Social Media Marketing? Not in Columbus (or Social Media Isn’t a Free Pass to a Good Campaign)

Social Media Marketing? Not in Columbus (or Social Media Isn’t a Free Pass to a Good Campaign)


Last night I had the pleasure of meeting up with a couple dozen other Columbus bloggers for a preview of the new Experience Columbus marketing campaign. The campaign was touted as having a heavy social media component and since I’m in the process of promoting Columbus myself with our upcoming Small Business Marketing Unleashed conference, I was excited to see what they had put together. Unfortunately, the night featured quite a few classic social media marketing mistakes.

The Background

Columbus is one of those cities that never gets it’s just due. We’re the 15th largest city in the United States and have an incredibly low cost of living. We’re home to companies like Nationwide Insurance, Wendy’s, Limited Brands and one of the largest universities in the world. We’ve got pro sports teams, awesome concert venues and shopping and food that can rival nearly any city in America.

I could go on and on.

I moved to Columbus 15 years ago and fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve joined every other Columbus resident in defending our town from the “wow, you have traffic lights in Ohio?” and “you know what the opera is, right” jabs they like to throw our way. It’s ok though, because we have a sense of humor here in Ohio.

It was with that reputation in mind that the teams at Experience Columbus and Engauge decided to build their campaign.

The Idea

notincolumbus.jpgFrom the dawn of time, tourism campaigns have focused on one of two things…

1.) Everything there is to do while you’re here

2.) How very relaxed you can be while here

The idea for the Columbus campaign was to focus on a social media push that equipped the local community to poke a little fun at ourselves before pointing out what we do have. It was to catch people’s attention in a different way, cause an eyebrow to raise or a chuckle to occur and then deliver the punch explaining why Columbus was a worthwhile destination.

Overall, an intriguing (and potentially fantastic) campaign.

Unfortunately, the Campaign Is Lacking

The new campaign from Experience Columbus is broken down into four different areas. There’s a print campaign, a YouTube video campaign, a banner ad campaign and a web site. They’ve also created t-shirts that they hope will be a catalyst for helping spread and build interest in the rest of the campaign.

You can view the components of the campaign (save the web site, which hasn’t launched yet) at the Experience Columbus web site.

Some areas of the campaign, like the banner ads and the t-shirts are a home run. They do a wonderful job of changing up the stereotypical tourism pitch, catching your eye and giving you a chuckle. They draw you in and they spark conversation. In all honestly, I was pretty impressed with the fun and fresh take on something every city in the world has struggled with.


In fact, they’re almost a perfect fit for the very concepts that drive social media and viral marketing. They deliver something different, something that plays off of people’s ideas and misconceptions about Columbus and they show a sense of self-deprecating humor. That said, they also deliver a marketing punch via the “you can do everything else” side of it.

That said, two other areas of the campaign are not just sorely lacking, they’re downright awful.

The Videos

First, let’s take a look at the videos. There are four of them, all with the same theme of “Not in Columbus.” When the first video started playing, I had high hopes. When it was done playing, I was a little bit dumbstruck.

For the life of me, I can’t fathom how that would make someone want to visit the Experience Columbus web site. They hit the “what we don’t have” key perfectly (and with humor) but they never even tried to hit on the what we do have. I’ve shown the video to about a dozen people since I came home last night and ever last one said “really? THAT’s what they came up with?” In fact, Matt Bailey summed up the YouTube campaign as “Columbus: If you have no where else to go.”

What’s sad, is they all also knew how to fix it.

“Why don’t they finish with a clip of what you DO have?”

Exactly. Take that cheese bouncing video and finish it with “But we do have X other festivals that will give you a taste of Columbus you’ll never forget” and shots from events like Comfest, Red, White and Boom, the Jazz and Rib Fest, the Arts Fest and more and you’ve suddenly got something.

Now as much as I didn’t like the YouTube videos, even they looked good compared to the Not in Columbus web site. (Not yet live)

The Web Site

The site was created as an all Flash “experience” site that builds upon the theme “Not in Columbus.” It featured what looked like a road in the Nevada desert. On the site were images of a Pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, a Mermaid, a space ship, a shark in a pond and a few other things. It was an absolute case study in Mystery Meat Navigation. You had to roll over things to find any content and you had no idea what content you’d find where. I know I saw the shirts pop up once and the print campaign pop up once, but the only thing of value on the site seemed to be the “Not in Columbus Quiz” that showed up when you rolled over an image of a mermaid.

The quiz showed pictures of places and asked you whether or not the picture could be found in Columbus. A cute idea, but like the YouTube videos, one that focused heavily on what we don’t have and sort of sarcastically brushed aside what we do have.

In fact, the web site featured NO content on Columbus tourism. You had to click through to the Experience Columbus site to find out anything about the city.

Apart from the fact that I simply think the web site is a poor marketing tactic, there are some serious issues with how the site was created. As with the Lenovo Olympics site I wrote about last month, the site was created without any thought to linking or search engines. Because the site was created entirely in Flash, there are no URLs to take you directly to your favorite area of content. If I wanted to link someone to the Not in Columbus Quiz, I wouldn’t be able to. Instead, I’d have to link to the home page of the site and tell them to click on the Mermaid with the Viewmaster.

Beyond that, the site also isn’t search friendly. While I understand there’s been a lot of buzz about the fact that search engines can now read content in Flash files, it’s essential not to jump to the conclusion that they DO. Flash files can still mean death to search engine rankings, especially if you don’t know how to properly build a Flash and alternative HTML site.

As I mentioned in the Lenovo review, there are plenty of ways to create interactive sites that have the appearance of Flash effects but are still both link and search friendly. I’ve watched CSS gurus like Scott Allen of Hybrid 6 and my husband create HTML/CSS sites so good, you’d be surprised to learn they weren’t Flash.

experiencecolumbus.jpgIf the Experience Columbus team truly wants this campaign to take off via social media channels, they need to give serious thought to revamping that web site to make it more link and search friendly. Otherwise they’re simply throwing away potential traffic.

The Lessons to Learn…

There are certainly plenty of things the Experience Columbus team did right. The intent behind the campaign is brilliant. Columbus residents have spent years defending their beloved city. We’re not New York or LA, but we’re also not a cow town. We know that outside visitors are often surprised at just how much there is to do in the city. This is the type of campaign we can embrace, make our own and really get behind spreading. The fact that they brought local bloggers in to review the campaign before taking it public showed huge initiative. They clearly get what they need to be doing to move forward.

Unfortunately, the execution of the campaign is lacking. In fact, the teams behind the Not in Columbus campaign made several key mistakes that you can learn from before launching your own campaign.

Lesson #1: Having Videos on YouTube Does Not Make it a “Social Media Campaign”

One of the things that most caught my attention when they talked to us about how they came up with the campaign was their desire to focus on social media. They talked about how much money gets spent on advertising these days and how easy it is to ignore ads. They talked about the power of social media and blogs in terms of spreading a message and they said it was one of the core considerations in building this campaign.

youtubenot.jpgKnowing they’d decided to launch the campaign with local bloggers instead of traditional media left me feeling pretty confident they “got it.”

Then I spent the entire meeting trying to figure out what the social media aspect of the campaign was. Surely they didn’t think the fact that they’d put a few videos on YouTube and the t-shirts all have quick links for social bookmarking meant they’d launched a social media campaign?

At one point, Angelo Mandato even asked what the social media component of the campaign was. The response was something along the lines of how they might let people make their own YouTube videos and upload them and that people could submit a new t-shirt idea.

After I got over my internal laughter at the idea that they “might let” people make YouTube videos, the sobering reality of missed opportunity hit me.

So what could they have done (or still do?) Off the top of my head:

1.) Fix the YouTube videos to include a positive ending. Then provide the public with a logo and soundtrack and encourage them to create their own videos. Offer an incentive by picking the best one each week and giving away a “best of Columbus” pack, or heck, one of those t-shirts.

2.) Create a blog (yay, search friendly content!) for the web site and have the posts be a continuation of the Not in Columbus theme. Find the weirdest, most obscure stories, festivals, places and write “we don’t have X, but we do have Y” posts that are fun and creative.

3.) Create a humorous Not in Columbus Facebook app targeted at college students who have moved here recently and don’t know much about what is and isn’t in Columbus.

Lesson #2: Good Social Media Campaigns Often Have an Offline Component

I kept hearing this conversation last night about how important the web is and how unimportant offline components are. There’s no TV or radio ads planned as part of the campaign and the only real print campaign is focused at meeting planners. That means pretty much everything is being done online.

That’s fine and dandy (and good for the budget) but you can’t stop there. When you’re marketing a physical product (or location) you sometimes have to put your computer down and head out into the real world to start generating the buzz with something tangible.

A few ideas:

1.) As Ryan Squire pointed out after the event, Ohio State University will be starting the fall quarter in a couple of months. Setting up a Not in Columbus display on campus and finding a creative way to give out 5,000 or 10,000 of those t-shirts would be a low cost way to start building some buzz among the age group most likely to go online and spread the word on this.

2.) Set up shop at Easton Town Center with a giant fake Pyramid and a “We don’t have Pyramids in Columbus” sign. When people come wandering over to see what the deal is, give them free passes to what we DO have and tell them about the campaign.

3.) Build a scaled replica of the Eiffel Tower at this month’s Ohio State Fair. When people come to find out why someone has a giant sign reading “You Won’t See the Eiffel Tower in Columbus” tell them about all the amazing food they will find and hand out samples of local favorites like Jeni’s Ice Cream, Brownie Points, SugarDaddy’s and Pistacia Vera.

The Experience Columbus team made it clear their intent was for Columbus residents to “embrace the campaign and push it outward.” That’s fine and dandy, but to do that, you need to go to where they are, not wait for them to find their way to a web site that can’t even be read by search engines.

Lesson #3: Understand What Social Media Really Is

It was great to see the Experience Columbus team invite Columbus bloggers to preview the campaign. In fact, for a campaign they are hoping will spread via word of mouth from inside Columbus out to the rest of the country, it was as great start. It’s why I went in to the meeting with such high hopes.

osustadium.jpgUnfortunately, I don’t yet see how people are really going to get involved and invested in this campaign. As far as I can tell, the extent of the social media campaign is “we really, really, REALLY hope people will take it upon themselves to market this for us.”

In my world, that’s about the same as saying “we made X, now we want you to make it go viral.”

I understand how it happens, but it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how social media and viral marketing works. It works on the assumption you can create campaigns the way you always have then push a magic button and get a bunch of free advertising. I understand the appeal, but as Matt McGee says “hope is not a marketing strategy.”

You have to find ways to actively involve your community. That might be by arming them with the tools they need to make more viral videos, it might mean bringing on guest bloggers, it might mean a traveling conversation sparked by the campaign theme on local blogs, or it might mean a Twitter based scavenger hunt for what Columbus DOES have.

Lesson #4: Don’t Forget to Market

This may be the biggest lesson of all from this campaign. The t-shirts and the print and banner ads are throw-backs to the old way of marketing and the team’s skill in terms of delivering a marketing message shines through if you only look at this part of the campaign.

The problem really does come in on the social media side of things when you look at the YouTube videos and the web site. As best I can figure, the team got caught up in the “you have to be funny and irreverent and not push your stuff to hard” line of thinking and forgot a key point.

If it’s a marketing campaign…you still have to market.

northmarket.jpgSee, my problem with the videos and the web site is they focus solely on what Columbus does not have. They never follow through to deliver the positive message of what we do have. That simple change would make a world of difference. Instead, they rely on the viewer to go and seek the positive out for themselves…something you’ve really given them no incentive to do.

Presenting people with a negative impression of your product or service (even if it’s a funny negative impression) only works if you then deliver an even more compelling positive. It’s simple psychology.

Campaigns Evolve and This One Can Too

I applaud the team for taking the chance and moving into new territory. I know how hard it can be for traditional agencies and organizations to wade into these complicated new waters, but that doesn’t mean you can forget the core lessons of marketing.

That said, the beautiful thing about marketing online and via social media outlets is you’re never locked in to your message. They haven’t spent millions on TV and radio advertising. They haven’t bought full page ads in newspapers and magazines around the country. There’s still time to change the approach and sharpen the campaign to let it live up to its full potential.

That same benefit holds true for everyone else looking to market via social media as well. You can experiment. You can try an idea and see how it flies. You can backup and try a different approach. You do test and test and test again and then put your full effort behind what worked best.

Here’s hoping the team at Experience Columbus does just that.

ETA, other local bloggers are also sharing their thoughts on the campaign. Check them out:

Social Avenue
Tangled Up in Blue
Urban In-fill
Podcamp Ohio
Elephants on Bicycles
This Woman’s Work
Green Columbus (Which has a photo of the web site)
Sundays with Stretchy Pants
Greatest City of All

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Good take on the evening. A bit more critical than mine, but I have the feeling that you do this for a living. You can find my (much shorter) take on it all here:

Jennifer – another great strategic post. Your blog is rapidly rising to the top of my must read list. I am twittering this now! So you know, your critique of the Lenovo site was a driving force for us to do better and we have already implemented several of your great suggestions (full disclosure, I’m part of the team that worked on the Lenovo site mentioned in this piece).

Thanks for the post. It was rather interesting and I really like your point of view of things.

Besides that the thoughts put in writing here will be helfpul for me when working on tourist campaigns for my own clients. πŸ™‚

Thanks again and have a great weekend!

JC, thanks! I was actually adding links to the other coverage I could find as you commented, so your link is up there in the article now as well.

Thanks for the kind words. The teams at Lenovo and Ogilvy completely won my respect with the way they responded to that post. It’s not about being right, because clearly you guys didn’t agree with everything I said, it’s about being open.

Two years, or even a year ago, we were still fighting the battle to get agencies to even consider social media. Personally, I think it’s a huge step forward that we’re now trying to help them learn how to do it right. πŸ˜‰

There’s a lot of potential here with this campaign, they just need to polish the message and then take the social media thing a little further. They’ve launched MySpace and Facebook profiles for the campaign, but haven’t seen them do anything with them yet. Hopefully they’ll get it going on.


After reading your comments on their campaign, it makes me pretty upset that they are not promoting all of the great things Columubus DOES have to offer.

I think they should hire you to work on the campaign as a consultant, and I have some great ideas that you could present to them πŸ™‚

The first thing I thought of when I saw that YouTube video was “what makes this viral?”. There wasn’t anything interesting about it that would make me want to email/Stumble/Digg/tweet/SHARE it in any way. It’s a video of a cheese rolling contest in England – there are almost 450 videos on Youtube depicting pretty much that exact image. What’s different?

They really need to commit to more than just “might let” to engage social media users. They need to get the participation going, if anything then to get homemade videos that might actually be interesting enough to go viral.

You know what’s NOT fine and dandy? Your writing. And don’t forget about your holier-than-though critique and social media snobbery. You’re probably pretty smart and clearly into what you do, but I’d recommend that you top trying to impress those people that you tell yourself you’re not trying to impress.

Thank you, Jennifer, for your well articulated article. All points–brilliant. Columbus is truly special; the campaign, however, is truly not. Somehow, those in “leadership” roles in Columbus continue to do more of the same; to look beyond the people, companies, and innovations that stand in front and stand out on a national platform. There is so much to say about what Columbus is and what you will find! I vote for you to revamp the campaign.

I must admit. . . I’m quite surprised by Dan’s comment. I’m sure you didn’t take offense, Jennifer, but sheesh! (Maybe he made the YouTube video?) ;oP

As a fellow proud Columbus resident I am also saddened by this campaign. I have a (small) social media network but I would never share these video with them because nothing in this campaign makes Columbus look good.

It reminds me of an old 1970s era t-shirt I have that used to belong to my father. It says “Columbus…a few good people and a whole bunch of weirdos” underneath the cartoon nose of a goofy looking face. I’m pretty sure the message didn’t entice people then and it still isn’t working now.

And yet, perhaps all this chatter about the pieces lacking in this campaign could actually be their intention?

Another great post, thank you. This is going to be very helpful for an on the ground client of mine. I didn’t realize you were on twitter (yet how could you not be on twitter?) and just started following you.

Looking forward to more!

You hit the nail on the head. I really love the idea because I like that kind of humor, but everybody is saying the same thing: The website is *horrible* and the youtube videos really need some positivity. I wonder if they’ll make any changes.

Jen –
This was a brilliant piece of writing! I’ve just sphunn it.

For what it’s worth, I think the t-shirts are hilarious. I especially like the Bigfoot one.

And, in case anyone is wondering, in order to see Bigfoot, you’ve apparently got to journey into the mountain town of Happy Camp, CA. Woo hoo!

Excellent work, Jennifer! I’m glad that your latest tweet inspired me to hop over here. @lindasherman

“You know what’s NOT fine and dandy? Your writing. And don’t forget about your holier-than-though critique and social media snobbery. You’re probably pretty smart and clearly into what you do, but I’d recommend that you top trying to impress those people that you tell yourself you’re not trying to impress.”

I see the ‘who do these bloggers think they are?!?’ crowd has been heard from πŸ˜‰


What a great and intricate look at this campaign! I hope these folks eagerly eat up this carefully thought out analysis and can put some of it to use. I agree – it’s got potential, and I’d love to see them shove it over the top. Thanks for posting such really valuable insights, not just for them, but for all of us always trying to create value in social media.



Thanks so much for coming to our event last week and for your thoughtful post.

Your feedback, as well as the subsequent comments in your blog, is very helpful as we go forward with the campaign. We couldn’t have afforded enough focus groups to garner the input we’ve received!

One of the benefits of how the campaign is structured is that the elements allow for flexibility.

In fact, we have temporarily removed the videos so that we can rework the ending with a more positive spin. Stay tuned.

We recognize the role of social media in our marketing mix. We are learning. As you know, we are not launching the Web site at this time. We shared it to ask for the precise kind of input that we’ve received from you. That will only make us better going forward.

Thanks again,


Jennifer, I’m so glad you got some great feedback from someone involved in the Not in Columbus campaign. I like Pete’s openmindedness (

If I was any kind of note-worthy critic I’d give you two thumbs up!


Thank you for taking the comments in the manner they were intended. I love this city and I’ve spent years trying to convince my friends in the industry it’s a place worth living. (In fact, working on getting one to move here right now.)

I love the idea behind the campaign and I think you guys can really do something awesome with this. Very glad to hear you are revamping the videos and I look forward to seeing what you come up with for both those and a revamped web site. Hope you’ll consider bringing us back again for a second preview. πŸ˜‰

I thoroughly enjoyed your take on the Columbus campaign. As an advertising professional, we never fail to publish the positive aspects of clients. In fact, I believe the only time you’ll see advertising that focuses on the negative is when it’s for a candidate — but in that case, it’s usually because it’s advertising a choice between one or the other (and giving negative reasons why you shouldn’t choose the “other”) rather than one versus many which is what most businesses have to deal with.

Our campaign for Elgin Illinois, although created before social/viral media was popular, takes a totally positive approach. You can see the website at or the campaign at

Charles Falls
Demi & Cooper Advertising

JL – excellent take on the campaign. I missed the event, but from what was passed on made me quite confused – there *had* to be more to it, because as you pointed out, the missed a key component with their videos.

This is a total mistake – they designed their videos for themselves and people of Columbus to chuckle and say “yup, we sure don’t” – too bad anyone not in Columbus is going to be as confused as I was with this campaign.


Actually there is a small chance you may see Bigfoot in Columbus (well Dublin anyway) as he was spotted there a few years back –

Thanks Jennifer for attending the blogger event and writing such a thorough review of the campaign. Your thoughts and input are much appreciated! It was nice to meet you as well. Hope to see you at the open house!

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