This year, Skift and Brand USA surveyed 400 content creators to learn what’s top of mind for destination marketers for 2020. See the results here.

Destination marketing is constantly in flux due to technological changes, market demands, and traveler trends. Today, people planning trips are looking for lesser-known spots, local experiences, and unique accommodations. In response, successful marketers are utilizing storytelling to create narratives around their city or state that go beyond the standard highlight reel of landmarks and tourist attractions to focus more on local people and culture.

Brand USA, the destination marketing organization for the United States, has long been a proponent of storytelling. SkiftX spoke with Brand USA’s vice president, integrated marketing, Tracy Lanza about how destination marketing is evolving, what’s next for the industry, and what organizations should be thinking about for 2020.

SkiftX: The role of Brand USA is to be a cheerleader for the United States and encourage international visitation, which I’m sure is not always an easy task. Does America have a perception issue right now? How do you navigate that as a storyteller?

Lanza: Travel transcends politics. This has been our core belief since Brand USA was founded. For the last few years, however, we’ve had two challenges: one of which — since early 2015 — has been the strength of the U.S. dollar, which has made it more expensive for some people to visit. The other is the perception that the United States is not welcoming to visitors, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Our focus is on winning the hearts of travelers before we earn their pocketbooks. To thrive in the “experience economy,” our strategy focuses on the different types of unique adventures as well as the welcoming people that can all be found in the USA.

SkiftX: As the destination marketing organization for the United States, what guides your overarching strategy when creating content?

Lanza: When we launched our first campaign in 2012, the positioning statement was: ‘The United States of Awesome Possibilities Welcomes Everyone’ and it hasn’t changed, other than to include our value proposition of proximity. Proximity is the idea that you can get more bang for your buck, peso, real or yuan in one trip to the U.S. because of the wide variety of experiences that are available within a 5 hour radius. Most international travelers don’t know that a visit to New York City puts them close to sandy beaches in the Hamptons, outdoor adventure and antiquing in the Hudson Valley, snow-skiing in New England, and the culture of Philadelphia. It’s all possible in a single trip to the States.

SkiftX: Brand USA’s ‘Many Voices’ strategy is about giving a voice to real, authentic travel experiences. Can you speak to the importance of this?

Lanza: With 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia, and thousands of cities and towns, it’s impossible to tell just one story. ‘Many Voices‘ allows us to curate a concert of voices through our work with destinations, locals, travelers, the travel trade, the creative class (like musicians, painters, or movie-makers), and influencers.

SkiftX: Is there still an importance on being data-driven? What metrics are you looking at to determine success within your storytelling strategy?

Lanza: Our storytelling focuses on sharing entertaining and emotional stories across digital media. The beauty of using digital platforms is that you’ve got the ability to analyze performance and optimize. We’re very interested in using search queries to improve content relevance. One of my good friends, a strategist who works in e-commerce, jokes that “you can lie to your friends about what you did last night, but you can’t lie to your search engine.” This makes me laugh, but it’s true. If we can identify search behavior, we can understand interests, and we can use this insight as input for content development.

We also place a lot of emphasis on engagement metrics because we are not transactional. One of the challenges for destinations is to develop a set of consistent benchmarks that we [as destination marketers] all agree are the measures for success.

SkiftX: Do you have an example of how you’ve used search to influence content?

Lanza: We pulled data for the top search queries in India and one that was really surprising was the volume for a “three-day romantic cabin weekend in North Carolina.” We realized this may be due to the number of movies that are filmed there — and one in particular called “Remarkable Journey” which focused on Indian communities in North Carolina. We can combine this search behavior data with the market-level insights we get from engagement with our United Stories campaign to help us tailor our itineraries and storytelling.

SkiftX: What destination marketers (U.S.- based or other) are doing storytelling well? Who can the industry learn from?

Lanza: I continue to be incredibly impressed by the work our partners are doing. The series called, “New Mexico True Stories,” is an unexpected look at the magical adventures to be experienced there. I think my favorite video is one called “Earthships,” which is about sustainability. Every single video in the series makes you want to go there now, which, by the way, is my simple screen for whether a piece of content works.

SkiftX: Brand USA has been heavily focused on connected TV for the past two years. You launched the GoUSA OTT channel and app in 2018, as well as a YouTube channel earlier this summer. What are you excited about next?

Lanza: The whole rationale behind connected TV is people wanting to watch content on their own terms, on demand. Curating content, from short to long-form, and growing viewership on these platforms is our focus. What’s nice about connected TV is that our content is transferable to other distribution methods. We’ll be working with our airline partners to feature our GoUSA content on in-flight entertainment, we’re talking with hotel partners for in-room viewing, and we are also working with our media partners to distribute our content on their channels.

SkiftX: Where do you think the industry is headed? What platforms or formats are you looking at for 2020 and beyond?

Lanza: I’m super interested in audio, which is growing faster than video. Whether it’s understanding how voice is going to impact travel planning, or developing sonic branding for Go USA TV, this is an area that deserves a good bit of thought. We’ve dabbled with podcasts — Visit California has done an amazing job with podcasts on their Dream Big/California Now channel. We also recently used Shazam to create digital billboards, which were interactive with our content, so it will be interesting to see where Apple takes that platform. And, I would be remiss to say we aren’t taking a hard look at TikTok.

You have to think about how people experience the world and how they use technology. Not everything is an opportunity, but I don’t think we can ever go back to that world where we’re creating heavy-handed advertising messages. This means our storytelling job is a little harder, but it’s also more interesting and gratifying when it works.

SkiftX and Brand USA surveyed over 400 storytellers and creators and interviewed numerous industry leaders to discover how destinations are using storytelling to inspire travel. We asked them about strategy, campaign goals, content distribution, and what’s top of mind for 2020. See the results below.

Destination Storytelling Guide 2020

This article was created collaboratively by Brand USA and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.