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Tell, don’t sell: it’s Destination Marketing 101. But how do we tell great stories in the digital age?

Great stories move us. Literally.

When it comes to destination marketing, powerful storytelling can transport people from tapping on their phones to places all over the world.

These days, travellers use social media for every step along the way – whether it’s daydreaming of a Greek island escape while scrolling Pinterest at work, following Instagram hashtags for insider tips, or clicking a link from a Facebook ad to book that hotel. Once they’ve actually arrived at their destination, they’ll upload their own snaps, content and reviews – becoming part of the place’s collective story, too.

 “No one wants to be a tourist anymore – everyone wants to be a traveller,” says Lauren Quaintance, founder of content agency Storyation. “They want to live like a local and they want to have experiences that change them in some way. That might mean learning to cook rogan josh in a back street in New Delhi or watching green turtles hatch on an island in Queensland. And storytelling is really the best way to bring these experiences to life for consumers in a tangible way.”

Get inspired by your own backyard

“Anything can be interesting,” says Meg Coffey, founder of SMPerth. But just like fish don’t know they’re in water, marketers can lose sight of what makes their business or destination special. “It’s about finding that cool unique thing and then telling people in your authentic voice. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare.”

 “A great story always has transformation at its heart,” says Lauren. Take Humans of New York. The hobby project from creator Brandon Stanton has turned into a social media phenomenon with 18 million followers. “Really Humans of New York is about relationships, about how people were changed in some way by a relationship or an interaction with another human being.”

Travel marketers can take their cues from Stanton when bringing a destination to life. “Locals are the most powerful tool at their disposal,” says Lauren. The best social media content “tells the stories of the people you meet in a destination, gets under the skin of locals and uses that lens to show you how a destination is unique.”

Invest in imagery

“Visuals are key – and in destination marketing, they have to be good,” says Meg. “You need to get my attention. We need those drone shots, we need those epic waterfalls – we need the professionals.” When hiring a photographer, don’t just commission a single money shot. Think of a number of different angles and uses so you can keep the content coming. “When we shoot for socials, it’s completely different than a book – I need 1000 images, not 15.”

According to Lauren, consumers are often “overwhelmed by content”. But “truly extraordinary imagery that either shines a light on a place a traveller has not considered, or shows an unexpected side to a familiar destination” will always cut through.

Understand the different platforms

Which social media platforms are the best for destination storytelling? “For inspiration it’s Instagram all the way for me,” says Lauren. “It’s a visually driven medium and there’s a purity to that when it comes to destination marketing which is really valuable.”

“That said, no one should overlook Facebook’s reach if you can afford to pay to play – it’s a behemoth – and Twitter is best used as a communication tool to answer traveller queries.”

As for Pinterest, many think of it as a purely social platform, says Lauren. “But it’s really a search engine – and understanding that can make a big difference to travel marketers.”

Choose your hashtags carefully

A destination hashtag is a great way to inspire and connect with travellers. You can “claim” a hashtag by using it consistently, and encouraging people to tag their own content, too. It’s best to keep hashtags simple and not overly long: remember, you’re dealing with a global audience. But by the same token, make it unique. If you opt for something oversaturated, your content will get lost in the shuffle.

And be prepared to accept that you don’t have control over what content people tag with your hashtag. “Remember, nobody owns a hashtag,” warns Meg. “When you put it out into the world, you have to accept what people put back.”

Embrace user-generated content

Once upon a time, tourism marketing departments controlled the story of their destination. “Now every destination marketer needs to understand that their customers are the co-creators of their story,” says Lauren. “Tourism Australia, for example, receives more than 1,200 photos every day via social channels from travellers, locals and those in the industry.”

So work with it. Mine UGC for great stories and imagery you can share across your platforms. “The challenge for destination marketers is to harness the power of this UGC in a way that is more strategic and that addresses the barriers to travel in the same way that that perfectly crafted TVC did,” says Lauren.

You can still move your customers with great storytelling. Just remember, they’re taking your business along for the ride.