Indianapolis is home to the largest single-day sporting event in the world, the Indy 500, and the world’s largest children’s museum. While Indianapolis has enough great sports, food, shopping and culture to keep any tourist on their toes, a few years back, Visit Indy – the destination marketing organization (DMO) responsible for attracting visitors by showcasing all the spectacular experiences the destination had to offer – was looking to extend its marketing across the entire year, and direct specific messaging at more targeted audiences.

This approach required a marketing strategy overhaul, namely doubling down on what works and eliminating what doesn’t. This is a mantra the DMO has stuck to throughout its journey, which began with a small foothold in digital marketing and culminated with Visit Indy dedicating its entire $1 million budget to digital marketing. 

While going “all in” on digital marketing was certainly a risk, it was a well-calculated one which resulted in significant wins, including convention hotel room bookings more than doubling, leisure travel increasing by 30%, and seven straight years of increased visitor spending in Indianapolis. 

While there were many contributing factors (and talented people) behind Visit Indy’s accomplishments, two key success factors stood out. The first was a focus on the power of user-generated content (UGC), and the second was the ability to identify and target specific demographic groups through timely and relevant digital content. 

Leveraging the Power of UGC

Looking back more than a decade ago (13 years to be exact), Visit Indy promoted its brand by using stock photography, ensuring each photo looked perfect and aspirational. 

More recently, however, Visit Indy tuned into a fundamental shift in the consumer mindset that has since led the organization to vastly adjust its approach to visual media, ultimately ensuring it could thrive in the “era of Instagram.” 

The volume of organic engagement and enthusiasm from visitors who were posting photos of the city on social media was growing exponentially, with each capturing and sharing the spirit of all the city had to offer for the world to see. The answer to solving the challenge of attracting and engaging visitors could not have been clearer.

Visit Indy began to look for ways to capture that same energy and incorporate user-generated content (UGC) in its marketing. The DMO wanted to place a greater emphasis on its social media presence and encourage visitor participation in its campaigns. One stand-out example of this occurred during the run-up to the NCAA Tournament Final Four in 2015 when Visit Indy built “NDY” statues and allowed visitors to become the “I” in Indy, and then share and tag their photos on social media using the hashtag #LoveIndy. The DMO partnered with visual content marketing company CrowdRiff to source and monitor all the shared images and track the success of this campaign. 

Another initiative that cemented its belief in the power of UGC was a $10,000 test on Facebook that was the top performer out of its $650,000 spend.

Based on these proof points, Visit Indy made the decision to increase its presence on social channels and leverage UGC. In 2017, Facebook became 40% of its ad spend; in 2018, the DMO began to focus exclusively on UGC in all its social media ad buys. 

Visit Indy is just one organization acknowledging the growing shift in consumer preference for UGC. In fact, research shows stock images are often second-rate when it comes to consumer preference, conversion, and cost. In contrast, UGC is shown to result in a 29% increase in web conversions, and brand engagement increases by 28% when UGC is incorporated in marketing materials. Worth noting, UGC is 20% more influential among millennials than other media types.

Visual content today is more influential than ever, fueled by the rise in smartphone adoption and savvy consumers who are more drawn to authentic, natural content (vs. traditional branded content) that puts them at the center of the marketing campaign. With a treasure trove of available, powerful, and influential UGC, organizations like Visit Indy can more effectively market their brand.

Identifying and Targeting Demographic Groups through Social Media

Visit Indy’s all-digital marketing strategy and increased social media presence also enabled the DMO to nail down its target demographics and their unique personas. Social listening and the ability to identify conversation groups let the DMO identify what encourages different personas to visit Indianapolis. After identifying nine personas – ranging from foodies and history buffs to urban adventurers – Visit Indy underpinned its digital marketing strategy in traveler behavior and engaged in much more targeted outreach campaigns throughout the year to promote key events.

Over this time, Visit Indy has become increasingly creative in the process. More recently, the DMO has been stringing together short yet impactful videos of UGC to share with each persona audience on social media. The rawness of UGC video fits really well within social media platforms, enabling Visit Indy to internally generate new videos regularly and easily. 

These relevant and timely videos have also helped Visit Indy to flesh out its culinary and sports tourism. In fact, since replacing all its Facebook ads with videos stitched together from UGC, its click-through rates have increased three-fold. Similar results have been noted across other channels, from websites to microsites to display ads, with each experiencing an increase in engagement, reduced bounce rates, and better recall. The approach has been so successful that Visit Indy’s social ad buy is now entirely UGC videos, generating a 1.33% click-through rate (53% of total paid media clicks in our 2018 campaign). Today, Visit Indy has also integrated UGC galleries onto its website to promote every big event, partner, and attraction, along with a dedicated gallery for each venue listing on its website.

For anyone left wondering how Visit Indy can possibly find and manage the seemingly endless number of images generated by users, CrowdRiff’s visual content marketing software was the key; enabling the DMO to monitor, source, search for, and curate UGC using hashtags, geolocations, and search across social media channels. 

Looking ahead, Visit Indy plans to continue optimizing its all-digital marketing strategy by further expanding and cultivating its digital assets. Artificial intelligence (AI) will also play a role in enabling Visit Indy to analyze copious amounts of data to predict the most effective UGC image for a specific marketing campaign. 

While it’s hard to imagine that the bright future of Visit Indy may very well have been enabled by an image of a happy family fighting over the last bite of Hoosier pie, it’s a familiar story for so many DMOs around the world.