Leah Woolford , Founder and CEO of USDM.net, is a recognized leader in digital marketing and was the luncheon presenter at E-Tourism Summit in New York City. The following is an excerpt from an interview that was conducted during E-Tourism Summit in New York City.
Q: What do you believe has been the biggest Internet impact on DMOs?
LW: Really there are two big impacts:
One: The Internet has caused DMOs to greatly expand their role from information providers to sellers of travel. Today they have to compete with commercial web sites (OTAs) that sell travel.
They have to attract the buyer, influence the buyer and complete the sale. It’s a difficult transition. They must remain relevant and consumer behavior dictates that they take on this role.
We help them prove to their boards that eCommerce is necessary on a DMO web site.
Number 2 : For DMOs, Advertising as we have known it is dead. That may sound like a radical statement, but look at the newspaper industry in free fall, and the broadcast networks delivering their shows online to consumers. Consumers go to the Internet for entertainment and eCommerce transactions. It’s all online, and the online space gets bigger and bigger with the untethered web now pervasive on smart phones. Its an exciting new world for advertising and marketing with endless possibilities and opportunities for DMOs and all travel marketers.
Q: Does that mean that DMOs and other marketers don’t need television broadcast and print to advertise anymore?
LW: No, I don’t mean that. But, what DMOs need is an INTEGRATED strategy that leads with online strategy and to offline tactics where they do the best job.
DMOS are some of the smartest marketers in travel. They have to be. They have limited budgets and staff resources. But they are smart and they work smart. They are starting to realize that they cannot rely on their traditional agency to provide an online strategy if that traditional agency has made their fees from commissions and creative development. Its hard to measure offline but you can certainly measure online very accurately. We prove results to city councils, boards and state offices, which in turn can lead to additional funding, where we have been involved.
And, now Public Relations as we have known it is dying. It is being replaced by what we at USDM.net have trademarked “consumer engagement”. It is much more than just Twitter, Facebook, and consumer generated content. Those are tactics.
Q: Explain what you mean about public relations being dead but social marketing is so much more…
A: Take into account that anyone can post on Twitter or upload destination images to a Facebook fan page. So what? Who cares? Where’s the business objective? What matters is that the DMO has a strategy for consumer engagement and that strategy is brand-centric. For example, if a DMO posts regularly to Twitter are they brand-centric with their posts? Is it relevant to who they are trying to communicate with? Consumers in general, moms, reporters and travel writers? Who? There has to be a strategy and the implementation of that strategy has to be focused on consumer engagement, customer experience and customer value. Then we measure DMO engagement, we use Neilson’s buzz metrics.
In fact, we have been retained by Eileen Ogintz, the nationally syndicated columnist and frequent guest on Today Show. Her company retained us to develop a commercial web portal to reach more family travelers. With that engagement we are doing some very exciting things with Eileen for DMOs. This bridges social marketing, public relations and broadcast, but ultimately it is what we call “consumer engagement”…. It is exciting because Eileen can command such an audience in print, online or broadcast. That is exciting for DMOs!
Q: On the topic of social marketing… Do you think that DMOs should control their own social marketing or should that be a function of their ad agencies or interactive agencies or consultants?
LW: The DMO definitely should control the social marketing aspect of their programs. They may need outside partners and the technology to track and measure, but all in all the DMO, or hotel for that matter, should control this and take ownership of it.
Q: What you see as the challenges facing DMO’s in the coming years.
LW: Well USDM.net was a partner in the PhoCusWright DMO study last year. This was a first annual study that provided an in-depth survey of consumers and their views about researching and booking travel with DMOs. The number one challenge for DMOs is relevancy to consumers. So many competitors are trying to step up and take the DMO position… from OTAs to privately held web site companies who are using the destination name as a web address. This is a serious problem and will become more difficult to manage if DMOs cannot educate their boards about funding for technology and online marketing in a way that they can compete.
We believe relevance as a key issue for DMOs. Funding, and the method in which DMOs are funded is another challenge. In some of our contracts we were engaged to help add additional funding sources to the DMO budgets, and we accomplished that, through gross receipts funding, through sponsorship programs and through some other local/regional initiatives with city councils and government. DMOs are smart and they work smart, but they are handcuffed by these two issues.
Q: So what is the next big thing?
LW: Mobile Marketing in the U.S., without a doubt! It is the game changer.
More than 90% of the U.S. population has a mobile device. Successful SMS Campaigns will change the way DMOs and hotels market and it will separate the men from the boys.
The biggest opportunities lie in building a loyal subscriber base of mobile opt ins. We already have a database of 36 million mobile opt ins and it is growing every day. DMOs can position themselves as the “carrier of the brand message,” while their members and destination partners “piggyback” with their own offers for hotel rooms or packages. The risk is high for DMOs who get into this with shared short codes and other “middle man” programs. The Carriers won’t allow the channel to become a free for all.