How Explore Chicago Uses Social Media To Engage Tourists

The official City of Chicago’s official tourism website is called Explore Chicago — it is managed by the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, an agency dedicated to promoting Chicago as a cultural destination to both domestic and international leisure travelers.

In December 2011, Explore Chicago surpassed 6 million visits for the year — the highest annual total since its 2009 launch and a 40% increase over 2010, making Explore Chicago the top travel and tourism website for Chicago, based on traffic volume. Not bad for a non-profit website.

Explore Chicago is only one part of the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture’s online offerings, which include a blog, a strong Foursquare presence, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. (In total, the office of tourism is active across nine social media platforms.)

“We are tourism leaders in the realm of social media. We had the very first visitor Concierge Twitter feed. We were the very first tourism agency to work with Foursquare, and we now have a total of four Chicago branded badges — including the Windy City badge, which was the very first city badge that Foursquare produced,” says Pam Morin, director of marketing at the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.

A Fall 2011 study conducted by Nichols Tourism Group and the National Laboratory of Tourism and eCommerce at Temple University found that Explore Chicago significantly influenced $172 million in direct visitor spending and $3 million in local taxes.

“We’re incredibly proud of this website, that we’re able to do so much with such a small team and such a small budget,” says Morin.

So, how does Explore Chicago manage to generate content for all these feeds and platforms with a staff of just three (two of whom are technology rather than content experts) and a small marketing department?

User-Generated Success

The key to the site’s success, says Morin, is user-generated content.

For example, Explore Chicago has more than 1,000 “cultural partners” throughout the city, who provide them with information on a regular basis via a web form that automatically populates Explore Chicago‘s event listings.

That’s immensely helpful to the Explore Chicago team (which edits each listing before it’s posted), but it’s just scratching the surface of the site’s user-generated success, which spans blog content, photography, and video.

The Explore Chicago Flickr account, for example, has enabled 3,000 photographers to submit photos.

“Photography is incredibly important on a tourism website,” explains Morin. “People want to see where other people have been. This is how people do research on places that they’re going to visit next. They want to see what it is like on the ground, and we just love the instantaneous impact that these photos have,” explains Morin.

ExploreChicago also employs almost 200 volunteer bloggers for the Insider Profiles section of the site, where locals can share their insider knowledge of the city.

“They live in different neighborhoods. They are all different ages. They all have different occupations and hobbies, you name it. They give us their take on Chicago, and we have found that this has been incredibly popular content,” says Morin.

“User-generated content is incredibly important to us. Chicago is an incredibly proud city. People from Chicago love to talk about Chicago. We’ve been so thrilled with how generous people have been with their opinions, and with their thoughts and creating content for us.”

Content Tips

Morin advises content managers to create — and stick to — an editorial calendar.

“We absolutely would not be able to do what we do if we didn’t create an editorial calendar. We have so many things that happen internally, that we would never be able to manage the external information if we weren’t very, very, well-organized,” says Morin.

She also advises content creators not to write a single word of content… until, that is, they have thought through how that content will be used across all the organization’s communications platforms, including Twitter and blogs.

Image courtesy of Explore Chicago

Image by Flickr

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