The seaside cliffs of Newfoundland and Labrador; the Rocky Mountains' snowy peaks and blankets of evergreen – for years now, such grand, sweeping vistas have been the staples of Canadian tourism advertising. But as media habits shift, marketers are discovering it's not all about the big picture.
Ever-larger slices of advertising budgets have been flowing into digital media, where ads work best when targeted to a traveller's specific interests. While gorgeous TV ads and photo spreads highlighting this country's natural beauty haven't lost their power to burnish brand Canada, these days specificity is key.
For most marketers, this is old news – that effective digital ads depend on targeting – and that includes tourism marketers. But as the landscape shifts, something new is taking shape: a "Team Canada" approach uniting different tourism organizations on the provincial, municipal and national levels, to better share customer data and to pool budgets to create a more effective digital presence.
Canada's tourism organizations have partnered with each other in the past, but not at this scale. The experiment began in earnest nearly two years ago, when Destination Canada (formerly the Canadian Tourism Commission) united with seven provincial and three municipal tourism agencies for a pilot project in advertising to the German market.
"The mature European markets are flat or growing at maybe 2 per cent. We had struggled with getting real growth," said Destination Canada president and chief executive officer David Goldstein. Competition among Canadian players wasn't helping. "We were stepping all over each other."
After the pilot project, visits from Germany rose 6 per cent. That proof point led to a bigger initiative in the United States, a market where Destination Canada had been absent for a few years, following budget cuts. In the last two federal budgets, however, the government restored about $90-million a year to its funding.
The U.S. campaign brought together Destination Canada and tourism agencies of all 10 provinces and three territories, as well as six major cities. Crucial to this collaboration is data-sharing: the agencies are combining intelligence on who their customers are and how to speak to them.
Working with Google Canada, the team undertook a research project on the U.S., identifying 19 million citizens who had considered travel to Canada but hadn't been yet, had passports and lived in proximity to cities with direct flights.
One of the goals was to reach younger travellers. Analyzing their interests helped the group to identify where to buy ads: Buzzfeed, fashion website Refinery 29, culinary publication Food & Wine, and cultural site Wallpaper were all part of the mix.
"Because it's much larger in scale than we could do on our own, they've been able to negotiate larger content marketing partnerships with major publishers that would be harder for us to do on our own," said Andrew Weir, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer for Tourism Toronto. About a third of Tourism Toronto's spending in the U.S. market is now directed through the Destination Canada partnership, and it is now involved in pilot projects in Britain and Mexico. "There's no way our budget would allow us to have a significant marketing presence in all those markets."
And these weren't just traditional ad buys: the team focused as well on "sponsored content" such as a GQ video about experiencing Victoria, B.C. like a local; a piece on Refinery29 from a travel blogger touring Montreal; or a video on the travel site Matador about B.C.'s white bears.
"The content is less epic, more personal," Mr. Goldstein. "It's stuff you can actually do, as opposed to big beautiful shots of a place."
Ads and content took a "sequential" approach, targeting different content to different people based on their location and interests.
"I would potentially see a video from Destination Canada, and maybe I looked at ski content – so Travel Alberta's ad [would appear] a week later … and then maybe a tour operator could promote a lift ticket," said Chris Adamkowski, travel practice leader at Google Canada.
"… Our tourism lead is in regular contact with our counterparts globally. … From everything we've seen, this is unprecedented in tourism."
In the first eight months of this year, U.S. Web searches for Canadian travel destinations are up 52 per cent.
"The marketing strategies that we had across the globe were pretty balkanized," said Destination British Columbia
CEO Marsha Walden. "[Customer data] was looked at by individual organizations as opposed to sharing insights and having better analytics tools looking across all of us. … We get to see which content is driving what behaviour; which target audiences are responding best to which content."
A bigger media investment also means that publishers share more of their own audience information, Ms. Walden said – allowing the tourism agencies to cross-reference that information with their own shared data. B.C. is now working with more destination marketing organizations within the province to develop a strategy for content and data sharing.
"This goes up and down the ecosystem of tourism in Canada," Ms. Walden said. "It's going to create a significant change in our marketing strategy."