Wednesday, January 14, 2015

When and Why Facts and Data Backfire

To hear some people talk, you would think that tourism to Durham, North Carolina took off only after the opening of the acclaimed Durham Performing Arts Center.

I’ll correct this misperception, but more importantly use this essay to show why the facts will backfire with many of these people.

Durham draws 9 million visitors a year, 6.26 million for leisure.  About 300,000 attend events at DPAC, a little over two thirds with that as the main purpose of their visit or about 3% of Durham leisure visitation.

During the span DPAC has been open, the overall visitation to Durham has increased by about 44% overall and 40% for leisure travel, or 1.79 million visitors of which visitors to DPAC as their main reason was 13% if no one was diverted visiting elsewhere in Durham anyway.

Significant but hardly a tipping point for visitation.

Many Durham features, events and businesses harvest the same proportion of visitors to overall attendance as DPAC does.  Visitation to a community is highly fragmented when it comes to activity.

If there is a silver bullet that ties all of these fragments together it is promotion of the sense of place in Durham’s DNA.  Without this communities become more like shopping malls of clustered features that can be found in nearly every mall of this type.

People who wake up to the fact a community is visitor worthy only when something new opens may be fooled into that mistaken inference by anecdotally-driven news hyperbole.

But even residents of a community rarely have any idea numerically of their community’s visitor appeal.  That typically requires a DMO savvy enough to perpetually communicate to internal audiences the importance overall of visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

During my long-concluded four-decade career in community destination marketing I found this kind of misperception was far more frequently rooted in segments of the population with lukewarm if not border-line negative perceptions of the potential or sense of a particular place.

But my breakdown of the facts above has been scientifically shown to pucker many up, tightening their grip instead on misperception.

In mid-1978, when I took the reins of the DMO in Anchorage, there was a perception that all tourism activity was related to passengers of cruise ships docking solely at the time in Southeast Alaska when a portion added group excursions overland before or after.

It took me 30 months but by 1981 we had conducted research to shed much more light on visitors to Anchorage.  Not counting visiting friends and relatives, business travelers including convention delegates or the 22% who combined business and pleasure, 7% was related to visitors taking a cruise ship or ferry to Alaska.

This was about 1-in-5 vacation visitors to Anchorage in 1981.  Studying the origins, length of stay and activities of the other 4-in-5 gave us the marketing intelligence to strategically and significantly expand visitation to Anchorage within just a few years without taking anything away from traditional Alaska tourism.

Even more shocking from the 1981 data, 67% of visitation to Anchorage came in the non-summer months, 80% from outside Alaska and more than a fifth during months where there is snow.

Offseason visitation had been 1 visitor for every 10 when I arrived in Anchorage and before I left it would be 1 to 1.

What I didn’t expect though from that 1981 data is that for a few,  it shook their belief-system right to the core.  They took the data revelations as criticism and soon painted a target on my back.

Unforunately, they were not unique that way.

Changing perceptions, let alone saving my hide, was never the goal of the study.

Most in Anchorage were open-minded about visitation and not only delighted with the new information and perspective but relieved that its relatively nascent community marketing agency was using these newly discovered facts to set strategy.

It has been more than three decades since then, and sadly, the vast majority of communities still have no idea how many visitors they have, let alone why they came or what they do while visiting.

This makes these places subject to mistaken conventional wisdom, faulty belief systems and big game hunting that instead of reinforcing whatever part of their unique sense of place remains, gradually hollows it out instead.

Durham, where I finished the last half of my career and still live in obscurity (smile) is an exception, probably 1-in-500, having begun to regularly secure data specific to its visitation twenty five years ago.

Still, I was always caught off guard throughout my career at how many officials, developers and boosters seemed much more comfortable instead with making decisions when it comes to tourism infrastructure on what what’s “new and shiny” or what they hear, or “who was asking,”  spending hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars that way.

It wouldn’t be until a year or so before I retired at the end of 2009 that a series of studies by researchers at the University of Michigan and Georgia State University shed light on how facts backfire with misinformed people, particularly if their belief system is based on motivated reasoning.

In the words of journalist Joe Keohane who penned a review of the studies, “Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation stronger.”

That’s something obviously still more than a bit lost on me if you are a regular reader (smile.)

According to the researchers, this is a natural defense mechanism to avoid the cognitive dissonance of having to admit we’re wrong.  It is also far more comfortable to be close-minded than to endure the ambiguity and uncertainty of being open-minded.

But it is a sure death knell for community sense of place.

It is also, in part, why other studies find that nearly all traditional advertising is now a waste, especially as a means of changing opinions about or the image of product, including communities. 

Advertising, in the traditional sense, merely reinforces the belief systems of consumers who are already positive or negative.  It is incapable in the few seconds the average person pays attention, and lacks the credibility to influence any who are neutral.

The overwhelming reason for a DMO to use facts and far more effective content-based marketing is to help consumers who are unsure but open-mined about a product including the potential of a place to visit or live.

They are, in fact, open to corrections, to being informed, to facts.

Communities that fail to use facts when it comes to evolving their delicate sense of place ecosystems leave themselves open to the “motivated reasoning” of boosters, “boomers” and “big game hunters,” most of whom lack faith in a community’s ability or the necessity of evolving to remain distinctive, futilely seeking imports instead.

They are the reason that being data-driven community destination marketing agency is so hazardous.  “Motivated reasoning” also makes people very mean.

But just remember:  communities that remain worthy of love are worthy of good and fearless defenders.

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