In the age of social media, many destinations have yet to fully develop ways to engage with today’s travellers in meaningful and potentially lucrative ways.
Destinations could do more to exercise greater creativity and innovation in leveraging social media for destination marketing, with a tremendous amount of content now available online as an increasingly digital-savvy generation seeks out shareable experiences during their travels.
Damian Cook, CEO and founder of Kenya-based E-Tourism Frontiers, said: “Travel has become a shared experience. When people travel, they have an intense desire to share that experience constantly. Put smartphones and Wi-Fi into the mix, and you will have constantly shared content. That content is by-and-large publicly posted, accessible and visible to us.”
Cook shared that Kenya is tagged in some 26,000 photos a week on various social media platforms, of which about 4,000 are usable. This translates into “thousands of copyright-free, quality, authentic images” that can be turned into daily social media updates or campaigns for DMOs, he pointed out.
“(Travellers) feel it’s an honour for a destination to take their image and use it to market the destination, especially when (they are) given credit,” said Cook.
Tapping user-generated content is exactly the path the Philippine Department of Tourism (DoT) has taken, having just rolled out the refreshed It’s More Fun in the Philippines campaign, which is entirely built on crowd-sourced photos and videos shared by tourists through the hashtag #itsmorefuninthePhilippines.
A creative example is also seen in Visit Scotland’s launch of a pop-up travel agency in London to sell holidays in Scotland – via Instagram photos, no less. The DMO created touchscreens with aggregated Instagram photos, allowing walk-in customers to simply tap five photos they like and place them into an itinerary that could be booked on the spot.
Visit Scotland is using “visual inspiration” to drive the decision-making process for travellers, explained the DMO’s senior market manager, Christina Bruns. “What is key especially for consumers today is participation and authenticity. What we have is authentic online content from consumers, their memories and experiences of Scotland, and we’re sharing that to create new memories and experiences for people coming through our door.”
The Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) has also created a collaborative storytelling platform, Mekong Moments, that draws destinations articles and reports from various sources. This initiative was driven in part by marketing budget constraints, as well as a way to build its digital marketing capacity through social media sharing, revealed MTCO’s executive director, Jen Thraenhart.
He also envisions Mekong Moments becoming a visual content sharing platform that could drive “social commerce”. For instance, visitors to the platform could click on a picture and use the #MekongMoments tag find out more about the destination and service provider.
“The more (travel operators) encourage their guests to share their experiences, the more content created, the more the Mekong region is promoted. This in turn also drives exposure for the business, and the region as a whole,” Thraenhart noted.
Cook agreed: “Once these (active links) start working and people receive booking enquiries, that really incentivises the industry to get their customers to take more photos and tag them – because they know the photo may end up being used by the DMO, which in turn drives business to them. This is a win-win relationship.”
Travel stakeholders think there is also value in using social media as a tool for visitor dispersal and overtourism, driving travellers to Instagram-worthy locations that are lesser-known and promoted.
Willem Niemeijer, CEO of Thailand-based Yaana Ventures implores destination marketeers to move away from promoting “perceived highlights” in South-east Asia.
Bagan, which is now overrun with visitors, continues to receive heavy promotion in Myanmar, while other unique but lesser visited places in the country such as Mrauk U deserves greater marketing and visitor attention, said Niemeijer.
It’s a similar story in Cambodia, where an icon like Angkor Wat continues to receive millions of tourists each year, while a short distance away lie other untouched temple complexes such as Banteay Srei.
Even in Phuket, whose beaches see daily throngs of crowds, Niemeijer contends that there remains unseen aspects on the popular island, varying from a gibbon rescue centre to turtle release programmes.
Moreover, destination marketeers can also turn to social media as a means to manage visitor traffic flow and volume, as every publicly shared image comes with location data.
For instance, Cook shared the example of tourism authorities using a heat map created from Instagram to ascertain the most popular timings and sections among hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which extends between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine in the US.
Through the map, authorities could easily see where all the hikers were at a given point in time, and built a strategy to thin out the traffic by offering alternative hiking routes and trip start dates.
The heat map is held up as a great visitor dispersal tool by Cook, who sees its application for any landmark or attraction where tourists tend to accumulate.
Despite the common association of social media with the millennials and hence the greater online efforts targeted at this segment, Richard Cutting-Miller, executive vice president of US-based Resonance consultancy, sees a prospective gold mine in digital travel marketing lying on the other end of the age spectrum.
“Everyone is crazy about the millennials,” he said. “But the reality is there’s a lot of old people, and the difference between millennials and seniors is that (the latter) have already paid off their house and put their kids through college.
“These seniors have time, money, means and health to travel. We’re talking about 20 to 30 more years of leisure travel consumption, but (instead of just focusing on millennials) destinations have to be ready for seniors as well, who aren’t going to be bungy jumping for instance.”
Urging travel marketers to understand the social media preferences and online behaviour between the different generations, Cook added: “Social media is a powerful tool when it comes to targeting audiences. People don’t use social media in the same way. You have to push the correct content to the correct audience.”
One way to target these seniors could be through the use of Twitter, suggested Cook. He advised: “What social media is replacing for these seniors is the newspaper. It is a good way for them to stay up to date, with numerous links to click through for articles. This generation still likes to read and consume text, and Twitter is a great way or propagating links to text-based content for their consumption.”