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Is bigger really better?

Social community of birds

Every territorial marketing professional has been faced with the following dilemma at one point or another: “How can I get my social media community to grow?”

That inevitably leads to a slew of creative ideas from all sides. Marketing professionals advocate for social media advertising.

Creatives push great community building ideas into your hand, while graphic designers come up with cool new forms of photo tweaking to make the post more ‘shareable’ and ‘likeable’, along with so many other things to help us reach more and more people. This all happens in the name of growing our ‘digital communities’.

This is usually a laudable goal, but most people rarely stop to think about it and answer a simple question: Why?

Why do place brands need 1 million fans on Facebook, or followers on Twitter, or in Instagram or Pinterest, and so on and so forth?

Most government officials at all levels of government, be they at the city or nation level, answer with something along the lines of “bigger is better”, or “the more the merrier”, or even “because my neighbour has a bigger community”.

These answers lack focus, depth and direction, and as a result, the social media strategies of these place brands are just that, directionless.

But what happens when you keep these answers and paraphrase the question, turning it into, “What’s my place brand getting out of these efforts?” Then the answers provided by these government officials can no longer be justified.

Place brands have to rethink their strategy, and truly define what they want to accomplish from their digital activities. This gives way to the construction of real ‘place communities’.

There are some interesting examples out there, like Sweden’s Twitter profile, where each week a different Swede takes charge of the account. This has created a community of people who actually have a better understanding of Sweden, gathered on the official website.

While it’s true that all these people are Swedes, they are also a key audience of the brand, as they now have more reasons to love their country, and have become stronger advocates of the Swedish country brand.

Other place brands are more focused on churning out post after post of beautiful landscapes and incredible destinations. But sometimes the storytelling is too focused on the way they see the world, and not enough on how the rest of us see ‘them’. Once more that’s a difficulty.

To overcome this, it’s necessary to build a storytelling structure that’s universal enough yet authentic enough to engage the intended audience while retaining the local flavour. While this sounds difficult, there are many available tools at the disposal of us marketers.

Clichés are probably the most powerful of these. We may hate them, but trust me, nothing says Mexico louder than a ‘Mariachi sombrero’, or France than a ‘French beret’.

This may enrage the local population, who feel that the cliché misrepresents them. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for a skilled marketer can take that cliché and turn it into a matter of national pride, while at the same time using it to convey a message to a foreign audience. It all depends on whom you want to talk to.

It brings us back to the question: “Why is my place brand on social media?”

The answer should be simple. To build a community of likeminded people who truly like my place, and are genuinely interested in hearing about it.

A new way of approaching the problem is by turning it into an issue of quality over quantity. It’s not about how many fans/followers your brand has; it’s about how strong your online community is. That’s the only way you can get people to step away from their Facebook or Twitter page and actually go book a flight to see all the wonders you’re talking to them about.

In a sense, that’s the ultimate goal of place branding and territorial marketing, to bring people to see our homes, and if all goes well, for them to invest there.

By Daniel Reyes

Daniel Reyes is former Chief Communications Officer of the Colombia Country Brand Office. He now works as a private consultant in strategic communications, with an emphasis on place brands in the digital sphere. Follow Daniel on Twitter, or find him on LinkedIn.

Solidarity in Sydney – #illridewithyou

photo credit: Crossing Sydney Harbor - iPhone via photopin (license)
photo credit: Crossing Sydney Harbor – iPhone via photopin (license)

Twitter has become the main harbinger of major global events in our hyper-connected age. When news breaks it breaks on Twitter before any reporter or newswire have chance to reach it. Situations tend to unfold gradually on Twitter, starting with tweets containing vague hints and references as people try to figure out what is going on. As momentum around an event builds, hashtags start to pop up and evolve, often becoming trending topics in the case of something really major.

This is what I’ve noticed this year, with various disasters including the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines plane MH370, the downing of MH17, the ISIS murders of journalists and aid workers, and, today, the still developing hostage situation in a Sydney cafe.

It’s difficult to comment while this event is still ongoing, but unfortunately the world has already noticed that the gunman wears an Arabic-emblazoned headband and waves a black ISIS-style flag. As has happened countless times before, this produces a knee-jerk response where innocent Muslims have to once again apologise and shoulder the blame.

Even worse, the actions of this one man have left Sydney’s Muslim community at risk of reprisals from uneducated, ignorant sections of society. These groups still can’t see the difference between the actions of one person and the attitude of the whole. This holds true not just for Australia, but for many other Western nations, including the UK, Belgium, and Germany. The latter in particular has seen recent worrying spates of protests calling for an end to immigration.

But there’s a ray of hope as this latest incident unfolds in Sydney. It emanates from the community response, refreshingly different and positive. Many people are quick to criticise what they see as ‘slacktivism’, where social media users tweet vehemently about social justice issues yet fail to take any concrete action to help solve them. But in Sydney today, this is not the case. Tweeting is happening. Concrete actions are also happening.

The hashtag #illridewithyou was born in reaction to ‘the racists’ who had been ‘brought out in packs’ by the cafe siege. Concerned citizens of Sydney wanted to make sure the Muslims among them could get home safely on public transport without being subjected to reprisal attacks. Right now, people are offering to accompany those in religious attire/who look Muslim to get home, in some cases offering lifts by car as well as company on train, bus and subway.

By using this hashtag, people can come together to offer and accept help.
This situation is ongoing as I write. #illridewithyou is trending at number one globally, and that’s encouraging to see. Ordinary people are fed up with the constant vicious circle of isolated terrorist actions and the resulting media coverage that perpetuates Islamophobia and racist behaviour. Finally, in Sydney, they’ve figured out a simple, practical, yet much-needed solution.

I hope that this positive hashtag will strike a chord around the world, so that when the next incident happens we can differentiate the perpetrator as in the unhinged minority, not representative of over one billion individuals.

Despite the potential severity of this incident, I appreciate the sense of solidarity in Sydney. It feels as if something has finally shifted. Australia’s long-held reputation as a country of ‘mate-ship’ is well deserved today. Well done Sydney – the world is looking upon you kindly and praying for a good outcome today.

Curating the Swedish image


Last year Visit Sweden teamed up with the Swedish Institute to launch a Twitter campaign called Curators of Sweden.

The aim was to present Sweden to the world via Twitter, in an attempt to democratise national speech, strengthen the nation’s image and hopefully increase tourism in the process. Sweden’s typical image is already associated with progressive, democratic and creative values. The Curators of Sweden campaign sought to further these by being ultra-progressive on Twitter.

Sweden handed control of its national Twitter channel over to a different ordinary Swede every week. Nominated by others, each Curator was then selected by a committee of three. The only qualifications were that Curators had to be interesting, capable of tweeting in English, and competent with Twitter. They were also give certain instructions; not to say anything criminal, and to label political opinions as personal and not speak on behalf of the whole country.

But adventurous Sweden got more than it bargained for.

The country discovered that 140 characters is plenty for saying something stupid, but not always enough to properly explain and/or apologise. This revelation was caused by 27-year-old Sonja Abrahamsson, who decided to hijack the Twitter spotlight for her own ends while taking her turn as an @Sweden curator.

As soon as she got control of the national Twitter feed, Sonja launched a series of negative tweets about Jews, unleashing a tirade of criticism from outraged Twitter users around the world. The unhappy respondents targeted both Sonja and Sweden in their angry tweets; which could have potentially been a PR disaster for Sweden’s image.

Sonja later tried to apologise. Then she said nothing more about her comments, nor the response they triggered. Sweden’s tourism board took a typically Swedish approach to the issue, maintaining the value of free speech and insisting that they would not censor the curators. Despite the unwise approach from this particular curator, Sweden reinforces its core brand values by refusing to censor her remarks. Nevertheless, tourism boards should be aware of the speed with which Twitter comments can spread globally, and perhaps are better off relying on trusted professionals to handle their official feeds. Depending on how risk-averse they are. After all, the image of the nation may be at stake.

Sweden has continued the Curators campaign to this day. A tweet only last week contained the gem of wisdom “beer bloating is the new black.” It’s a bold approach to tourism promotion and brand development. Curators has brought dramatic success for Sweden, not only growing the country’s Twitter followers from around 8,000 to over 66,500 at last count, but greatly increasing engagement with Swedish tourism. Obviously, the uncensored tweets haven’t put many people off. Media coverage has also been successful, with the Curators project bringing in around $40 million worth of promotion.

In the words of Visit Sweden’s US manager, Lotta Thiringer, the spirit of the project is ‘just as important as those numbers’. Thiringer said, “The campaign has proven to the world that Sweden is a truly open, authentic and innovative country. We get that message across by showing what Sweden is all about, instead of just saying it.”

Authentically living the brand is the best way for places to achieve lasting success.