Tupelo Tourism Offers Glimpse Into Future of SMB Ads

  |  October 25, 2011   |  Comments

The Mississippi birthplace of Elvis draws visitors using a diverse blend of digital tactics.

Like many mid-sized advertisers, the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau has been experimenting with interactive marketing. Unlike many such advertisers, this agile tourism organization has ramped up its spend extremely quickly. The Tupelo CVB's director of marketing, Sean Johnson, estimates digital already accounts for 40 to 50 percent of its $400,000 annual marketing investment, up from virtually nothing one year ago.

How did it happen?

Tupelo CVB is a nonprofit, quasi-government agency whose marketing budget comes from tax dollars. It aims its advertising primarily at two groups: people within an hour's drive of this city of 40,000 in Northeast Mississippi, and Elvis fans from the U.S. and overseas likely to be drawn here because it's the King's birthplace. Tupelo CVB's marketing director has relied on display, search, and social media ads to reach both groups.

tupelo1Back in January, Johnson began working with AdReady to buy geo-targeted ads intended for people within driving distance who might want a night on the town. "We have a lot of small towns, and we have a good highway system. It doesn't take a long time for people to get to Tupelo and hang out," he said.

Using AdReady's self-serve display ad tools, Johnson created multiple versions of ads promoting Tupelo's weekend hotel and dining spots, and then he delivered them to surrounding areas. Or rather, he created one version and AdReady's system spat out different ad sizes and automatically distributed them through ad exchange buys. It layered on geo-targeting and website retargeting. Display ads aimed at Elvis fans worked in much the same way. According to Johnson, Presley pilgrims come primarily from the Midwest and Europe, so he targeted those regions.

This costs him about $5,000 per month on an ongoing basis, a budget AdReady is able to control. Johnson was also able to get regular telephone customer service during the set-up and training phase.

That hasn't always been true of Google. A year ago Johnson created a Google search campaign but suspended it in part because of difficulty getting questions answered directly by a rep.


"I've tried to advertise with Google before, and I couldn't get anyone on the phone, couldn't get anyone to answer my emails," said Johnson. "I don't have 150,000 a year to have the right to have someone talk to me."

He has recently restarted the search program, and sees considerable improvement in the service aspect.


The click-through rates on Tupelo's AdReady-placed campaigns have been strong: approximately 0.23 percent for the locally targeted ads and 0.45 percent for the Elvis creative. That's slightly higher than the 0.14 click-through rate it has had with its most recent Google ad buy, though search costs less because the Tupelo CVB doesn't have to pay the ad platform fee and management fee AdReady charges.

A more important metric than clicks is hospitality tax receipts, submitted to the state by restaurants, hotels, and other businesses and passed on to the CVB. "I'm not selling anything on my site," Johnson said. "If people come to the site that's great but the message I want to give them is contained in the ad."

Looking at tax receipts, in June 2011, Tupelo enjoyed 12 percent growth in weekend business compared with the same month in 2010, when it wasn't using display, search, or social ads. A month later, in July, year-over-year growth was even higher at 18 percent, but he chalks the extra six percent up to a TV ad that ran around that time.


Tupelo's Facebook marketing is significantly different from its search and display ads. Johnson has advertised there to promote a local independent film festival, and to reach regional sports fans who may plan to attend events like the Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State football game in November.

To boost the film festival on Facebook, Johnson started the ad process by narrowing the addressable audience to movie fans, of which there were 60,000 within 50 miles. Out of that 60,000, the number interested in independent film was 600 - too few. He reached a broader audience by narrowing to "horror films."

"Independent film is not going to play to the masses. 'Horror films' had 18,000 people interested," said Johnson. He then used this insight to develop content that would build buzz for the festival. "We did a horror blog and [the festival] sold out."

The jury is still out on the Facebook ads' performance. The click-through rates for Tupelo's most recent ads on the site are lower than Johnson saw late last year.

Mobile Strategy

Tupelo recently spent $8,000 to develop a mobile app geared to day-trippers and Elvis acolytes. The app has video linked to locations in the city - for example historical footage of the King's 1956 concert there and the aftermath of a Category 5 tornado that hit the primarily black Shakerag district in 1936. Johnson also interviewed some surviving women who lived in the neighborhood at the time.

Finally, Johnson also decided to play around with a QR code. He placed an ad in literary magazine The Oxford American; the ad was emblazoned with Elvis's mug. Readers were encouraged people to scan the code and then hold the phone over Elvis's mouth to play a video that made it look as though he were talking.

"I got an Elvis impersonator to read the copy for me," said Johnson. "The click through, I'm not excited about. But it's fun."

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Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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