Did $10 Million In Destination Marketing Make Duluth Famous?

Tall Ships Duluth

[Study notes, 10/26: There is now a followup post to this study:Google’s documentation regarding use of “+” and “-” signs in Insights For Search queries. Use of these standard operators are documented in this study.]

We live in a marketing world where it’s possible to evaluate brands based on empirical demographic data culled from massive penetration of digital channels. To our international search and social marketing readers, we hope you find this article’s approach to profiling our region’s tourism brand-penetration a useful methodology to use with your clients. To Duluth’s people, AIMCLEAR offers the study as a contribution to this glorious city and the wonderful community that spawned our company.  The study is presented in four parts:

  • What We Wanted To Know
  • The Methodology
  • The Results
  • The Data

What We Wanted To Know
Over the last ten years, VisitDuluth, our city’s official promotional agency, has spent over ten million dollars of tourism tax on convention sales and destination marketing. We thought the investment was significant enough to bear study.

Tourism leaders publicize increased revenue Duluth’s destination marketing brings to our local economy year over year. Trending revenue is an important component to measuring the success of our tourism tax investments. That’s not what this study is about. There is no public discussion about how the Duluth brand is growing out there in the larger world and how it rates compared to other cities. This study is intended to fill that discussion gap. Here are some of the questions we set out to answer:

  1. Is Duluth’s brand famous as a destination in ways that are measurable by classic digital marketing metrics?
  2. How has Duluth’s reputation grown over time?
  3. How does Duluth compare to other destinations, as measured by social media and search penetration across all categories as well as destination-themed categories?
  4. Is Duluth as well known as the BWCA next door and, if not, does the opportunity exist to strategically brand Duluth as a world-class pristine wilderness gateway?
  5. Is our city renowned compared to other mining-roots-to-tourism locales with similar proximity to major cities and over the same period of history, like Lake Tahoe?
  6. Do potential visitors all over the United States, Europe and Asian Pacific countries know our hometown’s brand, top of mind, as they consider where to visit next?
  7. Is Duluth, slowly but surely, becoming legendary like The Grand Canyon, Nantucket or Hilton Head as a world-class recreation spot or travel destination?
  8. Has the money we’ve spent branding created a lasting legacy past promoting a strictly regional destination, where Midwestern people visit for work and vacation in statistically significant clusters?
  9. Is our dear city a household name, as evidenced by measurable interest in categories like hotels, recreation and travel?

The Methodology

Google Insights for Search is a tool that online marketers use to gauge “search interest” at the keyword and concept level. It outputs interest-trends for top keywords in tightly related semantic clusters culled from hundreds of millions of daily searches globally. Insights analyzes a quantity of global Google web searches from all Google domains to calculate how many searches have been done for and related to terms tested, in relation to the total count of searches done on Google over time. The data is available by category, subcategory and geographic areas over time.

We examined Duluth’s progress, both in relation to itself and compared to other test destinations. We considered both international and domestic data, since 2004, in all categories aggregated, and across various destination themed categories.

Facebook has over 700 million users who can be profiled in prodigal detail. These days, such data is priceless, nearly anthropological in nature. Facebook Ads Demographic Research Tool has become the gold standard to measure the affinities, interests and other incredibly personal predilections of fanatically engaged Facebook users all over the world. More than 42% of Americans are represented in this sampling, the greatest social aggregation of measurable human interests in history.

Facebook’s social graph keeps track of many user data points. Changing profile privacy settings only effects how users see each other, not Facebook’s internal tracking. This tracking is stripped of personally identifying information and made available to advertisers to target via Facebook Ads. It’s easy to see how many Facebook users are “interested” in demographic objects. To measure Duluth’s reach, we studied Facebook users’ interest in Duluth in America, Asian Pacific countries, Oceana, Europe and compared to other destinations.

The Results
We found that Duluth’s reach, as evidenced by search interest over the last eight years and current social media penetration, has not grown and even declined in some categories.

Duluth is not in the same league, in the public’s perception, as other classic American destinations. The city remains primarily a regional brand and, though there is limited awareness in other American regions and internationally, the interest is not substantial comparatively. In some categories, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness– immediately to our north– eclipses Duluth in reputation.  (We theorize that BWCA interests could be leveraged strategically.)

There may be reasons that year over year visitors and tourism revenue grew, even in light of flat or decreasing international interest in tourism. A loaf of bread costs more than it did in 2004. So do hotel rooms. Also, with a declining economy, travelers may stay closer to home. More local businesses create and promote events with their own advertising budgets. In other words, the year over year visitor count and financial increase we enjoy may not be fully as a result of VisitDuluth’s marketing. Also, we don’t debate the need to market close to home, to traditional core customers. Our point is that it may be possible to aim higher. There are communities, including Fargo and Clearwater Beach, that have bucked the trend and grown their destinations to travelers and other in categories.

We recommend investing our tourism dollars differently, focused on expanding domestic and international awareness by deploying digital PR and advertising campaigns. Online channels could have been integrated or even replaced some traditional media, towards the goal of systematically making our city’s splendors internationally known, category by category, search by search, targeted demographic by demographic, channel by channel.

It is our hope that this study stimulates meaningful dialog amongst city officials, local media, the Chamber Of Commerce, local tourism officials, hospitality entrepreneurs and marketing agencies.

The Data
Start Guided Tour Of The Data >>>>

Study Site Map
Study Homepage

Insights For Search Data & Conclusions
Fargo & Clearwater Beach Growth

Duluth Hotels, International Interest In All Categories & Insights Semantic Cluster Example: Charts 1 & 2

Duluth In Recreation Category, International Interest: Chart 3

Duluth In Travel Category, International Interest: Chart 4

Duluth In Hotel & Accommodations Category, International Interest: Chart 5

Duluth In Vacation Destinations Category, International Interest: Chart 6

Duluth, Ann Arbor & Napa Compared In All Categories, International: Chart 7 *

Duluth Hotel, Hotels, Lake Tahoe hotel, Grand Canyon Hotel & BWCA Compared In All Categories, International: Chart 8 & 9 *

Duluth, Lake Tahoe, Grand Canyon, Compared In Domestic Travel Category: Chart 10

Duluth, Lake Tahoe, Grand Canyon, Hilton Head, Compared In International Travel Category: Chart 11

Duluth, MN, Minnesota & Nantucket Compared In Domestic Travel Category: Chart 12

Duluth, MN, Minnesota, Key West, Yellowstone, Ann Arbor Compared in Domestic Travel Category: Chart 13

Duluth, Lake  Tahoe, Nantucket, Grand Canyon Compared In International Vacation Destinations Category: Chart 14

Duluth, Minnesota, MN, Ann Arbor Compared In Domestic Recreation Category: Chart 15

Duluth, Lake Tahoe, Grand Canyon, Ann Arbor Compared in Domestic Recreation Category: Chart 16

Facebook Data
Duluth Facebook Interests Compared: United States

Duluth Facebook Interests Compared: Europe & Asian Pacific

Duluth Tourism Study, What’s Next & Conclusions

* Charts updated 10/18/11

Header image: © NorthernImages.com

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