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Pinellas tourism agency builds Web buzz

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: April 4, 2013 at 11:56 AM
ST. PETE BEACH -

If social media is a friendly conversation between marketers and customers, then Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is a chatty friend.

The county's tourism marketing agency sent out more than 1,100 tweets in the past couple of weeks, a larger number than Florida, New York City or even the United Kingdom, according to a website that tracks social media in the tourism industry.

It's difficult to say whether all this tweeting accounts for the county's record rise in overnight visitors last year of 5.4 million, which was 200,000 more than the previous year.

But Visit St. Pete/Clearwater's Web traffic has skyrocketed in the past year, with a 120 percent increase in people accessing the main site from a mobile device between January 2012 and January this year.

David Downing, the agency's deputy director, says his staff has become adept at listening to what people love about the destination, the beaches, the sunsets and the museums, and broadcasting those positive reviews, photos and videos to new potential visitors.

“One of the great values of social media is it's a minute-by-minute focus group — a free focus group — of what people think about you as a destination,” he said.

The agency plans to invest heavily in social media during the next year.

Last week, the agency hired Paradise Communications, a social media-savvy public relations firm from St. Petersburg, to help with its marketing. It also placed one of its staff members on full-time Twitter and Facebook duty this year.

The state's tourism agency, Visit Florida, consistently has competed with Michigan as the most active destination on social media, according to a ranking by Think! Social Media, an agency that conducts online marketing for the tourism industry.

That ranking system takes more than raw tweets and Facebook fans, analyzing everything from content sharing to Pinterest use to mobile apps.

While the agency doesn't track individual cities or regional destinations, company strategist Dave Serino said Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has a strong social media presence nationwide.

“They've done an incredible job engaging with costumers, being active in the conversation, listening to what people have said and reacting based on the chatter online,” said Serino, who has done marketing for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater in Milwaukee.

Responding quickly to individuals is important in the online world.

For example, customers considering a trip to St. Pete Beach will find plenty of positive reviews of the Postcard Inn on Trip Advisor, calling it hip and laid back.

But unlike the individual customer who stops by the front desk to complain, those who share negative experiences such as noisy crowds or a broken television quickly can create a bad reputation among thousands of people on the Web.

That's why the hotel's manager replies promptly and personally to online complaints, Postcard Inn public relations manager Brooke Palmer said.

On the positive side, every comment posted online or sunset photo tweeted by hotel staff shows their audience there's a real person behind the business, she said.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater will ramp up its efforts to reach people on mobile devices this year, directing people to attractions and restaurants in the immediate vicinity through the mobile website.

Downing said one of the area's greatest successes last year was a 1.1 million increase in first-time overnight visitors and the fact that new visitors increased across all markets.

His agency recently began creating home pages specifically tailored to different markets, so a New Yorker visiting the website and a German would see a different message, which is critical to connecting with individual travelers.

“We're getting the right message to the right people,” he said.

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