Last night I had the pleasure of meeting up with a couple dozen other Columbus bloggers for a preview of the new Experience Columbus marketing campaign. The campaign was touted as having a heavy social media component and since I'm in the process of promoting Columbus myself with our upcoming Small Business Marketing Unleashed conference, I was excited to see what they had put together. Unfortunately, the night featured quite a few classic social media marketing mistakes.
Columbus is one of those cities that never gets it's just due. We're the 15th largest city in the United States and have an incredibly low cost of living. We're home to companies like Nationwide Insurance, Wendy's, Limited Brands and one of the largest universities in the world. We've got pro sports teams, awesome concert venues and shopping and food that can rival nearly any city in America.
I could go on and on.
I moved to Columbus 15 years ago and fell in love with it. Since then, I've joined every other Columbus resident in defending our town from the "wow, you have traffic lights in Ohio?" and "you know what the opera is, right" jabs they like to throw our way. It's ok though, because we have a sense of humor here in Ohio.
It was with that reputation in mind that the teams at Experience Columbus and Engauge decided to build their campaign.
1.) Everything there is to do while you're here
2.) How very relaxed you can be while here
The idea for the Columbus campaign was to focus on a social media push that equipped the local community to poke a little fun at ourselves before pointing out what we do have. It was to catch people's attention in a different way, cause an eyebrow to raise or a chuckle to occur and then deliver the punch explaining why Columbus was a worthwhile destination.
Overall, an intriguing (and potentially fantastic) campaign.
Unfortunately, the Campaign Is Lacking
The new campaign from Experience Columbus is broken down into four different areas. There's a print campaign, a YouTube video campaign, a banner ad campaign and a web site. They've also created t-shirts that they hope will be a catalyst for helping spread and build interest in the rest of the campaign.
You can view the components of the campaign (save the web site, which hasn't launched yet) at the Experience Columbus web site.
Some areas of the campaign, like the banner ads and the t-shirts are a home run. They do a wonderful job of changing up the stereotypical tourism pitch, catching your eye and giving you a chuckle. They draw you in and they spark conversation. In all honestly, I was pretty impressed with the fun and fresh take on something every city in the world has struggled with.
In fact, they're almost a perfect fit for the very concepts that drive social media and viral marketing. They deliver something different, something that plays off of people's ideas and misconceptions about Columbus and they show a sense of self-deprecating humor. That said, they also deliver a marketing punch via the "you can do everything else" side of it.
That said, two other areas of the campaign are not just sorely lacking, they're downright awful.
First, let's take a look at the videos. There are four of them, all with the same theme of "Not in Columbus." When the first video started playing, I had high hopes. When it was done playing, I was a little bit dumbstruck.
For the life of me, I can't fathom how that would make someone want to visit the Experience Columbus web site. They hit the "what we don't have" key perfectly (and with humor) but they never even tried to hit on the what we do have. I've shown the video to about a dozen people since I came home last night and ever last one said "really? THAT's what they came up with?" In fact, Matt Bailey summed up the YouTube campaign as "Columbus: If you have no where else to go."
What's sad, is they all also knew how to fix it.
"Why don't they finish with a clip of what you DO have?"
Exactly. Take that cheese bouncing video and finish it with "But we do have X other festivals that will give you a taste of Columbus you'll never forget" and shots from events like Comfest, Red, White and Boom, the Jazz and Rib Fest, the Arts Fest and more and you've suddenly got something.
Now as much as I didn't like the YouTube videos, even they looked good compared to the Not in Columbus web site. (Not yet live)
The Web Site
The site was created as an all Flash "experience" site that builds upon the theme "Not in Columbus." It featured what looked like a road in the Nevada desert. On the site were images of a Pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, a Mermaid, a space ship, a shark in a pond and a few other things. It was an absolute case study in Mystery Meat Navigation. You had to roll over things to find any content and you had no idea what content you'd find where. I know I saw the shirts pop up once and the print campaign pop up once, but the only thing of value on the site seemed to be the "Not in Columbus Quiz" that showed up when you rolled over an image of a mermaid.
The quiz showed pictures of places and asked you whether or not the picture could be found in Columbus. A cute idea, but like the YouTube videos, one that focused heavily on what we don't have and sort of sarcastically brushed aside what we do have.
In fact, the web site featured NO content on Columbus tourism. You had to click through to the Experience Columbus site to find out anything about the city.
Apart from the fact that I simply think the web site is a poor marketing tactic, there are some serious issues with how the site was created. As with the Lenovo Olympics site I wrote about last month, the site was created without any thought to linking or search engines. Because the site was created entirely in Flash, there are no URLs to take you directly to your favorite area of content. If I wanted to link someone to the Not in Columbus Quiz, I wouldn't be able to. Instead, I'd have to link to the home page of the site and tell them to click on the Mermaid with the Viewmaster.
Beyond that, the site also isn't search friendly. While I understand there's been a lot of buzz about the fact that search engines can now read content in Flash files, it's essential not to jump to the conclusion that they DO. Flash files can still mean death to search engine rankings, especially if you don't know how to properly build a Flash and alternative HTML site.
As I mentioned in the Lenovo review, there are plenty of ways to create interactive sites that have the appearance of Flash effects but are still both link and search friendly. I've watched CSS gurus like Scott Allen of Hybrid 6 and my husband create HTML/CSS sites so good, you'd be surprised to learn they weren't Flash.
If the Experience Columbus team truly wants this campaign to take off via social media channels, they need to give serious thought to revamping that web site to make it more link and search friendly. Otherwise they're simply throwing away potential traffic.
The Lessons to Learn...
There are certainly plenty of things the Experience Columbus team did right. The intent behind the campaign is brilliant. Columbus residents have spent years defending their beloved city. We're not New York or LA, but we're also not a cow town. We know that outside visitors are often surprised at just how much there is to do in the city. This is the type of campaign we can embrace, make our own and really get behind spreading. The fact that they brought local bloggers in to review the campaign before taking it public showed huge initiative. They clearly get what they need to be doing to move forward.
Unfortunately, the execution of the campaign is lacking. In fact, the teams behind the Not in Columbus campaign made several key mistakes that you can learn from before launching your own campaign.
Lesson #1: Having Videos on YouTube Does Not Make it a "Social Media Campaign"
One of the things that most caught my attention when they talked to us about how they came up with the campaign was their desire to focus on social media. They talked about how much money gets spent on advertising these days and how easy it is to ignore ads. They talked about the power of social media and blogs in terms of spreading a message and they said it was one of the core considerations in building this campaign.
Then I spent the entire meeting trying to figure out what the social media aspect of the campaign was. Surely they didn't think the fact that they'd put a few videos on YouTube and the t-shirts all have quick links for social bookmarking meant they'd launched a social media campaign?
At one point, Angelo Mandato even asked what the social media component of the campaign was. The response was something along the lines of how they might let people make their own YouTube videos and upload them and that people could submit a new t-shirt idea.
After I got over my internal laughter at the idea that they "might let" people make YouTube videos, the sobering reality of missed opportunity hit me.
So what could they have done (or still do?) Off the top of my head:
1.) Fix the YouTube videos to include a positive ending. Then provide the public with a logo and soundtrack and encourage them to create their own videos. Offer an incentive by picking the best one each week and giving away a "best of Columbus" pack, or heck, one of those t-shirts.
2.) Create a blog (yay, search friendly content!) for the web site and have the posts be a continuation of the Not in Columbus theme. Find the weirdest, most obscure stories, festivals, places and write "we don't have X, but we do have Y" posts that are fun and creative.
3.) Create a humorous Not in Columbus Facebook app targeted at college students who have moved here recently and don't know much about what is and isn't in Columbus.
Lesson #2: Good Social Media Campaigns Often Have an Offline Component
I kept hearing this conversation last night about how important the web is and how unimportant offline components are. There's no TV or radio ads planned as part of the campaign and the only real print campaign is focused at meeting planners. That means pretty much everything is being done online.
That's fine and dandy (and good for the budget) but you can't stop there. When you're marketing a physical product (or location) you sometimes have to put your computer down and head out into the real world to start generating the buzz with something tangible.
A few ideas:
1.) As Ryan Squire pointed out after the event, Ohio State University will be starting the fall quarter in a couple of months. Setting up a Not in Columbus display on campus and finding a creative way to give out 5,000 or 10,000 of those t-shirts would be a low cost way to start building some buzz among the age group most likely to go online and spread the word on this.
2.) Set up shop at Easton Town Center with a giant fake Pyramid and a "We don't have Pyramids in Columbus" sign. When people come wandering over to see what the deal is, give them free passes to what we DO have and tell them about the campaign.
3.) Build a scaled replica of the Eiffel Tower at this month's Ohio State Fair. When people come to find out why someone has a giant sign reading "You Won't See the Eiffel Tower in Columbus" tell them about all the amazing food they will find and hand out samples of local favorites like Jeni's Ice Cream, Brownie Points, SugarDaddy's and Pistacia Vera.
The Experience Columbus team made it clear their intent was for Columbus residents to "embrace the campaign and push it outward." That's fine and dandy, but to do that, you need to go to where they are, not wait for them to find their way to a web site that can't even be read by search engines.
Lesson #3: Understand What Social Media Really Is
It was great to see the Experience Columbus team invite Columbus bloggers to preview the campaign. In fact, for a campaign they are hoping will spread via word of mouth from inside Columbus out to the rest of the country, it was as great start. It's why I went in to the meeting with such high hopes.
Unfortunately, I don't yet see how people are really going to get involved and invested in this campaign. As far as I can tell, the extent of the social media campaign is "we really, really, REALLY hope people will take it upon themselves to market this for us."
In my world, that's about the same as saying "we made X, now we want you to make it go viral."
I understand how it happens, but it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how social media and viral marketing works. It works on the assumption you can create campaigns the way you always have then push a magic button and get a bunch of free advertising. I understand the appeal, but as Matt McGee says "hope is not a marketing strategy."
You have to find ways to actively involve your community. That might be by arming them with the tools they need to make more viral videos, it might mean bringing on guest bloggers, it might mean a traveling conversation sparked by the campaign theme on local blogs, or it might mean a Twitter based scavenger hunt for what Columbus DOES have.
Lesson #4: Don't Forget to Market
This may be the biggest lesson of all from this campaign. The t-shirts and the print and banner ads are throw-backs to the old way of marketing and the team's skill in terms of delivering a marketing message shines through if you only look at this part of the campaign.
The problem really does come in on the social media side of things when you look at the YouTube videos and the web site. As best I can figure, the team got caught up in the "you have to be funny and irreverent and not push your stuff to hard" line of thinking and forgot a key point.
If it's a marketing campaign...you still have to market.
See, my problem with the videos and the web site is they focus solely on what Columbus does not have. They never follow through to deliver the positive message of what we do have. That simple change would make a world of difference. Instead, they rely on the viewer to go and seek the positive out for themselves...something you've really given them no incentive to do.
Presenting people with a negative impression of your product or service (even if it's a funny negative impression) only works if you then deliver an even more compelling positive. It's simple psychology.
Campaigns Evolve and This One Can Too
I applaud the team for taking the chance and moving into new territory. I know how hard it can be for traditional agencies and organizations to wade into these complicated new waters, but that doesn't mean you can forget the core lessons of marketing.
That said, the beautiful thing about marketing online and via social media outlets is you're never locked in to your message. They haven't spent millions on TV and radio advertising. They haven't bought full page ads in newspapers and magazines around the country. There's still time to change the approach and sharpen the campaign to let it live up to its full potential.
That same benefit holds true for everyone else looking to market via social media as well. You can experiment. You can try an idea and see how it flies. You can backup and try a different approach. You do test and test and test again and then put your full effort behind what worked best.
Here's hoping the team at Experience Columbus does just that.
ETA, other local bloggers are also sharing their thoughts on the campaign. Check them out:
Tangled Up in Blue
Elephants on Bicycles
This Woman's Work
Green Columbus (Which has a photo of the web site)
Sundays with Stretchy Pants
Greatest City of All
Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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