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Beyond camper e-mail--what have you done for me lately? TechnoTrends.

So you have finally set up a camper e-mail system for your camp parents, and they love it. Take a bow--you deserve it. But don't sit down--you still have a lot of work to do.

Camper E-mail--The Basics

Let's be honest. Your camp parents probably forced you to do it. For a while you could hold them off by saying that you didn't want campers to be inside, checking e-mail, when they should be outside playing but ultimately they made you put in a system that let them send e-mail for you to print and hand to the campers. If you are happy with your current solution, it probably contains most or all of the following elements:

* Batching--you receive just one (or two) batches of e-mail a day, rather than having the notes come in one at a time.

* Sorting--the e-mails are pre-sorted by bunk/cabin or camper name (or both), so you don't have to do it manually (e.g., The e-mail is from smith123@aol.com for "Davie"--what are the odds you are going to be able to deliver that one?).

* Payment and/or quotas--parents either pay per e-mail or are limited to a certain number of emails a week. Parents don't always realize that the e-mails they send have to be printed ($$$) and delivered (time). Without a cost or limit, brace yourself for multiple one-line e-mails as parents jot off an e-mail the moment something jumps to mind.

* Individual parent accounts--not only does this protect the campers, if a parent has to sign in to send e-mail, it makes it a lot easier for you to track what was actually sent when (not if) a parent calls to ask why his seventeenth e-mail (out of the eighty-two he sent) was not delivered.

* Virus protection--you've just exposed your camp's computers to hundreds of your camp parents' computers. How comfortable does that make you?

* Attachment restrictions--your camp parents may think it's absolutely essential to e-mail a 3 megabyte picture of Fluffy the Cat but do you know how long that takes to download on a dial-up connection? Even if you have broadband at camp, large attachments eat up storage space as well as bandwidth increasing the chances that parents' e-mails will bounce.

And if you are not happy with your current solution, I bet it's because you are missing one of the above elements!

But don't get too comfortable, it's only a matter of time before your parents are asking, "What have you done for me lately?"

Camper E-mail--Taking It to the Next Level

So far though, the camper e-mail system we have described is still pretty basic: text only. When it comes right down to it, the e-mail a camper receives looks more like a telegram than a postcard. So how do you take it to the next level?

* Decorative graphics--create a set of decorative graphics and allow parents to add them to the email.

* Pictures (uploads)--let parents upload pictures to be attached to an e-mail. To do this right, the picture file needs to....

a. Be slimmed down from the 3 megabyte picture of Fluffy the Cat to a 10 kilobyte version of the same picture. The (much) smaller version will look fine when printed on the camp printer and will take up less than 1 percent of the bandwidth; and

b. Be automatically merged into a pre-defined part of the e-mail page. Trust me, you do not want to try to manually staple together the one page with the e-mail text to the other page with the picture.

* Pictures (from your site)--if you have an online photo gallery (password protected, of course), why not let the parents take a picture from there and drop it into an e-mail? It's really a great way for a parent to let the camper know that, even though they are far away, they are still involved.

* Word games and other content--this is where the fun begins. Imagine if a parent could add a Word Find to the top of her e-mail. Or if he could attach the weekly horoscope. Now we're talking about really fun e-mails for the campers.

These features take the e-mail from being essentially a boring telegram to being more like a fun postcard.

The catch is that the above features are harder to build so you will have to decide if you want to try to do this in-house or work with a company such as mine that already offers these features. With any luck, you already work with (or can easily find) a partner that does just this.

Beyond Camper E-mail--Closing the Loop

Your camper e-mail system lets your camp parents send letters from their computers but the only way your campers can respond is by U.S. mail. So you have only solved half the problem.

The trick is to let campers respond in a way that their parents can receive their letters as quickly as the camper e-mail reached them. And the real trick is to do it without bringing the camper indoors to a computer room or putting them on the telephone. Believe it or not, there is a way.

The key is to harness the power of a scanner or fax when combined with a computer. You can create pre-formatted stationery for the campers to write their letters on that you collect along with the outgoing mail. But instead of mailing them, you fax them or scan them into a computer that reads the addressing data and routes an electronic copy to the parents. As far as the parent is concerned, it's just like the camper responded to e-mail but without him or her going anywhere near a computer.

First camper e-mail, now parent fax-backs ... it's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the local mailman!

But make no mistake; as cool as this is, it is not child's play. Getting a computer to read the handwritten addressing information or developing a system based on encoded data for routing the notes, configuring a fax server, interfacing with the database that stores the parents' e-mail addresses ... this is not for your average camp IT staff.

If you are willing to manually scan and route the letters to the correct parents, you might just be able to do this in-house. If not, do not try this at home. You will save yourself a lot of headaches if you use a company that specializes in this.

Do I Have To?

While some camps embraced e-mail from the start, most waited until after their camp parents' expectations had been set before adding a camper e-mail option. As a result, most camp parents' response, while overwhelmingly positive, was tinged with a little bit of "it's about time!" Now is the opportunity to get ahead of the ball, to offer parents something that exceeds their expectations. Plus, it allows you to channel those expectations into more favorable areas (e.g., a fax-back system is far better for camps than giving campers easy access to a telephone).

And as if that's not enough, just once, wouldn't it be great to hear a parent say "WOW"?

Andrew Ackerman is the chief operations officer of Bunk1.com. Bunk1 provides camps with password protected photo galleries, video galleries, Bunk Notes (one way e-mail), and Bunk Replies (camper fax-back system) as well as full Web sites and staffing services. For more information, please contact owners@Bunk1.com or call 1-888-465-CAMP.
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Author:Ackerman, Andrew
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Words:1242
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