Why are tourist boards struggling to gain ground on Google when they should be seen as ‘the information kings’ for their relevant destination? Lee Hayhurst listens to the debate
Tourist boards are the ‘information kings’ on the destinations they represent but they often fail to create the content to capitalise on the authority this gives them online.
Round-table panellists were told that as far as the way Google sees the world, they were well-placed to be the leading authority on their destinations.
But content is not tailored to specific markets because head offices do not give regional marketers enough freedom or resources to invest online.
Tourist boards also said they often have competing demands from stakeholders and have to be seen to be non-partisan in terms of who and what they promote in a particular destination.
Stefan Hull, insights director at digital marketing agency Propellernet, said given the authority the tourist board websites have he would expect them to be higher up Google results.
He said this was particularly true for more long-tail search terms. “For some of you, for specific brand terms, you are visible. But for the way some people are searching you are not, and you should be,” he said.
Hull said 70% of search volume comes from long-tail searches. “It’s building a structure that enables you to support this information. In many cases it’s about how you structure your site more effectively.”
Hull pointed out that Visit Jamaica has 75,000 links into the site, but it is invisible on Google for the search term ‘things to do in Jamaica’.
Tour specialists such as Viator and destination review sites such as TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet dominated the lucrative first page slots on Google.
“You have massive power. I would expect you to be coming up far higher than you do. Maybe you’re not tagging your information appropriately. It could be a relatively easy technical fix,” Hull said.
Tourist boards said they have to juggle a range of different demands from stakeholders, often their destination head offices, which do not always understand what sort of content is most appropriate.
Robert Wilson, UK director of NYC & Company, which promotes New York, said the various interested parties in promoting the city have different views on return on investment.
For some, it simply comes down to how much money tourists spend when they are in New York to maximise the revenue take from inbound tourists, he said.
Carol Hay, UK director of marketing at the Caribbean Tourism Organisation, said: “For us, sustainability is very much part of it, as well as entrepreneurialism.
“It’s very important that smaller companies benefit from tourism and that some of that tourist dollar stays in the Caribbean. We want volume but we also want sustained quality.”
Panellists agreed that destinations must focus on the experience but also hone content to specific interests as the concept of a holiday ‘paradise’ means different things to different people.
Manuel Diaz-Cebrian, director of the Mexico Tourism Board, said: “Some people are looking for culture and to learn something as well as finding out what the beaches and hotels are like.”
Hay added: “You need to support your target audience. Who are you trying to attract? Use that segmentation to create specific content.”
Hull said search is often overlooked in destination campaigns that tend to focus on advertising, trade shows, social media and outreach programmes.
“I’m wondering if it’s a confusion about how search works,” he said. “Do you worry about competing against holiday companies or flight providers?
“Search used to be about technical stuff – that’s how you got to the top five or 10 positions [on Google] years ago.
“Now it’s increasingly around content and authority and those are very specific things. Often a tone of voice from a head office may not be right for the UK consumer.”
Wilson said regional tourist board offices are often only given two landing pages of the destination’s website, meaning they have to use social media to get a more local message across.
“Some 80% of New York’s visitors come from within four hours’ drive of the city, so the tourist board can go out and communicate something that’s happening this weekend.
“You need the local resource, and maybe you need to use Twitter and Facebook to get those messages out to other markets.”
Dawn Parr, Botswana Tourism director, said: “At the moment we are not using any social media, partly because a lot of search has been done from head office and they do not get that social media is such a big thing.”
Orestis Rossides, director of the Cyprus Tourism Organisation, said: “The issue we have is getting flexibility from head office, but at the moment we are not really sure how to go into social media.
“For us it’s very exciting, we can see it’s the future, but do we go in for competitions or extensions of existing messages?”
Bethany Schuh, travel trade director of Visit California, said the most successful campaigns it has run have been social media linked to television.
Hull said campaigns that integrate different media can be more measurable with TV advertising increasingly using web traffic metrics to assess its success and impact.
He advised the tourist board panellists to think about content first before embarking on any decision on marketing, and, in particular, which social media channel to focus on.
“For those of you not doing it at the moment it’s not about search or social media or television, it’s about potential visitors and how they behave.
“Put content first and foremost. People share great content and they link to great content. If you can understand your customers and serve up great content then you can start thinking about a Twitter feed because you have great content.
“People set up pages on Facebook or Twitter feeds and think they are doing social media, but they are not.
“If you are thinking about setting up a Twitter feed but are not going to check it more than once a week, do not set it up.”
Rossides, said it was a challenge to move to the new world of social media from forms of marketing that have worked in the past, and tailor a mass-market message to a more attentive online audience.
“It’s our job as marketers to find out where we can get that great content,” he said.
“We want to highlight what is best within the country, which are the best hotels and restaurants or golf courses, and the best places for weddings and honeymoons.
“But we do not want to take responsibility for the actions of someone who does not deliver. Tourist boards have gone from dealing with the bread and butter of the media and travel agents, to the public but we don’t have enough staff to deal with the public day to day.”
With tourist board sites expected to be used more during the early research stage of a consumer booking journey, Hull said it was important they provided inspiration.
Here, sites such as Pinterest or Flickr could come in handy, although he warned against just jumping on the latest bandwagon. “You have to choose your battles. Do not try to take on the world unless you have unlimited budgets.
“You drive authority by people linking to you. There are so many options out there, that is why it’s important you come back and listen to customers and serve up content they want.”
Content marketing, through engaging influential bloggers and developing strong advocates, was suggested as an effective and efficient way to achieve this. “Forget link building, it’s about content marketing,” said Hull. “There are people who will cheat, let them get on with it, they’ll be caught.”
While the panel agreed that tourist board websites ought to be the most credible given their non-commercial status, noise created by powerful tour operators often gets in the way.
And Natalie Duggan, head of destinations at the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board, said it often has a problem with the ex-pat diaspora in the UK itself who command genuine authority but may be disparaging about their country of origin.
“That can be difficult because we are seen as the genuine authority but then you have someone talking about their home country saying this or that is not fantastic. You have to deal with it in a way that’s not seen as going into battle.”
Hay agreed saying a Caribbean diaspora website called 360news makes her “cringe”. She said: “They do not realise the way they are sensationalising the story.”
Melanie Jones, northern and western Europe manager at the Singapore Tourism Board said it has had no problem finding advocates with an affiliation to the destination.
Rossides added: “Our allies are the good writers who can go into detail and find out what is at the heart of the destination.”