How Data Convinced West Virginia to Triple Its Tourism Budget
West Virginia's Division of Tourism hadn't done any in-depth research about who visits the state and why for over ten years.
"There is not one part of this country or this world that somebody doesn't know the song Country Road," said Amy Goodwin, West Virginia's commissioner of tourism and deputy secretary of commerce, referring to the 1971 John Denver hit "Take Me Home, Country Roads," which was made the state's official song in 2014. The problem with that is, she continued, "That's not a top travel indicator."
"I wanted to know what's my return on investmen t… and number two, what's my image?" she said. "What's the chit-chatter about West Virginia?"
When the Mountain State's tourism team turned to research and mobile data analytics, it found enough information in the chatter to triple its 2016-17 budget to $6.5 million.
The tourism department invested in survey research by Longwoods International, a travel research firm that counts several states as clients, including Michigan, home of the Pure Michigan campaign. Earlier this year Michigan announced it would spend $12 million on its long-running national Pure Michigan, campaign which originated in 2006.
Longwoods conducted a survey of online panelists from West Virginia's ad markets who had visited the state in the past year, asking them about their awareness of the state's previous ads and perception of the state compared to regional rivals Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The research cost around $100,000 said Ms. Goodwin, who compared the study to blueprints for house construction, an expensive but necessary step. "Guess what? This is a competitive industry," she said. "We're fist fighting with them every day."
Ad exposure and real behavior
Traditional methods like survey research, however, now received a complement in technology from Arrivalist, which provides reports to its municipal clients showing links between online and mobile ad exposure and actual visits to a locale. For West Virginia, the company is tracking mobile devices that are present in the state and whether those same devices were served tourism ads for that city.
The location data comes from partners including geographic data firm Digital Envoy and ad platforms like GoogleADX, Pubmatic, Admeld and Collective. Aggregated data shows where visitors originated, top cities of origin and the number of days between first ad exposure and visit.
"We are in the very, very early stages of this in that we are just now starting to be able to have actionable data through Arrivalist," said Pat Strader, founder of West Virginia's marketing agency, Digital Relativity.
Before mobile measurement efforts began about four months ago, the state used data from the survey research to recast its marketing message, creating the "Real. Wild, Wonderful West Virginia" campaign.
Longwoods correlated survey responses with the key variable: intent to visit. In addition to gauging success of earlier marketing efforts, said Tom Curtis, senior VP at Longwoods, "Part of it is just getting the confidence of local legislators in knowing the money will be well spent."
In the end, the research showed that West Virginia generated $7 for every $1 spent on tourism marketing, enough to convince lawmakers to hike the tourism budget.
The research also showed the nuances among tourists coming from different places. That led to more targeted messaging aimed at Ohioans focused on family and activities that kids enjoy. Messaging in the Washington, D.C. market emphasized outdoor activities such as kayaking and mountain biking, and romantic getaways for couples. A targeted email sent to Ohio travelers resulted in a conversion rate of 62%, said Mr. Strader. Conversions consist of email signups and requests for travel guides.
"We're just now starting to see that particular example come to fruition through Arrivalist," he said. In other words, the mobile location data shows some visitors in West Virginia are coming from Ohio.
"What's most important is we're not throwing away money," said Ms. Goodwin, "especially as a state you are beholden to the people who pay taxes."
At Ad Age's Data Conference on Oct. 8 in New York, a panel of travel experts, including executives from Skift and HotelTonight, will talk about the disruption and innovation in the industry. Register today at: adage.com/events/data-conference-2015