I recently spoke at a conference for the Western Alliance of Independent Camps (waic.org). Each of my sessions was a live critique and consultation for a summer camp web site. Most of these sites have been up and running, serving as primary online identities for their camps for years. They work because they have to.
One reason for their problems is a lack of vision. They are great camps. Each one had something very special about it, a very strong directorate, and a great staff. What they lacked was the ability to understand their sites as others see them.
Who are these others?
As a Machine
Google, for one. How does Google see your site? Of course, I did the “turn off the images trick” to reveal what the machine sees. I always talk with my clients about what I learned through Bruce Clay’s invaluable SEO Training. Usually I hand out my condensed version in what I call the Anticonsultant SEO Cheatsheet. Most have not considered how Google approaches their site.
Looking deeper into the SEO issues for camps I found that there weren’t any camps at the conference that appeared on the first page for any of their keywords (branded terms excluded). For one well-respected camp in Colorado, “colorado, summer, camp” turned up only aggregation sites in the list. In fact, it became obvious that these aggregation sites have squatted all over the SEO space, putting themselves in between Google and the camps and holding their keywords hostage. We spent some time talking about opportunities to band together with other camps to form their own aggregation-type sites–and pulling their support out from under the aggregation sites themselves. In effect they are paying these companies for little more than making a wall between them and their users.
As a User
Online users have more in common with each other than they do with the camp subject matter experts. Heck, that’s why they want to go to camp anyway. Get away from it all. One look at the amount of early 21st Century Flash slide shows on these sites let’s one know that consultants and designers have more influence on them than their users. Few have watched their sites being used by users. Most would be happier if it would all just go away.
As a Friend
This for me was the eyeopener, perhaps the most valuable and most recent development in my thinking. What is on your site that you would recommend to a friend? This is the simple way to think of making contact with the social net. When you have a friend, you know that you make yourself more valuable to them by recommending things to try that they wouldn’t have known themselves. Things that have value themselves. Aside from contact information and forms to download, most of these sites are devoid of things you need.
It’s too bad, really. These camps have many pieces of specialized information to offer. Kids and adults learn a lot when they go to camp. Not just through experiences, but how to light a fire, how to identify plants, how to etc etc. and in some cases very specialized information that few others offer. What are ways these camps can show their value to an online audience using the social network as its means?
This discussion lead to others, but one of them was a look at the struggle between leading a camp and participating in the online world. To many of these camp directors the online world is just about as far from their interests as possible. Necessary, but boring and counter to their own strengths and the strengths of their camps. This is a critical issue for consultants in all fields, but in this one it is set off in the most stark manner. Pull the camp director out of the woods to become a specialist in the ever-changing online world.