Investigating the use of social media tools by destination marketing organisations.
The objective of this study is to ascertain the extent to which Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) utilise social media tools in a bid to promote their tourism destinations to the world. In a tourism sense in particular, social media provide the ideal platforms for individuals to connect and share travel experiences with friends and family (Munar & Jacobsen 2013). Howison et al. (2014) illustrate the experiential, intangible nature of the tourism product in exploring the pivotal role that social media can have in the decision-making process of prospective travellers. Destination marketers must, therefore, embed a structure which looks to harness and nourish the online conversation focused around their destination via engaging with users of these social media platforms in a way which is not seen as intrusive or dominated by corporate themes. This study employs a mixed-methods approach. An online survey was conducted in the summer of 2014, whereby 63 national and state-level (USA) DMOs were surveyed on their current social media activities and internal structure. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted (face-to-face and via Skype) in order to further probe the users’ perceptions of social media and to gauge its usefulness within their organisation’s marketing activities. Usage of social media among DMOs varies a great deal. While all DMOs surveyed have an official presence on Facebook, usage of the many other networks remains sporadic. Increased worldwide usage of social media along with the growing trend of prospective travellers conducting research on potential holiday destinations online were the two most prevalent motivations behind DMOs venturing into social media; 72% and 58% (respectively) of those surveyed gave a rating of five out of five in terms of their importance behind their decision to engage with social media. The majority of survey respondents (84%) allocate between just one and five individuals to maintain their social media presences, while 36% say that they have no single person in the organisation specifically allocated to social media, instead social media is seen as supplementary to their main role in the organisation. A total of 38% stated that they expect their social media team to expand over the next 12 months, while 67% of those surveyed claim building ‘Brand Awareness’ to be the most important aspect of engaging in social media, ahead of the more finance-focused metrics, such as ‘Sales/Increase Visitor Numbers’ (7%) and ‘Cost Reduction’ (2%). In terms of social media’s potential impact on tourism numbers, the interviewee from Tourism Ireland explained the positive impact that social media has had on Ireland’s tourism brand exposure worldwide. He explained how Tourism Ireland can definitively say that 174,314 people travelled to Ireland in 2013 (during The Gathering initiative) after viewing one or more of Tourism Ireland’s promotional ads on social media. He did add, however, that while it’s certainly correlation, it is not necessarily causality. Such difficulty in attributing social media activities to growth in tourism numbers, therefore, remains a stiff challenge for all DMOs. Academic research in social media remains in its infancy, with the current fleet of platforms in a constant state of change and mutation. In a world whereby consumers are turning to peer reviews and the persuasive power of corporate marketing initiatives continue to decline, DMOs have now been charged with the task of building and maintaining an online community of brand advocates who will endeavour to bolster the destination’s image in online forums. While some are still getting to grips with social media, it remains a pivotal platform for self-promotion, community engagement, and market analysis, and will continue to be long into the future.
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