Destination Marketing 3.0: Less Destination Advertising. More Customer Engagement.

Everyone has an opinion on advertising. And for destination marketers, destination awareness through media advertising has historically been seen as the ultimate symbol of the art, science and magic of their craft.  When new ads are released, press conferences are called, Mayors speak, critics rail. All because broadcasting the destination story to the world is a point of community pride and because the ads are what traditionally is seen by the community as bringing people to town. Which would explain why according to Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI) DMO’s currently spend 51% of their leisure marketing budgets on media advertising – two-thirds of that in print media.

And so when there are challenges to industry financial support, the response is usually: “we have no choice but to cancel the advertising campaign.”

Modern day case-in-point: when Northern Ireland’s tourism marketing efforts were confronted in 2011 with a government-mandated 50% reduction over two years in its media advertising spending (but not its total marketing budget), tourism board leaders warned of a “significant risk” of not making tourism targets.

But here’s the thing: total visits to Northern Ireland since the media advertising reduction are virtually unchanged and visitor spending is actually up 7% through July 2013. And when you consider that Northern Ireland’s primary visitor market is the Republic of Ireland to the south, whose well-chronicled financial woes are epic, this accomplishment is heroic.

The advertising business is also going through its own upheaval driven by a fragmented and diverse media landscape and also the fact that its levels of distrust are unprecedented. Which leads one to the question: why then do destination marketers and their stakeholders still make advertising their primary (at least according to DMAI) go-to marketing tactic? I’d love to hear some perspectives on this…!

PROBLEM: Media advertising for destinations is expensive and has questionable effectiveness.

SOLUTION: Less destination advertising. More customer engagement.

We know that people vest their trust in recommendations from people they know. They want authentic, relevant opinions and will engage in unbiased forums to share their perspectives and experiences for the benefit of others using social media. The incredible affinity for Yelp and TripAdvisor are testimony to this reality.

Unfortunately many destination marketers use social media platforms as merely another broadcast media channel to broadcast their story. Fail.

Engagement is about synthesizing the customers’ perspective, needs and story into your business/enterprise/destination through ongoing conversations in places and times of the customers’ choosing. It’s not about luring them into a transaction decision with bright shiny objects or carpet-bombing them into submission with advertising.Image

Consider the graphic to the right created by LeadSift. They have identified that leisure travelers are increasingly using social media during the three phases of their trip: Planning (before), Vacation (during) and Honeymoon (after) – a reflection of the statement that 92% of said travelers trust recommendations of social/family connections over advertising.

Destination marketers need to deliberately inject themselves into these social media conversation places and spaces in each of the three phases to stimulate discovery, deliver on-site visitor support, encourage further experience-sharing and then harvest the resulting Destination Intelligence (DI) as it relates to their destination.

How do destination marketers find these conversations? Tools like Radian6, LeadSift and others make it easy to locate and engage with your customers where conversations are happening. And they are whole lot less expensive than any ad placement and connect you to where conversations about your brand or business category are taking place.

What does an all-platform social media customer engagement strategy look like operationally? How about something like this:

For Starters: Every destination marketing organization should have a highly accessible (read “Mobile” here) social media forum where conversations from the major platforms can be aggregated for all to see and share. Its also an easy place for visitors conversations to take place.

Planning Phase: A destination “Engagement Team” is created and assigned to respond to potential customer needs, objections and provide responses/resources via social media as they plan. The related DI is shared back to the destination community.

Vacation/Event Phase: Since visitors/event attendees to a destination are now sharing their remarkable experiences (85% of leisure travelers use their smartphones while abroad) while onsite, a the Engagement Team can make sure it gets shared in the right places for more potential customers to see.  And if there’s a not-so-remarkable experience taking place, the Team can offer some form of immediate direct service intervention on behalf of the destination.

Honeymoon Phase: With almost half of leisure travelers posting hotel or restaurant reviews after their trip, the Team can aggregate the DI (e.g. 65% of hotel reviews in December were more than 4/5) and share it for community action and certainly in social media places where customer planning conversations are taking place. They might even send simple “thanks for visiting” messages.

If Nordstrom was in the destination marketing business, this is how they would deliver customer engagement. At multiple touch-points during the customer buying cycle.

Engagement that unleashes the voice of the customer, not broadcast advertising, is the key to creating powerful awareness, trust, loyalty and ultimately demand in the destination marketing 3.0 ecosystem. All of which are valuable and shareable across social media platforms.

Is this easy? Not at all…in fact big brands like McDonalds and Coca-Cola have failed rudimentary customer engagement tests.

Is it affordable? Absolutely. Cutback on a couple of flights of advertising and you can find yourself actually engaging with your customers instead of pitching to them.

Destination marketers need to make authentic customer engagement a core competency of their organization and hallmark of their brand. The great news is that some destination marketers are figuring it out.

Marketing Challenges International’s recent report “Social Media Marketing for Global Destinations in the Meeting and Convention Industry” provides some excellent examples from Austin, Seattle and Phoenix about how their destination marketing organizations are pioneering the use of “social concierges” to engage with meeting and event attendees while in the destination – providing information and solving onsite service opportunities. This is where it has to go. To make a difference. To be relevant.

After all, anyone can buy advertising. And shouldn’t destination marketers be spending more time with their customers than with their advertising agencies?

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