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Management, Marketing, social media, Travel & Tourism

5 levels of social media sophistication at the DMO

By William Bakker | 04.23.12 | 33 Comments

Imagine you had to start a DMO. Your DMO. You have been given the same budget and must start from scratch. Would your DMO look exactly the same as it does now? The same departments, same positions? The same budget allocations? The same marketing tactics?

The internet, and social media in particular, have completely changed tourism marketing. Forever. People might not talk on Facebook about which fabric softener they use or which soft drink they prefer, but everybody talks about their travels. Social media sophistication is crucial to modern marketing. Yet the tourism industry is way behind.

We have worked with dozens of DMOs around the world, ranging from very small to very large. And we have spoken to hundreds more. Based on our conversations and experiences we have identified the following levels for social media adoption and integration into the organization.

1) Ignoring social media
This level represents DMOs who are not active at all in social media. Social media is seen more as a threat than an opportunity.

Characteristics you can find at this level are:

  • Leadership that is very skeptical of social media (“Facebook is a waste of time,” “I don’t care what my old high school buddy had for dinner last night,” “Twitter is for young people,” etc.)
  • Fear of negativity
  • Restricted staff access to social networking sites through policies or technology
  • Lack of an internal social media champion
  • Lack of social media knowledge at marketing agencies
  • Traditional marketing methods
  • No budget for social media

Two years ago, there were many DMOs at this level, but by today most have moved on. Most DMOs that remain here are tied to very restrictive government policies.

2) Experimenting with social media
DMOs experiment with social media without a specific strategy through random tactics.

Characteristics you can find at this level are:

  • Leadership that is skeptical, does not know activities are happening, ignores them because of disinterest, allows it because an influential stakeholder asked questions, or is swamped dealing with politics
  • Fear of negativity and overreaction when something “bad” happens
  • Enthusiastic internal champions who have created rogue accounts but sometimes lack skills to properly execute. These people eventually leave the organization to properly grow their skills elsewhere
  • Hit or miss results
  • Chasing anything that is new and hot
  • Lack of social media knowledge at marketing agencies
  • No or very little budget
  • No metrics

There are still a lot of DMOs operating at this level. It often takes a noticeable event to move them to the next level. This could be spurred by a social media success internally or by the DMO next door. For example, a rival’s viral YouTube video or growing number of Facebook fans.

3) Social media supporting marketing campaigns
Due to a lack of strategic knowledge, DMOs incorporate social media in paid, outbound marketing campaigns. Often this is an add-on to traditional marketing campaigns, such as a YouTube channel showing videos originally made for TV or using Facebook and Twitter to broadcast campaign messaging.

Characteristics you can find at this level are:

  • Leadership that realizes social media can be powerful but still relies/insists on traditional methods because they are more comfortable with them, or do not know how to measure and compare the difference in results
  • Marketing agencies that reluctantly incorporate social into campaign strategies, often as an afterthought and/or without understanding social media principles
  • Little integration or collaboration with members/partners/industry
  • Heavy scheduling and approval processes for social media activity
  • Broadcast-style communication in social media
  • Viewing and communicating with fans and followers in a traditional outbound marketing way, such as a consumer email database
  • Year-round efforts on Twitter, Facebook, etc., that lack strategic direction
  • Social media black-outs when there is no campaign in market
  • Frustrated and/or maxed-out staff who understand the potential of social media but are not heard by leadership and sometimes need/want more training
  • Often staff skilled in social media leave the organization out of frustration
  • Budget that is a small portion of marketing campaigns
  • Lack of appropriate metrics, with success often measured either by big numbers (# of fans/followers) or a campaign’s level of creativity

Most DMOs operate at this level, sometimes with some additional effort to keep Facebook and Twitter going year-round. Often the level of success depends on the sophistication of one or two staff members.

DMOs at this level want to succeed but cannot break out of the traditional way of doing business. Getting to level four is usually achieved by having a strong social media success as part of a bigger initiative or having an epiphany that social requires a different way of thinking. Usually, level two experiments continue alongside level three activity.

4) Following a social media strategy
This level is typified by a DMO having a social media strategy in place or having social media integrated into its marketing strategy. The DMO still believes that it is in full control of the destination brand.

Characteristics you can find at this level are:

  • Leadership that understands social media and has given it dedicated resources
  • Marketing campaigns that have social at the core
  • Agencies in place that are dedicated to social or a digital agency that (really) gets social
  • Social strategies in place tied to marketing goals and objectives
  • Stronger alignment/integration with members/partners/industry and other stakeholders
  • A move from mass to niche marketing
  • Activities that are measured and adjusted in real time
  • Staff that is trained in social media
  • Empowered staff that is allowed and encouraged to participate as a DMO professional in social networks
  • Social media monitoring and engagement that is in collaboration with members/partners/industry
  • Social media that is incorporated in customer service
  • Relaxed social media access policies and limited approvals for posting content
  • Crisis plan in place
  • Systematic experimentation that is part of the strategy
  • Dedicated staff and budget for social media

Leading DMOs have entered this level. Over the next few years we expect a rush of DMOs moving here. DMOs that enter level four first are the ones with less restraining operating environments (such as funding) with innovative leaders and marketing managers.

5) Embracing the social business model

The level five social business recognizes that the destination’s story and reputation are based on visitors’ experiences at every touch point during their trips (see point 1 in “Top 5 Wrong Assumptions in Destination Marketing”). This DMO knows and accepts that it is no longer in control of the destination story. It recognizes and acts on the need to collaborate closely with its industry, residents, influencers and visitors, and that it must change the way success is measured.

The level five DMO starts with the core of the passions that make a destination relevant and leads all partners that have an impact on those experiences. The sole focus is on delivering outstanding visitor experiences that are unique to the destination, and then making it easy for visitors to share these experiences in their own voices.

As painful as it may be, the DMO re-organizes, ending much of its old way of doing business. Staff is re-trained and assigned to new activities.

Characteristics you can find at this level are:

  • Leadership that understands that business models from 15 years ago must change and is willing to undertake the pain of changing the organization
  • Relentless focus on the consumer
  • Majority of marketing resources are allocated to digital
  • A shift from destination marketing to destination management, where the customer experience is seen as the primary way to build brand
  • Marketing strategies that are a collaborative effort between the DMO, industry, residents, passionate consumers and other stakeholders
  • A move from mass marketing to niche marketing
  • Culture of collaboration, internally as well as with members/partners/industry and even consumers
  • Flattened organizational hierarchy to increase efficiency and speed needed to respond and adjust quickly
  • Lean processes
  • Staff that is trained, empowered and supported to make decisions without requiring lengthy approvals or spending time in meetings designed by management to control every aspect of every tactic

We’re not aware of any DMOs at level five. We have spoken to many DMO executives who know they need to get here and want to get here. Often, their funding models or destination-specific politics stand in the way.

The DMO closest to a level five we are familiar with is Visit Sørlandet in Southern Norway. As a newly created regional DMO, this organization quickly realized it would be impossible to build a Southern Norway brand the traditional way. By creating a strategy based on collaborating with local DMOs and industry members to improve the visitor experience and elevate the collective digital marketing efforts, Visit Sørlandet is building it’s brand through every touchpoint while growing repeat visitation and encouraging word-of-mouth.

For many DMOs that have not reached level four, level five may seem pie in the sky. But the further you move your DMO through the levels, the more you realize just how much the world has changed and the true impact this has. Once you enter level four, you can see level five. It is no longer pie in the sky. It is tomorrow.

At what level is your DMO?
Your DMO’s current level is not a sign of success or failure. Every DMO is different. Politics and funding models have a big impact. So does the size and scope of a DMO. A country DMO is different from a city DMO. This affects specific marketing strategies and tactics.

It is also not a race. It is a process that organizations need to go through. Some might skip a step. For others, the levels could overlap. But in order for DMOs to stay relevant and effective, they need to climb up.

We have worked with DMOs in all shapes and sizes at every level of this process. We enjoy helping DMOs make the climb.

We have conducted audits, started Facebook pages, trained staff, implemented social media as part of bigger campaigns, run social campaigns, created strategies, helped to define entire business plans centered around social principles and much more.

Inventing the future
Alan Kay, the inventor of the GUI and object-oriented programming once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Instead of all DMOs trying to invent level 5 independently, we think the best future is that we all invent it together and collectively stay relevant. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

As always, thanks for all my Think! coworkers for their contributions in creating this post

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  • http://www.travel2dot0.com/ Troy Thompson

    As usual, solid thinking William.

    For any DMO that claims ‘branding the destination’ as part of their organizational objectives, this shift to a social destination has to be adopted.

    Ignoring this shift will result in a slow demise of relevancy.

    Adopting it (correctly) could result in the rebirth of the DMO.

    Of course, a DMO could shift away from the ‘branding’ idea entirely, but I would assume that decision would be the exception.

    Make no mistake our tourism peers, you are no longer in sole control of your brand, communication or promotion.  Time to start working with the consumer.

    - Troy

    • http://www.wilhelmus.ca wilhelmus

      Thanks Troy, I know you would be one of the first to comment ;)

      • http://www.travel2dot0.com/ Troy Thompson

        Well, I prefer to be comment #1, rather than #60.

        Plus, it means I get to say some comment-provoking stuff.

        While I don’t agree with absolutely everything in the article, the overall idea is correct.  And one that DMOs need to recognize quickly.

        This is not about Facebook or Twitter, this is about how you conduct day-to-day business, marketing and communications.

        Embrace the opportunity, rather than hiding from the unknown.

        - Troy

  • Clint Fraser

    Nice William. The most important piece in my opinion is the last sentence. DMO’s working independently will limit both the ability to ever reach “level 5″ or the pace at which it is reached. The challenge  is not only to influence, adapt, and change “your” DMO but also to do the same with your industry partners (including but not limited to DMO’s).

    • http://www.wilhelmus.ca wilhelmus

      Thanks Clint. I think DMOs should compete on product, market intelligence, etc. But when it comes to this stuff, it helps to share learning and all stay relevant. 

    • http://www.travel2dot0.com/ Troy Thompson

      Good point Clint.  I have asked this very question of peers at DMO conferences:

      What would happen if the top 30 DMOs got together and built a single mobile app?

      A small example of your point, but one that stirs the mind.

      What would happen if we actually worked…and changed…together?

      - Troy

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  • Jeroen Beelen

    Great article again William. DMO’s need to get social to stay relevant.

  • Pingback: Er du vårt nye “digitale mediahue” « Visit Sørlandets Bransjeblogg

  • http://twitter.com/timmermansr Remco Timmermans

    The first bullet point in level 5 summarizes the issue underlying slow social media adoptation in ANY industry pretty well: “Leadership that understands that business models from 15 years ago must change and is willing to undertake the pain of changing the organization”.

    Just replace “DMO” or “tourism” in this article with the name of any sector, and it is still spot-on. I am spreading this blog post in the space exploration sector right now. Different industry, exactly the same issues. Great piece! Thanks for the inspiration.

    • http://www.wilhelmus.ca wilhelmus

      Thanks Remco!

  • http://ivisitorguide.blogspot.com/ iVisitorGuide

    At what level is your DMO?

    In the UK most DMOs have probably left Level 1 but have
    still not achieved all the attributes of Level 2.

    The paradigm shift needed to create true social media
    adoption within the UK is too great for virtually all existing DMOs.

    With the withdrawal of public sector funding many DMOs are
    now morphing into Place Marketing Agencies to the detriment of tourism
    promotion whilst others are partnering with DMS technology suppliers interested
    only in preserving licence fees and booking commissions.

    The understanding of Social Media engagement on a national
    scale seems to be an obsession with Harry Potter. Certainly nothing as
    sophisticated, sensible and relevent as Visit Sørlandet. 

    Great observations William – thank you 

  • Craig_Whitehead

    Another excellent article – shows real in depth knowledge of the difficulties facing DMO’s. I’d have said Visit Britain were at level 3 approaching level 4 last year but in recent months have regressed back to level 1. Wonder what happened?

    • http://www.wilhelmus.ca wilhelmus

      Based on my experience working at a DMO going through the 2010 Olympics, the Olympics is what happened. It usually throws DMOs into turmoil.

  • Ahiltebrand

    Hi William, I’ve seen your presentation at WACVB in Pasadena. It was absolutely stunning! I’m fortunate enough to work for Sonoma County Tourism, where digitial marketing is on top of our list. We are on level 4 right now, gearing up for level 5. Thanks for all your help in educating not only our marketing staff but also our CEO on this subject! That is the best tool for changing DMOs inside and out.

    • http://www.wilhelmus.ca wilhelmus

      Thanks Ariane! Having support at the CEO level is critical.

  • Kfischang

    Great points especially as we started our DMO 6.5 years ago and we don’t have any legacy employees, board members or obstacles to overcome in regards to the “we’ve always done it this way” motiff.  Last year we completly reorganized all of our PR & Marketing teams roles and added a new Interactive Manager position to adapt to changing technology & our industry.  We embrace failure as a mantra to keep us fresh and trying new ideas and things in our work’s mission & vision.

    • http://www.wilhelmus.ca wilhelmus

      That’s great, especially the “embrace failure” mantra. It’s so important to be honest about that works and doesn’t and learn from it.

  • Nigel220

    Bit too much of a sales pitch for me this time William – the opening paragraphs are solid and applicable to any organization in any industry (to Remco’s point) but then you should qualify that you’re diving down the ‘social media’ rabbit hole. My point is a lot of the good observations you make go well beyond social media and you could and should have just elevated this to a broader discussion on the future role of a DMO. The challenge remains that with a fragmented industry with no two DMO’s the same, the concept in Clint’s point about the way to success is through industry integration, aggregation and ultimately better syndication through todays channel of choice is being lost in some sort of social media tunnel vision discussion (I think this is what Troy implies)!! Headless chickens take your starting positions – here come the lies, damn lies and (social media) statistics!! But you can help with that right :-)     

    • http://www.wilhelmus.ca wilhelmus

      As always thanks for the Devils advocate perspective Nigel. If it sounds like a sales pitch its because we really believe in this stuff. I wouldn’t have worked at Think! if I didn’t. 

      I hope the message comes through that it’s not just social media. There’s a lot more that goes into level 5. It’s about the changing media landscape, technology and the ability to collaborate. Even the workplace. As destination marketers we can do our jobs pretty much any place, anywhere, any time. 
      Social Media is part of a perfect storm.

      • Nigel220

        I totally agree – it really does feel like the prefect storm is bearing down on the DMO, with so much passion in this industry though there is much hope.

  • milenaregos

    Thank you for the very detailed piece. I hope DMOs are realizing the value of being part of the conversation and not just committing to social ads, cheap tactics to increase fan base and leaving social media to the interns. Only by working together, a community can be build that will sustain in the future. 

  • JonMunro

    Hi William,

    Yes. A really good model to line up against! So many truths mentioned here …

    I wonder how many organisations, given the opportunity to start from scratch, would look similar to the way they do today! Carrying out this kind of exercise provides a really useful planning tool in its own right – to help organisations and individuals understand the mindset change required to hit higher levels of sophistication and maturity in their digital marketing efforts.  

    Of course nothing happens in isolation.

    You quite rightly point out the role that marketing agencies play. Placing the right kind of agencies and developing the right kind of relationship with them is critical in supporting this kind of progression. Agencies are learning and getting to grips with new ways of approaching things too. Some more successfully than others. That means, even though they might think differently, your above-the-line lead creative agency might not be the right bunch of people to support your ‘always on’ digital marketing. Where agency relationships are concerned social media and the increasingly important role that content plays mean the balance of power has changed and it requires a much more collaborative relationship with your marketing agency.  Buyer beware!

    In fact successful destination marketing depends on working collaboratively. More so than ever before.  Destinations are complex and they support what is effectively a hugely powerful content (and distribution) network. That includes the tourism industry, those people that live there, a wealth of related organisations and the visitors themselves. Where inventing the future is concerned wouldn’t it be great if you could leverage the true potential of that network. Initiatives that support the more effective sharing and distribution of great destination content might help achieve that?  That might include getting buy in around a shared classification for destination content (thus tagging it accordingly), taking advantage of those platforms which already exist to more effectively share great content and, dare I say it, even using paid media to amplify the message. These are the kinds of things that might help define the role of the DMO in the future, or at least provide a basis for discussion …

    Integration really is important. I think there is a big opportunity to define a truly integrated approach to destination marketing. One that takes account of paid, earned and owned media – across online and offline channels. Supporting great customer experience and an appropriate earned media strategy is absolutely crucial to managing a destination’s reputation. The smart use of paid media can help amplify the credible messages developed across earned media channels if they are in fact truly credible and genuine (rather than purely campaign generated). Where owned media is concerned maybe brand does have something to play? Possibly not through the traditional application of destination branding but through developing a shared understanding of the destination’s story and even it’s point of view around things like what holidays and travel to that destination should be about. If it’s done well and is supported more broadly (but not in a command and control type of way) it might give other organisations, tourism businesses, individuals and the visitors themselves something to line up against and support. A shared story they all have a role in telling.

    Sorry, a bit longer than I had intended!  Not sure that classifies as a comment but hopefully it provides some useful food for thought :-)

    Jon

    • http://www.wilhelmus.ca wilhelmus

      Thanks Jon for your thoughts. I agree with pretty much all you are saying.

      In regards to paid media. I’m not against advertising per definition. I just don’t believe you can build a brand with ads unless you have an insane amount of money almost no DMO has.

      Most people don’t understand how easy technology has made collaboration. At Think! we use Google Hangouts for example to work on out philosophy and strategy. We can all see and talk with each other and edit a Google doc in the process. A simple change like that opens up so much opportunity to work differently, more effective and collaborative.

      PS I edited your post to fix some of the formatting.

      • JonMunro

        Agree entirely. Exactly the kind of thinking that will help us figure out the role and place of the DMO in the future. Let’s keep this discussion open …

  • Rick Gaunt

    Good article William – loved the premise of starting from scratch. Lots of good discussion here in Winnipeg when Aaron presented parts of this to our management group last Wednesday. We’ll see if we gained any more koolaid drinkers over the next few weeks. 

    • http://www.wilhelmus.ca wilhelmus

      Thanks Rick. You should have seen Aaron when he got back. He was pumped about you guys. Very exciting. Let’s see if we can take you to level 5 ;)

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