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The Problem with Tourism Co-Op Marketing Programs

Co-Op Marketing Programs for Tourism

The subject of co-op marketing programs has been on my mind for a while. Something has always felt a bit limiting about them. This post isn’t going to be popular with some, but it’s never been my life’s ambition to please everyone, so here it goes.

With very limited exceptions, tourism co-op marketing programs run at the state level are pretty similar. If a city or town participates in their state’s program, they’re limited to choosing a packaged offering (always deliverable-based) from their preferred agency. Some states like West Virginia allow for some flexibility in terms of the scope of work and agency, but they’re one of those limited exceptions.

Before our readers go all like “you’re just sour grapes because the work all goes to one agency and it’s not Imagine and you’re just a big dummypants”, hear me out. While there is something to be said for variety in vendors and the range of perspectives they bring, this isn’t the article for that. Also, our work in tourism isn’t quite the same. Most of our work with destinations is in research, branding, and strategy – three things you don’t get in most (if any) co-op programs.

Here’s the problem that I see with tourism co-op marketing programs: they’re cookie-cutter packages that are exclusively based on deliverables.

I’ve never been a fan of the cookie-cutter approach because it implies that all marketing challenges are the same. Every destination is unique and there needs to be flexibility – or at least, a strategic approach – in how their challenges are met. But the worst part of all of this is that the offerings are all deliverable-based.

I’ll explain. What you usually receive by participating is limited to content: social post copy, photos, a landing page, and so on. You’re given things. While those things may be top-notch and get eyeballs and engagement, their impact doesn’t last. The result of this approach and why it sucks is because the destination isn’t much better off 30 days after the campaign than before they started. Sure, they’ll get a burst of traffic but overall, there isn’t much of a lasting improvement because there’s no underlying change in a long-term strategy.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a fan of education. I strongly believe that a destination needs to be strategic and aware of best practices in order to sustain marketing growth. If DMOs are given guidance to identify and address their unique concerns, then it becomes a greater long-term investment.

So, why aren’t there more co-op programs that include strategy?

I have a few ideas.

First, strategy is messy and tough to quantify from a pricing and timeframe perspective. It’s hard to package and put on a shelf with a single price tag. One town’s issues may require some relatively simple fixes while a neighboring city may have much larger fish to fry. The only way I can think to address that range is to build a curriculum that focuses more on strategic problem-solving than actually solving the problem itself.

Next, it’s time-consuming and resource-intensive. An agency needs to have its top strategists on the case and moving them around the state can be expensive – even if the state is covering half.

Finally, it’s a liability issue. The delivery of social media posts, press releases, ads, etc. places no guarantee of their effectiveness. If the DMO approves the work, then it’s on the DMO to make those pieces work. Strategy is a totally different thing in that the agency is giving advice, and bad advice can damage the agency’s reputation.

Do I have an answer for how to improve co-op marketing programs?

Absolutely, and it’s to get the research and strategy done first. If a DMO has a roadmap and a gauge for how their marketing should perform, if they have a clear and authentic brand message, and if they know how to use those deliverables with better mastery, then the tourism co-op marketing program will serve to fuel a larger, more comprehensive plan. The photos, artwork, copy, and web programming that the agency gives the DMO will work to fuel a path forward instead of a quick, short-term boost.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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