How Tourism Malaysia should have approached its social media strategy

Twitter, facebook and other social media communities have been buzzing with comments related to the RM1,800,000 (US$600,000) Tourism Malaysia (TM) is spending on Social Media (SM). Here’s a little background on the story.

Initially, the deputy minister of tourism was quoted as saying that the RM1,800,000 “covers the cost of hosting various activities on the facebook page, including six interactive Flash applications, development and maintenance work and advertising.” He went on to say that, “the ministry spent nearly RM300,000 to develop each of the six applications on their facebook page.” I could only find one (see screenshot below).

This statement was rejected by citizens and government ministers alike with one minister suggesting it was a waste of funds as the facebook site is free and using the ‘Visit Penang’ facebook page as an example (see screenshot below), explained that it was set up for free and had attracted over 100,000 fans.

Citizens were even more incensed, with one enterprising and concerned tax payer setting up a facebook page that parodied one of the official government pages (see screen grab below). Within hours, this page had attracted 5 times as many ‘likes’ as the official page.

A couple of days later, the tourism minister announced that, “the RM1.8 million (is) for a full social media branding campaign, and not just to set up a facebook page.” She went on to say, “”(The money) is for responding, informing, interaction and monitoring (work on the facebook page), evaluation, data collecting, content development and advertising on Google, Facebook, etc…”

With her comments came an official release that stated the costs were for the following:

1. Technical

* Dedicated hardware deployment
* Software licencing
* Front end applications
* Application server engine

2. Development of six campaigns that require the following:

* Flash games engine
* Flash programming and coding
* Creative development and design
* Campaigns ideas and concept
* Front-end Flash design
* Testing and debugging

3. Campaign promotions

* Digital advertising campaigns on Google and facebook
* Contest, page wall and tourism fanpage content management
* Collection and management of database

The tourism minister then went on the offensive, asking reporters, “Do you think it’s cheap to set this up?” And as if to justify the expense, explained, “Tourism Australia is spending RM150 million (US$50 million) for the next three years on social media.”

Most recently, the minister stated that the allocation was to ‘run, manage and monitor a tourism campaign in the social media, including RM360,000 for advertising and over RM500,000 for prizes for the contests organized.’

‘Disappointed and hurt’ she is reported to have invited the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to investigate the campaign finances.

It is too early to determine the results of Tourism Malaysia’s first foray into social media but whatever the results, the Malaysian government, the tourism minister and the tourism ministry could have handled the matter more effectively and efficiently.

One would be forgiven for thinking that Tourism Malaysia has some internal communications issues. Because when the deputy minister first explained what the funds were spent on, his statement didn’t make sense. The deputy minister’s statement suggests he was provided with notes written by someone more familiar with the workings of an IT department than the requirements of a social media campaign. This has caused the deputy minister to be embarrassed in parliament and I hope someone has been reprimanded.

In terms of the social media exercise, Dave Duarte MD of South Africa based Huddlemind and a social media expert who was in Malaysia as the story broke stated in his blog that the exercise has already justified its expense.

His rationale is based on his guesstimate that the average conversion rate of a facebook fan to a customer is approximately 3% and because the average domestic tourist spends RM2,500 with 40,000 fans, the facebook page has already recouped its expenses.

This statement may be a little optimistic but it is certainly worth tracking the number of ‘likes’.

In terms of the game itself, it seems OK, leaning heavily on guitar hero. Personally I found the racial profiling of the characters unnecessary. Playing the game requires one to be more dexterous than I and as a result, the score required to qualify for the iPad 2 draw will always be beyond my means! I suspect I’m not the only decision maker in the family who will feel the same and this resulted in me leaving the page rather disappointed. But I digress.

So Tourism Malaysia’s (TM) long overdue foray into social media has not had an auspicious start. In the future, what can this key organization that contributes over RM50 billion (US$16.6 billion) to the national purse do to ensure tax payers get value money for all social media branding initiatives?

Here are 10 key recommendations for future initiatives

1) A social media strategy or any of the tactics within that strategy, is not the responsibility of the IT department. In future, the head of the department responsible for social media initiatives should represent the ministry when talking to the press and his press release should be prepared by him and his department and not by anyone else. Although the minister or his/her deputy must respond to questions in parliament, it is wrong to expect them to be knowledgeable about branding tools such as social media. Ministers do not need to talk to the media about such relatively small activities.

2) Social media requires an ongoing strategy and interactive initiatives such as the facebook pages are merely tactics within the strategy. Successful social media initiatives must be integrated with other branding initiatives.

3) I strongly suspect TM didn’t think through what they were doing when they launched the facebook pages. First of all it is important to develop a plan. Within that plan and before embarking on a social media strategy, it is important to identify what are the goals and how can facebook add value to branding efforts. Facebook is obviously an additional channel to interact with prospects and customers but why do it? To get more fans? Why? To get more participants? Why? How does TM convert those participants in the competition into leads? How does TM put a monetary value on social media activities? What metrics should be used? All of these should be outlined in the social media plan before implementation.

At the moment, registration is only required if participants want to be included in the draw for the iPad or meals. So how will TM optimize interactions with those participants and get them to become customers?

4) It’s also important to get fans to interact with other participants and to interact with participants. Critical to the success of any social media campaign are the conversations. Channels such as facebook are not platforms to broadcast messages about the company or in this case, Malaysia. The cuti cuti 1Malaysia facebook page has generated over 40,000 likes in a very short time and this is impressive. Furthermore, many of the postings on the wall have generated plenty of comments but TM is failing to enter into discussions with those who comment, preferring instead to pass that responsibility to others (See screen shot below). Interacting and engaging with people who comment is what social media is all about and will give TM more visibility, improve reputation and increase trust.

5) This first foray into social media is pretty basic and there is nothing wrong with that. But in future, Tourism Malaysia must look to be more innovative with what it does on social media. Fans will soon get bored of commenting and uploading images, especially if issues raised are ignored. Tourism Malaysia must encourage fans to be more creative. Perhaps by designing trips, submitting and voting for slideshows or setting up sub groups of specific niche related fans.

6) What makes being a fan special? At the moment nothing really which is a good and bad thing. Good because it means more people will become fans but bad because TM doesn’t know how many fans are really interested in the product or just want to win an iPad. In future, TM must look for ways to offer special content to fans or competition participants. Don’t be afraid to ask people to register.

7) This maybe a bit difficult for TM because technically, it isn’t allowed to sell Malaysia, only promote it but that doesn’t mean it can’t turn facebook into a potential profit centre. TM should make it easy for fans to book trips to destinations featured on the TM facebook the way it does on its website.

8) TM is still using mass media tactics on social media channels. This is ineffective and pointless. TM needs to stop thinking demographics and start thinking communities.

9) This applies to everyone and not just TM. Pause before creating a facebook group. Managing a group is difficult, time consuming and requires talent and patience to be able to respond to issues raised and continue a conversation till it’s natural end. TM launched four or five facebook pages at the same time! That requires a lot of talented manpower and judging by the lack of responses to issues raised, TM was ill prepared. Also important is what to do with the facebook group once the contest or event is over. It you want to delete a group, you have to manually delete every member of the group. With 40,000 members and growing, and with at least two clicks required to delete a member, the cuti cuti site will take a lot of manpower to shut down! If TM decides not to close down pages, in five years time, there will be a lot of dead pages that will confuse people.

10) The big question with facebook is what to measure and how to calculate ROI. In 2010 a study stated that fans of the top twenty brands on facebook were worth an average of US$136 each. With 40,000 fans, that would make the cuti cuti page worth over RM16 million! However the study was panned as it was actually a measure of the value of customer loyalty and not a measure of how much facebook had contributed to that loyalty. Moreover, the average of 20 brands like Nokia and Apple bears no relevance to tourism anyway!

As TM doesn’t technically have a product to sell, it is hard to know what to measure. For instance, TM can’t measure the ROI of acquiring a prospect and turning that prospect into a customer via facebook and comparing it with other customer acquisition programmes.

In reality, Measuring the ROI of facebook fans is probably impossible, especially for a national tourism agency such as TM and especially when the facebook page features a competition that allows multiple attempts from the same user and the end product is a future staycation.

As the dust settles on this rather unfortunate event, TM and its agency has a lot of work to do to sort out its social media strategy. It’s not a great start, and a lot of mistakes have been made. The key is not to make the same ones again.

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2 thoughts on “How Tourism Malaysia should have approached its social media strategy

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