State of the Industry Conversations: Shelli Johnson, Founder, YellowstonePark.com


The YellowstonePark.com team, supposably at work.

The YellowstonePark.com team, supposedly at work.

I had the pleasure of meeting Shelli at the recent E-Tourism Summit in San Francisco, where she was speaking about her (and her team’s) awarding-winning website, yellowstonepark.com.  Two things stuck me about Shelli after meeting and listening to her.  One, she is very humble about the success of yellowstonepark.com and happy to share her best practices with the industry (hence the post) and two, unlike a lot of organizations, the design, layout and methods behind yellowstonepark.com have been driven by research and the consumer.

So, we were thrilled to have Shelli join us for our ongoing State of the Industry Conversations series.  She was even good enough to work on the Q&A during a brief vacation.  Thanks Shelli.

How would you describe the goal of yellowstonepark.com?

Our goal is to inspire people to vacation to Yellowstone, the world’s oldest national park, and to have a vacation of a lifetime.

Because of its remote location, a Yellowstone vacation is a road trip. Even for visitors who fly into a regional airport, it’s a drive vacation. As a result of this reality, Yellowstone is only the carrot; it’s only the beginning. We also (enthusiastically and quite thoroughly) promote regions and activities that are up to 1-2 days away from the Park in all directions because we view these as important parts of a Yellowstone vacation experience.

Once we have succeeded in persuading our site customers to vacation to the Yellowstone region, we provide a total trip-planning resource for them. We do this by providing logical information that visitors need to plan a trip to Yellowstone, but also interesting content that is provided in several formats. Some of our most popular sections include: Interactive Maps & Itineraries, a Things to Do section that has a wide range of interesting and useful activity-oriented content, a Regions to Explore section, an extensive Where to Stay (accommodations) Directory, more than 60 podcasts, videos, an RSS news feed, consumer-generated “Yellowstone Trip Notes,” a Wildlife-Viewing Guide, a Photography Guide, enewsletters, online magazine, and more. In addition, YellowstonePark.com’s main sections are also translated in German, French and Italian and we have international online trip planners and an international blog-like product, called The Western Traveler.

Talk a little bit about how you have researched your audience and the effect of that research on the current version of the site?

We love market research because of its educational value and the insights it provides. We are serious when we say we want to help people have a vacation of a lifetime to Yellowstone. This motivates us every day. As a result, we’re always thinking about ways to provide this for our customers.

We all remember the saying “The customer is always right.” I always bought into this, even at times when it was difficult to. I knew that taking care of our customers was of critical importance to our success.

Well, thanks to advancing technology and the internet, generating market research is no longer a several-hundred-thousand-dollar undertaking with limited results that aren’t always as unique or qualified as we need them to be. So in 2005 we implemented a survey on our site, and today, we have almost 12,000 extensive customer surveys from people considering or planning a Yellowstone vacation. Depending on the time of year, we’re generating 100-250 new surveys every week. This online market research is invaluable to our business. We can run filters and cross tabs to drill down on particular segments. The research educates us about our customers.

About the same time, we began hearing about the “Web 2.0” from Tim O’Reilly, and other industry leaders. It referred to a next generation internet where users would be able to do more than retrieve information. The internet would be the platform and there would be sharing and contributing of information. From everything we were learning at that time, one thing was very, very clear to us about this thing called “Web 2.0,” and that was that the customer would be increasingly empowered and engaged. So, even though YellowstonePark.com had won the People’s Voice Webby in 2005, and we had a pretty good site already, we felt a sense of urgency to develop a site that was built more for the future – a Web 2.0 site ¬– that was geared more with our customers in mind.

The first thing we did was drill down and carefully review our extensive customer research. What our customers told us in the surveys guided our information architecture/user experience design of our new site, as well as the content our site would feature. Many companies solicit and generate customer data, but seldom do they listen and respond. But for us, this was a no brainer. We think we’re pretty smart, but at the end of the day, we knew our customers had the information we most needed to ensure our success. So we surveyed, reviewed and responded by building a site whose architecture and content was based on what our customers told us.

You mentioned two groups of visitors to the site during your presentation at E-Tourism Summit, could you tell us a bit about those groups and how you speak to them on the site?

One things that sets YellowstonePark.com apart from other destination sites is our aim to serve two audiences, what we call the Decideds and Undecideds. The Decideds are those people who have already decided they’re going to travel to Yellowstone, and they look to our site for information from which they’ll plan their trip. How to get to Yellowstone, what to do, where to stay, routes to travel, events, etc. The Undecideds refer to those people who are going to take a vacation but they haven’t determined the destination yet. Will it be Disneyland? Colorado? Or Yellowstone? Our goal on YellowstonePark.com, starting with the home page and its strong visuals and compelling design, is to inspire and convert the Undecideds into Decideds – actual Yellowstone visitors.

How have you targeted content to those groups?

We have not targeted the content to the two groups because there is much overlap once we succeed in converting Undecideds into Decideds. So, instead we built a site that serves both. The trick is striking the perfect balance between fantastic design and a clean layout, complete with straightforward navigation and ease of use, and compelling, extensive content, provided in a variety of formats.

How do you define success for the site?

I think if we’ve inspired people to embark on a Yellowstone vacation, or to strongly consider one, we have succeeded. But of course there are many additional, more specific ways to measure a site’s success, such as time spent on the site, the viral/sharing component, repeat visitation, use of our interactive features, lead conversion, traffic volume, the successes of our marketing, advertising and lead generation partners, etc.

For such a small staff, you have quite a bit of content online…videos, podcasts, etc…how do you manage the work?

Well it wasn’t easy producing the amount of content we have, that’s for sure. And it didn’t happen overnight. The content of our site is a work in progress. We’re always adding to it. The podcasts and video clips were produced by our management team. If any of us is traveling for advertising sales, or magazine deliveries, or news reporting in Yellowstone, we simply take our camera, video camera and podcast recorder with us and capture moments here and there. Our initial podcasts, which a team of three of us created over a 4-month period, for the most part involved us divvying up the various events in the regions surrounding Yellowstone.

We were able to stop in and see our advertising partners in these destinations and attractions, take them to lunch and then act like a tourist and attend their various events. Only we did it with camera and recorder in hand. It certainly doesn’t hurt that in this customer-oriented Web 2.0 landscape, polished and commercial is not in; amateur and authentic is. So that takes the pressure off of us when we want to capture and create content, regardless of the medium. In addition, much of the Things to Do content comes from our print magazine, so we’re simply repurposing for the web. And then we have a user-generated Trip Notes section where visitors to Yellowstone can post their own experiences and notes. This section is always growing and is original content. Our site customers love it, and the search engines do, too.

What portion or feature on the site are you most proud of?

Probably the Things to Do, Podcasts and Trip Notes sections. Things to Do because people determine their vacation destination based mainly on the things to do in an area. We are blessed with an abundance of activities that can be enjoyed and that help create a vacation of a lifetime. So it’s easy, and fun, to promote and provide extensive Things to Do content. And it’s a gold mine of useful information. I’m proud of our podcasts section because Ryan Johnson, Florian Herrmann, and myself – just the three of us – one day said, “let’s do 50 podcasts in the next 4 months” and we did it. It was a lot of fun to play tourist, and we did this while patronizing our advertising partners, and creating content in a new media format. It was a very worthwhile experience, and we had great content and improved partner relationships as a result of our efforts. And finally, Trip Notes makes me proud because it’s written by past visitors. These are their shared, “feel good” experiences about my favorite place in the world. I’ve been to Yellowstone more than 300 times, and still there are nuggets in these Trip Notes that are discoveries for me. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful form of marketing, and Trip Notes is our platform for word of mouth about a Yellowstone vacation.

How does your relationship with the National Park Service work?

We view the NPS as an important partner. We publish a magazine, Yellowstone Journal, which is a national magazine dedicated to Yellowstone. It is how we got our start 15 years ago. For our stories we interview the various rangers and biologists and researchers and administrators in the Park. Every interview is an education and an opportunity for us to share information about the world’s first national park and the icon of all national parks. We recognize that these natural wonders are rare and as our society becomes more urbanized, these destinations will be more valuable than ever, and will require stewardship and protection. We respect the National Park Service and their efforts very much.

What social mediums are you using or starting to use for the site?

As I said, we have numerous podcasts, both audio and video, as well as videos, and our consumer-generated Trip Notes sections. All of these continue to grow in content and popularity. We also have a twitter account that we’ve only recently implemented. We place a very high value on anything that engages our customer, and enables them to share our content or contribute their own content to our site.

What does it mean to win a Webby award for your work?

To win a Webby in 2005 and 2007 has meant a lot for our business out on the frontier. In 2005, we won the People’s Voice, which meant the world to us. After all, it’s people that our site aims to serve. We were up against sites promoting whole countries (Italy and New Zealand) and for the public to vote for YellowstonePark.com as the best tourism site in the world was overwhelming and gratifying. At the awards “gala” in NYC, I met visionaries and industry leaders from around the world who guided our success thanks to the internet and our ability to benefit from their insights. In late 2006, in a 5-month period, we redesigned the site and in 2007 we swept both the People’s Voice and Critical Judges Webby Award in the Tourism category. Our success doesn’t depend on honors or acclaim; however, no doubt, these honors have helped our business and validated that we can compete in the world from out on the frontier, and that we are doing right by our customers, who very much guided our success. Before the internet it was hard for us to get anyone’s attention from out on the frontier of Wyoming. The Webby honors, and others, help us to get the world’s attention, and enables us to promote our destination to the world.

Shelli Johnson is the founder of Yellowstone Journal Corporation , Yellowstone International, and YellowstonePark.com. She can be reached at shelli[at]yellowstonepark.com, via twitter: @yellowstoneshel , via Skype: shellisnowboarder or via LinkedIn. Right now she and her team are hard at work on their next big thing from out on the frontier.

Thanks again to Shelli for taking the time to be a part of our State of the Industry Conversations series.  If you want to hear from an industry leader or travel visionary, or have a suggestion for our next interview, send an email to troydthompson[at]gmail.com or let us know in the comments section.

Comment? @travel2dot0 or email.