Content Marketing All-Stars: Traci Ward, Visit California

By NativeAI / July 24, 2014


Some content marketers promote products and services, while others sell an entire state. Visit California is an organization tasked with marketing California through the use of compelling content and campaigns.

We caught up with Visit California’s Director of Consumer Marketing, Traci Ward, to hear more about how content is driving dreamers and travelers out west.


From a high level, tell us a little bit about Visit California.

Visit California is a non-profit organization with a mission to develop and maintain marketing programs—in partnership with the state’s travel industry—that keep California top-of-mind as a premier travel destination. We are funded and governed by travel and tourism businesses in California.

What did the early days of the campaign look like in terms of the types of media and content you were producing?

The Visit California marketing program has always used a strong foundation of traditional media—primarily television and print—to tell the brand story. A suite of hard-working, 30-second television commercials were the principal content pieces coming out of the organization.

How has the type of content you produce changed over the years?

The content we are producing today has very much stayed true to the brand formula. Research continually shows that using self-effacing humor, along with a mix of celebrity talent, plays well with our target audience in showcasing the unique California attitude and the abundance of our state.

That said, the way we think about content has changed quite a bit over the years. Formerly, we looked at brand content, specifically the TV commercials, as the pinnacle of our creative efforts. But they served a very specific role, just like all of our other content pieces (such as writing stories for a Visitor’s Guide or creating a video for a specific page on our website).

Today, we think about content outside of the distribution method. When we make a decision to produce a piece of content, we are having conversations about how to leverage that effort across as many channels as possible.

This mindset shift has allowed us to broaden our content efforts. Rather than producing a few television commercials, we leverage the production investment to capture more. That can include longer-form storytelling that brings specific activities and/or people to life, or hero-quality photography for use in 360-degree destination panoramas.

And we are starting to look beyond our own production efforts to broaden our content pool, and we have made curation a bigger part of our content marketing program.


How do you measure the success of your campaigns? Is it possible to quantify “likelihood to visit,” since that would seem to be the ultimate goal of your content?

You are correct, likelihood to visit is an incredibly important analytics metric for us. We have a two-phased advertising research methodology, the first of which measures ad awareness, impact on brand perceptions and impact on likelihood to travel to California among ad aware vs. unaware. In the second phase of the research, we conduct surveys 3-6 months after the end of an ad run and ask about actual travel that has taken place among aware vs. unaware audiences, counting only the difference in the rate of travel between the two and applying to the population aware of the advertising. Our advertising ROI is based on this second phase, with incremental visitors and spending measured in relation to media spending.

We were impressed by the results of The Dream365 Project. Can you tell us a little bit about how the project came about?

We had been working with our agency team at MeringCarson on our 13/14 program of work. We knew that we would be rolling out a new brand platform, Dream Big, and we had a lot of strategic conversations about how to make our dollars go further to bring the platform to life. We did a great deal of research about media consumption and had already started to evolve our media program to focus on content and video specifically because of its inherent ability to inspire and connect in meaningful ways.

The Dream365 Project was born out of that goal. We wanted to create a platform to elevate our content program and engage with consumers throughout the year and launch it in a big way.


You produce awesome video content that has a viral element and is shared all over the web, with many of the videos including celebrity appearances. Is it difficult to secure celebrity participants? Do you see a strong ROI or an increase in engagement when you include guest stars?

Celebrity is a big part of our brand DNA. Hollywood is one of our largest destination drivers globally, and that has proved to be a differentiator over the years. In all of our creative testing and campaign research, the strategic use of celebrities has big appeal and definitely impacts awareness.

Securing celebrities can be a challenge. We are fortunate to have worked with some big names, and that definitely helps. We focus on finding celebrities who have a passion for California and who understand the economic value of tourism.

Your relationship with Entertainment Tonight is the first time we’ve seen content marketing attached to a network TV show. How did that partnership come about? How did you measure success for it?

We dipped our toe into the content integration game through a partnership with The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2011. It was an incredibly positive experience, and it prompted us to look for a deeper content integration partnership. Our advertising agency handles all of our broadcast negotiations and brought the Entertainment Tonight idea to us. Given the strength of celebrity in our program and as a differentiator for California, it seemed like a no-brainer. The program has evolved over the years. It has added an authentic layer to our marketing activity, allowing us to tell deeper stories through the eyes of a handful of celebrities and their connections to our destination.

We’ve measured success through the same process as we measure the broader program. We are looking at media metrics to determine reach and engagement with the custom content and then used our ad tracking to measure awareness of the custom segments. This content, like other layered elements of our brand campaigns, has served to augment brand perceptions and increase travel to the state.


If you were a freelance content strategist, which TV show or celebrity would you match up with which branded content? 

It’s funny, I think that we are in an incredibly unique position to be living in a state that inherently has a natural relationship with a number of shows or celebrities. When you think about how many shows are shot in California, or where the state is featured predominantly in it—from The OC to The Bachelor series—I feel like we already have a solid relationship with a number of shows and celebrities. But, if you want to get specific, we have long tried to get Cameron Diaz to agree to be in one of our spots. So Cameron, if you are reading this…

Who is your target audience? Do you segment potential visitors by geography, income level or other pieces of demographic information?

At the highest level, our global target audience is affluent Adults 18+ with a passion for travel. It is a group that travels by air for vacation at least once annually.

We nuance this target for each market in which we have a presence. To ensure we are deploying our dollars in the most effective way possible, we focus not just on demographics but also on media consumption habits.

As our content program matures, targeting has become, and will continue to be, increasingly important. To drive efficiency in our content marketing efforts, we are working to build psychographic target profiles against our key activity pillars to use in conjunction with these market-specific targets.

What brands or media properties inspire your creative campaigns?

As a marketer, it is fun to watch brands mature in the content marketing space. Red Bull and GoPro are two brands that we follow closely and that seem to lead the pack. More recently, we’ve started to follow media properties like Netflix and HBO Go as they have made incredible strides in connecting to their consumers and creating demand for their content.

How does social media fit into your content distribution strategy? What goals do you set for engagement on Facebook and Twitter?

As we work to take a more channel-agnostic approach to content and put all of our channels to work in the most effective ways, social channels become incredibly important. We’ve worked hard to accumulate and foster a very engaged following on our core social platforms – Facebook, Twitter and, more recently, Instagram.

We all know that the ability to break through in an individual channel is constantly evolving (thanks to our friends at Facebook J), so even though we’ve grown in audience size, we’ve prioritized engagement. We have tried to create programs to ensure our messages are reaching our audience. Our goal is always to hold our engagement numbers steady, or increase them if possible, but changes in algorithms is making that increasingly more challenging. So, in short, we are using our own benchmarks as our internal goals. But that said, we also are looking at our competition and are certainly trying to outpace them.

What does the future of content look like for Visit California? For the travel industry in general?

Honestly, it will be interesting to see where we go as an industry. It feels like we are at a tipping point. While major travel brands have been migrating their strategy, I have yet to see many destinations dive in headfirst.

For California, we have a solid foundation in place, and our focus will be on fostering and scaling against that foundation. We will continue to gain insights from our work to date and use them to evolve the program. But, if I had to sum up the immediate future for our content program, it would be: focus, structure and relevancy.

Unofficial polling data: based on his success as Unofficial Tour Guide, could Rob Lowe run for Governor of California?

Ha! Love this question. We LOVE Rob Lowe. He is an amazing spokesperson for California and knows nooks and crannies of the state that surprised even our content experts. I know nothing about his political interests, but I would vote for him.


Written by NativeAI / July 24, 2014