The Setting as a Character in Destination Marketing

Traveling around the world provides life-changing experiences. Experiencing a new country, its culture, its food, its people and its history is powerful, eye opening and inspiring. Yet, there is a challenge with utilizing our digital advertising units to convey this to customers. How do you communicate 2 ½ millennia of Roman history in a banner ad? Do you feel the mystery of Stonehenge in an AdWord? Can you explore the wonders of Cancun beyond Spring Break in a tweet?

Before we answer, let’s look at television advertising, which has been said to be near death for its lack of targeting, high costs, “skip-ability”, competition from the Internet and the movement to “cut the cord.” Despite this, TV has fought back every year, and has not only kept their market share but has actually grown. It’s amazing, especially when television’s metrics are softer and more vague than even the most generic form of Internet advertising.

How did television do it?

From civilization’s first recorded story in 2500BC about the Sumerian King Gilgamesh’s adventures to the Bible, Quran, and Torah to Shakespeare to today’s Hollywood movies, the answer lies in storytelling. Stories were once a tool to explain certain phenomena as well as in passing down culture and language from generation to generation. In addition, stories utilize our innate ability to retain space and time, thus acting as a mechanism to help us remember; only recently in the context of human civilization have we had the printing press, disk drive, and “cloud” to jog our memories. Unfortunately most forms of digital advertising are “snapshot” based: One frame in a 720 frame commercial, one page in a 200 page book, one tweet in a conversation of many. Though a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s hard to get the full gist of anything in this limited time and space. It’s hard to capture that one image, tweet, or tagline that moves you. It’s hard to spread the message. Thus, as we get inundated with more advertising, stories will help with recall and virality.

Hollywood filmmakers receive huge tax incentives from destinations to tell their stories there. We’ve heard that Virginia is for Lovers, India is Incredible and New Zealand is 100% pure, but without the actual experience these are phrases with little personal meaning. After seeing “The Hangover,” however, a memorable story is provided to illustrate the “What Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” tagline; even if you have never been to there, the tagline makes sense. If you cannot create a television commercial or a movie, not all is lost. The written word is still mighty for storytelling and social media is the inexpensive distribution channel to your audience. Native advertising, where accomplished storytellers integrate a brand into their story, is gaining momentum with publishers like the New York Times jumping in. All of the tools are available and inexpensive. Now it’s a matter of how creative we can be. Stories are compelling, but words are not. Crafting the right words in the right order is not easy.

For destination marketers getting into the “consideration set” is the beginning of the conversion process, which leads to your other marketing tools like social and ratings and reviews, which leads to new happy customers. The best way to get into this consideration set with an emotional product like destination travel is by evoking emotions. Bloggers, journalists, and storytellers bring you into their worlds with their perspectives and viewpoints, providing a powerful emotional journey. Their views may become yours, but their story is their own. You feel inspired to create your own unique story: to feel the awe being in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer, to experience the grandness of the Taj Mahal, to witness the massive scale of the Burj Khalifa, to study the progression of architecture in Rome, to inhale the smells at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, or to taste the cuisines at the Temple Street Night Market. Storytelling provides the full picture that marketers need to convey that which touches the five senses as well as the emotions of the destination. Settings are more memorable as another character in the story rather than simply the backdrop. While traveling to Italy and Turkey, I was coincidentally reading Dan Brown’s fast paced “Inferno”; set in the same countries. Landmarks, such as the Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and Spice Market that were visited by the hero came to life. Unlike a static background, they became another character integral to the story based on their unique geography, architecture, or history.

In the digital advertising world, we measure our efficacy through impressions, clicks, or likes. While recall, inspiration, excitement, or emotional impact gets you into the consideration set, they are metrics that never make a marketer’s dashboard; with the new focus on storytelling, maybe they should.

This story originally appeared in TRO SMITH