string instrument class at CazaderoThis weekend I went to the Cazadero family camp in the Russian River Valley. It’s a pretty fantastic place. Families spend a week at this camp. There are many music, arts, dance, and theatre classes. Kids can take one class while their parents take another, so everybody gets what they want. At the end of the week various classes perform for a packed amphitheater. People are fanatical about it. My girlfriend’s family has been coming for 30 years.

Between a couple of group performances on Saturday, the woman running the camp polled the audience: “How many of you attended because you saw our posters? Our website? Our ads on Google or Facebook?”

About 5 people raised their hands. (There probably a hundred people in the amphitheater.)

“That’s very telling,” she said. “Thank you.”

Where did these other 95 people come from? Recommendations. Friends telling them to go. Family telling them to go. Teachers telling them to go. The fancy ads and website that “consultants” told them to build? Not performing.

It’s not surprising. Camps are expensive and inconvenient (a whole week off) and really unpleasant if they turn out to be bad. Why would anyone decide to go to a camp based on a Facebook ad and a website?

Seth Godin's circlesOn the other hand, referrals are incredibly powerful. If someone you trust says “it’s great, I’ve been going for 30 years”, you’re going to seriously consider going. An ad can claim “it’s worth the money” all day and nobody will believe it. If a friend who makes a similar living to you says it’s worth the money, you’re inclined to think it'll be worth it for you too.

Cazadero also happens to do a fantastic job inciting these recommendations. They don’t just provide great classes: they make these true fans feel special. They have campfires and huge performances. Everyone sleeps in the same tent cabins (including the staff). The woman in charge says hello and goodbye to every single person, and remembers them all (even me, and I was only a 2-day guest). They take a group photo at the end of the week and post it to Facebook. They go the extra mile to find the owners of items lost at camp. They put their heart and soul into it, and they have a packed camp every year.

Are your ads and website really the strongest tool at your disposal? Your loyal fans may be far more effective.

Want more? Check out the article we tweeted yesterday. And sign up for UserConf – our conference about keeping your customers happy.