In part, Durham, North Carolina was able to rapidly leap-frog much more established destinations after first launching community-destination marketing in 1989 by seizing on two emerging trends at the time, 1) fully-integrated technology and 2) the ascent of earned media as the effectiveness of advertising went into decline.
Earned media includes what used to be called public relations and media relations and is so-named to distinguish it from paid media or advertising.
Paid media is much less credible because it is essentially “you talking about yourself” and with the average person now exposed to 10,000 ad messages per day, its effectiveness has been reduced to zero or even less except for a very few categories of product.
Earned media is complicated by the fact that it may take years of gently educating and informing story writers and editors before it may result in coverage.
This is because this partiular element of marketing is strictly based on serving the needs of the media outlets and their readers, so it takes time for the information to percolate into story ideas if and when warranted.
The good part about it though, is that earned media is more credible than paid media if the linkage is indirect.
In 2002, the New York Times reinvigorated the traditional travel section by launching the “36 Hours” series as a means to give an overview of destinations across the globe including small towns, large cities and the unknown as well as the known.
Unfortunately, when the series wrote about Durham in 2009, a year and a half before I retired from destination marketing, it was lumped in with many other cities in what we North Carolinians call the Research Triangle, a poly-centric area of distinct cities and towns with no dominant center, other than the co-owned airport.
The article, while flattering, showed an unawareness of the distances involved in traveling throughout such a dispersed region, which would mean that a good portion of the 36 hours would be spent commuting. Research has shown that fewer than 3 in 100 travelers to any of the communities in this region, combine a visit to more than one community on the same trip and usually then only if they have an escort.
This is due in large part to something called cognitive distance friction, a condition where distances are exaggerated by as much as 20 to 1 by such things as hills and dales, irregular road patterns, duplicate street names and a lack of horizon points such as mountains.
It has always made much more sense to promote each community as its own distinct personality and destination while encouraging follow up visits to the other communities. This is not only much more considerate to travelers but gives the region many more “bites of the tourism apple.”
Even people who live in this area prefer by more than 4 to 1 to characterize where they live by a specific city, town or county rather than as just one big place, in part because they are each distinct and unique.
The earlier article was also unrealistic because Durham and several other cities in the area each have more than enough to fill several days on a visit and appeal to different segments of travelers. Unintentionally, it gave a limited impression compared to much smaller destinations that were being given 36 hours of their own.
In a gentle but persistent way, these points were made with the paper along with backgrounders from Durham News Service and Durham quickly warranted recognition in a series of follow up stories over the years.
And this time around this coming Sunday’s 36 Hours will focus on only Durham!