Friday, June 03, 2011

How Durham Grasped “Content Marketing” So Early!

For more than 30 years I’ve always been puzzled by people who are bothered by or resist the obvious need to gather marketing intelligence. Sure, I know it’s a threat to anyone who still prefers the late 18th and early 19th century way of anchoring other marketing elements based on nothing but their own opinions.BestPracticesImage

But that isn’t the only way intel-resistors have fallen out of step.

Long before it was named “content marketing,” a “best practice” element experts believe may eclipse traditional marketing elements like advertising, early incorporation in Durham’s community marketing enabled this community to rapidly catch and then leap-frog much more established community destinations.

The roots of that early adoption in Durham trace a decade earlier to when I was given the responsibility to guide the community/destination marketing organization in Anchorage, AK in 1978. I found the framework in place for a very traditional marketing effort, but I wasn’t sure that it could catapult that community to its full potential, so I asked simple questions such as why and how people traveled to Anchorage at the time.

Conventional wisdom was that nearly all it’s visitation traveled “through not to” Anchorage via highly itinerized and escorted summer motorcoach tours but it didn’t make sense to me that only this relatively small but robust segment coupled with a relatively small population of residents was justifying the considerable airline capacity serving Anchorage, the predominant way people reached that community.

Something didn’t add up.

Anchorage, where the city and county-equivalent had already been merged for several years by that time, was about the same population as the single-city county of Durham was when I arrived here a decade later. But at the time Anchorage represented 44% of the entire population of State of Alaska, which at the time was smaller than the population of the four-county Durham-Chapel Hill Metro Area is today but salt and peppered over a geographic area more than twice the size of Texas.

Fortunately, before my questions ruffled too many feathers, I teamed up with two other people, now also retired, named Tim Skoog with Northwest Airlines and Dave Palmer with Alaska Airlines. They collaborated with me to design and deploy in-flight surveys on all commercial flights bound for Anchorage. This was feasible at the time because the shortest flight segments took several hours and 90% of Anchorage’s year-round visitors traveled via air at the time.

The short story is that the marketing intelligence our surveys yielded became the foundation for not only an aggressive near-decade of community marketing during my stint’ but when the content of the surveys was marketed directly to community leaders, the broadened perspective fueled development of an incredible array of new place-based facilities, attractions and excursions serving not only traditional tour-related visitors but year-round independent visitors and the community’s fair share of convention and meeting delegates.

It also helped broaden both the summer and shoulder tourism seasons and spawned a fledgling winter tourism effort. The data also resulted in marketing that increased trip length and especially the duration on the ground in Anchorage.

The data also helped motivate cruise ships to eventually sail further north, ultimately down Cook Inlet into Anchorage, which I had been told was impossible, as well as via train and ferried vehicles through a tunnel from Whittier on Prince William Sound. It also opened the eyes of state officials to the potential of stop-overs by International travelers on transpolar flights although too late to preempt eventual over flights as technology evolved.

So by the time I arrived in Durham to jump-start community/destination marketing here in the late 1980s, I had already began to understand the advantage of marketing intelligence over conventional wisdom and I had tasted the power of using it in what has now been termed as “content marketing,” defined as the creation and sharing of informative content, typically free, as a means of motivating both internal and external audiences.

Immediately using new methodologies for gathering marketing intel, Durham was not only able to rapidly leap-frog more established destination communities but, even pre-Internet, become an early-adopter of “content marketing,” using the information itself as a marketing element.

So, in the early mid-1990s, when the Internet first became available for community/destination marketing, Durham was already equipped with a full understanding of the power of content and was one of the very first to literally put everything on the web, using it not just as a “brochure” as most were doing at the time but using the “game-changer” as a platform from which to market and make available any and all content related to Durham as a place to visit or live.

As a couple did in Anchorage, there were always a few people with dated or very narrow notions of marketing who began muttering that Durham’s marketing must be research heavy.

They were tripped up because the fact that it was just a tiny percentage of the budget transcended just using it as a foundation and performance measure for other marketing elements to become the grist for aggressive “content marketing” to:

  • Celebrate Durham’s emergence as a leading destination and leverage earned media
  • Empower visitor-related businesses and organizations to harvest their fair share of visitor interest in Durham
  • Reveal and protect Durham’s incredible sense of community pride and self-image
  • Direct attention to and isolate the sources of misinformation undermining and suppressing Durham’s vitality and unique identity
  • Educate local officials on the power of visitor-centric economic and cultural development
  • Inform feasibility studies for refinancing and development decisions to better calibrate the supply of facilities and features to demand and avoid over-building
  • Transform regionalists bent on homogenizing communities into “both/and” regionalists who respect the diversity of distinct community identities and differences as a regional value and advantage
  • Persuade news organizations to give Durham its due and accurately identify Durham-based assets
  • Inform other Durham advocates about what was needed by businesses and in various districts in order to fully harvest a fair share of visitation
  • Instill an appreciation for the value of distinctive place-based cultural, natural and built assets over main-stream projects making Durham the same as other places
  • Report-out performance measures and encourage other decision-makers to become data-driven

I feel badly for anyone still threatened by data-based decision making, but that few cents on the dollar is part of what is helping to fuel the rapid growth of “content marketing” which will probably be equally threatening to traditionalists or those with little understanding of marketing best practices in this century.

Data-based decision making with or without leveraging the information for content marketing will always provide an insurmountable advantage but especially when so many destination marketing executives today either still don’t get it or are cowed into resisting it and when so many of the community/destination marketing organizations that do, fail to sustain it and slide back into mediocrity.

No comments: