Having recently spent a week in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the Jefferson-designed University of Virginia among other terrific places for baby boomer travelers to visit, I was intrigued to learn that the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau (CACVB) has been garnering all kinds of awards for its marketing efforts on social media.
Just a few days ago, the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI) announced that the CACVB’s social media campaign had won a prestigious Adrian Gold Award, which honors outstanding achievements in advertising, public relations and digital marketing in the travel industry.
The CACVB has also taken home awards this year for “Best Public Relations Initiative” and “Best Online Marketing Campaign” from the Virginia Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus, as well as a W3 Gold Award from the International Academy of Visual Arts for the “Best Tourism Website,” a global competition. (The new website was launched earlier this year and viewership has increased 79 percent.)
I also learned that in October 2012, the CACVB’s Facebook page achieved the #1 ranking as the most talked about travel and leisure city page in the world. In terms of social media fan engagement — measured in likes, comments and shares on Facebook — Charlottesville was surpassing cities such as Orlando, Washington, DC, Chicago and Philadelphia. In one survey the page trailed only Disney World, Disneyland, Dubai and New Zealand in travel and leisure destination pages around the world.
As of today, their Facebook fan page had more than 77,000 “likes.”
As soon as I went to the bureau’s Facebook page, I knew immediately why it was so popular. The page was aesthetically beautiful, splashed with gorgeous professional photography highlighting local scenery and attractions. Many photos were accompanied by requests to “like” them. And text was twitter-length brief, often trying to engage readers in dialogue by asking questions about the subjects of the photos and their experiences in Charlottesville.
To find out more about their social media marketing strategy, I called Bri Warner, the CACVB’s director of sales and marketing, who generously filled me in on the background.
She credited John Freeman, who until recently was Internet and Social Media Specialist for the bureau, with devising the initial strategy. “When he was hired three and a half years ago, we had no Facebook page,” Warner told me. “By trial and error, he saw what got the most reactions from readers. We discovered that running pretty pictures and asking people to like them really works.”
All told, they’ve amassed nearly 124 million Facebook impressions and in the past year have added nearly 57,000 Facebook fans. They’ve also added nearly 1,000 new twitter followers in the past year and have the top Pinterest site in Virginia.
As Freeman put it back in the summer of 2012, “We don’t use social media as a hard sales tool. Instead, we aim at appealing to the fans’ senses and create, maintain and increase that emotional connection they have with our destination.”
People who had grown up or attended college in Charlottesville and had moved away — or past visitors who had enjoyed their stays in the area — now had a place to go to rekindle their memories, and, very possibly, start making plans to revisit or move back.
Warner describes their typical Facebook user as “middle aged, female, and makes most of the travel decisions in the family.” With baby boomers some of the heaviest users of Facebook, it’s safe to say many of the page’s fans are in the boomer 49-67 age group — which also spends the most on travel of any generation in the country.
Charlottesville residents have also taken to the site. Local businesses soon started to see a spike in sales and in their own Facebook fan pages. And now, Bri Warner has some concrete figures on increases in economic benefits to Charlottesville and Albemarle County over the past two years:
* Direct visitor spending is up by 3.5% over 2011
* Jobs directly supported by tourism are up 1.5%
* Average annual lodging occupancy is up 3.2%
Warner gives this advice for devising a Facebook strategy, all fitting in perfectly with my first impressions of their page:
* “Keep posts short. Try and stay below 140 characters or less. Average continuous attention span of a literate human: 8 seconds.”
* “Always include a photo, video or a link. (Posts including a photo album, a picture or a video generate about 180%, 120% and 100% more engagement than the average post, respectively.)”
* “Post at least once a day — three times a day is ideal.”
* “Ask questions. Example (above a photo of restaurant prime beef): ‘How tasty does this prime beef look?'”
* “Post at peak times. The three biggest usage spikes tend to occur on weekdays at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 8 pm.”
All this has been done with minimal advertising spending on Facebook, running into a few thousand dollars compared to millions that some destination marketing organizations have sunk into social media. It’s brilliant in its economy and its simplicity. And it works.
So congratulations to the folks at the Charlottesville Albemarle C&VB. Native son Thomas Jefferson, who enjoyed toying with the latest technologies in his own day, would be proud.
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