I recently presented a webinar titled “Best Practices: Website Design Considerations” before members of several state campground associations. Although my company has been building campground websites since 1998, it was not my intention to promote my company in that webinar, nor is it my intention to do so in this column. What I would like to share is objective advice on how to make the right decisions when it comes to what is almost certainly the single most important tool to market your business both today and in the years ahead.
Let me start with some history. In the early days, websites were built to be viewed on computers, usually with small monitors and slow dial-up modems. Until Apple introduced the first iPhone in 2007, what was a smartphone? Websites were designed to fit narrow computer monitors and limited bandwidth. As time went on, cutting edge sites used Macromedia Flash, later acquired by Adobe. Flash is no longer supported on iOS (meaning any Mac or Apple device), Android devices (in other words, no mobile devices, which are two-thirds of the market), and will see the final nail driven into its coffin at the end of December. Websites now need to be built so that they present full content across all platforms and devices. If you have a narrow website that is not mobile-friendly, and perhaps uses animated GIFs and maybe Flash animation, you are probably wondering what happened to that Blockbuster store where you rented your VHS videotapes.
Just like we have both lifelong friends and recently made casual acquaintances, there have been many approaches to the presentation of mobile-friendly website content. In the early days (in this case, 2005), as website designers were feeling their way around in the dark, there was a proliferation of separate websites that were intended for smaller displays and limited bandwidth, typically with stripped down content and a .mobi URL. This was sort of like having a car that you drove in the summer and a separate vehicle that you could drive on snowy mountain roads in the winter. When somebody visited a website, they would encounter a link that said “Click here for a mobile version of this site.”
That was inefficient, and the search engines hated it. There were essentially two websites to maintain. Fortunately, these were soon replaced by adaptivewebsites, where the website did its best to detect the device being used and then presented one of two alternate versions of content. There were still two versions of content to maintain. This was sort of like having a big SUV where, when the roads got sloppy, you had to get out and turn the hubs on the front wheels and then engage the transfer case to drive in four-wheel drive.
Finally, responsivewebsite design came along, where one website was designed to detect the device being used and then present content that was scaled to the size of the display, whether it was a phone, a tablet, a laptop computer, or a big monitor. This is essentially the all-wheel drive of websites and could have been the brainchild of Subaru. This is the standard today, and Google and Bing love it.
There are no simple fixes or upgrades to turn an old website into a new responsive site. It is an entirely different framework, and it requires the construction of an all-new site. When a responsive site is being built, there are different approaches: Some website designers tend to first design for mobile devices then let the chips fall where they may on larger displays. Others tend to first design for larger displays, and then optimize the fluid content for smaller displays. Others yet, with no real design experience, rely on templates to do the job for them. In my opinion, due to the small display, almost any responsive website is going to look fine on a phone. Looking really impressive on a larger display, on the other hand, requires a more sophisticated level of design skills that go far beyond just making a bigger version of the content that appears on a phone.
The End User Experience
When you want a customer to get from point A (your site’s point of entry, usually its Home page) to point B (the call to action, the reservation request), you do not want to send them through a maze. This is the same reason that there is a consistent clockwise traffic pattern in almost every major supermarket, where you enter into the produce, fresh bakery, and prepared foods departments; proceed to the deli, meats, dairy and frozen foods; then find the impulse items like candy bars and the National Enquirer at the checkout stands.
Navigating the supermarket aisles is an intuitive process that has been carefully crafted and fine-tuned to maximize sales. The same sort of formulas should apply to your website. People expect to find the navigation either at the top of the page or the left-hand column, floating so they do not have to scroll back up for access. The content should be presented intuitively, organized in a logical fashion that translates into page structure, and nobody should have to search or click to access essential contact information.
The Easiest Approaches
Most small business owners have been convinced in recent years that a content management system (CMS) is essential, giving them the ability to directly maintain their website content. Most have been persuaded that CMS is their key to escaping dependence upon webmasters who charge exorbitant fees and take forever to make changes, a situation which may be far from truthful. Another temptation is to use one of the many “free” website building tools that can be found online. One claims that you will “make a website in minutes … (with) zero code or design skills required”. If you do not quite want to do-it-yourself, another company claims that it will “build you a stunning website in 48 hours” for only $400 per year, including hosting and a domain name. In both instances, try to find a “contact” link on their websites with an address in the United States (or anywhere, for that matter). Then, before getting burned, do a Google search with one of those companies’ names followed by the word “complaints”.
There isn’t a single larger-sized business in America where the owner pretends to be his own webmaster. Can you imagine Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk working on his own website? Recognize the value of having professional guidance and valid marketing advice incorporated into your website. Probably the most important factor is hiring one of the many reputable companies with both an extensive and an intimate understanding of the campground industry. Your business depends upon making the right decision.
Continuing on the theme, allow me to address some of the acronyms that you will want to implement either on your existing website or its successor. These ideas apply whether your site has been built by a company that understands your business and industry, a computer-savvy kid down the road, or that person who you see in your mirror every morning.
No, not the Chicago Transit Authority, CTA in this instance stands for call to action, a marketing term that references the next step that you want your website visitors to take in order to finalize the intended transaction. Typically, this means guiding people from their point of entry on your site’s Home page to your reservation process. Without smooth navigation and an intuitive end user experience, there can be a disconnection that breaks that intended path from point A to point B. A call to action tends to present an incentive, whether real or perceptual, that keeps people on track and focused.
In an e-commerce environment, that incentive often takes the form of a limited-time discount, a purchase bonus, or free shipping. Another e-commerce incentive that applies to campgrounds takes the form of limited inventory. When somebody wants to camp on the Fourth of July, it is a safe assumption that the demand for campsites will far exceed the available supply. Subtly stress how people should “avoid disappointment” by making their reservations early, with an accompanying “click here to reserve now” link. If they need more information or would like to communicate with you first, be sure that every means of direct contact is immediately accessible, whether they would like to call, email, or send you a private message on a social media site. Both on your website and in any direct communication help them to visualize the difference between everything that your park has to offer versus staying home and dipping their toes in the inflatable kiddie pool in their back yard.
Whether or not they really understand how it works or what it means, every website owner is at least vaguely familiar with the concept of search engine optimization. Although SEO is treated as a profit opportunity by many website development companies, it is essential if you want your website to be found and highly indexed in online searches. Beware of companies (often contacting you via spam email or telemarketing calls) who promise you #1 search engine placement on Google. 99% of those are scams. You know those telemarketing calls. The caller ID probably shows a local phone number, you answer the phone, wait a second, then hear a “bloop” sound, followed by somebody from a boiler room in Bangalore who tells you his name is Michael. The same people might be calling you another day, pretending that they are from the “Windows Help Desk” or “Apple Care”, telling you that your Windows computer or iCloud account has been compromised and that they are coming to your rescue.
There are no magic wands or shortcuts to effective SEO. Some people try to automate the process, typically using website plug-ins, but there is nothing like carefully incorporating it into the construction of the site. Important components are a carefully written page title, description, proper alt tags behind photos and graphics, open graph content, and a data feed for search engine robots. Most importantly, carefully written text where keywords are king. Many people comment that few people read text these days. Well, my answer is that the 10% of people who still care to read will appreciate the text on your site, and search engine robots devour every word. Make them count!
Another very important SEO factor is your listing on Google My Business. Your Google My Business profile is extremely important and under your full control. Start by claiming your Business Profile if you have not done so already. Then check that all of the contact information is correct. This includes the name of your business; your correct address, phone number, and website address; and your hours. Your campground is open 24 hours a day, so don’t let potential guests see the word “Closed”. Of course, update these hours in your off-season.
Choose the most appropriate category for your business, if it is not already showing, then choose appropriate secondary categories. There are over 3,000 categories to choose from, so be specific. The most obvious choices are “campground” and “RV park”. You have little control over the description that Google shows; however, you can write a “from the business” description. Select attributes (such as “free Wi-Fi” or LP gas) listing any of the full range of your park’s amenities. Be sure to add (and update!) photos on a regular basis, showcasing only the best available images. You can even add videos and Google 360 videos, all of which help to create greater engagement. Speaking of engagement, ask your best customers to write reviews; post questions and answers; and set up messaging.
Far from being unique to website, the acronym for “Keep it simple, stupid” should influence most aspects of marketing. Some people seem to think that, when it comes to websites, the more pages the merrier. Not true. Keep it simple and as concise as possible, with navigation that is consistent from page to page, that is located at the top of the page or the left-hand column, and is highly intuitive. Don’t make people guess because there is a chance they will guess wrong, and that is a source of frustration. For example, if the navigation says “Map”, does that mean your park’s Site Map, travel directions on Google Maps, or the “sitemap” of your website. Don’t waste clicks and your visitors’ time. Put your contact information on every page, without forcing people to click on a “Contact Us” link to access that information. Instead of just linking to your social media content, embed it into your Home page. Understand your target market, and ensure that your website is designed to appeal to those demographics – rather than missing the mark. Think smart!
This post was written by Peter Pelland