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Tourism: Outsourcing social media with a local voice
By Charles Swenson
As Georgetown County raises its use of social media to promote tourism, it will have to decide who can best tell its story from a distance.
“Will we lose our voice?” asked Jennifer Norman, the county tourism director, during interviews last week with three prospective social media managers. The county could use its own manager, she has said, but the Tourism Management Commission has included $750 a month(?) in its budget to contract for that service. The commission would like to emulate the success seen by the town of Pawleys Island. Its Facebook following grew from 5,000 to 12,000 likes in eight months this year.
The town’s social media accounts are managed by the S.C. National Heritage Corridor, a nonprofit that receives federal funds to promote culture, history and nature. The lesson from Pawleys Island is “that engagement is No. 1,” said Grace Nelson, who manages the town’s account and wants to take on that role for the county as well. “Whoever you choose needs to do a lot of research,” Nelson told the tourism commission.
The heritage corridor has a price advantage as a nonprofit. At a minimum, it would charge the county $7,600 a year. With extra services, that would go to $9,800 plus another $1,000 for each special promotion. Two firms were also bidding for the county’s account Pineapple Public Relations of Atlanta and ITI Digital of Brunswick, Ga., and would cost a minimum of $20,500 and $29,500, respectively, with additional charges for campaigns and promotions.
The tourism commission already uses software from ITI to manage an online calendar of events. It buys ads in a magazine published by the heritage corridor.
But Deborah Stone, founder of Pineapple PR, said she is a regular vacationer to the area. “What makes us different from everybody else is we really, really love this area,” she said. “We can sell it with a passion.”
Franci Eddgerly, president of ITI, said the area is similar to her home on St. Simon’s Island, Ga. “You have more to offer than we do,” she told the commission. “You have a big story to tell. Social media is part of that.”
The groups also made it clear that whether done locally or from afar passion isn’t always enough. Lilly McCann, the social media specialist for Pineapple, said that “organic reach” is hard to come by and that less than 20 percent of social media messages will be seen without some form of paid promotion. For Pineapple, that means using “influencers,” people with an established audience in the travel realm who will share posts for a fee or some other compensation.
Without pay-to-play, “you can post something and nobody will see it,” Nelson said. Pawleys Island gained 70 percent of its new likes through ads. Many of those are by people already in the area, but Nelson has told the town’s tourism committee that local support is important to the success of the overall social media campaign.
Even with the added cost of promotions, social media marketing remains relatively low-cost. The commission approved a series of ads in Garden and Gun magazine that will cost $50,313 through July. Norman wasn’t able to negotiate a discount. “They’ve got people waiting,” she said.
Social media also has the advantage of being able to adapt to changing conditions. It’s the best way to deal with crises such as hurricanes, Stone said. “As small as we are, social media is the only way we can be nimble,” Norman said.
“That’s why it’s important to expand that reach,” commission member David McMillan said.
Eddgerly told the commission that New Smyrna Beach, Fla., uses social media to help smooth conflicts between residents and tourists on issues such as traffic.
The commission expects to make a decision on its social media manager next month.
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