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To Shout Or To Hashtag? Digital Challenges in Destination Branding
by Eduardo Oliveira
When was the last time you visited a travel agent? Or when was the last time you selected your holiday destination after reading a travel catalogue?
We live in an era where the internet has revolutionised our travel planning process. Nearly 183 million European internet users visited a travel web site in March 2013. 76% of users booked their travels through the internet.
With this in mind, what are the challenges for tourism destinations and the destination branding process? Should they keep ‘shouting’ their tourism potential by using ‘traditional’ marketing campaigns, such as catalogues, paper magazines ads, TV spots? The aim of this post is to discuss the use of digital platforms by tourism destinations and the impact of digital upon the destination branding process.
Setting the scene
Word of mouth has become a megaphone. Travellers can now create content that can influence future visits to a destination.
Taking an instagram picture of a #cupcake in New York, a cup of #tea in #Istanbul, or the Tower Bridge in #London and sharing it on facebook and twitter, has changed the way the world accesses destination information. User generated content affects the way a destination is communicated, plus the growing number of web based communities and the 2.0 sphere makes destination branding more tricky.
Understanding the challenges involved in the branding and management of destinations is an essential element for the success of tourism activity. Challenges may include those provoked by economic imbalances (for example the economic and financial crises in Greece), social and political protests (the recent protest in Turkey), environmental and natural catastrophe (for example the tsunami in Bali) and the exponential growth and influence of digital channels.
Some examples of tourist destinations
Identifying tourist destinations around the globe is an easy task. They are geographical areas; countries, regions, cities, or islands. But no matter what, they are all in competition to became more attractive places. Digital channels can help them achieve this. The other interesting element is that rankings have been established to measure the notoriety of destinations and destination brands. Here are some examples:
Cities as tourist destinations
Bangkok is the top tourist destination city by international visitor arrivals in 2013 according to the Global Destination Cities Index 2013 (May 2013). Tourists are packing their bags and heading to Thailand as the country’s capital beat the United Kingdom capital London (2nd). This is the first time that an Asian city is in the top rank since the Index was launched in 2010. London is followed by Paris (3rd), Singapore (4th), and New York (5th). All of them are already engaged with social media, predominantly facebook, twitter and youtube.
Countries as tourist destinations
United States of America (USA) tourism brand reigns supreme for Country Brand Strategy (CBS), according to The Bloom Consulting Country Brand Ranking – Tourism edition 2012. The Bloom Consulting rating is measured through brand tags and is able to show if a country supplies what tourists are seeking, and how well the country is matching this demand. The USA is followed by Spain (2nd), France (3rd), China (4th), Turkey (5th) and Thailand (6th) (Bloom Consulting Tourism Ranking interactive map).
What do I mean by digital challenges?
Destination branding has become one of the hottest topics amongst place branding research, from Turkey to Portugal, from Berlin to Edinburgh. These destinations, and many others, are facing challenges at economic, social, environmental and technological levels.
Factors including development of the internet, the wave of web-based communities known as web 2.0 such as facebook, twitter, instagram, youtube, tripadvisor, and the use of hashtags in those channels. These factors have changed market conditions hugely for tourism organisations and destinations.
According to European Travel Commission New Media Trend Watch over 2.7 billion people were using the internet in the first quarter of 2013. This represented 39% of the world’s population. Europe has the highest internet adoption rate in the world (75%). Internet websites are the most important source of information for planning a holiday and are the main method used for booking by European travellers (76% in 2013).
According to the survey Attitudes of Europeans Towards Tourism (March 2013) the most frequently used sources of information for trip planning are:
- Recommendations from friends, colleagues or relatives – 56%;
- Internet web sites – 46%;
- Personal experience about a destination – 34%;
- Travel agencies and tourism offices – 21%;
- Tourism brochures and catalogues – 11%.
Social networking websites provide forums for tourists to discuss the places they have visited, for example by using hashtags. They dream about a trip, they plan, they book the tickets and accommodation, they actually travel to the destinations with high hopes to feel the experience. Afterwards they will share their thoughts and feelings by using online means. The range of digital platforms are challenging destinations to enhance their efficiency and to re-design their communication strategies.
So, how to handle destination branding within the digital environment?
Tourist destinations are increasingly spending more on advertising, marketing campaigns and online promotional activities. The destination branding processes that use digital platforms, such as web pages, blogging, and social networks have become more puzzling. So, how best to use online channels to communicate a destination to the outside world?
For starters, destination managers should provide reasons and purposes for a visit to potential tourists. They should do this in a coherent way; maintaining communities of interest, collecting user-generated content, displaying photos and videos, emphasising local events, and encouraging word-of-mouth recommendations. Understand that content is king and communicate qualitative and diverse information.
However, other questions remain. How to design a destination brand or how to develop e destinations branding process? A destination brand should be part of the destination’s overall branding effort, and that is much more than creating a logo, a tagline or opening a facebook page. That effort should consider the community’s needs, being clear in terms of objectives. Engage with stakeholders and build the destination brand with them in an active and participatory way.
Making it simple
Effectively using the multiple social media channels requires coordination and coherent communication strategies integrated with the destination branding process and with existing systems and platforms. An effective use of social networks and web sites to communicate the destination tourism potential will support interoperability, personalisation and drive constant engagement with tourists (before, during, and after the visit).
The success of a destination branding process requires the right people, the right mindset, the right internal structures, and the right stakeholder and industry relationships where, across all of those things, innovation, decentralisation, and collaboration/networks are all important. Together, they will enhance the destination’s image, increase tourism revenues and improve competitiveness.