Today we sit down with Sam Van Boxtel, who runs the popular Climbers Crag channels on Instagram and YouTube and has teamed up with Tom Randall to manage social media profiles for top climbing brands through their Climbers Crag agency. Van Boxtel has been around the block in the climbing gym industry, having worked on the ground in front desk, routesetting and marketing roles. The intersection of marketing and climbing is his specialty, and he’s got a number of tips and tricks up his sleeve for industry professionals. We talk about how Instagram, in particular, can be a valuable tool in any marketing mix—whether you’re a gym operator, freelance setter, coach or national brand—why having more followers may not always be a good thing for your account, and which low-hanging fruit in social media marketing to pick first.
0:00:00 – Intro
0:01:46 – Before Climbers Crag
0:03:08 – Formative lessons prior to Instagram success
0:05:19 – What led to Climbers Crag?
0:11:11 – Tips for content creators
0:15:39 – Posting frequency
0:18:35 – Value of reaching your target audience
0:21:08 – Posting frequency for target audience
0:25:19 – Follower retention
0:27:42 – Engagement strategies on posts
0:35:08 – Promo ideas for new climbers
0:39:54 – Defining page goals and audience
0:45:33 – How having more followers could ruin your account
0:48:00 – Film etiquette
0:49:57 – Future of social media marketing
0:54:20 – How to leverage the YouTube environment
0:56:18 – Why Instagram isn’t dead
0:57:32 – Social media marketing low-hanging fruit
1:00:08 – Big influences for Sam
1:03:33 – Closing
RENNAK: A lot of people might not have heard about you because you don’t put yourself out there in front of your profiles…What did you do in the years before you started blowing it up on socials?
VAN BOXTEL: I was the kid at the gym who followed the routesetters around and said, “Hey, can I set? What do I need to do? I’ll wash holds for you.” So, I’ve been climbing for five years, but my entry point was just working at my local gym at the source here in Vancouver, Washington. I’ve bugged a few head setters enough, joined the youth team even, just to get in front of them and get better as a climber. Eventually I started setting there, went on to head set at another gym leading up to COVID, kind of worked in all aspects of the gym—the kids programs, front desk, early mornings, head setting, buying holds…a good amount of the range of things to do in the gym…
Would you get a little bit into where you started on the social media trajectory? You were working at a gym, you were a routesetter, you were a student, and then this thing popped.
If only it was that simple [laughs]. Somewhere in the middle of that gym journey—from joining the youth team to ending up head setting at gyms—it was my last year of school, and I had a school project that was to try to get a thousand followers on Instagram in 30 days with what was on your phone. The point of it I think was to show how hard it is to grow, to show you more of the nuance to social media. I ended up getting not quite there. I think I ended up doing it in like 32 days. Still a little upset about it [laughs], but it was good enough where I ended that thirty days and I had a thousand people who were waiting for another post the next day. So, I just kind of kept it going…
I was leaning into setting and doing a little bit of social [for my local gym]. That led all the way up to COVID, where that gym ended up shutting down actually and I didn’t have any work. That’s when I circled back to what I had on Instagram, which was something still around 10,000 followers—I’d lost some over time. To reboot it I did 12 days of giveaways in December 2020. I said if I was going to go back to it, I’d learned enough to know I had to talk to brands right away, to keep the lights on and get paid…Every single one just kept hitting above the goal, so I was like, “I guess there’s something here.” So, going into January 2021, I was ready to give this a real shot. And little did I know, a month or two later, I had my first chat with Tom Randall, ended up partnering with him. And like I always say in every podcast, he helped keep the thing afloat, and I would not be here without him then…
Sitting here today in 2023, what are some tips you have for other content creators just getting started?
I think I would almost always recommend to keep it in the fun zone if you can…I think for a lot of people, especially if you’re on the younger side, I think it makes sense to go for it and put time into content just to learn, because you probably aren’t going to make that thing work. And that’s honestly okay. But that might connect you to a different Tom [Randall] or to someone who leads to the next thing. Or you do it for a year and it kind of crashes and burns, which is totally fine. And then the next job you apply for, you somehow end up in social or you somehow end up in marketing or adjacent to that. And I think that skill that you developed is very valuable. I see social across the board—YouTube, Instagram—really hard to make it sustainable, but really great to learn the skill and to have fun…
What I’m hearing for aspiring influencers is that Instagram is almost your digital resume?
…I think too many people across the board think that to have Instagram you have to post every day—which is what everybody tells you, because for a lot of people that is the advice. But there’s also another huge set of people. Most climbing gyms I talk to I don’t think should be posting every day, unless you’re this massive national gym chain and you want to be top of mind for people when they’re traveling. But most local gyms should just have the best Instagram profile that matches their website, in terms of answering all the questions, [being] very simple, leading people to your intro offer, your location. There are basic questions that people need answered, and that should be the priority…
I love that you said to calm down with the post frequency, because I feel like it’s kind of the opposite of a lot of the advice that comes out which is all about engagement now, right?
I want to be clear on the post frequency thing here. If we ended and moved to a different topic, you could take this as I’m saying, “Don’t worry about posting more.” I wish we could have a graph that you could see right now. There’s a direct up to the right line; the more you post per week, the more you grow. That is a fact, but you have to think about, “Is that the goal?” Going back to the gym example, if you posted more and reached more people and did more “viral” content, you’d end up reaching more people and your account would grow, but it would grow with people who are not your target audience. Which then goes back to—like every strategy we make, we start with, “What’s the audience? What’s the goal?” And those have to be the blinders and filter you look at everything. Because a gym with a million followers is pretty worthless—or I guess it’s worth something, but it’s worth a lot less than it took you in investment to get there…
It’s more of a budget thing. If you have the budget to do everything, do it all. Have a big number on Instagram, get a bunch of people in the door. But I’ve talked to the gyms; they don’t have a big budget, so I’d rather have them set up their profile once, make it look great, answer all the questions, keep it simple. Location, hours, intro offer, website, waiver…all the things that people need to find when one member shares it to another. Have all that, good, and then throw up one post a week. What’s the new event coming? What’s the offer? Sometimes there are things that happen you want to post about…Change everything from a one-to-many to a one-to-one: “How do I have a DM conversation with someone? How do I have a comment conversation?” Which is the exact opposite to brands, where I’m going to say, “It’s one-to-many…”
Why would an account be ruined by having more followers and maybe not targeted followers?
The greatest example of this is Climbers Crag itself; it has a big flashy number, but it was a more valuable account when it was at 80,000ish followers. So, we went from 80,000 to over 300,000 in one weekend…And now what happens is, say you have 300,000 followers, and you go to post something that only climbers would like—let’s say a raffle that’s directed to the U.S. or a clear product that only climbers need—all those people, when they get shown [the post] and are not going to engage with it, means that post is going to do worse. Because, in a nutshell, the Instagram algorithm works by showing your post to a small amount of your followers—your core, your most loyal people—and then if they like [the post] more than normal it gets shown to more people. And if they like it more than normal, then it goes to more people. So, the problem is you’re diluting your followers when your non-target audience becomes your followers…
How would you recommend a local climbing gym to leverage the YouTube environment?
The immediate example that comes to mind is you have an event, you invite out the top YouTubers from the area, and you make your gym cool. So, the goal is when people are in the area, they come visit your gym. The only reason I would spend marketing budget on that is if I was a chain of gyms and I wanted people to know about my chain and that I was cool and I was the one to visit no matter where you are in the U.S. or in Europe or wherever the [gym chain] is. I would just try to be friendly and nice and work with YouTubers…I would be accommodating, is really the most simple advice for gyms. Most times, it’s not really what [gyms] should be spending time in. Again, going back to budget, it’s a huge budget ask to make good content. And again, going back to my point of target audience, YouTube is going to go broad. [Gyms] need to be working more on sales and customer service. All of social media, that should be your approach because hundreds is the goal, tens of people is the goal, not thousands.
If you find a climbing gym that’s got a small profile—they’ve got some followers and they’re not really doing a lot of active high-value work yet—what’s the low-hanging fruit? What’s the big opportunity for them to move in on?
…Define a target audience and goals. That should be pretty simple, but it would be good for you to write on paper: get ten new members a month, two new members a month, whatever that is. Be clear on that. And then step two is to set up the profile. Make it clear why they should visit you, what’s the first step. I talked to a gym recently, I said, “Do you have an intro special? What’s the first thing you want a person to do?” And they stared at me blank; they had no idea what the first thing was…Whatever your intro offer is, if you have one, that’s pretty good to get across, where you want to send people to. Because otherwise you’ll set up all the info, and it’ll just be all the info, and not clear and concise…
Another good test you could do is to set up the profile how you think, show it to your staff members, don’t say anything. Just have them talk out what they’re thinking and see where their brain goes and what questions come to mind. And then take that same thing and go to a coffee shop or your friends and family and hand the phone to them and see what questions they ask…Really push yourself to think through what info needs to be there, and not a bunch of fluff and overwhelming info.
Scott has been promoting indoor climbing since 1997 when he bought Climb Time of Cincinnati and started what would become the American Bouldering Series. Since then he has helped hundreds of small businesses grow including climbing gyms and manufacturers. Scott is the owner and publisher of CBJ, and is available for projects through Reach Climbers. In his free time he still scours nearby hills for fresh boulders, skis all year, and is a dedicated father.