As society in general becomes more comfortable with online tools for travel planning and booking and turns more and more to social media, the use — and importance — of digital marketing channels by RV parks and campgrounds likewise continues to grow and change to help parks connect with potential guests. But there’s plenty of room for growth.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the results of an ambitious study by Evanne Schmarder, principle of Roadabode Productions (and monthly Woodall’s Campground Management columnist).

The second “Digital Marketing Benchmark Study for Outdoor Hospitality” for 2016/17 is the follow- up to an effort from 2014/2015, and Schmarder expanded the reach this time around.

Schmarder surveyed personnel from 229 parks across North America, asking them roughly 90 questions about their digital marketing efforts. Nearly three-quarters of the responding parks had 249 sites or fewer, and about two-thirds of the participants were family operations or at least privately held, she reported. The majority of the parks are destination or overnight parks.

While she aimed for a good cross section, Schmarder noted that it’s a sample skewed toward people who take online marketing seriously. “People taking the study tend to be more digitally savvy. Mom-and-pop operators who don’t have an email list aren’t the people who filled out the study,” Schmarder noted. “More than two-thirds have an online reservation option, whether on their site, through Booking.com, an online reservation request form which they follow with a phone call or something else.”

Here are some of Schmarder’s key findings:

  • No surprise, Facebook continues to be the leading social media platform with an adoption rate of more than 90%. This remains steady from the previous study.
  • Continued use of Pinterest increased almost two-fold while YouTube usage decreased slightly.
  • Too few to report, texting as a marketing tool is nearly nonexistent in the U.S.
  • Most social media platform users, with study participants reporting a history of three-plus years on all platforms with the exception of Instagram.
  • The one-to-five, six-to-10 and 16-plus hours category of average time spent per week managing digital marketing remained consistent study over study, however, there was growth in the 11-to-15-hour category.
  • Websites are nearly universal and approximately half of respondents spent $3,000 or less to develop their site. Ongoing annual website maintenance costs varied wildly.
  • More than half of respondents utilize paid advertising and they expect to spend the same or more in the upcoming year. Zero reported the intention to spend less.
  • While the majority of respondents utilize online reservations, less than half are seeing reservations booked via mobile, though Schmarder noted the survey didn’t ask whether the respondents’ website booking portals were mobile-friendly.

While small parks and large parks tend to have proportional Facebook engagement and email lists based on their sizes, the difference comes with staff size and the ability to plan out social-media marketing, Schmarder said.

Regardless of park size, operators really need to develop a detailed plan, she emphasized. “There’s often a lack of a unique selling proposition, target persona and marketing plans and the fact that a lot of park owners and operators create a lot of their content on the fly. How do you know your content is targeted to the audience you want to reach?

“They need to know who they’re trying to reach, what platform they’re going to use and what frequency they’re going to use,” she continued. “I’m not saying it’s painless, but maybe you sit down and do a month’s worth or two weeks worth and come up with your content and your message and you schedule it. There are free schedulers out there that are fantastic” (see accompanying list).

“I was most heartened,” she continued, “by reading the comments and looking at the results and knowing the people who took part in this study really want to be successful. They know it’s important to have programs and take part in a study like this. They want it to work but they’re overwhelmed. I wish that they would make it easier on themselves by taking advantage of some free productivity tools. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They aren’t the only ones out there doing this work.”

On the other hand, some of the respondents are on the cutting edge of effective marketing. “The thing that surprised me the most in the study in a very pleasant way was several respondents referred to cross promoting, working with other parks or local businesses or social media influencers. I was delighted to see that because it’s smart and it really is the wave of the future,” she said.

Another effective tool she expects to see grow is the use of hashtags for parks using Instagram for marketing.

“I would love to see people put together some type of a hashtag strategy as part of the whole marketing planning. Aside from a great way to sort content so it can be found, it helps you define and boil down your messaging marketing,” she said. Look around at other successful users to find effective hashtags, she suggested.

All in all, to be effective and successful in digital marketing, she said, “If park operators set off half a day every couple of weeks to focus on their marketing strategy it would be much less stressful and much more successful. Put it in writing, not in your head. Once you have a plan and look at analytics, you can see more return on investment.”

To access the full study, go to www.roadabode.com or contact Schmarder at evanne@roadabode.com. 

5 Digital Marketing Time Savers to Try

Whoever coined the phrase “work smarter, not harder” in today’s world would very well fit in as a savvy digital marketing practitioner, according to Schmarder. In the spirit of making your marketing shine without stealing too much time, here are her five recommended tech productivity tools every modern marketer should be using.

  1. Use a social media scheduler tool: Social media scheduler tools will allow a busy digital marketer to schedule a week’s worth (or more) of content, identify and launch at the best times to post on each platform, and track performance. Buffer and Hootsuite are considered best-in-class in this category. Both offer free and paid models and both have an easy to install, easy to use browser applet that allows seamless posting (or scheduling) when you find an interesting bit online that you’d like to share with your audience.
  2. Connect accounts and automate tasks: Zapier is a wonderful site to help digital marketers connect their various accounts via actions and triggers. This free nifty productivity tool automates cross-platform social media posting and allows users to create reminders and other personal productivity prompts.
  3. Get visual with image editing and photo quotes: Find copyright-free images, free but basic graphic design tools, social media image templates, and tools to add text to an image at the intuitive and feature-rich website, Canva.
  4. Avoid hashtag havoc by using keyboard shortcuts a.k.a. text-replacement: This valuable time saving tool allows you to type a shortcut term or phrase on your smartphone and magically be presented with replacement text, in this case a string of hashtags that you can use in a majority of your Instagram posts. It’s consistent, super simple to set up, and saves bucket loads of frustration and angst. Google your “device name + text replacement” for a specific how-to.
  5. Get help doing almost anything (for $5): Need a Facebook ad designed, a video edited, a website tweaked, a “celebrity” voice over, spreadsheet assistance, a new logo or tagline? Look no further than Fivrr, a global online marketplace listing more than 3 million tasks and/or services, starting at just $5.