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Tourism: Social media challenges marketing effort

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A growing number of Facebook users like Georgetown County, but members of the county Tourism Management Commission are concerned that social media will siphon potential visitors from the website that connects them with accommodations providers.

Maintaining the balance between online strategies will be a new challenge for the county’s tourism marketing effort, which only a few years ago tried to strike a balance between print media and the Internet.

Lauren Cobb, who took over this fall as the county’s tourism marketing director, changed the Facebook strategy last month. Promotions that once sent Facebook users to the county’s tourism website now generate “likes.”

“Trying to build community is not so much about sending people to the website,” Cobb said.

There were over 14,000 visits to the website in October, an increase of nearly 20 percent from September. That came while the number of referrals from Facebook dropped by more than half.

The Facebook page is for the Hammock Coast, a brand created by the tourism commission. It has over 2,000 likes, including 200 added last week through promotions.

Cobb’s goal is to have 20,000 likes.

“I still think the website is where we need to keep focused,” said Helen Benso, who chairs the commission. “The website is the portal to our accommodation partners.”

Although the web traffic grew last month, a Facebook link would have added 2,000 to 4,000 more visitors, she said.

Commission member Bob Seganti agreed that people don’t go to Facebook to book accommodations, but “it’s the ultimate word of mouth,” he said.

“I’ve never clicked on an ad of Facebook,” commission member Drew Street said. He thinks the strategy provides good exposure, but wonders when it will shift to boosting Web traffic.

The advantage of the current strategy is “we’re spending less money and getting more response,” Cobb said.

It has also helped boost recognition of the Hammock Coast brand. The name and its variations are now near the top of the search terms used by people who visit the website.

Commission members, who reviewed the strategy for the first time at a meeting last week, agreed to let it run.

And with the Internet now the largest portion of the commission’s $564,000 marketing budget, members say it is time to improve the way it analyzes data from its website.

The commission now uses Google Analytics, which is free. The upgrade to the more detailed Google Enterprise would cost $150,000, Cobb said.

However, she suggested an Adobe software product that would cost $9,000 for setup and training and $6,500 a year to license.

Along with providing more information about how people use the county’s tourism website, the software would allow the commission to check the numbers it gets from vendors who are paid to bring traffic to the site.

“It’s something that we really want to look at closely,” Benso said, although she said she is reluctant to spend money on areas other than marketing.

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