Using the same tired content on traditional marketing platforms has put the African tourism industry at a huge disadvantage.
The world of digital tourism is now, and today’s travellers are more tech savvy than they have ever been, meaning that to stand out in an increasingly noisy marketplace, product owners and service providers need to re-evaluate their messages.
“Having a website doesn’t mean you’ve cracked digital tourism,” says Ryan Ashton of tourism marketing group Perfections of Africa, which is representing its client base of tourism products at the World Travel Market Africa tourism expo in Cape Town this week.
“In fact, a badly presented, poorly written website can do more damage to a brand than no website at all,” he adds.
Indeed, today’s leading websites are extensions of multiple layers of canny digital marketing strategies that present a brand’s message across a seamless combination of online, social media, mobile and tablet platforms. And the overarching common denominator is that content is king.
“Good content drives the digital world,” says Ashton. “We are witnessing the age of Millennials – the Generation Y-ers who use technology in everything they do, often in a way that anyone outside this demographic grouping finds baffling. They are hungry for content and good content is shared across multiple different platforms, from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter and WhatsApp. It’s consumed on mobile devices, most especially smartphones and tablets.”
This means that many tourism businesses are being left behind by technology they do not understand, or want to get to grips with, through failing to connect with the digital realm and harness its power.
They are also wary of engaging with a new, booming market of travellers from across the globe who want a completely different and new tourism offering that feeds their hunger for authentic experiences.
“It’s the difference between a mango and a Kinder Joy,” explains Mike Fabricius of tourism consultants the Journey, referring to the Swiss egg-shaped chocolates that are marketed with a toy.
“A mango tastes wonderful, but eating it is an extremely messy experience. It’s hard to get into, for a start, and you’re often better off just stripping off your clothes and eating it in the shower so you can hose off afterwards. Often you just opt for something less sticky. Kinder Joy, on the other hand, is equally tasty, but it’s packaged in an extremely clever and professional way so that there’s no mess, and it has an added surprise element inside in the form of a toy. Today’s digital experience needs to be packaged like a Kinder Joy, not a mango.”
Nick Hall of the Digital Tourism Think Tank echoes the challenges facing tourism product owners in South Africa and across Africa.
“The digital realm is one of instant gratification,” Hall says. “A digital tourist needs information now, and in a way which is easy to navigate and digest. This is why content is so critical: it has to leap out and engage immediately. Content has to be experiential, it has to tell stories that evoke emotions. In doing so it forms a strong, lasting bond with the brand, which is shared with sometimes thousands of friends, friends of friends and so on across social media platforms.”
Experiences such as a wildlife sighting on a safari, a sunset cruise in Cape Town harbour, interacting with local people on a township tour and spectacular scenery can easily be shared in a matter of minutes without saying a word, just by taking a photo on a mobile device like a smartphone and posting it on social media.
Content does not have to be complicated, and most often less is more, with strong visuals an absolute must.
“Great images and video are fantastic ways to help market your business in the digital world,” says Hall, adding that the talents of professional writers should also not be underestimated.
“Good writers and bloggers tell stories, which sell your brand in a much more meaningful way and they reach audiences that tired, search engine optimisation-driven marketing material fails to. Indeed, blogs and travel stories feature higher up in search engine results than any other form of content, barring advertisements.”
A tourism disconnect?
Understanding the habits of the market they are selling to is essential for South African and Africa tourism businesses, and when it comes to the digital tourist, especially the Millennial, free uncapped wi-fi connectivity wherever they go is considered something akin to a human right.
“South Africa is hampered in this respect by some of the highest costs for communication in the world, erratic coverage and slow download and upload speeds, especially in rural areas and game reserves,” says Ashton. “In addition, the concept of free wi-fi just hasn’t caught on, with many destinations still expecting the guest to pay before they can connect and limiting them to a specific amount of data once they pay. This just does not work.”
Indeed, digital communication and connectivity remains one of the biggest under-the-counter barriers to tourism growth in South Africa and the rest of Africa, thanks largely to the monopolies of cellular service providers and parastatals such as Telkom. For guests coming from the United States and Europe, where free wi-fi is available everywhere, the inability to be connected to the rest of the world at the speeds they are used to and at a premium price has a serious negative impact.
“It is certainly something that the tourism industry needs to address,” says Velma Corcoran, executive for marketing at Cape Town Tourism. “We need to be speaking to the cellphone providers and the telecommunications department to find a way to improve on the digital services we can offer them no matter where they go.”
Could there ever be a time in South Africa when free, high-speed internet connectivity is widely available across the country?
“It has to come,” says Ashton. “The technology is available, we just have to get rid of the monopolisation of the frameworks and the profit-before-service mentality of the service providers.”
Sharon Gilbert-Rivett is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker specialising in sustainable tourism and conservation in Africa.