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.
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.