I find I now have an almost irresistable urge to watch Bill Murray in "Meatballs"...

    ;)

  4. Wendy Jameson from ColnaTec, August 25, 2009 at 5:52 p.m.

    Thoroughly enjoyable post. It's when we can relate our home lives with our work lives that we learn some of our most valuable lessons. Some have called it Peanut Butter & Jelly Management. As a marriage therapist turned marketing maven, I've learned these stories really drive the point home. Thanks for reminding us that social media is not just business, but fun, too.

  5. Jeff Hurt from NADP, August 25, 2009 at 5:53 p.m.

    My best experiences as a camp counselor were to plan an unexpected experience for our guests. While they were surprises for the kids/youth, they were well orchestrated events by camp counselors. When we wowed our audiences with an unexpected surprise, it became unforgettable, attention-getting, head-turning, heart-racing, thrilling experience. Attendees remember and talk about those memorable moments for years to come and the fact that they were able to share it with their peers.

    Taking that to the social arena, it's about creating unpredictable, unforgettable experiences that become viral quickly. One of the best ways to do it is create an emotional connection with the audience. Add a dash of eye candy and surprise and maybe you’ll have a wow-moment.

  6. Steve Sarner from Tagged, August 26, 2009 at 12:29 p.m.

    Great post as usual...appreciate #3 in particular!

    :)

  7. Reuben Segelbaum from Syncapse, August 26, 2009 at 3:11 p.m.

    As always...a wonderful read. And the comparison to camp counselling...well done! The analogies and explanations are great...now...if we can just get everyone thinking kumbaya during budget meetings, all will be good in the world!

  8. John Barton, August 27, 2009 at 9:25 a.m.

    David,

    Thanks for the article. It also strikes me that these are many of the practices for a good PR campaign, and after all, isn't a big part of Social Media PR?

  9. Janis Mccabe from jmod35, December 29, 2009 at 3:41 p.m.

    Somehow I missed this article when you wrote it, but I can tell you that being a camper, a CIT and a counselor, for just a coupla years unfortunately, at a day-camp in Holliston, MA, Camp PATOMA, (Parents made me get a "real job" after that) and being paid something like $10/week (I'm a lot older than you are.) taught me every fine thing in life my parents hadn't already. If it had paid decently, I'd be doing it even today. It really was such a wonderful social and social-learning experience. I still lean down or sit down when I'm involved with little kids and I still just totally love being involved with kids.

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