#SoMeT13US - The 2013 Social Media Tourism Symposium

I will apologize in advance for the length of this post. Be forewarned, you may need to break up the consumption into about three parts!

Some of you who follow me on twitter or Facebook may have noticed the hashtag #SoMeT13US in recent posts. If you’re into social media, you may have followed the hashtag itself.

SoMeT13US is the annual Social Media Tourism Symposium. The US is because there are now symposiums in Australia and Europe. This year social media strategists and community managers involved in tourism from all across America gathered in Huntsville, AL to network with each other and learn from incredible leaders in our industry.

Why Huntsville you might ask? SoMeT is unlike any other bid process you’ve ever heard of. In December, the organizers gather RFP’s from hopeful communities, which are organized into a college basketball-type playoff bracket. Early rounds are the “final 64”, which are reduced in subsequent rounds until it reaches the final four and finally, the championship bracket.

The finals this year were Huntsville vs Missoula. Though Huntsville alone is about 1/3 the population of the entire state of Montana, they only squeaked by with a mere 3000 vote lead.

Huntsville managed to pull off the win by completely engaging their community, state and region. They created the hashtag #MeetMeAtTheRocket, which they plastered EVERYWHERE along with #SoMeT13US and Vote for Huntsville – on sidewalk chalk drawings, in bathroom stalls, on billboards, in company email newsletters, on restaurant tables, in lines at Starbucks and movie theaters. They got incredible media coverage (as did the conference while we were in town). All to encourage everyone to vote on the Thursdays when the match-ups were released.

What they found was that the entire community took ownership of the campaigns. By the end of voting days, organizers would have multiple emails in their in-boxes reminding THEM to vote – these had been forwarded on through other email networks. All to attract around 300 social media professionals to their community for a four day conference. If my spending is any indication, they realized around a $300,000 economic impact and millions of social media impressions from the event. Not bad for a campaign that essentially cost staff time and a little local advertising, most of which was donated.

Social and Tourism

This most social of industries – travel and tourism – has been very slow to get on the social media bandwagon. In an era where everything from retail sales to television show popularity is driven by social media, there are still tourism organizations around the country (ahem…), who are reluctant to embrace the power of social to market their destinations.

Our conservative approach consists of websites (which is good), partnering with our state and regional organizations (also good), and then placing the same ad in the same print publications year after year, even though these have no track record of attracting visitors to our destinations. Three major travel print publications – Conde Nast, National Geographic and Travel and Leisure magazine have just experienced mass lay-offs and reorganizations indicating that things may not be well in the paradise of print travel publications.

Today we are in the age of the over-educated consumer. On average, a consumer seeks 10.4 sources of information before making a purchasing decision – including their travel decisions. A single ad or article in a print publication is not going to reach today’s traveler. They are going to seek reviews on TripAdvisor; postings from their social networks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a host of other services; they’re going to google information and read travel bloggers. Eventually, they might visit your website. What they’re not going to do is see a print ad and make the decision to visit your destination.

So what are we to do? We have got to engage social and empower our fans to do our marketing for us. Travel is inherently SOCIAL! Remember the old cliché of being invited over to your neighbors’ house to watch an endless slide show of their vacation? We’re still doing that, but now it’s on Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Facebook and our own blogs. We want to share our amazing experiences, and we want to learn about the amazing experiences others have had, because we want to have them ourselves!

Here are a few key takeaways from #SoMeT13US:

Think like a Rock Star!

Rock stars appreciate their fans. Rock stars LOVE their fans. They are not seeking new fans. They are rewarding existing fans – ticket specials, early release opportunities, backstage passes, and personal time. Why? Because they know that these hard-core fans will be out there creating the new fans for them!

By creating an emotional relationship with our fans, the relationship is eventually going to translate into sales. We are concentrating on the wrong people! We shouldn’t be expending our efforts to attract new visitors. We should be loving up on our existing visitors. After making sure they had the most amazing experience in your destination possible, reward them for telling their story – showcase their photos, share their stories, shout out to them, provide contests and rewards for them, create special events just for these fans.
  • Visitor stories build brands – start focusing on the authentic stories people trust and believe (and it’s not advertising!)
  • Increasing the number of stories people tell in their own personal networks is MARKETING – it does not have to happen on your channel. These stories build your brand.

  • Motivate – give people a reason to whip out their phone, take a photo, share it
  • What do people share the most? Remarkable things.

  • Photo ops – Give people a remarkable place to take photos.
  • Large frames placed around town framing iconic sites
  • Distribute frames to partners, residents, visitors (with info on sharing with hashtags so you can track and curate it)
  • Large chalk boards in key sites where people can create their own messages and take photos
  • Enable – Wifi – offer LOTS. If people take a photo and they can’t share it easily then and there, they might not share it
Put cheese on the broccoli! Your sales message is the broccoli – visitor stories are the cheese!

Embrace YOUtility

The difference between helping and selling is just two letters. If you’re helping, you’re selling. YOUtility is marketing so useful people would pay for it. Be radically transparent! If you don’t do something so good, and your neighbor down the road does, sell them. Promote your destination less. Teach about your destination more.

Think about your own personal newsfeed. You see a post from a friend, then a family member, then someone you don’t really know, then a page you have liked. As marketers, we’re not only competing against other destinations, we’re competing against EVERYONE! If our posts aren’t educational, engaging, inspirational, they’re going to get scrolled past, and rightly so. Better yet, if it is your potential visitors’ friends and families posting about your destination, you’re golden!

Remember the quote above about 10.4 sources of information before purchase decisions? If you think you’ve got enough info up on your website, you’re wrong! Answer every question anyone has ever asked or thought about asking about your destination.
  • Questions create friction, friction creates uncertainty, uncertainty keeps people from coming to see you.


So, how to implement a marketing strategy that helps you engage real people to become advocates for your brand? You’ve got to empower your WHOLE ORGANIZATION to become social. From the CEO to the receptionist, everyone needs to know how to create compelling content on their own channels. If you can’t get likes, shares and retweets from your own organization people, do you really expect your wider audience to participate? If the entire staff isn’t taking photos at the local events they’re attending and posting them so you can share them out on the official channels, can you expect others to?

From there, get your partners involved. Do they need social media training? Use some of your marketing budget to provide it for them. Then move on to other locals.
  • Basic tourism fact #1: The number one reason for traveling is to visit friends and family.
  • Basic tourism fact #2: Potential visitors trust recommendations from friends and family most of all.
Get your locals engaged on your social media channels!

Implement the tools to help them.

  • After training, create a social media content calendar so everyone knows what the thrust is going to be and how they can help create content to spread the word.
  • Provide showcases – a page on your website, aggregate content on a tumblr page, rock Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube so you are attracting lots of great content to share.

It’s all about the HASHTAG!

Social listening is vital, and you can do it a number of different ways. Google alerts, social mention, twitter searches. How do you make it easier? ROCK THE HASHTAG!

OK, OK, OK, so every little teeny bopper with a smart phone is #hashtaggingeverything #omg #lol. But hashtags are meant to be useful! Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest have all enabled searchable hashtags. Want to see what people are posting about #Nebraska? Click on the Hashtag! #Huskers #GBR. How about #NLD14? #NPNE? #NorthPlatte? #GoldenSpike? #GST? #RailFest14? (hint – for Instagram, on your desktop, you’ll need a third-party app. I recommend Ink361)

Create an AMAZING (and short!) Hashtag, then ROCK IT! Use it every time you post! Make sure all of your staff, partners, locals are using the appropriate Hashtag every time they post. Then monitor it! If someone posts to the hashtag, there better be someone at the other end responding to it if it warrants a response – within about 10 minutes!

Engage the influencers!

There are already people out there posting about your destination. Who are they? Are you thanking them? Are you rewarding them? Are you making it easy for them? I’m speaking, of course, of bloggers. These come in all shapes and sizes – Macro bloggers - People with a blog; Micro bloggers - Facebook posters; and Nano bloggers - Twitters. There are mommy bloggers, family bloggers, travel bloggers, baby-boomer travel bloggers, mommy travel bloggers, family travel bloggers, beer travel bloggers, quilt travel bloggers… you name it, there’s a blog out there for it!

Seek out your local bloggers – they’re there, trust me. They have networks. Ask them for help in finding appropriate bloggers. Think statewide. Nebraska has wonderful bloggers, who love this state, want to see it grow and would be happy to help. Then seek out professional national and international bloggers. TBEX would be a great place to start. Of course, after you’ve found them, check them out. Do they write about what you have? How long have they been doing it? How influential are they? What size of followings do they have on multiple platforms?

Think it’s not worth your while to cultivate travel bloggers? Just re-read the beginning of this post. How long is it going to be before there aren’t any print magazines left? And honestly, it takes little or nothing to cultivate travel bloggers!

Authentic bloggers don’t get paid for their blogging. Let me say that again – bloggers don’t get paid! How long would their audience trust them if they knew hotel x, attraction y or destination z were PAYING them for the words they were writing. Not long. Now, that isn’t to say that you should make travel bloggers pay for their rooms, meals and admission. They will disclose to their audiences what perks they received in your destination.

Now, free travel is nice, but just how do travel bloggers make a living? They provide additional services! Most bloggers are wonderful photographers. Need more photos for your library? While the blogger is in your destination, commission them to take some photos for you. Bloggers are writers! Need some help with your website, or some content for your own blogs? Commission them to write so many words/articles for you. Is there an area of expertise that a blogger can teach about? Hire them to do some training while they are in your destination.

The Devil is in the Details

Having trouble getting social? Here are some step-by-steps:
  • Get mobile. Mobile just surpassed desktop/laptop (as in 57%) in web use. Start by making sure your website is optimized for mobile.
  • Explore the main tourism-centric channels: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Foursquare.

  • Choose the ones you’re going to work on and ROCK them!
  • Create compelling content – this means photos, photos, photos! Be helpful, tell stories, teach. Post regularly and often!
  • Connect – Find your advocates – partners, locals, bloggers, social media aficionados. Reach out to them. Let them create content for you.
  • Create some campaigns, contests, events - projects that will tie social to your entire marketing program. This includes hashtags!
What are you waiting for? Get social!


  1. Hi Muriel, what a comprehensive recap of #SoMeT13US! Thanks so much for the mention of my Think Like a Rock Star session. One think to keep in mind: When you focus on delighting your fans (for a destination this could include locals that love the area) you are INDIRECTLY focusing on sales. Because those fans are going to go out of their way to promote the area to others, which attracts more visitors and increases money spent at your destination! So definitely focus on connecting with your fans, but also remember WHY you are doing that, because giving your fans an amazing experience LEADS TO MORE $$$ :) Thanks again for a great post!

    1. Thank you Mack. I really got a lot out of your session. Great information. Thanks for presenting! Hope to see you on down the road.


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