I have always liked out-of-home advertising because it offers such a great opportunity for creativity. Some out-of-home options like billboards, busses or metro stations can accommodate larger-than-life, eye-popping ads.

A campaign for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, got my attention the other day in an industry e-newsletter. It makes very clever use of the space. It’s more than just a big poster ad. They turned this into a mini experience that is sure to be a conversation starter and maybe even a selfie opportunity. Sitting on that bench/chairlift with that awesome image of the Tetons in the background — most likely while you’re in the midst of your daily commute — surely makes a skier or snowboarder think, “I gotta get out of Chicago and go there.” Heck, I’m thinking that just from reading the article in my office in Virginia.

Even though out-of-home advertising results are difficult to track, this campaign reinforces something we have preached for many years. Great advertising — which means creative messaging, strong imagery, and clever use of whatever medium you happen to be working within — moves consumers through the sales funnel at lighting speed. Whereas, lame creative work doesn’t inspire anyone to take action. Weak advertising moves people through the sales funnel at a glacially slow pace, like waiting in a long lift line at a crowded ski resort.

As a refresher, you might want to take a quick look at the previous blog post. It summarizes some of the recent successes with Bath County Tourism, including a nearly 40% increase in web traffic over the same period a year earlier. Plus, we launched a couple of new initiatives including a Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure and a consumer e-newsletter to people whose information we had been capturing via the website. Today, we’re going to share with you how we were able to accomplish these successes in a short period on a modest budget.

Set Goals — Without them it’s easy to get distracted and begin rationalizing how other things deserve your attention not to mention your limited marketing money. Once you have set your goals, devise tactics and a media plan to achieve them. Stay focused.

Create a Balanced Media Plan — There is no absolute right answer to the vexing question of what percentage of a media budget should go toward online vs print vs broadcast vs other methods. One thing we know, anyone who says to go all in 100% with just one outlet is a fool. In the case of Bath County, since increasing web traffic was a major goal, we purposefully created a media plan with significant investment in online options, including a foundation of SEM and Google Display advertising. Whenever applicable, we negotiated packages with print media publications to include advertising on their website and in their highly targeted e-newsletters.

Invest in Quality Creative — One of the great conundrums of destination marketing is that small, rural destinations need the highest caliber marketing materials even though they have the smallest budgets. Average destinations are a dime a dozen. In order to compete, the smaller ones have to stand out and make people say “wow.” That’s accomplished with professional creative work. In our opinion, it’s not worth the cost of buying an ad in a media outlet if the ad is low quality. It will hurt the brand not grow it. Make quality a priority.

Be Selective. Be Decisive. Be Bold — In previous posts we talked about launching the Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure, a consumer e-newsletter and making a concerted effort to build the county’s reputation for world-class fishing. Early indications are that all of these are yielding results. We knew from the beginning that these would all require effort and money in the future. We could have come up with at least a half-dozen other projects but we chose these based on research and experience. Any niche initiative — wine and beer trails are popular examples — requires funding in every fiscal year not just the first one. “If you build it they will come” only works in the movies. A trail or other program is an attraction like a shop or museum and it needs to be marketed continuously. Once we settled on these projects because of their potential for success, we committed adequate marketing funds to each of them.

Harness Social Media — Even before Mikula-Harris began its partnership with the county, the office of tourism in Bath County had embraced social media. The official tourism Facebook account has twice as many followers as there are residents in Bath County. We’re now using that strength to achieve our goals. We’re sharing quality content, engaging our fans, and driving traffic to the website. It’s a powerful marketing tool that can reach a large audience with a small investment.

Keep the Main Thing The Main Thing — Before spending money on media, initiatives, projects or partnerships, we asked the question, “Will this advance our goals and be good for the long term viability of the brand?” If it doesn’t check both boxes, perhaps the money can be better spent on something else. Nothing is more important than the integrity of the brand.

One final note, the tourism businesses in Bath County, including lodging properties, shops, attractions and restaurants, have been extraordinary partners. They all understand the concept of a rising tide lifting all boats. All have been wonderfully supportive and generous. Because of them, 2020 is looking bright for Bath County tourism.

Early in the spring of 2019, Mikula-Harris entered into a unique partnership with Bath County to provide strategic and creative guidance to its office of tourism. The relationship allowed us to steer the tourism program in a few significant ways:

• exercise creative influence over the advertising, messaging and design

• build a media plan for advertising and marketing

• bring all aspects of the Bath County tourism brand into alignment, including social media

• establish priorities by launching new initiatives and scaling back others

We were given a budget and tasked with getting maximum impact for the county, its citizens and its tourism-related businesses. We began planning and negotiating immediately even though our budget didn’t become available until the start of a new fiscal year on July 1, 2019. We began to see modest results sooner mostly because of our social media activity driving some web traffic. After July 1, things kicked into higher gear. Here are some insights on what has happened and why:

• The media plan contains a mix of print and digital advertising, but definitely more digital than previous years. Print is needed to build brand awareness, which is not easy to measure, while digital advertising builds awareness while also delivering traffic to the website. All our advertising is as targeted as possible, whether by interest, location within driving distance of Bath County, or some other criteria.

• Using recent research, we identified some key areas that we believe could be strong growth areas for tourism in the county and we committed to pursuing them relentlessly. One is scenic drives including motorcycle riders. Second is building upon the county’s growing reputation for great fishing, which got a boost in spring of 2019 when some entrepreneurs launched a fly-fishing festival.

• We designed and printed a Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure that includes details on five routes that begin and end in Bath County. It is displayed at select Virginia Welcome Centers and certain local visitor centers. The online flipbook version has been promoted on social media. It has been viewed online 550 times with an average read time of 2:13 since it launched in September. More marketing to support this niche is scheduled for the spring.

• In September, we sent the first ever consumer e-newsletter to keep in touch with people who have opted-in through the website. At first this e-newsletter will be published quarterly but that may change depending on its popularity. The newsletter offers insights and ideas about why to visit Bath County and what to do when here. It’s filled with links to the website, including the lodging and dining pages to make it easy for people to plan a trip. The first issue had a 28% Open Rate and a staggering 24% Click Rate.

• Between July 1 and October 31, website traffic to the official tourism site of discoverbath.com is up about 30% over the same period in 2018. Website analytics can confirm that the traffic is resulting from our initiatives and viewing the pages we want them to view. For example, online ads for scenic drives and fishing lead directly to relevant landing pages. They are the second and third most viewed pages on the website behind only the Home page.

Those are just a few specific examples of propelling the brand forward and achieving measurable results. Other good things are happening, too. We have had regular meetings with tourism stakeholders to report on everything being done to promote the county. Keeping the lines of communication open is helping to build strong partnerships. There is a wonderful sense of teamwork between the office of tourism and local businesses. We also applied for and received a grant from Virginia Tourism Corporation that will allow even more marketing opportunities. Finally, Hot Springs was recently awarded Top Adventure Town status by Blue Ridge outdoors magazine. A lot of people voted for Hot Springs, but I believe in my heart that the official tourism social media outlets lead the get out the vote drive.

Now that we have shared some specific accomplishments and statistics, the third and final post on this subject will offer some thoughts on the strategy and guiding principles behind the decisions that produce the results.

A lot of people have been curious about the partnership established between Bath County and Mikula-Harris. It’s an interesting story that will one day become an extensive case study or white paper. In the meantime, we want to share what we’re doing and the results that are being achieved. This is the first of what will surely be several blog posts on the subject.

It’s definitely a unique relationship. The county basically outsourced most of the functions of the Office of Tourism, including providing strategic and creative direction to the marketing, working closely with the administration on budgeting, and communicating with local tourism partners to build relationships and foster teamwork.

It’s not a typical client/agency relationship, but the stars aligned for this partnership to become possible. As conversations progressed and the agreement began to take shape, I knew in my heart that it was going to be successful — a genuine win-win situation the way we hope every relationship will be. Today, let’s talk about what makes this relationship unique and why it was so perfectly poised for success.

A. Mikula-Harris has experience in Bath County. We knew the brand and some of the key players. We were not starting from scratch. Sure, we had the challenge of re-gaining some lost momentum, but at least there was a solid foundation in place.

B. We often consult with clients on media and advertising plans. In many cases, clients accept some of our counsel and mix in some of their own preferences. In the case of Bath County, the responsibility for developing the plan was entirely on us. Results would rise or fall because of our strategy. We’ll take that any day of the week. We crafted a plan that took advantage of every discount, buy down, cost share, and value-added bonus we could find. We’re delivering maximum bang for the county’s bucks.

C. The creative work is handled much like the media plan. We answer to the county administrator who hired us because we’re experts at what we do. We share ideas accompanied by research and rationale. We’re held to a high standard but in the end we are not being micro-managed. Once again, we’ll take that scenario any day of the week because we’re confident that we’ll get results. So, we have developed new creative work that we believe will be effective AND it’s paired with our media strategy.

D. In addition to tending to details like the media plan, we had the opportunity to step back and view the big picture of where the tourism program is headed. We considered new markets to pursue, new ways to reach people beyond traditional advertising and new ways to form partnerships. We identified a few key areas for growth and launched a couple of new initiatives, including a Motorcycle Rides & Scenic Drives brochure and a consumer e-newsletter.

So, how is it all working out? What kind of results are we seeing? You have probably heard the term “Taking names and kicking butt.” We’re literally taking names and metaphorically kicking butt. The next blog post will analyze some results to date.

It has been a long time in the making but I’m happy to announce that Mikula-Harris has just launched a new website. Like many agencies, we get so busy with client work that our own site took a back seat for a while. We hope you’ll spend a few minutes clicking around and then let us know on Facebook what you think.

Here are five things we want you to know about our new website:

1. Our design team spent a lot of time on the Work Samples section. Partially because it’s difficult select samples from over 25 years of work but also because we wanted to show a wide variety of projects and tell you a little bit about what we did for each client. We significantly beefed up this section compared to our previous site.

2. We’re a bit more philosophical in this site. Mixed in with telling you who we are and what we do, we offer some insights into how we think and what is important to us — like being genuine partners to clients, our belief in the power of creativity, the importance of research and how it actually makes the creativity sharper, and our thoughts on how to build strong brands.

3. The blog is now integrated into the website. Previously, it was a separate site. Even though we had a link to it, we think many people overlooked it. We hope you will bookmark it and return often. This post you’re reading now happens to be all about us and our new website, but that is a unique situation. We try to make them educational, topical, thought-provoking and fun.

4. The Expertise page talks about the importance of both talent and experience. Members of our team bring an enormous depth of experience to the table, such as art direction, research, problem solving, media strategy and more. Yes, indeed, Mikula-Harris has earned a reputation as experts in tourism branding and marketing, but we also have clients in other industries. As long as they share our core beliefs on partnership, creativity and collaboration, we enjoy doing great work for a wide array of clients.

5. What is the most important page on the site? Answer: The Contact page. We can’t help new clients until we create a connection, which is very easy to do through the simple form on the Contact page. We LOVE launching brands and taking existing brands to greater levels of success. We are passionate about developing advertising and marketing solutions by using research and exceptional creativity. We really enjoy getting to know our client’s products and what makes them unique. None of that is possible until we connect. It all begins with a “Hello.” 

540.774.9932

6 Walnut Avenue • Vinton, Virginia 24179

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