A New Year and a Modern Age Conundrum: How to Run a Mountain Guide Service Without Losing Your Soul?

In From the Range of Light & Fast by Howie Schwartz6 Comments

awesome photo by Miles Weaver

At Sierra Mountain Guides our mission is: Connecting people to the mountains. See what we did there? Who doesn’t appreciate a clever double entendre? When we thought it up, we loved how it speaks to having a positive effect on society, albeit small, by helping people feel more connected to the natural world, mountains in particular. At the time, we didn’t comprehend the level of connectivity that the near future would bring, or the effects that this would have on our enterprise.

We now tell thousands of people about what we do, sharing the stoke and the savvy, with a swipe and a click. We can do it from the remote mountains, at belays, or in between ski runs. We can target people we have never met, from anywhere in the world, with select characteristics, and all we have to do is let social media platforms charge our credit card. The more we pay the more people we reach. The more people we reach, the more we can connect with! It’s a modern marketing miracle for our business model. So efficient and so effective.

As the company’s designated curator of all marketing, I have lately been reconsidering the costs versus the benefits of the media that we call social. SMG has constrained our digital marketing and outreach efforts to Facebook & Instagram, because it is really all we can manage and seems the best bang for buck. Lately, I have taken a personal hiatus from posting on behalf of the company. Kind of like an intermittent fast with colon cleanse for the old avatar. It has been as refreshing as I just made it sound. As with any cleanse, it ought to come to an end before too long. Increasingly though, social media marketing seems to have evolved to become necessary for the health of our company and its mission.  

One of the values we strive to uphold at SMG is to be good citizens of the mountains, the planet, and society at large. With a mission to connect people to the mountains, we must consider the paradox in how we choose to communicate. Are social media companies a force of good or of evil? Hmmm…maybe a bit of both?

This video of a speech made by actor and comedian Sascha Baron Cohen was sent to me by a family member recently and it made me question whether we should abandon our social media campaigns altogether. If you haven’t seen it yet, it is worth every minute:

Facebook and Google make businesses like ours pay to be seen. This is the core of their business models. The more we pay the more reach we get on their platforms. If we disparage Facebook here and then try to promote this post via Facebook, bots and algorithms will aim to prevent it in order to protect their brand image. Facebook said just a few days ago that they will not limit political ad targeting or in any way stop false claims being made by politicians who may make them. This makes their platform the biggest propaganda machine ever created, a place where anyone can not only say anything, but can have their message reach virtually anyone around the world, and as many of those people that they want, limited only by amount of money spent. This policy is clearly dangerous for society and damaging to democracy. It also results in relatively massive ad revenues for Facebook.

Does SMG really want to participate in, and thereby support, this flow of money and resulting imbalance of power that remains on a trajectory to destroy so much that is good in the world? Should we be using these platforms, or paying them to connect us with present and future customers?

In the outdoor industry, individuals and companies compete for attention. Increased attention equates to increased potential revenue from sales. Increased revenue generally results in more opportunity for a company to achieve its goals. Unfortunately, attention is gained these days primarily through online social media and search engines, which feed the user with content at the tech company’s discretion, determined by proprietary, hidden computer algorithms. These algorithms do not primarily sort content by merit, validity, or accuracy. They are set to prefer metrics such as “engagement” or targeted demographics from tracked user data, or how much is paid by users to push their content to the forefront.  

The easiest way to get attention is by spending resources, like time and money, to increase reach. Some individuals and businesses even hire agencies to increase the attention, and ultimately conversions that they get. It is up to consumers to determine what is actually true, valid, or of merit, and it is increasingly difficult to sort it all out.

As a everyday example, here is an Instagram advertisement I discovered just yesterday from an out of town guide service competitor (whose name I have redacted) just now starting to offer AIARE avalanche courses in our local area:

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Sierra Mountain Guides, our company, has been offering AIARE avalanche programs here in the Eastern Sierra since 2006. I have been personally teaching them here since 2001 and have been part of the development of the AIARE curriculum since the founding of AIARE in the late 90’s. We welcome this newer company’s competition and hopefully it will keep us on our toes to keep innovating and remaining the best in the business.

The issue here is what they don’t say in this post. That’s me in the photo, in the orange jacket, teaching a stellar group that included several professional snowboarders, and the photographer, during an AIARE 1 avalanche course in 2016, run by our company. This photo, along with several others, were given to us by the photographer who was on the course. I don’t choose to believe that there was any conspiracy or malicious intent here, maybe just a bit of understandable oversight and over-enthusiasm. This competitor has never taught an avalanche course before, and presumably has no images of their own to use to represent their courses. Here, they are using images from their soon-to-be competitor’s course to launch their new program. Here, they publicly misrepresent our course as theirs and – other than the very few who read this – the world will never know the difference.

In our times, “reality enhancement” tactics are heavily prescribed by business marketing consultants, and for good reason. They work. Misleading, false information flows freely and comes to our awareness at light speed, titillating the senses, fueled by unrestrained internet capitalism. Just because it may be legal doesn’t mean it is right. Morality and ethics still should have a place in our society, right? Honesty and integrity go too often unrewarded, but can we still afford them some value? Does the virtual take precedence over the actual? Is the fantasy more pertinent than the reality?

All I know is that I have experienced moments in real life that I am certain my imagination could never have conjured. The sensations remain more vivid and spectacular in my memories than any dream, and have been indelibly etched on my soul in ways that profoundly affect my life in each passing moment. Can we just slow down a little bit, once in a while, to contemplate what is actually happening and how special it is – without any supplemental fanfare, superficial repackaging, filters, tags, or sponsored links?

Deep thoughts to ponder, but perhaps we should? As the world changes, some of us may struggle to adapt and survive. I think we should all try to remember to live by our values, as best we can, especially online, even when our livelihoods are at stake. If we can’t make our businesses or sponsorships work without sacrificing our values then we ought to either honestly reconfigure our values, or pull the pin.

As we at SMG make our resolutions for the new year, we are seeking input from you. How do you think we ought to move forward at SMG? Should we continue to semi-boycott social media marketing out of principle, or should we concede to resume it in full force as a matter of best serving our mission? Any perspectives or wisdom from you, our friends, are greatly appreciated! I know you are more up to speed on all of this than we are here. The mountains continue to call us to climb and ski and hike. We feel their pull and the desire to share our passion for these places and experiences with you, our community, to fulfill our mission and live in harmony with our values. Thanks so much for joining us and for your moral support. We could never do it without you. Happy New Year 2020!

~Howie

Comments

  1. “World Without Mind” by Franklin Foer comes to mind. I am interested in keeping Bridgeport (Incredible Hulk) alive, vibrant, and avoiding ghost town-hood, while not selling out and turning it into an Irvine in the Eastern Sierras. How does one attract the right number of like-minded folks to support an endeavor and underpin the principles of conservation and good stewardship? How do you balance the Third Pillar of Dana against the proposed Tioga Inn Specific Plan and SEIR? Large forces are at work and we ofttimes have little control over them. However, we should make efforts to use those levers that we do have to persuade people that these are valuable resources and must be preserved. Is there a way to stay on social media and attract the right kind of support? I hope so.

    Thanks

  2. Full Force.

    With your experience and nuanced observations of what the mountain has to offer, you have the opportunity to offer and package this service in a manner that no one else can compete with.

    Keeping in mind newcomer’s perspective and enthusiasms, use wisdom + showmanship to stand out further from anyone who dares to compete.
    (and take action against those who use photos of you without permission )

    The best business standing has both the best product and the best communication of the offering.

    Maybe expand offerings to new demographics with the recognition that businesses, particularly these days, are often constricting if not perpetually growing.
    -Neal

  3. Thanks for sharing Howie!
    2 thoughts:
    1- seems like you have to seperate what you consider to be goals for your personal experience out in the mountains and what it will take for your business to survive and grow.
    2- to echo what Greg said above: it’s your ethical responsibility to share your vision for what you value about the mountain experience. Anything less would be to concede to the competition.

    To bring the two thoughts together consider carving time out for yourself to enjoy your mountain time and not feel obligated to capture marketing assets.
    Relinquish control of social media to someone you trust and establish a clear structure for creating content that communicates your vision.

    Ben

    1. Author

      Great perspective Ben, as always. I should have consulted your expertise on these matters long ago. Thanks for being a personal friend, Eastside community member, and supporter of what we are tying to accomplish at SMG. I will be following up with you about this for further guidance.

  4. Previous customer here. I vote to remain accessible, as much as your ethics will allow. Social media can be a monster as stated, but as big as it is, it ends up being a little bit of everything (good and bad). I recently recommended your course to a co-worker that ended going with another service, and I was shocked my word of mouth didn’t work for whatever reason. I hope that it wasn’t to this new company making false claims, but I’m sure that the company was found through the media channels aforementioned.

    Boycotting would deny other future customers of the authenticity and experience on offer, because it leaves their attention to be grabbed by something less substantial. I’m not saying feed the machine, but definitely keep posting trip reports, and where possible counter the negative by promoting the positive. Social media is a weapon of authenticity for your brand, as in the end, you provide remarkable experiences which are hard to imitate. History has proven great products & services tend to survive competition based on authenticity alone. Consider setting the bar high for your competitors. Most of the “wander lust” of being outdoors begins indoors, scrolling endlessly through social media.

    1. Author

      Greg, wow thank you for your words of reason and support. It really means a lot. Sometimes it feels like we are constantly barking out bits of inspiration for others and we only rarely get to hear back from you all. It’s amazing how your feedback inspires me to keep the feed going. You have just made my day!

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