Tourism boards use social media for broader reach, better targeting

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New Hampshire jumped into the social game with it's "Live Free and..." Facebook campaign
New Hampshire jumped into the social game with it's "Live Free and..." Facebook campaign

Forget about dog-eared road maps and catchy television jingles. These days, travelers are turning to social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Foursquare, and Pinterest to map their route, review hotels, post personal photos, and critique accommodations. That's created an unprecedented opportunity for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) like tourism offices to connect with consumers—and attract them—in real-time.

But leveraging social media takes more than tweeting about upcoming festivals. “Social media is turning the whole destination marketing sphere upside down,” says William Bakker, chief strategist at Think! Social Media, a Vancouver-based digital marketing agency focused on the tourism industry. “People may not talk about their favorite laundry detergent, but when it comes to traveling, everybody talks about it.” As a result, Bakker says, more and more DMOs are discovering new ways to use social media and manage digital campaigns.

For example, Florida's DMO is no stranger to the powers of social media. In June 2010, in response to the BP oil spill, the state mounted a social media blitz via its Florida Live website, which features live video feeds of beaches, Google maps, and links to residents' Twitter feeds and Flickr pages—real-time evidence that Florida's beaches had been spared destruction.

“People thought there was oil in Jacksonville,” recalls Will Seccombe, VISIT FLORIDA's CMO. “We had to correct that misperception. We had to fight it with the truth: with real photos, in real time, with real people.”

Florida's recent Three for Free Giveaway was a five-week campaign that attracted contestants to VISIT FLORIDA's website or Facebook page to enter to win a grand prize of three Florida vacation packages.

The Florida DMO also uses social sharing to promote travel to the state. Florida's “Share a Little Sunshine” campaign encourages people to visit to send personalized e-postcards inviting friends and family to visit. Seccombe says the organization has increased traffic to its VISIT FLORIDA website nearly 50% year over year, and Facebook fans have increased tenfold, topping the 517,000 mark.

Similarly, Connecticut's latest social media campaign, CT Fan-Favorite, encourages residents and visitors to post photos on Facebook or tweet their favorite destinations. The destination that receives the most votes will be featured in an online documentary on the state's social media channels this fall.

Idaho tourism gains
success with digital campaigns

Dubbed “Adventures in Living,” Idaho tourism's campaign asked contestants to nominate a family member in need of a vacation.

Click to read full case study.

Earmarking approximately 20% of Connecticut's two-year, $27-million marketing budget to social media channels was “a leap of faith,” says Barbara Cieplak-Migani, marketing director at Connecticut's tourism office. But with neighboring states “only investing about 5 percent of their media budget in digital,” she recognized a unique opportunity.

Today, Connecticut's social media menu includes a e-newsletter, a Twitter profile, and a Facebook page whose membership has grown from 5,000 to 103,000 fans in two months. A blog is also in the works.

According to Cieplak-Migani, digital strategies enable Connecticut to better target the sought-after 25- to 54-year-old crowd, expand its geographic reach to the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, and “increase visitation from high-value prospects.”

Even New Hampshire has jumped into the game with its “Live Free and…” campaign, which lets participants customize the state motto (“Live Free or Die”) on Facebook by filling in a favorite outdoor activity. Rather than target niche audiences by placing ads in consumer magazines, says Tai Freligh, New Hampshire tourism office's communications manager, social media helps the organization reach a wider demographic.

“We're definitely reaching the female market, especially those in the 35 to 44 age range, which is great for us because women in the family are the travel planners,” Freligh says. “They're making the decisions, so we're getting the right audience.” Not to mention social media's monopoly on today's youth who “are more mobile and have more discretionary income to spend.”

Nevertheless, DMOs must overcome some obstacles to make their social media marketing efforts effective. For example, marketers need to stop treating social media channels as static platforms, and start approaching them as engaging, two-way interactions.

Just ask Victoria Moreno, chair of the marketing committee of the Cambria Tourism Board in California. The group recently teamed up with FreshBuzz Media to create a “Visit Cambria” campaign that aims to make better use of social media channels like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube. The campaign will focus on Cambria's distinct scenery, history, and geography to attract visitors from the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, and Orange County. “Facebook was set up to be a conversation between friends, so if you're doing anything shy of getting people to talk back to you, then you're not doing it right,” Moreno warns.

Measuring a return on investment on a digital campaign is another hurdle marketers face. Unlike traditional marketing's tried-and-true standards for success, VISIT FLORIDA's Seccombe says, with social media, “there are new metrics and KPIs coming into the marketplace faster than a lot of people can catch up to.” These new measurements include links, direct commerce, sales leads, and tagging.

While determining the value of click-through rates and retweet percentages can be difficult, Cieplak-Migani says, “the challenge is keeping it all straight.” After all, multiple Twitter feeds, Facebook ads, blog postings, and website queries can produce vast amounts of data—information that requires careful parsing by marketing executives. Says Cieplak-Migani: “We're now getting access to deeper, richer, more robust data than we've ever had before.”

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