Destination Marketers Shift Their Digital Spend

I sensed a change might be underway.

In a series of recent meetings my firm had with different destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and convention and visitor bureaus (CVBs), the interest in online marketing has grown keener and more focused. Their attention seem to be shifting away from traditional online display advertising toward search marketing and social media. Is this a trend or just an indiscriminate observation?

Signs point to the former. At the 2006 Destination Marketing Association International’s (DMAI) annual conference, a presentation given by two CVBs described display advertising with such negative attributes as “old school,” “intrusive,” and having diminishing value, while keyword ads received more favorable descriptions. CVBs called Internet advertising as a whole a “dirty little secret” and seemed to believe the display ad picture that had been painted for them was rosier than the reality. With public bashing like this, no wonder DMOs are disenchanted.

Despite the cynicism, Henry Harteveldt, VP and principal analyst of travel research for Forrester Research, observed DMOs and CVBs have increased their online marketing noticeably, even compared with last year. “These marketers cannot afford to ignore any online options, but they’re more focused on value,” said Harteveldt.

Budget constraints play a big role in the new focus. DMOs and CVBs are municipally funded organizations, typically deriving their marketing dollars from local hotel, luxury, or airport taxes. Depending on how their governments allocate these tax dollars, the DMOs and CVBs may not have much more funding to play with in a given year than they did in previous years, so they’re having to rob Peter to pay Paul. And the Peter they’re robbing is the ad buy.

Perhaps they’re responding to consumer travel trends. The Travel Industry Association of America reports consumer response is less likely to be triggered by “paid media channels as opposed to ‘interactive marketing’ communications such as organic search engine results, e-mail recommendations by friends or colleagues, links, and opt-in e-mail newsletters.” Forrester points out the influence online consumer-generated reviews have in helping consumers find accommodations, attractions, and places to visit.

It’s the consumer community’s credibility and reliability, according to Robin Ingle, senior VP of advertising sales at TripAdvisor, one of the Web’s oldest and largest travel community sites, that has led to its success with advertisers. TripAdvisor only just began accepting display advertising in February of this year, and Ingle says its “targeted opportunity trumps a broader reach buy…. Agencies have been leading the charge, pushing their CVB clients to embrace this buy.”

Nor has TripAdvisor’s display advertising seemed to have negatively effected its community users. “The clear separation of church and state and the fact that the negative reviews still appear right there next to the ads and the positive reviews reinforces the consumer’s trust,” explains Ingle. Other review sites out there include IgoUgo and Yelp.

Hearing the call of social media, DMOs and CVBs seem to be contemplating building their own communities. Latching onto social media buzzwords like “blogging,” “RSS,” “podcasting,” “wikis,” “online video,” “viral marketing,” and “interactive gaming,” DMOs now seem more inclined to spend their marketing dollars on these kinds of tactics. “Build a blog — people will find it through Google anyway,” touted the DMAI speakers, somewhat misleadingly.

The future of DMO and CVB online marketing calls for a blend of tactics, both on and off the Web site. Online display advertising shouldn’t be a dirty word. Rather, campaigns must be strategically executed, such as by purchasing ads on travel sites and within opt-in e-mail travel newsletters and by using the advanced targeting capabilities of Web publishers. Social media definitely has a role, but rather than to try to recreate the wheel, CVBs and DMOs should become engaged users within existing social media channels.

Lastly, the future of travel marketing will involve mobile marketing, especially for last minute, on-location travelers. Mobile users looking for a favorite local hangout may tap communities like Google’s dodgeball or seek an instant discount coupon. Can you provide it to them? That’s consumer value.

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