The Tahoe Rim Trail Association’s Approach to Marketing

I recently read a wonderful article entitled “We’re All Marketers Now” from the McKinsey Quarterly, which is a business journal produced by the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company. The article emphasized the fact that engaging customers today not only requires a commitment from the entire company, but a redefinition of the term “marketing organization.”

The authors note that companies today should be structured around engagement in order to form a worthwhile experience for the customer in light of research that the buying process has become increasingly collaborative over time, and it has therefore become more difficult to influence purchase decisions through traditional advertising methods. They write:

To truly engage customers for whom “push” advertising is increasingly irrelevant, companies must do more outside the confines of the traditional marketing organization. At the end of the day, customers no longer separate marketing from the product—it is the product. They don’t separate marketing from their in-store or online experience—it is the experience. In the era of engagement, marketing is the company. This shift presents an obvious challenge: if everyone’s responsible for marketing, who’s accountable? And what does this new reality imply for the structure and charter of the marketing organization?

In short, this shift in behavior has called for an adjustment in an organization’s marketing strategy. No longer is marketing a function limited to a specific role or a department that oversees brand management any more than sales is a function limited to generating leads. In the engagement era, marketing IS the sum total of the company’s parts and it must pervade the entire organization.

Tahoe Rim Trail Association

When I think of a local organization that exemplifies “modern day marketing,” I instantly think of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association (TRTA), which is a volunteer, non-profit organization that was established in 1981 to plan, construct, and maintain the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail (a hiking trail that encircles Lake Tahoe.)

When I initially reached out to their Director of Membership and Outreach, Shannon Skarritt, about their marketing efforts, her immediate (and understandable) response to me was “I’d be happy to discuss what we do for marketing. Unfortunately, we are a small non-profit and we don’t have a marketing director so all of us kind of do our own marketing for our programs, events, etc.” To which I replied, “exactly!” The McKinsey article goes on to state:

To avoid being “in for it,” companies of all stripes must not only recognize that everyone is responsible for marketing but also impose accountability by establishing a new set of relationships between the function and the rest of the organization. In essence, companies need to become marketing vehicles, and the marketing organization itself needs to become the customer-engagement engine, responsible for establishing priorities and stimulating dialogue throughout the enterprise as it seeks to design, build, operate, and renew cutting-edge customer-engagement approaches.

The TRTA offers programs ranging from hiking programs/trail talks, volunteer, and youth programs to backcountry courses, leadership training, and adopt-a-mile programs. In 2011, the TRTA had over 900 volunteers and 2,000 members. They attribute their success to word of mouth generated by positive experiences with the organization. Skarritt stated, “When people come out for a snowshoe hike, volunteer trail work day, or one of our trainings and have a good time, they’re likely to spread the good word about the Tahoe Rim Trail and our Association. Our volunteers and 2000+ members are some of the best marketing we have. When they become passionate about the work they’re doing to help preserve and promote this trail, it naturally spreads to others!”

In addition to their web site at www.tahoerimtrail.org, TRTA uses such marketing tactics as sending out press releases, posting event information to online calendars, sending a monthly Rim Trail Tracks e-newsletter, and a seasonal Trail Blazer newsletter. According to Skarritt, “When it comes to marketing for our programs, volunteer opportunities and events, we all pitch in and get the job done! As a small non-profit of only 5 staff and 2 AmeriCorps volunteers it’s our responsibility to get the word out about who we are and what we do.”

My Personal Experience

In January of this year, my good friends from Louisiana decided to fly out and visit for the week. While looking for things for us to do while they were in South Lake Tahoe, a quick Google search produced results that led to more information about a free, TRTA-sponsored snowshoe hike. I immediately reached out via email to their Director of Trail Use as to whether or not the snowshoe hike was full, and received a quick response that indeed there was still room. Shortly thereafter, I received a confirmation of our registration, and the day prior to the hike, each participant received a personalized email providing an overview for where to meet, what to expect, and what to bring. A copy of the confirmation is viewable here.

On the day of the hike, we met up with our group and were made to feel quite welcome. The entire experience was enjoyable, educational, and thoroughly professional. Once our hike was finished, I left with a renewed sense of appreciation for the backcountry, a deeper understanding of the surrounding ecosystem, and the importance of proper trail preservation. Overall I was completely pleased with the experience and now hold a highly favorable view of the organization, based on my initial interaction with the Director of Trail Use, to the reservation process, to the snow shoe hike itself, and follow up conversations with employees.

Summary

In conclusion, the McKinsey article suggests designing and building a customer engagement strategy around customer touch points to maximize marketing effectiveness. In  the case of the TRTA, through communicating with potential members via sponsored hikes, volunteer programs, and leadership training, the organization can consistently work to not only build relationships over time and understand what is most meaningful to their potential sponsors, but continue to grow awareness about their cause and increase membership.

Now it’s your turn: what are some examples of organizations you’re familiar with who have shifted their marketing strategies from an advertising-based to an experience-based model? What are they doing that’s working well?

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