Sheila Guides You to the Good Stuff

June 15, 2009

How to reach out to bloggers, and what makes us crazy

Reaching out; we all do it (courtesy exquisitur at Flickr CC)I recently received an email from a senior executive at a mainstream public relations (PR) firm.  She said that she has clients in the travel industry and they’d like to know how to reach out to bloggers, and specifically how to get a mention on my BootsnAll Family Travel Logue.

You know what’s next (bloggers are a different breed because we’re public, rapid and sharing) so to save myself from drafting an entirely new blog post when I’ve already written what I want to say, this is what I told her, shared here with you….

“In response to your question, the answer is yes, I do get a ton of PR/marketing emails and end up deleting most of them, and blocking those that are totally unrelated to family travel, sent to me 4 times or with giant attachments that clog up my life.

It is too hard (and not worth it for my [travel blog] readers) to keep up with the rising, ever-more-desperate stream of notices (desperate because of the economy) about hotel packages, good deals on ritzy, live-in-a-bubble resorts in Cancun (I’m not a resort kind of traveler, as any reader of my blog knows,) how CVS Pharmacy products can help my family road trip, blah blah.

The flood is really starting to impede my ability to see/respond to important emails that involve actual writing or consulting work for pay.

I want to blog about places I visit and things I do with my kids, not regurgitate, for free, press releases about resorts that I’ve never been to and will never visit.  I write for two travel blogs, two blogs about social media and another about drag racing – I don’t have time to plow through all that junk.

The few emails that resonate indicate that:

  1. The sender actually reads my blog, and not just to get my name to “personalize” their email blast. I particularly like the copy/paste of my name such that the greeting is one font and the press release pasted below is another.
  2. The topic ties into a place that I’ve been to and written about. I’ll admit that the current template on my Family Travel blog is NOT search-friendly and I’m addressing that with BootsnAll, but my topic categories can be found through Archives at the bottom of the front page.  You can’t read my mind to see where I’m going that I haven’t visited before, obviously, so PR might get lucky and hit me with something about someplace I happen to be planning to go (but I doubt it, so why waste your time?)
  3. The email topic ties to my focus of budget, independent, family-friendly travel. I’ve lived in the Middle East as a preteen and with my own kids in Asia and Europe, and have traveled all over the US.  I am so NOT the kind of person to stay in some all-inclusive package place in Cancun or Jamaica, so don’t inundate me with off-topic pitches.
  4. I would much rather support state/county/city tourism organizations than more commercial travel businesses.
  5. I’d rather deal with someone who has already “hung out” on my blog, by leaving a comment or two on some of my posts. Problem is, hardly any PR rep who’s blasted an email at me has ever stopped by and left a helpful comment and participated in the blog’s conversation BEFORE filling my IN box.

When I DO say “y’all come” to tourism organizations, they are often clueless. They’re so used to broadcasting, they don’t know how to interact in a two-way fashion.

For example, I’ve been running the 50 State Series on my family travel blog for weeks now, taking family-friendly suggestions from Twitter and Facebook for each state. I’m giving state tourism organizations a chance to toot their own horn, but I can’t believe how hard it is to get them to respond. Hel-LO!  Here’s the Vermont family travel 50 states post; that is the kind of stuff I want to blog about. Thank goodness for my Twitter followers; at least they know how to respond to calls for tips or I’d never get a post done each week.

Other insights:

  1. I talked about this outreach topic in a podcast with travel writer and blogger Pam Mandel for Canadian tourism tech expert Todd Lucier: A conversation with bloggers about their craft.  Some of your clients might find it helpful.
  2. They should also read this guest post by my Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel:  6 ways to improve your destination marketing (and why you’re toast if you don’t)

Sorry if any of this came across as excessively crabby, but there’s no magic bullet for blogger outreach. Good PR has always been about knowing your target journalist or writer, establishing a relationship BEFORE you pitch and not pitching blindly.

PR folks Geoff Livingston, Kami Huyse and Jason Falls have met and interacted with me on Twitter, on my blogs and in person at events like the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) tech conference. I respect their knowledge, count them as friends and would now listen to most anything they have to say to me. They’re the gold standard.”

That’s all you gotta do, really….

Did I miss anything? Am I, in fact, just too crabby?  🙂

June 9, 2009

Are blogger fam trips a good idea or are they Jurassic PR?

Sue the T-Rex at Chicago's Field Museum (courtesy a2gemma at Flickr CC)The familiarization trip/press trip or “fam tour” (I’ll use the terms interchangeably here) is a warhorse staple in the tourism public relations and marketing arsenal. It means that you bring writers to your destination, pay their expenses, show them your highlights and then wait and hope for positive future coverage in their magazines and newspapers.

Many publications do not accept articles based on such trips, but many others do.  I have written for both. Some pubs are more transparent than others about freebies.  A whole industry supports this matchmaking – I attended a conference about a lot of it, Travel Media Showcase, in September 2008.

Fam Tour Pros – Efficient use of time and assets for tourism organizations and Convention and Visitor’s Bureaus (CVBs.)  Allows writers to travel to places that they otherwise might not afford since travel writing pay is notoriously low, especially in today’s tough economy, including pay for guidebooks.

Fam Tour Cons – The journalistic ethics “sniff test.”  Can writers be truly objective about a destination when it’s handed to them, however sincerely, in a nice package with a bow? Can writers find original, unique stories and hidden nuggets about a place when they spend all day marched on and off a bus and their nights at nice hotels/resorts courtesy of the local Visitor’s Bureau?

Now, let’s make the discussion even more interesting and throw in the question of bloggers taking fam trips.  Are they considered journalists? Do ethics rules apply?  If bloggers clearly disclose that posts are based on a free trip, is it up to the blog’s readers to decide the value of the content, or has a line been irrevocably crossed?

Is the blogger press trip the right vehicle to gain social media presence for a tourism organization?  Is it a good vehicle at all?

My Personal Experiences

I wade into these fractious waters after returning from my third press trip….the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) dipped toes into social media waters with the So Much More Hawaii bloggers tour, to which I was invited to blog primarily about family travel. I went because I know and appreciate the islands and wanted to support HTA’s efforts to use social media in reaching out to new potential visitors.

I’ve taken face shots in this area before. When I wrote about a Virginia fam trip on the Write to Travel blog (The Press Trip: Great Deal or Big Hassle?) and then posted the link for discussion on the mediabistro.com Bulletin Board, one commenter said, “I hope you never expect to be taken seriously as a travel writer after a post like that.”

Well, alrighty, then!

My second fam tour was to Hutchinson, Kansas – my expenses were paid once I got there but I paid my own airfare to/from Texas.  (As an aside, a “free trip” to Kansas did not seem to raise much interest or ire from the ethics watchdogs.) I participated in the Hutch trip because I wanted to support one of the tour organizers, Cody Heitschmidt, in his efforts to use social media to step up awareness of his town.

My third fam tour, the one to Hawaii, garnered positive press reaction in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and KHON 2 News, but David Shapiro, a journalist blogging for the Honolulu Advertiser, wrote that “the new media folks accepting the freebies were a throwback to the bad old days of journalism when favorable coverage was for sale at the right price” in his post Junketing gets wired.

(Read the comments on Shapiro’s post – they’re lively. This time I get to be “scum” and some other unmentionables.)

I Tell Tourism To Reach Out To Bloggers, So They Do. Now What?

A UK public relations person with McCluskey International, Ian McKee, asked the question “Blogger FAM trips – are we nearly there yet?” and I responded with some thoughts on the whole fam trip issue:

“Yeah, we’re already there for blogger-focused fam trips, at least in the US.

The material that I gather from these trips goes into many different blogs (not just my travel ones) and is also pitched to those publications that accept material from “comped” [complimentary] travel. So many people don’t even realize that US national-level glossies like National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler and Budget Travel do not allow comped travel. The idea is that their pay rates (US$1/word and up) make it worth the writer’s while to pay for everything up front and reimburse oneself later when the check comes in.

I will come right out and say that Darren Cronian [the Travel Rants blogger who left a critical comment on Ian’s post] is right; you cannot say you are totally, totally objective when your destination is handed to you on a platter.  I would LOVE to have the funds to do it “right” – completely anonymous, paid out of my own pocket, researched on my own and not supported by local tourism PR any more than any other traveler who calls/rings up the office and asks for help.

The fact is, I cannot always operate that way, and it does bother me. So, I try to use the freedom offered by my blog outlets to be as objective and fair as I can possibly be, given my own ethics compass, and ALWAYS disclose that my material is coming from a sponsored press trip. I even blog about my discomfiture, as other writers….have done.

Thank you for bringing up the “days of lost income” issue. People think, ooh, Hawaii, what a deal she’s getting. No, in the basic sense, it is 10 days when I am writing free content for the Hawaii state tourism board. I have lived in Hawaii and other beautiful places; I am not impressed by “paradise.” My 9-year-old son will accompany me since I’m covering family travel and want to test all this on an actual human child. I love my kid, but he ain’t a vacation.

So why am I doing it? Ah, there is method in my madness. There are stories that I can write from Hawaii that have nothing to do with travel, per se, so the comped travel problem won’t be a factor (I have a story idea for WIRED magazine out of the Kansas trip, believe it or not.)  More importantly, I am beginning to focus my social media consulting business on what I call “Tourism 2.0” – teaching CVBs/tourism organizations how to use the social Web to reach potential visitors and help with economic development. I will gather ROI data and other things from the Hawaii trip to help build my business.

My plan is that someday soon, I’ll make enough money from this sort of consulting that I WILL be able to travel my way – independently, unfettered and able to pitch to any publication. The only reason I’ll contact a destination’s tourism/PR folks will be as “Joe/Jane Six-Pack” regular traveler, to test how responsive they are to visitor requests.

In sum, I think tourism organizations are missing the boat if they are not reaching out to bloggers. I coach/advise/consult and tell them to do it. What’s tough is when they DO reach out to a blogger, but it’s ME.  I’ll play, but I’m not particularly comfortable with it.”

That last paragraph block is the core of this blog post. Fam trips make me feel rather funky, as a print writer OR a blogger. How do you mitigate “funky?” Can you? A lot of others don’t seem to have a problem with press trips. Who am I to judge them? (but I must consider what is best for me and for my work.)

Do Bloggers Have A Place On Press Trips?

From my point of view – Yes – within limitations.

There’s no question in my mind that you cannot beat a well-connected blogger’s impact compared to “one and done” print media. I do not question whether we are a good deal – we are. That’s the problem. Social media is now “Today’s Special” on the PR/marketing menu. My concern is blogger credibility in the face of these freebie handouts that have implications that may not be clear to the non-journalist.

Bloggers can take the disclosure problem right into their own hands. They should fully disclose in EVERY post that the trip (or product or hotel stay) was provided free of charge or was substantially discounted.

But is that enough?

Video podcaster and social media consultant Roxanne Darling goes so far as to say that to avoid Google penalities for paid or “comped” blog posts, every link to the company giving the freebie should be “no follow” so as to avoid giving that company the benefit of your blog’s PageRank or Google “juice”/authority through your links to them.

Disclosing on just the blog posts isn’t really enough,either. As I said in a comment on Roxanne’s blog:

“I put a disclosure of my [Hawaii blogger’s tour] paid sponsorship at the bottom of every Family Travel blog post, but for space reasons I had a harder time doing that for my tweets, Stumbles, Delicious bookmarks, Facebook comments & photos, Flickr photos, LinkedIn status items…. we know how to reach out all over the place and full disclosure is still very important, but not always easy to do on every publishing platform.”

Roxanne is toying with the idea of a standard “sponsored item” button for paid content, similar to an orange RSS button; I think it’s an intriguing concept.

And by the way, who’s in charge of blogger ethics?

The answer is….nobody, but the reality is that currently, the driving constraint is probably the blog’s readers. Readers vote with their eyeballs. Lie to readers and you lose them, you lose credibility and your blog goes down with you.

Some see a blogger fam tour as an experiment in social media and therefore exempt from knotty ethics questions, but that’s only if you see social media itself as some sort of newly jumped-up experiment. I do not. I’ve been blogging since February 2006 and I thought I was late by not starting until then. It is not “new media.”

I doubt any tourism organization is going to stop hosting fam tours because of anything I’ve said here, but I would caution them that a lot of writers are perhaps more uncomfortable with the whole thing than we may admit, even to the many cheery, hardworking PR people who are trying to do a good job as destination promoters.

Local Blogger Hosts As A Fam Tour Alternative

I think a destination’s local bloggers, acting as hosts, may be part of the answer.

On the So Much More Hawaii tour, I had family-focused “host bloggers” in Maui (Liza of A Maui Blog) and Oahu (Russ from ParkRat’s Playground) who tied into my family travel topic. The hosting logistics were put together quickly, but my understanding was that their expenses were somewhat defrayed through a partnership with Hawaii-based Pono Media and the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

For example, Pono Media paid for my Maui host family to rent a large van for a day so we could all drive up to the Haleakala National Park summit and then eat lunch together at a place that we chose, the Paia Fish Market. I didn’t feel like such a mooch under such a setup, and I liked knowing that my host family’s time and effort were somewhat compensated.

No one set our schedules with the locals, so on Oahu, Russ took me to Waiola Shave Ice and Rainbow Drive-In because that’s what his family likes, not because anyone official told him to go there (I don’t think compensation for Russ was quite as well organized, so I kept offering to pay for things including gas, but Russ politely declined.)  One evening’s entertainment was watching our kids chase crabs by flashlight at a local beach park.  The Visitor’s Bureau would not have put that on a fam tour schedule, but it was one of my best memories of the trip.

This hosting alternative would require local bloggers to work almost as freelance contractors to the Visitor’s Bureau (they wouldn’t be volunteers like, for example, the Big Apple Greeters in New York City.)  I’m not so naive as to think that problems might not arise on both sides, but I still think the idea has merit based on my experience in Hawaii (and my fellow tour bloggers also loved their time with local bloggers on Kauai, Maui, the Big Island and Oahu.)

It also requires tourism organizations to get to know and then vet those bloggers who wish to participate.  CVBs already vet hotels, restaurants, etc., and they SHOULD know their local bloggers, who can be outstanding destination advocates.

This isn’t the whole answer, by a long shot. A host blogger compensated by a CVB is still a “freebie,” unless the CVB offers the host option to any visitor, not just press, and/or charges everyone a nominal fee for such host blogger services.  I don’t claim that this is the ideal solution, but I want to explore a better way than the fam tour, and this seems promising to me.

In sum, no one has given me rules to follow here in the bloggy Wild West, but I’ve ended up making my own (what others do is their business, of course.)

For myself; I am willing to consider going on future blogger fam trips, but I won’t seek them out. I will still produce content (print/online articles, blog posts, photos, videos) from the Virginia, Kansas and Hawaii trips, and I will still clearly disclose when my travel was paid for, but I now plan to redouble my efforts to make enough money through my consulting and freelance work so that I can pay for my travel on my own.

I’m more than happy to advise on “Tourism 2.0” and how to interact on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.,  but there is no social media magic bullet served by any headlong rush to include bloggers in a tourism marketing model that has some serious flaws.

The fam tour needs alternatives, and I hope to help create them.

May 25, 2009

Social Media and Tourism: An Ebook to Get Started

I love to combine travel and social media. Here's an ebook to get YOU started, too! (photo by Sheila Scarborough, taken at Jelly Coworking Round Rock TX)Confused about the exact definition of social media, and how it can apply to your travel and tourism organization?

You’ll be happy to know that one of my own goofy definitions of social media is “blogs and stuff,” because I like to explain things to folks in plain English.

Want more help in navigating the two-way Web 2.0 world? My ebook is now available:

Social Media – What It Is and Why It Matters to Travel and Tourism

It’s the first in a series of ebooks I’m writing that will help bring focus to the power of Web-based communities in the world of tourism.

In this one, I explain:

**  Why —  why social media is a powerful communication tool.

**  What —  what are some of the social media platforms and tools, with examples of tourism organizations that are using Facebook, Twitter, etc. right now.

**  How —  how to get your tourism organization started in social media, either with baby steps or what we call in Texas “going in whole hog.”

The ebook only costs $9 because I want to make it affordable for the smallest travel and tourism company. I’ll take PayPal or any major credit card.

Please see the payment button below to buy it. Thanks!

May 14, 2009

Share your virtual cookies with your imaginary Internet friends

Sheila shares a social media cookie in Hutchinson, Kansas (courtesy Becky McCray on Facebook)As soon as our gaggle settled in for the first meeting on the blogger’s tour in Hutchinson, Kansas, we started whipping out the laptops, cameras and other geek accoutrements.

That’s what those who are wired into the social web do – we start connecting immediately.

Bloggers are natural connectors, but we do it differently than some, and we use Web tools in ways that seem strange to the unplugged.

Sitting around the table, we introduced ourselves and ate box lunches while we yakked, tweeted and photographed everything.

At one point, I pulled this enormous cookie from my lunch and made some joke about it, and small business whiz Becky McCray pulled out her camera to take a photo.

You could sense that our Hutchinson hosts thought we were a bit silly, photographing everything, but I said, “Just you wait, this cookie can get around, and we’ll use it to talk about your town.”

  • The “Hutch cookie” lives on Becky McCray’s Facebook profile under Photos. More importantly, it’s in the Hutch Blogger Tour set. That set shows people some of the neat stuff we saw in Hutchinson (and every time she uploaded something to it, everyone in her Facebook network saw it.)
  • I tweeted about the cookie after the “Share your cookies with your imaginary Internet friends” was posted.  Because the post was hashtagged with #Hutch (the Hutchinson-related hashtag) it also shows up in Twitter Search.

Yes, it’s only a cookie. It’s a seemingly pointless photo; but, it will live on forever, and so will our words about Hutchinson, Kansas.

THAT’S why the Web is powerful as hell.

April 29, 2009

How to respond to a negative blog review

crayola-state-crayon-collection-courtesy-acidcookie-at-flickr-ccThis morning I Stumbled a post on the Travels with Children blog; it’s a fairly negative review of the Crayola Factory in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Author Linda didn’t feel that the place met her expectations for a creative experience for her kids. There was no “wild blogger” ranting or digital spittle – she was simply disappointed in what visitors get there for their money and time.

Since she linked to the Crayola establishment (they should see that by monitoring inbound links/backlinks) and wrote about them as “Crayola Factory in Easton, Pennsylvania” (which any decent Google Alert should catch) I would expect a sharp PR/marketing person from the company to check out the post and leave a comment.

You know, at least something along the lines of “We’re sorry you were disappointed, we’ll take your ideas into consideration, we have a facility redesign in the works, blah blah.”

Figure the odds that anyone actually does that.

A quick glance would show anyone that Linda’s blog isn’t the home of some pajama’d nutcase. She has active and engaged readers who are interested in her family travel topic.

The business communications world often still doesn’t get it, so the review will probably sit there, unanswered.

To me, that’s a lost opportunity for Crayola to reach out to customers and possibly turn a negative impression into a positive one.

Your thoughts?

Social Media Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

April 27, 2009

The Web is made for the tourism Little Guy

The Little Guy frog (courtesy snappybex on Flickr CC)So I’m invited on a blogger’s tour of a small town in Kansas.

I’d never heard of Hutchinson, and maybe neither have you.

Sure, I reacted with a skeptical, “Um, uh, what the heck is there?!”

So I went, and there’s a LOT there.

All of us on the trip blogged about it, photographed it, talked about it on Twitter and shot video, because that’s what wired writers do.

Here, look at what the WhatsUpHutch blog compiled, a mere snapshot in time….

My stuff (here)(here)(some Twitpics)(Video)(blogpost )(photos)(blogpost)
Bill Genereux’s (here ) (here )(photos here )
Deb Brown’s (here here)(pics)(Twitpics )
Becky McCray’s (here )(here )(here)(here )(some Twitpics )
Patsy Terrell’s (here)(blogpost )
Jeanne Cole’s (Twitpics)(blog)
Naomi Shapiro’s (blogpost)
Todd Vogts’ (blogpost)
Kim’s (Kim didn’t even make it to Hutch, but was excited about the idea and wrote a quick post) (blogpost)

If you’re at all involved in tourism and you don’t represent, you know, freakin’ Paris or New York, you might want to think about how your town, property or destination could benefit from Long Tail coverage by a bunch of blabby bloggers.

Or, keep doing lots of those billboard buys and putting stacks of brochures in the Hampton Inn lobby.

Jussayin’….

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