First was a huge billboard by the state division of tourism encouraging me to, uh, visit North Carolina’s mountains. It was just in case I needed reassurance about my destination, I suppose.
Unfortunately, it also sacrificed my view and enabled wanton destruction of trees and vegetation. Ugh!
Further along the route, as though a dramatic lowering of the speed limit might not be enough to draw my attention, another billboard loomed bringing news of the opportunity to visit Wilkesboro.
Here the irony was not just the blocked view and canopy desecration enabled by the needless and redundant message. Tourism promotion in many of these small towns has been siphoned away to subsidize the local chamber of commerce instead.
This redirection is enabled by the failure of many in elected office or municipal or county management to grasp that marketing individual businesses and marketing a community are fundamentally very distinct and very different processes.
Even more ironic than its use of billboards, the chamber for Wilkes County, buoyed by the diversion of tourism tax revenues, also operates by agreement, one of the state’s newest visitor centers, a restful and remarkable sustainability showcase.
Chambers, even in much larger communities, including the one where I live struggle with sustainability. They talk the talk and even try to walk some of the walk but largely fail to grasp that use of roadside billboards is “desecration” marketing and a signature violation of the triple bottom line.
Unfortunately, so do far too many truly dedicated community-destination marketing organizations.
The new welcome center for northwestern North Carolina is a point of greeting for 10 different counties along or served by that stretch of Route 421 N. It is well worth a stop if for nothing more than to see a live demonstration of how green technology and infrastructure work.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation maintains a website that illustrates in real time the center’s savings from sustainable and renewable resources. The center is a way to see first hand how these applications can be made to individual homes and businesses.
Further along my route, rising nearly 6,000 ft, Grandfather Mountain, is an impossible to miss sentinel rising from the Blue Ridge. But someone there decided that advertising its views was worth ruining my view from the roadside, as did the town of Blowing Rock.
These destinations fail to grasp that they are turning off 8 to 9 travelers for every one to which their desecration marketing may appeal.
Advertisers, especially those still using roadside billboards, not only fail to understand this ratio, they fail to understand that marketing destinations after visitors are enroute is largely wasted. Those decisions were made long before the journey began.
As a McKinsey white paper notes, “marketing has always sought those moments, or touch points, when consumers are open to influence.” The paper summarized studies and evaluation that changes how marketers must view marketing.
No longer, if it ever was, is marketing merely a funnel along which those still using advertising can “push” messages at consumers as those along my journey up US 421 tried to do.
Instead, marketing is a series of cycles with far more touch points at the beginning and nearly none in the case of travelers after the decision on where and why to travel has been made.
Trying to divert them along their journey or to cannibalize part of their trip is wasted, a type of zero-sum marketing. We know from other research how dominant the primary destination is to a traveler.
Those heading up US 421 into the North Carolina mountains aren’t on “fishing expeditions” hoping to add destinations along the way. Even if travelers think they are open to side excursions, research shows that in reality travel distance tolerance, especially for unplanned excursions, shrinks to almost zero.
There are many excellent metrics by which travel decisions can be measured and by which communities can rate the effectiveness of their destination marketing.
One that should surely raise concern for any destination overseers is any continued use of obsolete roadside billboards, now seen as useful by less than a fifth of one percent of consumers.
More than just wasted spending, these billboards are a turn-off to eight out of ten of the very people they are trying to attract in the first place, resulting in reverse marketing.