A Framework for your Destination’s Interactive Marketing Strategy

A few months ago, I was asked to put together a “white paper” on the challenges and opportunities facing the travel industry from an interactive standpoint. The basic idea was to come up with a framework so that organizations can plan and grapple with the reality that travelers are super-connected, are empowered to get information from a multitude of places and may not even think to go to the “official” destination site.

So what are these challenges and what can DMOs do to turn them into opportunities? What best practices are out there? Here’s my humble take….

  1. Redefining “Interactive Marketing”. First and foremost, let’s begin with the premise that your job has essentially changed.  Travel marketers can no longer take solace by simply staying on top of the brand website.Yep, your website is still important and needs to be the hub of you efforts; however, you now have a thriving “digital ecosystem” to maintain that includes: online advertising (search/display), e-mail marketing, mobile, apps, video, applications, blogs, and podcasting.  Now throw in relevant outposts for your destination on TripAdvisor, WikiTravel, YouTube, Flickr, Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter and your ecosystem is now starting to get a bit complex.A few things to remember to keep your ecosystem thriving:
    1. Fish Where the Fish Are.
      Instead of trying to drive every person to the brand website at every interaction, think about how you can drive engagement and relevancy in places where people already are.  People are already involved with Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Foursquare.   Engaging meaningfully with them through these branded outposts allows people to engage with the DMO on their own terms, in their own ways, in a method they’re familiar and comfortable with.

      Best practice tips:
      Oregon coast on Flickr, VisitPA and Chicago on Foursquare.
    2. Breakdown the Walls.
      Don’t restrict original content to just your site.   Distribute content through RSS, e-mail, syndication partners, promotion on outposts (social networks), and blogs.  Every page should support a “Web 2.0 toolbar” that enables consumers to share freely via applications such as Digg, Reddit, and del.icio.us. If you have video, post and distribute it through all major platforms, including YouTube and Vimeo. If you’re using Google maps to build trips and itineraries, make it portable.

      Reading Tip:
      Juliette Reynolds’ How to design with social in mind

    3. Keep Talking/Build Community.
      A DMO site should foster community and allow people to comment, share and contribute content whenever relevant.   Allow people to share their opinions and stories and to provide feedback on the site.   Talk back to them and listen to the good, the bad and the ugly.  Every page on every site is an opportunity to engage in a conversation.
  2. You (the DMO!) are Still the Expert! DMO’s cannot and should not relinquish the role as the as the preeminent and trusted source of information in the vast sea of content on the web.  We know from PhoCusWright’s recent research that travelers who’ve used destinations sites are more inclined to rank them as “the most useful type of travel” site for researching a vacation destination; moreover, travelers visit destination sites at similar rates both before and after making a travel purchase (hotel, air, car etc.) suggesting consumers’ reliance during both the inspiration/research and the itinerary planning stage.Establish your cache and position as “destination experts” by:
    1. Storytelling + Storybuilding.
      Destination travel sites are fairly formulaic in their execution in that once you get beyond the standard large format photos on the homepage, the majority of these sites bring together extensive lists of content including things to do, where to go, events, lodging, and cities/towns that consumers can “slice and dice” in multiple ways.  While this content is helpful in illustrating the wealth of experiences within the destination, DMO’s can do better to evoke and spark a sense of anticipation and discovery.

      DMO’s should embrace their role as a publisher and continue to be the authoritative voice of the destination. Communicate and convey that sense of place through high quality video, audio, narrated slideshows.   Merge your publications and online teams into one “communications team” and ensure that stories are appropriated to the proper channel.

      And let’s face it – no matter how hard you try, there’s no way staff can keep up with what’s going on in the community and feed the 24/7 nature of digital content expectations.   Be the preeminent curator of content for your destination; use local experts, existing bloggers or “passionistas” and other partners sites to group, organize and share the best places and stories from your destination.

      Finally, allow travelers in on the fun and let them build on your stories by giving them tools to tell their vacation tales in whatever format they choose – photos, text, or video.

      Best practice tips: Visit Florida’s destination experts, & There’s nothing like Australia)

    2. (Nuts & Bold) Destination Content Is Still King.
      From your people to your towns and from things to see and do to places to eat, a DMO’s goal is to provide the most comprehensive planning window for travelers.Maintaining centralized state/country level information on places (events, attractions, trails, dining etc.) can make the tedious and repetitive task of maintaining listings information much easier.

      A centralized tool also allows you to collaborate with local partners such as the local DMO’s, statewide trade associations to maintain and grow destination content.   It also gives you a robust platform to aggregate and syndicate content across the web—both to your sites and third party sites—and across many devices. Of course if you can get out of the business of maintaining content for perennial listings such as restaurants and hotels by leveraging API tools from Yelp! or Travelocity, things get even simpler.

      Best practice tips:
      Australia Tourism Data Warehouse, Oregon’s Orb platform

  3. The Funnel is Broken. Consumers no longer move neatly from one touch point to the next—awareness, consideration, preference, action. Travelers aren’t seeing a brand ad in print to going online for information and from ordering a brochure to then booking their trip. Instead, they “snack on a digital content” delivered through a dizzying array of devices.They share ideas and base opinions about hotels, attractions and destinations with information gleaned from travel blogs, YouTube and TripAdvisor just as much as they do by trolling a destination’s website or viewing a regional promotional campaign on TV.  They research and compare hotels on a meta-search site but yet call the hotel directly to make a purchase.  They go directly to a destination website based on a recommendation from a friend or family.So what can a DMO do about this? Going back to #1 and #2 above, surround the traveler with your expertise and be there when they need you.
    1. Location, Location, Location.
      From Foursquare to Facebook Places and Gowalla to Scvngr, 2010 is the year of location aware devices/tools. This is exciting for DMO’s because we’re now finally able to close the loop and begin to influence and talk to consumers while they’re actually in-market. Think deals, events, mobile travel guides/AR, continuous feedback on the experience, and even sharing of photos/stories.

      Reading Tips
      : Relevancy is key to mobile success & 10 Emerging Social Business Platforms

    2. Social Media as Customer Service.
      DMO’s are also finally on the cusp of fully integrate social media into their customer service departments. We’ve all been inspired by the leverage social media for customer service and by Travel Portland’s Twisitor Center efforts. The true “next step” is to take that concept and expend this even further into your traditional call center and your state/country wide visitor center staff/volunteers.

      Imagine a country or statewide network of destination ambassadors who’re responding to traveler needs no matter where they are: via phone, web, endemic site chat, or even outposts on TripAdvisor and Frommer’s.

  4. Audience Measurement: As a destination’s digital arsenal grows, we’re unfortunately going to continue to struggle with coming up with an effective, standardized and credible method to measure and compare the online audience across all platforms. While we believe the tracking tools will be there eventually, for now DMOs must use multiple tools to overlay the visitation/impression metrics (unique visitors, repeat visitors, etc.) over a traveler’s “hand raising” actions.These actions (engagement) indicate an intent to travel to the destination and may include both transactions (booking a room, buying an attraction ticket) and non-transactional items such as ordering a travel guide, signing up to receive e-mail newsletters or using an online trip planning tool.

    Reading Tips
    : Monitor, Measure and Manage – Best Practices in Web Analytics for DMOs’ & Even More, More, More FREE Ways To Track Online Buzz

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with this framework for engaging with travelers? What other factors will influence and affect how large DMOs use technology to talk to travelers?

Comment? @travel2dot0 or email.