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6 ways to improve your destination marketing (and why you’re toast if you don’t)

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Are you toast? (courtesy oskay at Flickr CC)(This is an Open Letter guest post from travel expert Tim Leffel, who wants to help public relations (PR) and marketing folks who are stumbling around in the dark regarding Web-based tourism development.  Anyone who still deals with a recalcitrant boss about these issues, even if you aren’t in travel and tourism, will find something helpful in his suggestions.)

Dear person who handles the marketing budget for your travel destination:

In case you have not been reading the news, the media landscape rug has been pulled out from under you. What have you done to adjust?

I’m a travel writer who writes a lot and travels a lot. In the past year, I’ve had two dozen PR and marketing people working in travel tell me that their boss or executive board is at least a decade behind the times in their marketing focus. While my contact person telling me this may be clued in to what matters, the people controlling the marketing purse strings are still fully stuck in the old world they understand, namely print and TV press and advertising.

A couple of times a month, I’ll get a call or e-mail from some PR person about an article I wrote for Perceptive Travel, the Practical Travel Gear blog, or Luxury Latin America—all sites I run myself. The caller needs to put together some kind of ad value report to show their boss or board because, well, that’s the way it’s always been done and that’s the report that has to be written. If the article can’t be measured in monetary terms, it doesn’t matter in their eyes, regardless of how many visitors it brought to their door.

The problem is, while that may have sorta worked in the print world, it doesn’t on the Web.

It was never a very accurate gauge anyway, as this article will attest:   Why most magazine industry metrics are bogus (and that’s from a publishing industry trade!) Anyone on the inside can tell you the circulation numbers are bogus, the published advertising rates are bogus and the demographic breakdowns are bogus.

But at least the suits are used to those particular stretches of credulity. On a website, however, this is an exercise in futility; an invitation to just make up a bunch of numbers to please the boss.

There’s no such thing as a “full page ad” to value to start with. Just banners. There’s no real circulation—just unique monthly visitors and page views. And how do you place an ad value on an article that people will keep reading for years, month after month? How do you value a link to your site? For someone who knows about search engine optimization, that link is very valuable. To a visitors’ bureau board member who still doesn’t know what a blog is, it’s worth far less than a one-paragraph newspaper mention.

Everybody’s heard of the Detroit Free Press, right? So it must be more valuable than being on something called BoingBoing, right? (Um, hate to break it to you, but no. It’s not even close. Besides, the Free Press is the one that had to cut back home delivery to three days a week because it’s a financial wreck.)

I promise you that your potential visitors, including the ones who increasingly can’t remember the last time they read a newspaper, are getting their information from all over the Web and from social media. They are relying less and less on what the traditional gatekeeper people you always pitched (newspapers and magazines) have to say. Unfortunately, this means you have to work much harder now.

Your universe of 20 magazines and 50 newspapers is now a few less of those, but 100 or even 500 blogs. And some of those writers contribute to multiple outlets. You’re no longer pitching an outlet, you are pitching a person: an influencer. The good news is, you get to the right influencers, you’ve got champions who will send you visitors by the planeload, year after year.

This requires a radically different approach and a vastly more fragmented way of spending your resources. Buying one of those silly “special advertising sections” in a general travel magazine is going to pale in effectiveness compared to spending that same amount on Google Adsense and 20 specialized travel websites. Inviting a dozen freelance print writers on a press trip will get you spotty results over time, but inviting a dozen prolific writers who blog on subjects specific to your destination’s appeal will pay off for years and send measurable traffic to your official site.

Here are six things you can do right now to drastically improve your destination’s marketing effectiveness and pull in more visitors:

1) Figure out who is already writing about your destination and engage them the way they want to be engaged. This may be e-mail, Twitter, phone, Facebook or LinkedIn. It is almost surely not by spraying them with press releases.

2) Figure out which blogs and sites are already sending visitors to your website. (You do monitor your stats weekly, right? You do have Google alerts set up, right?) Those are obvious ad targets for the marketing people and those are editors/bloggers your publicists need to be talking with. First go thank them, then build a relationship.

3) Spend some time researching which websites and blogs are a great match for your visitor demographics. As a cheap destinations expert, I hear regularly from and/or have been on press trips with Honduras, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Malaysia, parts of Mexico and Panama. I haven’t heard a peep from most of the other destinations profiled in The World’s Cheapest Destinations book or on my blog, even though I am quoted in the major media every month and my blog is one of the top 100,000 sites on the web. I’m the best-known travel writer in Nashville, Tennessee, but in a decade of living here I’ve never heard from the city’s visitors’ bureau. That’s just silly. If you run a family travel destination or attraction and don’t have Sheila Scarborough or the Traveling Mamas on your radar, you’re missing a huge opportunity. It’s even easier to target sites focused on specific geography. For some destinations there are fewer than 10 people who generate 80 percent of the search engine hits. For a place like Nicaragua it’s two or three. Do you even know who they are? Those people should be on your cell phone’s speed dial.

4) Add every relevant site to your RSS feed and visit them often. (You do have an RSS reader set up don’t you?) You can’t pitch to blogs if you don’t know their style, tone and subject matter (or at least follow them on Twitter if that’s your thing.) Blind pitching doesn’t work anymore. Mass market advertising doesn’t work anymore. You need to focus and converse, not broadcast.

5) Stop worrying about bragging rights. Sure, it’s great to say “As featured in Travel + Leisure” when they write a few sentences about your destination on page 148, right behind the fold-out ad for Lexus, but in terms of influencing travelers to visit, did it matter? Was that one-page magazine ad that ran for one month really more effective than advertising on 20 very well-matched websites or blogs for an entire YEAR? Focus on the actual objective, not on what sounds impressive on a report.

6) Listen to your people at the bottom. The most junior people in your organization probably already know what needs to be done. They don’t have your built-in preconceptions and prejudices and will always be two steps ahead of you. Give them a budget, stop worrying about whether they are “wasting time on Facebook,” and turn them loose.

If you still have questions after reading this, let’s get together at Travel Media Showcase or Visit Europe Media Exchange (VEMEX) or have a drink in your destination’s best pub. (“Will work for beer.”)

But if you really want to jump on the social media train with both feet and don’t know where to start, keep reading this blog…or just hire Sheila and Connie!

Tim LeffelTim Leffel is the author of three travel books, editor of the award-winning webzine Perceptive Travel, and editor of several blogs.

He still likes to write for magazines too.

You can see his portfolio and contact information at TimLeffel.com.

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This post was written by:

Sheila Scarborough - who has written 31 posts on Every Dot Connects.

I'm a freelance writer specializing in travel, NHRA drag racing and social media/Web 2.0.

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32 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike Keliher Says:

    This is a good read for anyone — not just travel-industry folks — who wants to put more “new” in their media mix. If hearing stuff like this straight from the writer’s own mouth doesn’t get your boss’s attention, perhaps you should be polishing up the resume and looking for a new boss! :)

  2. Sheila Scarborough Says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks so much for your support; sometimes Connie and I start to get kinda crabby about having to constantly head-butt The Reluctant Ones, so I was happy to have Tim join the fray. :)

    And you’re right….his words are applicable far beyond travel and tourism.

  3. Mike Keliher Says:

    I know what you mean. I wrote a guest post for a friend’s blog the other day (as if I didn’t have enough of my own blogs to write for!) about how what’s old is new again. Because, you know, it’s true!

  4. cafedave Says:

    Tim, thanks for making these points so clearly and convincingly. I think the long-term traffic referral of blog posts in particular is a great strength, and not often mentioned.

  5. Jeremy Head Says:

    Great piece Tim. I’ll point the increasing numbers of people in PR reading my blog to it!
    Interesting debate about how PRs should engage with bloggers on my blog recently too which kind of follows on from this one:
    http://www.travelblather.com/2009/05/blog-travel-press-trips.html

  6. Ferne Arfin Says:

    Excellent, well thought through case. More and more PRs are recognising that my UK coverage stays on line pretty much forever and reaches a good chunk of unique visitors every month. But there are some frustrating holdouts - I’ve yet to be able to feature a particular set of French influenced British islands (that are not part of the UK)because they are only interested in print. To add insult to injury, once the client realised that my owner is American, they point blank told me they were not interested in American media. Do I need to cover Jersey - or share with them the half of my visitors who are UK based? I guess not.

  7. Shannon (@Cajun_Mama) Says:

    So glad to see this, Tim and Sheila. I can’t tell you how many times a PR agency has asked about ad rates to place a value on a post we’ve published on our blog. They don’t seem to get that even though we may SELL sidebar advertising, we do not sell content or links or mentions. Therefore, the value of a feature on a destination or a mention in a post on our blog is priceless.

    I’d like to add another event that should be on the radar: http://BlogWorldExpo.com. There will be panels specific to the travel industry (for writers and marketers) and numerous panels in other subjects that are informative and helpful.

    Many times I find myself at a destination, only to end up educating the PR Company and their client on social media. Once it is explained to them in person, only then do they seem to get it. This is a great article that will hopefully open up the conversation for those that haven’t “gotten it” in the past. Thanks for this post.

  8. Lanora Mueller (@writingtravel) Says:

    Right on, Tim! And thanks for featuring this gentle rant, Sheila.

    Like Shannon, I’ve been doing my bit to educate destinations about social media. Tim’s expert analysis will make that an easier task.

  9. Alastair McKenzie Says:

    You’re absolutely right. At least four years ago I read an article by a Canadian PR woman arguing that one online journalist was worth five print journalists, and her industry had better wise up to it. Not sure if the ratio was right then, but it certainly is now, and most PRs do get it - it’s the clients who don’t.

    If they seriously think that, for example, a family activity holiday booking is confirmed by a beautifully written piece in the New York Times or The Telegraph, and not by what the kids’ mates are writing in bebo or msn….they ARE toast.

  10. Jackie Dishner Says:

    Great blog post, Tim! You may not drink the Kool-Aid, but you certainly know how to write an effective blog post. So I think you’ve tasted it a time or two.

    Jackie (who writes about all things Arizona)

  11. Gary Arndt Says:

    Most ad buyers do not try to maximize value for their client. They are trying not to get fired. There is a huge incentive to just do what they’ve always done and buy ads in big name publications because everyone knows them. You can’t get fired for doing what everyone has done for decades, especially when the people who make the hiring/firing decisions know even less about the internet.

    I’ve always felt this is a problem with ad/PR agencies than it is with the companies who are paying for the ads. The most creative things I’ve seen in travel have been with small firms who do things themselves and have someone in the company with some vision, usually the owner.

    Most agencies do not deal with bloggers outside of sending out mass emails. As a blogger, sending me a press release as part of a mass email is worse than useless as I’ll put you on my spam list and you’ll never be able to contact me again. At least do me the courtesy of showing me you’ve read my site and know what it is about before you try to contact me. It goes a loooong way. I might not have use for what you are trying to pitch, but I also wont spam you and we could possibly do something in the future.

  12. Antonia Malchik Says:

    All I can do is echo what everyone else here is saying — nicely put, Tim. I’m one of those who never even glances at the ads in magazines, and always checks the upper corner for the phrase “Special Advertising Section” when the pictures and print look too pretty. Bet I’m not alone in that. But a little banner ad next to a blog I’m enjoying reading? Maybe it’s just that it’s more directed, or less obtrusive, but I do at least pay attention.

  13. Patsy Terrell Says:

    This is all so true. I’ve been blogging my daily life for five years and have readers all over the world. I’ve probably written about at least 500 places, restaurants, and events. So far only one has ever “used” the great word of mouth advertising I’ve given them, and that was one tweet.

    I get email from people telling me they went to one place or another because they read about it on my blog, but the people who are supposed to be getting visitors to these places aren’t using these tools.

    I used to be a journalist in traditional media, and I have more reach now than I did with some of the radio stations I worked for before. But many people just don’t “get it” yet. Two noteable exceptions: Union Pacific Railroad, who was eager to let me cover a steam excursion, and the Obama campaign who happily issued me press passes.

  14. Tim L. Says:

    Thanks for the kind words everyone. Gary, I appreciate your insight. “Not getting fired” is unfortunately the main incentive for far too many people in the corporate world. As opposed to us self-employed people who would have to look in the mirror and fire ourselves. Maybe that’s what makes us so results-focused.

    As for spray and pray press releases, I reply to the totally off-topic ones that this is of no use to me and please remove me from this list. I’ll do it a second time to be nice. If they spam me a third time, I cut them off permanently. I’d love to see the e-mail open rate on those blasts, if they even have the sense to track them. I bet it’s abysmal.

  15. Ian McKee Says:

    Great post! Guess the only problem is the kind of PRs who’ll read this (I was directed here by Jeremy, as above) already know… I’ll try and direct a few who here who haven’t got the jist of it yet (and as you say, many of those are the people with the grip on the purse strings…).

    We often make the point to our clients about the interconnectedness of online travel media - get the right blogger/journalist on your side and it can have a ripple effect. Get a journalist who blogs and you can get a great feature in a magazine, and a blog, which may lead to more blogs, a few tweets, ad infinitum really. I’ve blogged about this myself here - http://mccluskeyinternational.co.uk/2009/04/social-media-can-give-media-fam-trips-added-value/

    I’m not sure it’s as advanced here in the UK as in the US - as a UK agency we’re tasked to promote to UK consumers and travel trade, and it’s hard to say which are the big hitting travel blogs there are yet to be honest. We don’t have an equivalent of Gridskipper or Gadling… Nonetheless, there are already some massive online influences in the UK of course. It’s only a matter of time before every PR is at their door, and we need to make sure we get the biggest influencers of tomorrow on our side now!

  16. Tim L. Says:

    Ian—it’s important to remember too that more static websites still play a huge role, in many cases their influence outweighs any magazine on the planet. The most influential site for Turkey tourism is an information resource site, not a blog. Travelfish (for Southeast Asia) has a blog, but that’s not the main focus. Most people seek out the information and trip planning pages. Same with BrazilMax for Brazil.

    My point being that while “social media” is very important, it’s part of an organic whole and people shouldn’t look at it or any other of the puzzle pieces as the whole answer. Every social media platform has its limitations, including blogs. So in many cases the most traffic coming into an official destination website will be from the “unofficial” destination websites you should be courting. They’re easier to find and measure for a popular general destination like the UK. Between a Google search and a look at site stats, finding them is a one-hour project.

  17. H Says:

    If every person has a blog, just how many readers do you think each blog will have?

  18. Erin Davenport Says:

    Hi Five to Tim & Sheila. I can’t get enough of her gentle rants!
    When I started assisting Connie & Sheila in social media a few months ago I didn’t even know what “Social Media” was. Now I am in hook, line, & sinker. Hopefully more companies will catch on to how this works B4 they see results tumble out of control.

  19. Amy Says:

    Excellent post, Tim. I’m still amazed when I meet with PR people who want to know the ad value for a magazine or newspaper (or wonderful site, like Perceptivetravel.com) that I’m writing for. To be honest, I’ve never known the answer to that question, and I actually think if they’re inviting me on a trip, it’s their job to find out if it’s so important to them. That said, there’s no doubt that The Old Way of measuring performance is gone, and that someone should come up with a genius way to teach The New Way of measuring these things, but in a way that isn’t too complicated or scary-sounding. And he who succeeds at doing this, shall be a millionaire.
    P.S. I refuse to Twitter.

  20. Lori Says:

    Great post (and comments). I think we’ll all look back on this debate in a few years and think ourselves crazy for not valuing web writers/internet advertising/bloggers, etc. as we should. Change does take time, though, and posts like this are a good way to make the shift happen :)

  21. Nancy D. Brown Says:

    Amen to all of the comments and Tim’s great post. I will link to this post on Twitter. However, it’s the PR folks who are NOT on twitter who need to be reading this post.

    As a newspaper journalist, What a Trip travel blogger and magazine freelance writer, I cast a large editorial net. I’m also APR accredited with 25+ years in the public relations industry, so I work both side of the media fence. I think the key to social media with PR folks is education. When I speak of Facebook, Twitter and blogs to fellow journalist I often hear, “I’m too old for this.” Like it or not, this is the new face of journalism. As the saying goes, adapt or die.

    Follow me on Twitter @Nancydbrown

  22. Nathan Kam Says:

    Sheila,

    Excellent post. You paint a very clear picture of how new media is not just a fad but the future of getting information out there. I also agree this medium cannot be measured by traditional marketing standards. Those PR pros who “get it” now will clearly have a leg up heading into the future. As you know, our agency takes bloggers and the new media space very seriously. Thanks for your wisdom and telling it like like it is. Look forward to seeing you in Hawaii soon.

    Aloha,
    Nathan

  23. Susan Says:

    My favorite part of this post: “You’re no longer pitching an outlet, you are pitching a person: an influencer.”

  24. Sheila Scarborough Says:

    Thanks so much for all of the supportive comments….and the talk about this on Twitter has bumped Tim’s follower number from about 35 to 58 in two days.

    He still tells me to “forget it” about getting on Facebook, though. :) That’s the thing about Tim; he’s a super-practical guy. Show him the money.

  25. EH Says:

    Great points. I remember hearing that when you can tell your company who you should not market to then you finally really know your target market. The same applies to online marketing. Where are or aren’t your target market? What websites should you be concerned with and which should you leave alone (even if it is a big name website, it doesn’t always do you any good).
    Additionally, you have to constantly be building relationships not only with your editors and other bloggers (point #2) but with your readers and customers. Those relationships are a big part of what will make or break your business.

  26. Tolu Says:

    These are some great points indeed. Marketing a new start-up is never an easy thing to do, it takes a lot of hardwork and patience. I agree with your ideas about how to build on the response one is already getting. The easiest way is to start out utilizing the power of social media effectively, monitoring which one profits your niche and which website/blogs are responding to you and take it from there.

  27. Beth Whitman Says:

    Big kudos, Tim! Thanks for speaking out on behalf of all of us travel writers. I still can’t believe the amount of money that gets poured into print media when companies balk (BALK I tell you) at spending a paltry amount on a monthly banner ad or sponsorship opportunity for very targeted marketing.

    As the economy shrinks and ad dollars are going away, I’m hoping that PR folks, advertisers and the companies that are hiring these firms start to realize the value in online sites, whether they are static, blog-based or a combo.

    As the publisher and author of the Wanderlust and Lipstick guides and accompanying website, I realize that a multi-pronged approach is the only way to survive. As Nancy Brown said, adapt or die!

    @wanderluster

  28. Craig Says:

    Great thoughts and ones that I’m trying to get across to so many people in the travel industry right now. We’re selling sponsorship and ad space across several of our publications. As travellers, as site owners and as an independent publisher, we’re building relationships and loving them for what they are. Opportunities and income spring from that, but it’s certainly people (or that mechanical label “influencers”) who are important.

  29. kimba Says:

    I want to echo everyone who has posted here too. Great post Tim.

  30. David Whitley Says:

    Extremely interesting post. It’s not just bloggers either - I write a lot for mainstream websites and am forever asked the same questions. The simple answer is that I just don’t know a lot of the time.

  31. wandermom Says:

    This is a really great article - thanks Sheila & Tim.
    One additional point (if I may): PR people working with press and travel companies should not feel like they need to invent the wheel (so to speak). Internet advertising has been evolving since the mid-90s. This iteration is different only because we’re discussing advertising on niche products (blogs) and what the cost structure for that should be. I would encourage a PR person who works with a CVB or similar to think about how larger players in other industries are using the internet, to reach out to their peers in those markets and focus on learning how to apply what’s been learned there to their own environment.

  32. Tim L. Says:

    I just wanted to add an addendum on here that I had a lovely lunch with Heather and Jenny from my hometown Music City CVB after this post made the rounds. Hey, sometimes you have to have a loud party before your neighbors notice you’re there.

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    [...] They should also read this guest post by my Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel:  6 ways to improve your destination marketing (and why you’re toast if you don’t) [...]