In February 2010, Siesta Key artist Charlie Garrett created a Facebook page to showcase his photographs of sunrises and sunsets off the waterfront backyard of his Siesta Key home. The page (Siesta Key Sunrises and Sunsets), which started off as a hobby, now has more than 7,200 likes, exposing the island and its idyllic sunsets to Facebook users across the world — for free.
“I do it because Siesta Key is the most beautiful spot in the world,” said Garrett, who is a preacher at the Superior Word Church in Gulf Gate. “I don’t think there’s a place in the world that I haven’t received a response from.”
Garrett's “viral” Facebook page, which gains about 20 new likes daily, highlights the power of a marketing tool that area tourism promoters have identified as a novel way to promote Sarasota County worldwide.
In February, Visit Sarasota County launched a pilot program to recruit area “social media influencers,” like Garrett, to leverage their audiences in promoting the area's tourism industry.
“We want to try and reach people who have an online audience to help us be brand ambassadors,” said Lynn Hobeck Bates, Visit Sarasota County communications manager. “We are just starting a test pilot program, and we're looking to expand it in the coming months.”
Hobeck Bates said the social media ambassador program was still an experiment, but was part of a larger effort to give social media a more prominent role in Sarasota’s comprehensive marketing effort.
Sarasota County’s social media presence has grown rapidly and is increasingly used to market the area to tourists. Visit Sarasota County currently has a combined 32,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter and plans to grow that combined audience to more than 40,000 by the end of September.
Visit Sarasota County’s more than 10,700 Twitter followers even outpaces Visit Miami’s Twitter audience of 8,951.
Social media management responsibilities are currently split within Visit Sarasota County’s brand department, with each employee responsible for a unique platform, including Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. The agency also hired one full-time staff position for social media duties last year. Although staff are not tasked with a specific quota of posts each day, they aim to continuously update the pages with new content.
VSC staff also monitors the online response to its posts to determine what stories and mediums draw the biggest audiences.
“Stories featuring visual elements tend to be the most popular,” Hobeck Bates said.
VSC staff said that integrating social media with traditional advertising is most effective, although social media does have certain unique advantages.
“The benefit to social media is the possibility of content going viral, whereas with traditional advertising there is a limit to the number of impressions we will see,” said Eddie Kirsch, Visit Sarasota County content coordinator.
Social media marketing has another advantage over traditional advertising — except for the personnel costs required to produce and update content, it’s free to distribute.
“We definitely use it as a marketing tool,” Hobeck Bates said. “This is an area we have to be in to stay competitive.”
Visit Sarasota County’s total advertising budget across all platforms is about $1.5 million. The agency did not have an estimate for the cost of its social media marketing program.
Another boon to Sarasota County tourism has been the area’s prolific presence in multiple online top-10 travel lists, which are widely dispersed through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
In the last six months, Sarasota has been featured in at least four online top-10 travel lists that have each garnered more than 14,000 Facebook likes.
Sarasota, for example, placed first for music and nightlife on a list of the “10 most exciting small cities in America,” which was published on the real estate blog movoto.com. The article registered 281,131 page views, receiving more than 34,000 Facebook likes and more than 30,000 Facebook shares.
As part of its “reputation management” program, Visit Sarasota County monitors the Internet for stories that might negatively impact the area's image as a tourism destination. When a potentially harmful story is identified, the agency works with county staff to correct the issue before it gains traction online.
When unusually low tides left Siesta Beach covered in seaweed on Jan. 15, for example, beachfront hotel owners and area tourism industry promoters worried about photos of the seaweed-covered beaches appearing online.
“The seaweed is pretty bad on the beach, and it is not (being) picked up,” Haley wrote in a Jan. 14 email to Sarasota County Parks and Recreation Director Carolyn Brown. “And this being the age of social media, there are more and more pictures being posted on social media showing the uncollected seaweed.”
Social media is also effective at gleaning feedback from area visitors. According to the group’s FY 2014 Business Plan, “For the first time, VSC will deploy social media tools to garner consumer perception of destination including those attending sporting events and meetings.”
Sarasota County recorded 135,500 visitors in 2013, which is up 4% compared with 132,300 in 2012. Although Hobeck Bates said it is difficult to quantitatively measure the role social media marketing has played in the area’s tourism uptick, she emphasized that area tourism promoters are just beginning to tap the medium's potential power as a marketing tool.
“It's hard to really track what exactly comes from social media,” she said. “But we have to play in that space or we'll be left behind.”