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Orlando Theme Parks and the Power of Mommybloggers

As a journalist I am frequently invited on press trips. Yet when I was recently invited to a week at Walt Disney World in Florida I was surprised to find that I wasn’t being asked as a journalist, but as a blogger. I was just to come along and, if I felt like it, blog about my experience. Disney take bloggers, and ‘mommybloggers’ in particular, very seriously – their social media marketing is fine-tuned and highly successful.  Other brands in the attractions industry have likewise entered into a flurry of social media.

by Jane Alexander

“Social media is the fastest growing way in which we reach potential visitors and keep our enthusiasts engaged for the long term, ” says Dave Santucci, VP Marketing & Communications for Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium. “Twitter and Facebook are the leaders in two-way conversations with our customers, ” explains Santucci, ‘while Flickr and YouTube provide a great way for people to become familiar with our facility through the eyes of other visitors. Social media blurs the lines of marketing/public relations and customer service in a way that is advantageous to both the Aquarium and our guests.”

Richard Bates, managing director of Butlins beachside resorts in the UK, agrees. “We have set up many social network profiles across the internet under the name ‘wearebutlins’ including Facebook, Blogspot, Bebo, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Photobucket, digg, stumbleupon and many more. This is so that we can engage with different types of people about every aspect of our business; from family breaks, to kids’ favourite cartoon characters, to adult live music weekends to specialist weekends.”

You can’t possibly do it all

Paula Werne, director of Public Relations at Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari  recommends a selective approach. ‘It’s important for parks to shop around and choose a few forms of social media and do those well. You can’t possibly do it all. We have two blogs, four Twitter accounts, a Facebook fan page, a YouTube channel and Flickr page. They interface well. Our social media messaging is strategic. We don’t say ‘buy this’ or ‘come to our park’. Instead we intrigue and engage which brings more traffic to our website, where online ticket sales are thriving.’

Directly reaching out to customers with branded blogs, tweets and podcasts opens up two-way communication and encourages customer connection and loyalty. It offers lively insight into what an attraction has to offer and can also provide invaluable feedback. But the impetus is still clearly in the hands of the marketing department. However, when it comes to inviting bloggers to test drive an attraction, the emphasis changes. Bloggers are a notoriously frank group of writers so companies need to be either exceedingly sure of their product, willing to take tough feedback on the nose or simply of the mind that “all publicity is good publicity.” 

Richard Bates is sanguine about the possibility of negative reviews. “Butlins is robust and welcomes honest feedback, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. It’s only through this that we can keep improving and maintain our ability to offer great holidays.”Theme park design

Dave Santucci has no qualms at all. “We’ve found bloggers to be very kind and positive about our attraction. The Georgia Aquarium is mentioned on thousands of blogs, mostly from everyday visitors posting photos and writing about the great family reunion or wedding they came to at the Aquarium. If someone posts a negative comment about the Aquarium, usually our fans come to our defense before we ourselves even have time to respond.”

The Aquarium plans to host its first bloggers’ visit in the fall, and Holiday World “are experimenting” this season. However Disney have been running with this for quite some time and have already hosted several trips for US bloggers. The trip I joined was their first for UK “mummybloggers” and Sarah Hodson, head of publicity in the UK for Disney explained the rationale.

Mothers trust mothers and the ripple effect

“We will continue to run standard press trips but we would be mad not to target bloggers as an important part of our strategy. When someone blogs about Disney it has a ripple effect. Other bloggers comment and people start tweeting about it or putting it on Facebook and other social media. It can create quite a stir.” Targeting “mummybloggers” was also deliberate. “Women tend to be the ones who book the family holiday, ” reasons Hodson. “So it makes sense to get them along to see what we’re about. Mothers trust other mothers.” 

Disney gauged the market carefully. Whereas their US mommybloggers tend to be bright, upfront and solidly ‘on message’ we UK bloggers were picked to appeal to a more cynical British market. With the help of online marketing specialists Digital Outlook they chose a broad mix of bloggers, some of whom were decidedly sceptical about the resort. The trip caused a flurry of interest in British social media circles and doubtless raised Disney’s UK profile considerably.
 
Inviting bloggers behind the scenes helps bring them into your camp, and they will in turn influence others. Georgia Aquarium’s Santucci was happy to share the results of one specific campaign. “We identified the top mommybloggers in the Atlanta area and sent them a special offer to post on their blogs (if they chose), ” he explains. “Almost 100 percent posted the offer resulting in more than $100, 000 in ticket sales of our Me & Mommy Ticket, exclusively marketed through mommybloggers.” 

Butlins has also dipped its toe into the blogging pool. “We first approached a group of key bloggers from different backgrounds, with different interests and asked them to spend a few days at Butlins and write a review, ” says Richard Bates. “This was really successful and the reviews were really positive so we decided to take it a step further and specifically target parent bloggers who fit our target market because mums listen to mums.”
 
Butlins are launching their new Ocean Hotel at Bognor Regis in August and parent bloggers are a vital part of the media campaign. Bloggers have a reputation for frankness which Bates values. “We feel that parent bloggers will be looking at the Hotel from a parent’s perspective, and that they can be extremely influential. If they say that Butlins is fantastic, it is much more believable than us saying the same thing.”

Blogger and social media pundit Linda Jones, director of Passionate Media, stresses the viral benefits and enduring presence of Internet exposure. “It spreads. Look at the Disney Trip. Eager mums were still blogging two weeks later, still discussing highlights online, still cross-referring to each other’s posts – it started a chain reaction.” She also pointed out the trust and intimacy in the blogger/reader relationship. ‘Bloggers have that element of trust built up by engaging with their, sometimes very niche, audience. They can also talk much more directly to a given group.” 

@georgiaaquarium already following me on twitter before I left the building, very cool

Asked to name a favorite social media tool, Santucci cited Twitter. “We not only use it to send out fun, cool, news, free tickets, and off-the-wall updates, but we also use it as a proactive customer service tool.” He tells the tale of a visitor to the Aquarium – a story of rapid response, direct dialog and goodwill. “The customer tweeted, ‘checking out the belugas @georgiaaquarium’. That popped up on our Twitter search and so we tweeted him back and started following him, ” says Santucci. “He tweeted, ‘@georgiaaquarium already following me on twitter before I left the building, very cool.’”

The aquarium keeps the dialog going in creative ways. “Some mornings we’ll just come in and tweet, ‘Rainy morning, what cute animal photos would brighten up your day?’” says Santucci, “and we get tons of requests for photos. He also had the pleasure of introducing 80-year old Georgia Aquarium founder Bernie Marcus (co-founder of The Home Depot) to Twitter. “He walked into my office one day and said, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m tweeting’, I replied. ‘Show me, ‘ he said. So I tweeted, ‘Bernie Marcus the benefactor of the Georgia Aquarium is here, anyone have questions?’ He’s now hooked on Twitter and takes questions from time to time. The last time he did it he tweeted 30 times in 30 minutes.” Such is Santucci’s confidence in these Internet based communications tools that in 2008, the aquarium added two staffers dedicated to e-mail newsletters, website content, and social media.

While enthusiastic, Butlins’ Richard Bates sounded a word of warning. “If your product or service isn’t very good then using social marketing can backfire because there is a lack of control on the Internet. What people say can spread and potentially do a lot of damage to a brand. Plus what people say on the internet can stay around for a long time. It’s always difficult to know what the long term future holds on the Internet because things change so quickly, but I think in the next few years blogging will only grow and grow.”

Public relations and marketing execs must apply social media tools wisely and subtly, tailoring their strategies to their customers. Recent research by consumer information company Knowledge Networks found that Internet users still use social media primarily to make personal connections rather than seeking out brands or products. Eighty-three percent of the Internet population participates in social media but, of those, only four percent of users “regularly” turn to social media for advice on travel while 24 percent “sometimes” turn to social media. David Tice, VP and group account director for Knowledge Networks says, “Our findings show that marketers need to be prudent and people-centric in how they approach social media.”  The potential is only beginning to be realized.

Jane Alexander (above right, with chipmunks) is a UK-based journalist and author of over twenty books.  She is also a member of UK Mummy Bloggers and Mom Bloggers Club 
Find Jane’s blogs at http://exmoorjane.blogspot.com and http://brutallyfrank.wordpress.com   She tweets as @exmoorjane

See also
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Amusement Parks: Viral Marketing and the WOW Factor at Disney

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