FORT EDWARD — For the past 18 months, the Washington County Board of Supervisors has financially supported a tourism initiative aimed at promoting the county’s farms, attractions and events in an effort to draw more visitors to the area and boost the local economy.
With less than stellar digital numbers and social media stats, some question if the return on a proposed 2020 budget of $152,544 — a $60,044 New York State “I Love New York” contribution and a county match of about $92,500 — is paying off.
And for a county, comprised of 17 towns and eight villages, 6,623 Facebook followers appears comparatively low when looking at social media stats for smaller area attractions.
Take for example, Lavenlair Farm in Fort Ann.
In business about three years longer than the county’s social media effort began, but only open for visits during the summer growing season, Lavanlair has over 7,000 followers. And the Washington County Fair (granted a long established event) has triple the number of Facebook followers.
More than $100,000 of the proposed budget ties in some way (whether photography or planning) to the tourism digital initiative, but the annual number of website clicks of 16,873 translates into about two clicks an hour.
Is that an accidental visit by someone looking for Washington County, PA or Washington County, Indiana, or does it mean a small group of interested visitors are starting to get event information from the site?
“I question the return on investment,” said Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff. “Just because it is hard to measure does not mean you should blindly convince yourself it is wonderful.”
“Engagement and participation are critical measurement numbers that should eventually provide the ROI based upon the goals and objectives of each post or social media profile,” said Dr. Kelli Hatin, professor of business at SUNY Adirondack. Hatin focuses on Marketing and the Hospitality Industry and she has been teaching at the university for 20 years.
“If the goal was to achieve a certain number of followers in a certain amount of time, they should be able to control the number against the goal,” she said. “However, we are far past this and the social media users need to have a reason to be compelled to comment, share, tag, question, engage, and participate.”
During a year-end presentation for the Washington County Board of Supervisors Agriculture, Planning, Tourism and Community Development Committee on Tuesday, marketing consultant Andrew Meader admitted, linking digital media numbers to actual visitors is cost prohibitive, adding that they are looking at alternatives to gauging results.
Additionally, Al Nolette, county treasurer, said that sales tax numbers for county restaurants have increased, but it can’t be directly attributed to the tourism initiative.
“We do think there is significant growth, but we need to collect the date,” said Meader, referring to collecting data from the Airbnbs in the county. “It will give us a good idea of heads in beds.”
Meader, who owns the marketing consulting firm 8 of Eight Strategies in Glens Falls, is overseeing the county’s tourism push, and he is part of a marketing and design team including 8 of Eight Strategies, Black Dog Designs and Mannix Marketing.
Pointing to what he calls “a large increase in Facebook followers,” from 2,646 in 2018 to 6,623 in 2019, and web traffic from 6,520 in 2018 to 16,873 in 2019, Meader said it is an indicator of increasing interest in visiting the county.
According to a 2019 study by Pew Research, about seven-in-ten adults say they use Facebook every day, but a 2018 study showed that Facebook use among U.S. teens has dropped in recent years. YouTube is the only other online platform that matches Facebook’s reach, with 73 percent of adults using the video sharing site, according to the Pew Study.
Other research indicates that social media visitors are looking for video stories that inspire, make them laugh and teach them something.
In 2019, there were two videos on the county tourism site, with one about area antiquing getting over 17,000 views.
Analytical giant, Buffer reports that “on average, video posts on Facebook get at least 59 percent more engagement than other post types and that of the top 500 Facebook posts of 2018, more than 81 percent were videos.”
Among the top performers on Facebook last year was the Norfolk Virginia Police Department, one video generated more than 3.2 million engagements. That low-cost self-made cell phone lip sync video, increased their Facebook followers by 180,000 to 243,000.
“We’re doing several videos in 2020,” Meader said. “Shorter, more consumable on social media. The first is going to be on history. So we will have a lot of videos in 2020.”
Supervisors asked Meader if he can connect the number of Facebook followers or impressions to an impact. He could not.
“Of those impressions on Facebook, did that result in a half a million dollars in sales,” asked Nolette.
“It’s been a struggle since we started we don’t have a way to measure that … we can say that sales tax went up,” said Meader. “There are ways to do that, there is a service through VISA and they can track the spending, that’s a great way to track it however they charge about $25,000 a year to do that.”
According to Meader, along with Laura Oswald, county director of economic development, they are looking into the possibility of getting a grant to pay for the tracking programs.
“As we all know we have struggled with tourism for many years and this concept as we’re operating now is the third year of design and planning,” said Oswald, talking about the current initiative and adding that by the end of the year the contract will end.
County Administrator Chris DeBolt said that the supervisors will have to decide their next steps related to tourism marketing before the end of the year.
The board of supervisors Finance Committee will look at a tourism budget request at the February meeting.
Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli is a reporter and photographer covering Washington County, arts and life, features and breaking news.