Pelland Blog

Does Your Website Work as Well as You Think?

November 26th, 2014

Sometimes it can only make me smile when I speak with a business owner who has a website that is either broken, harbors malware, looks like it was made 20 years ago, or is just plain uglier than a plaid jacket and a polka dot shirt. Almost inevitably, if I suggest that there might be room for improvement, I hear the response, “I get lots of compliments on my website!”

Okay, some people are nice and do not want to hurt another person’s feelings. In addition, how do you define the word “lots”? Does it include the 95% of visitors who are repelled by your website and will never do business with you? This is where live usability testing comes into play.

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If you have a skilled website designer who truly understands your business, industry and target market, you are probably fairly well assured that your website will meet its objectives, have a well-defined call to action, and will effectively convert traffic into added income. If you built your site yourself, it was built 8 or 10 years ago, or it was built by a webmaster who is more of a part-time tinkerer than a “master” of his craft, you may want to invest in some real world testing.

Usability Testing

With usability testing, you can certainly ask your existing clientele for their feedback and opinions; however, the more important court of judgment consists of the masses of people who are your potential – rather than existing – customers. Most websites of major businesses employ usability testing. It is something that even small businesses should consider or at least sample.

If you do a search online, you will find a plethora of companies offering a variety of live user testing services. Let me concentrate on two companies that make it simple, relatively inexpensive, and free to test.

The first is the Five Second Test from Usability Hub. With the Five Second Test, you upload a screenshot of your website (or a mockup of a new design that you might want to test) and set a series of questions that you would like answered. Testers get 5 seconds to view your screenshot before being presented with your questions. Afterward, wait for the test results which collect comments, extract keywords, and present the data in a graphical interface that makes a summary interpretation really simple. The Five Second Test is based upon the short attention span of most new visitors to a site, along with the fact that you have a very narrow window of time to either catch their attention or lose their interest. The best way to see how the service works is to volunteer to do a few random tests yourself. In fact, for each test that you complete (and they take less than a minute) you will earn credits (called “Karma points”) that may be applied to services that you order for your own business.

Other than the Five Second Test, Usability Hub also offers a Click Test, which tries to determine if a page’s call to action is apparent, and a Nav Flow Test, which tries to determine whether a site’s navigation is intuitive or frustrating. You can also volunteer to perform these tests, earning credits. Guess what? You are then one of the testers. This site’s services really allow you to help others in the same way that others are called upon to help you. That is a pretty nice concept, in my opinion. Any or all of these tests will provide you with valuable, low cost feedback that will either confirm that your site is hitting its target or suggest that there may be room for improvements. Some of the companies that routinely use these services include eBay and Yelp.

The next service that I would like to suggest is Peek from User Testing. With Peek, you will be presented with a 5-minute video of a real person who visits your site and describes their experience, telling you what they like, what they dislike, and what they find confusing. Using the link above, you can test your website immediately and at no charge.

With this service, you specify the demographic profile of the intended audience for your site, and Peek uses a screen recorder to let you know what is happening at the user end of things, including clicks, mouse movements, text that is entered, facial expressions, and spoken comments. If you are thin-skinned and overly sensitive, you may not want to encounter this type of reality check, but if you are serious about improving your business, this could be a terrific learning tool. Some of the companies that utilize this service include Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Adobe.

If you think you know how websites should work, you can also apply to be a tester at Peek. Click here to apply. If you are selected (which is significantly based upon whether or not your demographics match the target of companies testing their sites), you will be paid $10.00 for about 20 minutes of time. The site is also looking for people who are able to provide the needed feedback by taking a customer’s perspective, identifying things that are confusing, and thinking out loud so that the screen recorder will be able to capture your verbal comments. You probably spend time online without being paid, so why not give it a try? This service has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and on Good Morning America, among many other news sources.

By working as a tester for either of these services, you will also be learning about other websites, including what works and what doesn’t work. By directly utilizing either of these services as a business, you might discover some shortcomings in your own site and learn how your site might be improved.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

10 Questions to Ask Your Next Webmaster

October 29th, 2014

This past week, my company received an RFP (Request for Proposal) regarding website design and maintenance services. Although state associations and larger organizations often follow this formality, this instance was unusual because it came from the owner of an individual campground. Although we submitted a bid on the project, it reminded me how most people do not know the truly important questions to ask a prospective webmaster. With that in mind, let me outline a few of the questions that should be asked, along with some of the answers that should be anticipated.

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  1. Who is going to be the lead person on the project, and how will I contact that person throughout the course of production … and afterward? What is the background of that person, and are your work philosophies compatible? There may be a “team” of individuals working on your project, but you should expect to be in contact with the team manager, not the water boy. If key aspects of the project will be subcontracted or outsourced to an unidentified company or individual, you may want to look elsewhere.
  2. How many projects have been completed for similar companies that are comparable or larger than your own? How long has the company been in business, and what is its track record? Portfolios are always going to show a company’s best work. Campground review sites show both positive and negative reviews, and they help to present a more complete story. With this in mind, you might want to ask the company for an example of what it considers its own worst work.
  3. Will you provide an outline of the site’s proposed content and structure? Know what you want the site to accomplish, but let the developer propose the specific means to attain those goals. If you hire a painter, you need to tell that contractor what color you want on your living room walls, but it is probably best not to tell him what brand of paint to buy and what kind of brushes to use. Let the painter determine what will work best and what he prefers to use, based upon his experience. If you tell your webmaster how to do his work, you might very well be demanding the use of outmoded technology.
  4. What will be our respective roles in the ongoing development and maintenance of the site? Do not be obsessed with infrastructure, particularly presumptions regarding any particular CMS (Content Management System) platform. Too many people are determined that their new website should be built in WordPress or another specific CMS platform, simply because somebody told them that this was the way to go. The important question to ask is, “Who will be maintaining the site – you or me – and what will it cost over time?” In most instances, you want somebody who will stay on board to offer ongoing assistance to one degree or another, not somebody who expects you to sink or swim on your own.
  5. How will the initial content be provided, and who will edit that content? Typically, you will be expected to provide the basic text and photos that will be used on your site, but how are those supplied materials taken to the next level? Will photos be professionally enhanced in Photoshop? Will the text be proofread, edited, and professionally rewritten … then sent back to you for further revisions and final approval? What you do not want is somebody who does little more than copy and paste. Even the best photos need to be optimized, and even the best text can be improved, keeping in mind that the text on a website must be written for two audiences: a broad audience of human beings and a smaller but equally important audience of search engine robots.
  6. Speaking of search engines, will basic SEO (Search Engine Optimization) components be included in the cost of the project, or are those add-on services? Will Google Analytics be installed on your site at no charge? What additional SEO components will be included? Often, if you do not ask, services that might otherwise be provided at no charge will be absent from your project. Beware of extra charges for important services (such as Google Analytics) that are available at no charge and simply need to be setup and installed.
  7. Will the new site be expected to work on the full spectrum of devices and operating systems that are currently being used to access the Web? Specifically, is the new site designed to be fully functional on any and all of the latest smartphones and tablets? Older sites may have been built when compatibility with Internet Explorer 6 was an important consideration. Today, when people wait in line to be the first to buy the latest iPhone, backward compatibility is not nearly as great a concern as forward compatibility. Things like use of Flash animation (no longer supported on iOS and the newest Android devices) or separate mobile sites are old-school technologies. Be certain that you will be investing in the latest, solidly established technology. Avoid throwing money away on either old technology or planned obsolescence.
  8. What other services can the webmaster provide in-house? A new website should be a key component of an overall branding strategy. If the website development company has an understanding of and experience in orchestrating overall branding strategies, that is a big plus. If not, you could find yourself in the position where the graphic design that has been incorporated into your new website cannot be transitioned into the high-resolution demands of other formats such as print advertising and signage.
  9. What are the projected up-front (first year) costs of the project, and what are the anticipated long-term costs? I have seen “bargain” websites that needed to be scrapped and replaced a year later, and I have seen companies that charge outrageously overpriced, recurring fees for alleged SEO services. Expect to make a financial commitment when a new site is built and launched; however, beware of excessive long-term maintenance costs, particularly for intangible services.
  10. Can I find your business online if I type your business name followed by the word “complaints” in a Google search box? Needless to say, you perform this actual search yourself, rather than asking the prospective webmaster this question! If there are relevant results, read through a few. You are better off being forewarned now than putting yourself into a situation where you will be writing one of those reviews yourself a year from now!

You might have other questions in mind that you feel are important. If so, ask them! The important thing is to let your webmaster do his or her job, but to ensure that when that job is done it will be consistent with your own ideas and objectives.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Make it Personal

October 17th, 2014

The more that we get caught up in believing that mass marketing and technology are the sole keys to bringing in new business, the more that we might miss out on basic, time-proven principles that work. When a campground is looking to expand its customer base and occupancy rates, it is fine to put effort into growing your sphere of influence within the social media or building your website’s SEO; however, don’t obsess over these at the expense of the more personal approaches that are more reliable today than ever.

Even the world’s biggest brands are realizing the advantages of personalizing their marketing campaigns. A perfect example is Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign. Introduced in Australia in 2012, this campaign has been expanded around the globe. In the summer of 2014, some of the iconic Coca-Cola logos on 20-ounce bottles have been replaced by 250 of the most popular first names among the young people in the brand’s core demographic.

Share a Coke.

What Coca-Cola is recognizing in this campaign, which also tested successfully in the United Kingdom in 2013, is the power of personal appeal in growing brand loyalty. In addition to the bottles than can be purchased, the program is touring major colleges and universities across the country when students are returning to campus for the start of the fall semester. At these events, students are given an opportunity to personalize two Coca-Cola cans – as the promotional materials say, “one to keep and one to share”. That sharing part is essential. The campaign also allows people to create a customized virtual bottle that they can share online, encourages people to upload photos of themselves consuming their customized Coke via Twitter, and makes it easy for you to determine whether or not your name is one of the 250 that may be found at retail outlets. The costs of this campaign are probably enormous, but the return on investment was proven through two years of testing.

Your Campground Is Not Coca-Cola

Without spending a fortune, your business can capitalize upon the same concept of using personal appeal to expand your markets. I remember visiting a campground a few years ago where each campsite was graced with a carved wooden sign with the camper’s family name. An employee at the campground had a router and was skilled at quickly making these signs using pre-cut cedar slabs. Imagine the lasting, positive impression this created, when first-time campers arrived at their site and saw their name right below the site number! At the end of their stay, they took the customized sign home, as a continuing reminder of their camping weekend.

The most effective marketing and promotional campaigns succeed because they capitalize upon the element of surprise that comes from providing the unexpected. More and more these days, simply reaching out to your customers on a personal level will elicit a sense of surprise that will differentiate your business in a very positive manner. When reaching out to your customers, one of your key objectives should be to subtly recruit them to assist in your attempts at bringing in new business. Here are a few ideas that might work for you:

  • Encourage your customers to post online reviews that share their positive experiences at your park. In addition to TripAdvisor and Yelp, there are a number of review sites that are specific to campgrounds. Concentrate on the key players, but be careful not to offer incentives for positive reviews.
  • One of our campground clients runs a “refer a friend” program, in which they provide coupons where campers may enter the contact information of a friend who has not previously camped at the park. If they make a reservation, both the new camper and the camper who provided the referral receive a $20.00 credit.
  • Explore referral opportunities with complementary service providers. These might include local RV dealers, restaurants and other businesses in town, and campgrounds in other regions of the country. You may also want to include your vendors in these opportunities. Let the people who fill your propane tank, deliver your groceries, and service your equipment know that you are always looking for new campers. Printed literature – with or without a coupon incentive – works best in these instances.
  • If you post something newsworthy (such as an upcoming event) on the social media, encourage people to share your post and spread the words with their friends.
  • Consider adding a referral form to your website. This would also work more effectively if it included some sort of incentive (usually in the form of a discount) for both parties.
  • Giving a referral yourself is sometimes the best way to get somebody else to return the favor. You know your seasonal campers, and many of them are likely to be small business owners. If somebody is looking for an electrician, an auto body repair expert, a computer geek, or even a new car, one of your campers is probably in that line of work. Refer them!

As always, the bottom line is that surprising people by doing something unique is the best way to get them to take notice. Then carry that personal relationship to the next level so that both parties will benefit.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Four Quick and Easy Ways to Boost Your Website’s Search Engine Ranking

October 7th, 2014

One of the most common questions I hear from the owners of campgrounds and other small businesses is, “How can I improve my site’s search engine ranking?” There is a long list of answers, most involving steps that should be taken by your site’s webmaster. Unfortunately, if you are your own webmaster or you hired a local person who lacks expertise regarding search engine optimization (SEO), you may be in for a rude awakening. On the other hand, if you hired any of the industry’s established website development companies, your site should be in good hands. To be certain, let me guide you through four tips that will allow you to check the status of your site.

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The Open Directory Project

The Open Directory Project was formed as an open-source alternative to the Yahoo! Directory’s paid site submission process, back in the days when Yahoo! was an online directory, not a search engine. Years later, you can still pay $299.00 to submit your site to the Yahoo! Directory, and you can submit your site for free to The Open Directory Project at http://dmoz.org. There are three good reasons that your site needs to be listed in The Open Directory Project:

  • Inclusion of a website in the Open Directory has a positive impact upon your site’s Google PageRank.
  • The Open Directory Project licenses its content distribution through hundreds of small search engines.
  • The Open Directory Project data is included in the directory services of major search engines, including Google and AOL Search. That’s right: Your search on Google will often reference site listings from the Open Directory.

The submission process is simple. First, check to see if your site is already listed. Go to http://dmoz.org and enter your business name into the search box at the head of the page. A business can only be listed in one category. If your site is listed, fine (unless you strongly believe that the listing should be moved to another category). If you are not listed, you can drill down through the hierarchy of categories to find the right place to list your site. For a campground in the United States, that category will be Recreation > Outdoors > Camping > Campgrounds > North America > United States > [Your State]. When you reach that page, you will also be able to confirm whether or not your site is listed. Do not be surprised if it is not. For example, there are 155 campgrounds listed on the Ohio Campground Owners Association website, but only 27 Ohio campgrounds listed in The Open Directory Project. There are also 200 campgrounds listed on the Campground Owners of New York website, but only 81 New York campgrounds listed in the directory. (Keep in mind that the actual numbers of campgrounds are probably higher because not all campgrounds belong to their state associations.) If your site is not listed, click on the “Suggest URL” link to go to the site submission page for that category.

Enter the following information on the submission page:

  • Your site URL. (Check the Regular option.)
  • Your site Title (taken from the Title tag of your site’s Home page).
  • A description of your site in 25-30 words. Try to write this as objectively as possible. The more that you embellish the text, the more likely it is that your description will be edited.
  • Your e-mail address.
  • Enter the captcha script at the bottom of the page, and hit Submit! You are on your way.

Total cost: $0.00

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Use a Permanent Redirect

This tip will need to be implemented by the company that is hosting your website, and there should be no charge for them to do so. Most people do not realize that their website’s URL, with and without the ‘www’ subdomain prefix, counts as two sites and splits what should be the combined impact of the site’s traffic upon its search engine ranking. Since the ‘www’ prefix is not necessary, some people will type your address using the prefix and others will not. What you need to ensure is that – either way – the visitor will be taken to one version of your URL … the version without the ‘www’ prefix.

The solution is to implement a permanent redirect (known as a 301 redirect), so that any traffic to www.YourWebsite.com will be redirected to YourWebsite.com. It is easy enough to check to see if this is being done. Go to a browser and in the address bar (not a search box!), type in your site’s URL with the ‘www’ prefix. See if the ‘www’ remains in the address bar or disappears when the page is loaded. Then type in your address without the ‘www’ prefix, and confirm that the site also appears. If so, all is well. Much to my surprise, I often see sites that are incorrectly set up on their server so that they will ONLY appear if the ‘www’ prefix is used … a major error!

Total cost: $0.00

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Find Unlinked Online References to Your Business

If there are websites that mention your business by name but do not include a link to your website, those mentions are providing little benefit. Particularly if your Web presence is relatively new, or if you recently changed its URL, there could be several sites that mention your business without a link or that provide a link to an old URL. Either way, you want to discover those and try to get the listings updated. Generally speaking, this is a two-step process.

The first step is to do a Google search for your business by name. Hopefully, your website will be the first search result! Go down the list of the first 50 or 100 search results. If there are sites that you do not recognize, click through to see if any of these appear to be legitimate sites that are lacking a link. In those instances, you will probably find a link that says “Claim this business”; otherwise, look for an “update listing” or “contact” link. Following those links is the second step.

Keep in mind that there are many local listings sites (often some sort of variation of the old yellow pages phone directory concept). Unless there is a very low, one-time fee, I generally advise against paying a site to add a link to your listing. A chamber of commerce, travel site, or camping-related site that provides specific information about your campground is probably a worthwhile listing; however, many of the sites that charge a fee for links are sites that generate low levels of traffic and probably zero searches for your businesses. They are little more than link directories. You want links on as many sites as possible that are legitimately capable of sending traffic to your site.

You might also want to search for the names of competitors or other nearby businesses, in an effort to discover any sites where your business may not even be listed by name but where it could be added. If you would like to stay abreast of any new listings that might materialize, set up a Google Alert for your business name, and you will be notified.

Total cost: $0.00, in most instances.

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Consider SSL

Google recently announced a new HTTPS ranking signal, indicating that SSL throughout a site will give that site a slight SEO advantage. Up until now, SSL was typically used only by sites that were engaged in online commerce or the transmittal of sensitive information, but an argument may now be made for broader implementation. SSL provides a secure protocol, where exchanged data is encrypted rather than being written in plain text. It provides levels of data integrity and authentication that are lacking in usual data transfer.

If your site is handling transactions that involve the entry of users’ personal information (such as if you are selling merchandise or accepting payments through an online gateway), it should be using SSL. If a site uses SSL, there are sound reasons for the SSL to be used throughout the site, not simply on payment pages. If your site is purely informational (which applies to the typical campground website), there has been no reason for it to use SSL – at least up until now.

Do not expect the use of SSL on your site to push it to the top of search rankings. That is not going to happen. However, use of the https protocol is one of 200 or more signals that currently influence Google search ranking.

There are complications involved when converting a site to use SSL, and some of these cons may offset the pros of making the switch – not the least of which is the added cost of secure hosting and the annual SSL certificate renewal. Discuss these with your webmaster to determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs in your instance.

Total cost: Varies.

When it comes to SEO, there are no easy answers and no one-size-fits-all solutions. Establish a trusted working relationship with a knowledgeable webmaster who makes the best interests of your business a top priority.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Think Small

September 23rd, 2014

The idea to think small did not only work for Volkswagen, in the famous 1959 advertising campaign by the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency, cited by Advertising Age magazine as the best ad campaign of the twentieth century. Many people today are making a concerted effort to buy local and support small businesses. This new consciousness is behind the resurgence in family farming throughout much of the country. In a popular episode of the cult TV series Portlandia, a young couple played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein want to be assured that the chicken being served in a restaurant comes from a local farm.

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Portlandia loves to poke fun at our modern cultural obsessions, but the desire to get to know the people with whom you do business is a growing trend. Most campgrounds are family-owned small businesses that are perfectly poised to capitalize upon this popular desire, and there is no better way to introduce yourself to new markets than to tell your personal story.

It’s Story Time

Sort of like “show and tell” back in kindergarten, telling your story is the best way to introduce yourself to people. Guess what? If they like what they hear or read, you may have set the foundation for a very long-term relationship. To get started, it would probably be a productive exercise to take the time to put your story down on paper. What is the history of your campground, and what is your story as its owner? Tell people why you bought your park, and what you are seeking to accomplish. Are you a new owner, or are you the fifth generation of Smiths to run Peaceful Acres? We are not talking about a business plan or formal mission statement. We are talking about personalizing what might otherwise be an anonymous business … just like those of your less personal competitors.

Here are a few tips for what might be included in your story, but above all else, make it personal and from the heart:

  • Why did you decide to buy (or build) your park? We are not talking about how you intend to amass a fortune as part of a 5-year plan. What is it that you are trying to offer your guests or that differentiates your park?
  • What did you do in life that took you to this point in time? Did you work in customer service or perhaps in a big company that downsized or moved its production offshore? What lessons did you learn, and how would you like to do things differently? Many people will directly identify with your prior experience.
  • Talk about your family and what it means to you. Are there family values that are now part of your business ethics? Is your park the kind of place where you want your own children to grow?
  • What are your long-term goals for your park? It is amazing how people will be willing to help you to attain your dreams and will want to be a part of seeing them materialize, but they need to know what those goals might be.
  • What are you doing – personally – that makes your park different from many others? If your life includes some sort of Eureka moment or epiphany, tell the story.

Buy from a Big Box or Shop Locally?

As I pointed out early on in this essay, many people feel an overwhelming desire to shop locally. Even if your park is part of a national franchise, you should still be personalizing your imprint upon the national brand. People choose name brands because they feel that they can expect a degree of reliability and consistency, and you want to build upon those qualities with your personal imprint. Even McDonald’s regionalizes its menu. You probably want to do your best to “localize” the national brand.

Wal-Mart is a perfect example of what can happen when a business loses sight of its origins. The chain grew because it was Sam Walton’s personal story and retailing concept. When he died, his personal story died along with him. Today, people shop at Wal-Mart for one reason – and one reason only: price. Even the trucks that are ever-present on the highways tell the story: Always Low Prices. Without price, the world’s largest retailer would be out of business.

Word Association

Ask a few of your campers for the first word that comes to their mind when they hear the name of your campground. Ask first-time arrivals why they chose your park. If the answers are price, a color or a mascot, you may need to be putting greater effort into telling your story. If the answer is a word that conveys an emotion or a concept – anything from enjoyment to security to a friendly environment – you are probably on target. Use those same words in your marketing, recognizing that the qualities that are drawing guests to your park are the same qualities that will allow you to widen your markets.

Tell your story, and try to personalize every aspect of a coordinated marketing campaign. Add a personalized “About Us” page to your website, put your photo (or a family photo) in your advertising, and try to write in the first person. Speak directly to your customers, in a friendly manner, telling them what “we” can do for “you”. Your message will strike a resounding chord, and your readers will respond.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Making a Positive First Impression on the Telephone

September 13th, 2014

Several recent experiences have brought home the importance of telephone etiquette and its impact upon business. Particularly when a phone call might be the first point of contact with a business prospect, that first impression could create a lasting impression. With a little advance thought, you can help to ensure that the impression is positive. Let me share a few of my observations and suggestions.

Call Waiting

With call waiting, you are notified when a new call is coming in while you are on an existing call. The best advice I can offer about call waiting is not to use it. More than anything else, call waiting interrupts your existing conversation and gives the person on the other end the distinct impression that his or her call is unimportant. It gives you the choice of terminating the first call or rushing the first call to its conclusion. Either way, you are likely to put both callers at least briefly on hold. Who likes being put on hold? Nobody.

If you choose to ignore an incoming call when using call waiting, you are at minimum being distracted from the first call. If you do accept the call, the caller is given the impression that nobody is in your office, and that is not a good perception. You are far better off having a caller encounter an occasional busy signal. This, by definition, suggests that your office is busy, and that can be a good perception!

Answering the Call

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Speaking of being put on hold, never answer a call using the words, “May I put you on hold?” More often than not, the person asking that question does not wait for a reply. This rude habit is notoriously abused by doctors’ offices, isn’t it? If you can’t handle the volume of incoming calls, it is time to add another person to answer your phones. If too many people are waiting in the checkout lines at a supermarket, smart management will call clerks up front to open new registers.

Last week, I had to place a series of calls to a prominent organization within the industry, and it was apparent that they were experiencing some phone problems. On one of my calls, the receptionist apparently could not hear my voice at her end. When this happens in my office, the policy is to presume that the caller on the other end can hear our voices, explaining that we cannot hear the caller’s voice before gently disconnecting. In my call last week, there was no such courtesy. The receptionist simply slammed the phone down onto its base, treating me like I was some sort of crank caller. Once again, was this a positive impression? No.

Never Say “No”

On another recent call, I asked the person at the other end if an exception could be made to a policy. The person at the other end was not authorized to make that decision, and simply said, “Nothing we can do about that.” Say what? If an employee, either on the phone or off the phone, is not authorized to make an exception to a policy or procedure, that employee should cheerfully pass the request along to a superior who can make the decision.

As a case in point (and a tip to my readers!), I have learned that every checkout clerk at Home Depot stores is given the discretion to authorize up to a 10% discount to a customer, upon request. I have made that request at each of my last four purchases, and I have been given that discount every time. Does that make me happy with Home Depot? Of course it does. ‘Yes’ is such a nice word.

Return Your Calls!

It utterly amazes me how often I will call people who really need to hear from me, repeatedly leave messages, only to have them not return my calls. As a case in point, my company had a long-time client who recently sold her campground and provided me with the name and phone number of the new owner. I called twice and left messages, as a simple courtesy and means of introduction. He never returned my calls.

About two weeks later, it came to my attention that the campground’s reservation requests were bouncing back to our server because the new owner had apparently terminated the Comcast e-mail account to which the requests were being e-mailed. I called and left two more messages with this specific information. My calls have still not been returned, and I am done making calls to someone who does not want to help himself. As of the time of this posting, there have been over 40 campers who have attempted to make reservations and who have been ignored, some looking for multiple sites or week long stays. Averaging two night stays at $35.00 per night, this translates into well over $2,750.00 in lost income.

If nothing else, my point in sharing these examples is to try to get people to understand that, in these days when everything is digital, the good old telephone is still a crucial tool when it comes to running your business smarter. Try seeing yourself as the caller at the other end of the line, and you are certain to benefit. Courtesy is profitable, and rudeness is costly.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

E-Mail: Making the Most of It

September 1st, 2014

E-Mail is often taken for granted these days, with the result being that many of us fail to realize its true potential. Everybody knows that e-mail is essentially free and immediate, as opposed to a letter which currently costs 49 cents to mail and may take days to deliver. E-mail always arrives at the right time because it is the recipient’s prerogative to determine when it will be opened or read. Unlike a phone call, the timing of which may be inopportune at the other end, the recipient alone determines when – and if – it is going to be read.

With a phone call, you know when you have reached the person you are calling, even though Caller ID may allow them to avoid your call, and – in extreme instances – call blocking may prevent a call from your number from even getting through. Then, of course, we have all experienced the unpleasantly rude experience of having somebody hang up on us.

With conventional mail, nobody discards an unopened birthday card, bank statement, or tax bill. These are immediately identified as either friendly or important communications. The decision whether or not to open a conventional piece of mail is typically made within 3-5 seconds. For e-mail to be opened with any reasonable frequency, it is necessary for it to convey that same type of urgency. The rates with which conventional e-mail is opened and read are difficult to measure, but it is safe to assume that they are remarkably low. The longer we have been online and the more e-mail that we receive, the more selective we become about what we will take the time to read. In my own instance, with excellent filters removing spam from the equation, I would estimate that I delete 90-95% of my incoming e-mail before it is read.

There are third-party services which will allow a degree of tracking of conventional e-mail messages. Some of these services are free, others paid, and they can tell you when somebody has opened your message, how long they spent reading the message, where they were located, whether or not they forwarded the message, and much more. These services generally work by embedding an invisible graphic file into your message, monitoring when that graphic has been downloaded. Unfortunately, if the recipient’s e-mail client or mobile device is not set to display graphics, that invisible graphic will not be downloaded and tracked. If you would like to look into this type of tracking, some of the services that you will find online include WhoReadMe, GetNotify, ContactMonkey, and BananaTag.

Conventional E-Mail Tips

Whether or not you use an e-mail tacking service, to increase your open and read rates, follow a few basic tips:

  • Clearly identify yourself. In your e-mail settings, be sure that either your full personal name or business name is entered. I am amazed at how many e-mails I receive from senders named “office” or “info”. If you enter nothing in this setting, most e-mail clients will by default simply show your e-mail address. Having your recipients clearly recognize you will increase the likelihood of your e-mail getting read, and it will also tremendously help them to search for one of your messages to reference in the future.
  • Write a subject line that asks to be opened. Ideally, it will start with your company name, both for name recognition and ease of sorting. Make it compelling and specific. I have an amazing number of e-mails in my inbox with the subject lines reading “hi”, “hello”, and “question”. Worse yet are the e-mails that are send with NO subject line whatsoever. Some people use special characters (also known as glyphs) to draw attention to their subject lined, converted to more graphical emoji on some devices. These might include symbols such as arrows ►, musical notes ♫, and hearts ♥ – not all of which are appropriate for most businesses. I believe that, in most instances, symbols such as these get an e-mail subject line noticed but have no impact whatsoever on read and open rates. In addition, they might flag a message as spam. Use a subject line that the recipient will identify as something of interest.
  • Do not request read receipts. Except in specific instances, read receipts are perceived as an annoyance by recipients, and a recipient can choose whether or not to confirm receipt of your message. This last factor renders read receipts pretty pointless. I find that some people have their e-mail client configured to request a read receipt for every message sent. They are often the same people who send messages without a subject line!

When and Why to Use E-Mail Marketing

If you are thinking about sending a message to multiple recipients using an e-mail client’s ‘cc’ (carbon copy) or ‘bcc’ (blind carbon copy) features, do not do it! This practice is impersonal, can flag you as a spammer, and (using the ‘cc’ feature) discloses the e-mail addresses and violates the privacy of every recipient. To avoid these issues, use an e-mail marketing service such as Constant Contact, iContact, Vertical Response, MailChimp, or Campaigner. These services are all reasonably priced, have higher deliverability rates than conventional e-mail, and provide templates that make it easy for your messages to stand out. More importantly, they provide a wealth of tracking data which goes far beyond simply who has opened your e-mail.

When mailing using an e-mail marketing service, you know exactly which recipients open your e-mail, when they open it, what links they click, if they forward it, if they unsubscribe, if their address is undeliverable, and if anybody reports your e-mail as spam. Let’s say that you run a campground and your newsletter includes articles on seasonal site availabilities, a special event that you have scheduled, and a limited-time discount – each including a link for more information. By checking the click-thrus for any of these article links, you have identified key prospects that are likely to be more than receptive to a follow-up phone call … if they have not contacted your first!

The most ineffective e-mail is the one that is not read. Make your e-mail work smarter, and your business will truly benefit!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Learn from the Examples of Successful Businesses

August 12th, 2014

This post was originally written in December of 2013, but was unintentionally not posted online. I was sharing my thoughts on my return flight from Orlando and the IAAPA Attractions Expo, the last and largest of my company’s fall trade shows. I took that opportunity to pause and reflect upon my recent experiences … and how they can be applied to your business.

Out of the fall events, the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association convention and trade show was held at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a first class operation in the Laurel Highlands of Southeastern Pennsylvania. From a business marketing perspective, there is much to be learned from these conventions, and much of that knowledge may be gained by observing the operations and management of the host facilities. We are all working within the broader tourism and outdoor recreation industries – where customer service is the key component of our businesses, but many of us tend to learn only from our peers, in this case fellow campground owners.

I have always been a firm believer that campground owners can learn a great deal from the operators of cruise lines, airlines, theme parks, and resorts like Nemacolin. The things that these businesses do to satisfy their customers – or the things that they do to alienate and annoy their customers – easily translate to the family camping industry. Regardless of your particular business, your customers want to be treated with respect and to be provided with exceptional service.

We are all human, and mistakes are inevitably made. One of our goals should be to minimize those mistakes, whether made directly ourselves or by one of our staff members. When a mistake has been made, damage control is time-critical.

NemacolinWoodlandsResort_21503Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

At the PCOA Convention, a mistake was made by the kitchen staff of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. One of the meal functions was a pasta buffet and, almost incomprehensibly, the facility ran out of pasta before everyone had been served. In fact, they ran out of pasta before perhaps half of the people in the dining room had been served. The situation made the resort look bad and made its guests unhappy – regardless of the quality of their prior experience. The barometer had suddenly changed.

Here is where there are lessons to be learned. A mistake had been made, and it was impossible for it to be unmade; however, the immediacy and the extent of the management response saved the day, maintained the reputation of the resort, and prevented PCOA from looking bad by association.

As soon as it had been confirmed that it was impossible to prepare additional servings of food for this many people in a timely manner, the cash bar became an open bar. This response in itself probably satisfied many of the inconvenienced guests, but management took a further step to insure everyone’s satisfaction. In the trade show hall the following morning, a member of the resort’s management staff took to the microphone to personally apologize for what should not have occurred the evening before. He then directed anyone who had been inconvenienced to see one of the several staff members at his side for a certificate that could be redeemed for a free night’s stay over the course of the following year. Each of these vouchers had a potential value of as much as $489.00. The resort had recovered from an awkward and embarrassing situation, and any lingering dissatisfaction from the previous night had been totally reversed in grand style.

What can your campground learn from this management response?

If someone complains that your restrooms are less than spotless, if a family’s sleep was interrupted by noise from an adjoining site, if a scheduled performer cancels out at the last minute, what is your response? If your response is simply that “stuff happens”, or if you assign the blame to somebody else, you are failing to provide exemplary service. We are all willing – perhaps even anxious – to pardon mistakes, but few people are willing to tolerate a business that demonstrates that it does not care.

Going back to the restroom example, do you ever profile a guest as a “complainer” and dismiss his concerns? Worse yet, do you ever take the attitude that everything is fine because 95% of your guests are content with the status quo? If a guest tells you that your restroom facilities require attention, it is time for you to drop what you are doing and personally look into the issue. Ask the guess to show you the problem that you might have been missing all along but that is capable of creating an indelible impression upon a new set of eyes. Empathize with your guest, apologize if necessary, then take immediate measure to rectify the situation. Your guest will no longer be displeased.

Particularly given the power and the persuasiveness of the social media and online review sites, you cannot simply hope that time heals all wounds. The fact is that time actually compounds those wounds. A lack of response – or an inadequate response – has the capability of harming your business both immeasurably and indefinitely. Think of yourself as the guest – and how you would expect to be treated under the circumstances. When mistakes are inevitably made, go out of your way to overcompensate as rapidly as possible. Never wait for a complaint to be aired online before responding. Worse yet, never assume that most of your guests are content and that you can simply pretend that nothing bad ever happened. The guests who have been left unhappy will have a bitter taste for your business. If they happen to have been first-time campers, you may have just poisoned them toward the entire camping experience. The weight of an industry is on your shoulders. Do your business and the industry a favor by treating your guests with respect. Respect is contagious, and the world will be a happier place.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Build Your Campground Website’s Traffic in 10 Easy Steps

August 6th, 2014

The best website in the world is ineffective if nobody sees it. It is a fact today that too many people obsess over search engine optimization (SEO) and the employment of a wide variety of tricks in an effort to outsmart Google’s search ranking algorithms. The bottom line is that nothing is more effective or easier to implement than links to your site from established websites with related, relevant content. Referring sites will send you direct traffic. More importantly, the presence of your links on those sites will also enhance the ranking of your own site, due to its direct association with sites that are already deemed to be “important” by Google.

The most important referring sites will be travel-related sites like TripAdvisor, and industry-related sites like Go Camping America. Once you have the big players covered, it is time to get your website listed on the “B list” of referral sites, and I will save you some work by presenting the following list of 10 websites that include online directories of campgrounds. Nine of the ten offer free listings. Check each site to see if your park is already listed, or if an existing listing might require corrections or updates. If your park is not listed, follow the links to get your site added.

Although every valid link is helpful, links from highly ranked sites with heavy traffic are the most valuable. For that reason, I am including the Alexa ranking and the StatShow traffic estimate for each site. The Alexa ranking is a metric that presents the site’s overall ranking against all other websites. The lower the Alexa ranking number, the better. StatShow indicates the average number of users and page views per month, where the higher the numbers, the better. As an example, the Alexa ranking of Amazon.com is 10, with a StatShow ranking of 220,280,520 visitors and 3,150,011,700 page views per month.

  1. RV Points. This is a relatively new site, launched in early 2012, that looks like it is trying to be the Groupon of campgrounds. Listings are free, although there is a fee to be listed as a featured park. You do not have to present a special offer to participate. Go to http://rvpoints.com, then follow the signup link. Alexa ranking: 10,821,800. StatShow ranking: 1,320 / 2,940.
  2. Leisure and Sport Review. This site provides a state-by-state listing of events and lodging, including both campgrounds and cabins. Find it at http://www.lasr.net, with a signup form at http://www.lasr.net/addBusiness.php. Alexa ranking: 222,547. StatShow ranking: 64,350 / 141,570.
  3. Mile By Mile. Nothing fancy in this directory of resources, including campgrounds, that is designed to help families plan road trips across the United States and Canada. http://www.milebymile.com, with edit listing / add listing form at http://www.milebymile.com/update.php. Alexa ranking: 477,532. StatShow ranking: 29,970 / 65,970.
  4. RV Resources. Nearly 15 years old, this site presents everything that has to do with RVing, including a directory of campgrounds. http://www.rvresources.com, with a listing form at http://www.rvresources.com/addsitenew.php. Alexa ranking: 530,214. StatShow ranking: 27,000 / 59,430.
  5. RV Zone. One of the oldest RV-related sites on the Internet, this site offers listings that are quick and easy to submit. http://www.rvzone.com, with the “suggest a site” link at http://www.rvzone.com/SuggestASite.cfm. (No stats currently available.)
  6. WorldWeb.com. This is an international travel directory that includes both the United States and campground listings, representing a useful resource for international travelers to find your park. Go to http://www.worldweb.com, then follow the Add > Business link in the upper right of the page. Alexa ranking: 26,275. StatShow ranking: 544,920 / 1,198,860.
  7. The Modern Outback Adventure Travel Guide. Based in British Columbia, Canada, this site presents comprehensive listings of campgrounds, resorts, wilderness lodges and destinations in the United States and Canada. Find it at http://www.modernoutback.com, then add your listing at http://www.modernoutback.com/addlisting.html. (No stats currently available.)
  8. RVNetLinx.com. This site lists campgrounds, campground associations, RV repair services, employment ads, and more. http://www.rvnetlinx.com, with a “submit your site” form at http://www.rvnetlinx.com/wpsubmitsite.php. Alexa ranking: 3,080,156. StatShow ranking: 4,620 / 10,200.
  9. RV Mechanic. This is an online directory of everything that relates to RV repairs. It also includes a directory of campgrounds, with an easy form to add your listing. Find the site at http://www.rvmechanic.com, then, to add your listing, go to http://www.rvmechanic.com/company_register.html. Alexa ranking: 560,380. StatShow ranking: 25,560 / 56,250.
  10. RV Park Hunter. This one is not free, but costs $25.00 per year on the 1 year plan, or $10.00 per year on the 5 year plan. http://www.rvparkhunter.com, with a listing form at http://www.rvparkhunter.com/listing.asp. Alexa ranking: 2,883,568. StatShow ranking: 4,950 / 10,950.

As you can see from the statistics, some of these sites might actually send some significant traffic to your site, which you can track and verify if you are running Google Analytics. In other instances, the greater value will be in simply having the search engine robots visiting the sites and catching the outbound link to your site.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Finding It on Google Does Not Mean It Is Yours to Use

July 23rd, 2014

It’s late at night, a tired driver pulls up in front of your house, walks in your unlocked front door, and proceeds to enjoy a sound night of sleep in your spare bedroom. How would you react? Confronting the stranger, he tells you that an unlocked door is an open invitation to guests. Another night, your door is locked, and another stranger climbs in through a window. This one brings his entire family, redecorates, changes the locks on the doors, and wants to know what you are doing in his house.

You might think that these stories are crazy, and you would be right; however, have you ever done an image search on Google when you were looking for a certain photo or illustration to use in your own promotional materials? Unless it is specifically marked as “freeware” or “open source” by the original artist, you are probably just as guilty as one of those uninvited guests.

Most people know that just about any image or text that is ever posted online will be shared, re-posted, and indexed by search engines. Even embarrassing personal information has a life of its own. In fact, it took a May 2014 ruling by the European Union’s top court to enforce the new “Right to Be Forgotten” policy that affects Google search results that are based upon an individual’s name. In the first month, according to The Wall Street Journal, over 40,000 removal requests were filed; however, the removal process is a slow and tedious procedure that is currently in effect only in EU member countries.

When it comes to that image search on Google, when you click on an individual image, the only disclaimer is the “images may be subject to copyright”, wording that is intended to relieve Google of liability, not to protect either you or the rights of artists. It is safe to assume that any use of an image found in this manner is a copyright violation and inherently illegal.

Put yourself in the shoes of an artist – or an author, in the case of text – and try to see the situation objectively. Nobody has a right to stay at your campground without paying a fee. Your campground is your livelihood. Well, the same thing applies to artists, illustrators, authors, and other people engaged in creative pursuits. They earn a living, put food on the table, and clothe their children by selling rights to their work.

One of our clients was mildly chastised recently for using a piece of artwork that he found in a Google search on one of his Facebook posts. Google did not clearly warn him that the artwork was copyrighted, but the artist did. It was a simple matter of apologizing and deleting the image; however, if the image had been used on printed materials, it could be another story with an entirely different outcome. Fortunately, most artwork found online is low resolution and unsuitable for use in print. Using artwork found online in printed materials could actually lead to a cease and desist order that could require any materials containing an unauthorized image to be recalled and destroyed.

RaccoonHeadLogos_600x320_100Another of our clients, Baker’s Acres Campground in New Jersey, has a very distinctive raccoon logo that we hired an artist to design on their behalf back in the 1980s. It is the campground’s registered trademark, they paid to have it created, and the original artwork is in our files. I just discovered that another campground has been using this artwork as its own logo, simply adding a feather to the back of the raccoon’s head. I spoke with the owner of the campground, and he sounded like a very nice individual who had no ill intent. He simply thought that he had used a piece of art that was in the public domain and then modified it. It apparently appears online and on his brochure, although I advised him to stop using it. Other instances may not result in such a friendly outcome.

If you require artwork for any purpose, there are two options. Either hire an artist to create custom artwork or buy usage rights to royalty-free stock images. Artists or illustrators can be easily found online through various resources such as www.elance.com; stock photography and illustrations are also readily available online through various resources such as www.shutterstock.com and www.123rf.com. Prices are remarkably affordable, and it is difficult to put a price on peace of mind.

The bottom line is that a Google search for images might be fine to provide ideas regarding what is already being used, perhaps helping you to avoid using something that is too similar to existing art; however, it should not be used as a resource for finding unique images that are free for the taking. In other instances, the search results might include watermarked stock images, with a link to the site where usage rights may be purchased.

Think about it: the reason that Google is indexing an image is because it is already online and being used, almost certainly by a business that has paid for that privilege. You do not want to act like that uninvited guest who is looking for a free place to spend the night.

This post was written by Peter Pelland